Opinionista Richard Pithouse 16 March 2015

An agora open to all

Moses Kotane, a trade unionist and a leading figure in both the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress for more than half a century, died in Moscow in 1978. On Saturday he was reburied in Pella, the village in which he was born, in the presence of his widow and his son. Sadly, remarks made by prominent speakers at the ceremony illustrated a disturbing trend in our political landscape.

It is right and proper that we take full measure of the personal costs of opposition to Apartheid, that we mourn our dead and honour all those, including those whose names will not be inscribed in any official history, who confronted oppression. But Pella isn’t too far from Marikana and South Africa doesn’t look anything like the society that Kotane envisaged. It would be naïve to deny that this kind of political theatre also offers useful cover for Jacob Zuma and the ANC.

The remarks that Zuma, as well as Blade Nzimande, are reported to have made at the ceremony show, once again, that the struggles of the past are being mobilised to sacralise the authority of the ruling party and discipline contemporary forms of dissent. Zuma is reported to have advised trade unionists to confine themselves to issues pertaining to the factory floor. Nzimande is reported to have insisted that all good Communists are inside the ruling party, and that the proper place for trade unionists is under the authority of the ruling party.

This kind of authoritarianism certainly has roots in both the Stalinism and the form of struggle for national liberation in which Zuma learnt his politics. And, along with their shared desire to control the state it is, precisely, the investment in politics as a form of discipline and containment that is the pivot around which both Zuma’s reactionary traditionalism, that would be at home in the outer reaches of the US GOP right, and a party claiming to be invested in the hyper-modernism of Marxist-Leninism orbit.

But the idea that politics should be restricted to an enlightened elite, and that everyone else should know and keep to their place, has a much older history. Centuries before the birth of Christ Plato taught his students in his Academy in ancient Athens that “It is right for the shoemaker by nature to make shoes and occupy himself with nothing else, for the carpenter to practice carpentry, and similarly all others”. For Plato democracy, the power of the people, was a threat to society and only the philosophers, those with gold in their souls, should be entitled to take a place in the agora – the site of collective assembly and deliberation – and to rule. Soldiers should, he thought, restrict themselves to being soldiers while workers restricted themselves to working.

Plato has cast a long shadow over thinking about politics in the academy and other sites of elite power. There is a real sense in which he is an important ancestor of both the substitution of democracy, as the power of the people – of all the people, by technocratic rule and the readings of Leninism in which it is held that only revolutionary intellectuals should rule.

But while it seems that technocratic authority may successfully be imposed on contemporary Athens in alliance with a party of the left there were other forces that made the modern world. Shoemakers were, as Eric Hobsbawm and Joan Scott noted, “prominent in the revolutionary crowds” that made the French Revolution of 1789, a key event in the development of the modern idea of democracy, from below. And as Kristin Ross has pointed out in the Paris Commune of 1871, a decisive movement in the formation of the modern left, the construction of the barricades was directed by a shoemaker and after the defeat of the commune “a full half of the shoemakers in Paris were missing – massacred, arrested, in exile”.

The role of shoemakers in the Commune was far from being some sort of aberration. Hobsbawn and Scott observed that “[t]he political radicalism of the nineteenth-century shoemakers is proverbial”. Their influence continued to be felt at the heart of political events of major international significance as late as the early 1970s when Salvador Allende’s political experiment was crushed in Chile – Allende ascribed the broadening of his political horizons to his relationship, as a boy, with an anarchist Italian shoemaker. However the Platonic hostility to the shoemaker with the temerity to take a place in the political life of society also has a consistent history. Ross cites a French intellectual, writing in mid nineteenth-century, who insisted that shoemakers in the agora were all “thieves, imposters, and forgers” which is more or less exactly what some intellectuals, in and out of the academy, say about grassroots activists appearing, on their own terms, on the political stage in contemporary South Africa.

Time and again people carried into power by popular struggles waged by ordinary people have sought to expel those people, and their modes of struggle, from the arena of legitimate politics soon after they have won power. By 1793 Parisian riots were described, in a language that is perfectly familiar in contemporary South Africa, as ‘counter-revolutionary plots’ once memorably ascribed to “the perfidious incitement of aristocrats in disguise”, by the very people who had been brought to power on the tide of popular action. Alain Badiou argues that this moment of reaction, then and many times since, is characterised by a situation in which “the maxims of repression . . . expressly target every kind of popular declaration that situates itself at distance from the state”.

But it is also the appearance of certain kinds of people in the agora that is rendered illegitimate. Across space and time slaves, workers, peasants, the urban poor, women and people who have been raced have all been presented as tools of sinister forces, or simply monstrous, when they have sought to enter the agora on their own terms. Lewis Gordon often uses the term ‘illicit appearance’ to describe this phenomena.

Zuma and Nzimande’s attempt to render the independent presence of workers and communists in our political sphere, our agora, as illicit is not a manifestation of a higher form of political consciousness that authorises a unique right to rule. On the contrary, it is one more iteration of a long history of people who have come to power via the struggles of ordinary women and men seeking to expel the very people and modes of struggle that bought them to power from the domain of legitimate politics. Fidelity to the struggles of the past does not require obedience to Zuma. It requires commitment to an agora open to all: workers, peasants, impoverished people occupying land in our cities, pregnant young women – everyone. DM


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