In a time when, as a matter of real urgency, we have to build strong organisational structures that build horizontal lines of solidarity between working-class and poor people, we are hardening up against each other.
The end of 2016 could not have come sooner for many of us. Social media was awash with declarations that it was, to borrow a phrase made famous by the British monarch, an annus horribilis.
It was certainly a bleak year. We lost more than musical geniuses like Prince, David Bowie and George Michael. We lost more than figures central to our radical imagination, like Muhammed Ali and Fidel Castro. We also lost much of our basis for social hope. In June, the British electorate, allying themselves to charlatans, chose racism and reaction and voted for Brexit. In November enough of the electorate in the United States did the same and made Donald Trump their president.
In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an launched an ongoing brutal crackdown after the events in July. In Brazil, the Workers’ Party was removed from power by a coup driven by a right-wing project nested in the heart of the white elite. In Egypt, India and Russia, repression escalated. The disaster in Syria, and the resulting refugee crisis, continued unabated.
In South Africa, 2016 actually announced itself in late 2015 with the “weekend special” finance minister debacle. This act was a political harbinger for what we were to expect in the coming year. In fact, 2016 was a long lesson in just how successfully Zuma, the Guptas and their networks had captured large chunks of the ruling party and the state. Here, as in India and Russia, a propaganda project, much of it driven through social media, was mobilised to set up crude nationalist binaries. The aim was to present a ruthlessly predatory elite as the authentic representatives of the national interest.
Around the world, a number of people argued that 2016 was the year of the troll.
But 2016 was not put to rest on New Year’s Eve. As the bubbling excitement of the New Year began to subside we woke up the next morning with more than our hangovers to confront. The war in Syria continued, Zuma’s hideous grin still flashed across our screens and we also had to face the awful prospect of Trump’s inauguration. To make matters worse, on the second day of the new year, the great John Berger, the best essayist since James Baldwin, and a man with a deep political commitment to the most dispossessed, died. Berger’s profound care with the word made him something like the ultimate anti-troll, a kind of antidote to these times.
Cornel West famously argued that the ‘60s, understood politically rather than chronologically, began somewhere in the ‘50s and ended in the second half of the ‘60s. If we think along those lines then it is clear that 2016 is still wreaking destruction across the world. It is not yet over.
There are three primary features of the general horribleness that surged to the fore in 2016.
One is the dominance of capital over society. This is often traced back to Thatcher and Reagan but it has deeper roots, and is a longstanding process that gathered momentum in the name of “globalisation” after the end of the Cold War in 1989.
Another is the decline of the left. After moments of optimism with the Pink Tide in Latin America, from 1998 to 2009, and then the Arab Spring in 2011, and the mobilisations that followed it in southern Europe and north America, the left, with its promise of social solidarity, was in retreat around the world.
The third feature of the current crisis is the success of the right. Instead of calling the bankers and a corrupt political elite enmeshed with the most rapacious forms of capital to account, the right tells people that their real enemy is the independent woman, the Muslim, the Sufi, the Nigerian, the Mexican, the Jew, the homosexual, the trans person, the migrant or the refugee. Nationalism, racism, sexism, religious sectarianism and other forms of chauvinism become an effective form of cover for the predatory capitalist system and the elites it serves.
In a time when we, as a matter of real urgency, have to build strong organisational structures that build horizontal lines of solidarity between working-class and poor people, we are hardening up against each other. This is the time of the demagogue, the charlatan and the troll. It is the time of the mob, online or on the street, coming to silence nuance, strip the other of their right to be part of the public sphere and, as in Johannesburg and Pretoria in recent days, literally drive the other out. If Trumpism is the new name for this toxic politics, we must be clear that it festers on our streets, in our public sphere and in our politics as much as in the streets of Lahore, Bombay, Calais, Istanbul, Cairo and Moscow, not to mention Fox News and the White House.
Around the world the middle classes are politically sedated with the mall, the gated community and consumption. The need to consume, and to be seen to consume, supersedes all else. It supersedes our relationships, our health, our spirituality, our community and our politics. Christianity, once a poor people’s movement, particularly attractive to slaves on the fringes of the Roman Empire, becomes a prosperity cult. Education becomes little more than a mechanism to reproduce and legitimate inequality. If you feel lonely you join the Kardashians for a family meal, instead of being with your own family. If you feel a little radical, you buy a Che Guevara T-Shirt and posture a little on social media. If your whole life is unsatisfying you get a new wardrobe, change your hairstyle, go on a radical diet, buy organic and artisanal, buy a car, a house, and the latest cellphone, and, whatever you do, only cook with coconut oil.
But the bubble of consumerism is only a mirage. Outside that bubble people are being impoverished, wars are raging, democracy is being rolled back and irreparable damage is being done to our planet. The middle classes themselves are increasingly working two or three precarious jobs, without benefits, holidays and decent working hours. Exhaustion, anxiety and depression are pervasive. We work ourselves into oblivion to remain part of the minority that can end the day with the dregs at the bottom of our Starbucks cup while a sheet of glass separates us from the people hustling to find food on the streets outside. Meanwhile a few – a very, very few – inhabit a perpetual eat-all-you-can banquet.
It is in this environment of despair and decline that we quickly realise that moving into a new year does not necessarily mean progression.
But then – through the fog of desolation – come glimmers of light. We find hope and we realise that we have an incredible spirit of resilience and the ability to fight back. One such moment was when ordinary people in the United States turned up at airports to offer solidarity when Trump tried to ban many Muslims from entering the country. In a time of individual, precarious, and often disconnected labour, the taxi drivers’ union in New York showed us that organisation is the key to effective and sustained forms of solidarity. While Uber was trying to profit from the suffering caused by Trump’s appalling actions, the unionised taxi drivers stood in solidarity with the people targeted by Trump and the protests organised in solidarity with them.
The only way to put an end to 2016 is via democratic, mass-based organisation that can build horizontal solidarity from the workplace to the neighbourhood and across national borders. This work has to be driven by a deep political consciousness and it has to take the form of an explicit class project. Showboating and grandstanding on social media are not the same things as building democratic popular organisation. The substitution of activist celebrity or NGOs for doing real political work will not enable us to put an end to 2016. In our context it is vital that the work of building new forms of political power from the ground up makes no distinction between people who are documented and those who are not.
The new forms of capitalism atomise and isolate. Being a waste picker, or an Uber driver, or an over-educated and under-employed young person stringing out a life from gig to gig, is a very different experience to being a unionised factory worker. In this individualised, free-floating, unstructured, formless world in which the job, as we once knew it, is in rapid decline, and where working hours are unstructured, demagogues like Trump, Modi, Erdo?an and all the others offer race, religion and nation as a way of ordering the world.
Against this we need to build a counter order. We need to build counter movements that take seriously the importance of solidarity and mobilising from the ground up. We need to build organisation, build communities, strengthen our unions, and reinvigorate the best of our left traditions. We need to mobilise around principle, the strong principle that we all matter. We need to organise from where people struggle and to put our skills and services, such as they are, in the service of those who struggle.
In South Africa we have an extraordinary history of popular organisation in workplaces and communities to draw on. While there has been considerable demobilisation since the 1990s, we still have strong popular movements to build from. We have a vibrant trade union in Numsa.
We have a tenacious shackdwellers’ movement in Abahali baseMjondolo. There are also various local struggles, some of which have opposed injustice with real courage. NGOs can support popular organisation but they cannot substitute for it. If we are going to build a broad, progressive alliance that can link workers to residents and the urban to the rural, build solidarity with migrants, the jobless, street traders and LGBQTI people, we have to build a popular democratic politics that can rekindle the sparks in the ashes of our social hope. DM
Vashna Jagarnath is a senior lecturer in the Department of History. She writes and researches on Indian Cinema, the colonial public sphere and the History of Africana Intellectual Thought with specific focus on Marxist ideology within Pan Africanism. She is associated with Numsa Movement for Socialism Task Team [MFS] and Numsa Research and Policy Institute [NuRPI].
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