Opinionista Yves Vanderhaeghen 4 April 2018

A system rotten to the core, melting down as we observe it

The information world is a disembodied one. “I read it on the Internet,” serves almost universally as a source, a point of orientation as if there is anything unitary or singular about this ethereal megalopolis.

The people we encounter in this realm are unlike people in real life, not because they behave any better or worse necessarily, but because their fullness is reduced to a single characteristic or quality, a belief or utterance, regardless of context. This is not a phenomenon that has come about only with the internet, or because of the internet, but is associated with migration, strangeness and alienation.

In her analysis of how British traitors in World War ll could get things so wrong as to hitch their colours to Hitler’s swastika, the writer Rebecca West suggested that it came about because of a loss of key co-ordinates: they had “lost their sense of spiritual as well as material process”. The latter was a function of industrialisation. The former was due to “the urban lack of the long memory and the omniscient gossip enjoyed by the village”. Of being surrounded by people “whose heredities are the secrets of other districts”. In other language, a nasty brew of ahistorical attitudes and prejudice based on solitary or isolated factors, a snapshot of which is displayed in the news every day. But her conclusions derive from a romanticised notion of community, which is centred in place, belief and custom.

Attempts to steer the information free-for-all on the Web towards standards of truth and honesty suffer from the same blind spot in supposing that somewhere there is a stable place where truth is rooted and graspable, where there are no contestations of power, and where group-congruence does not exert mind-twisting force on a global stage. West also believed that the traitors to the crown had been failed by their faith in rationalism, whereas today we blame the betrayal of truth on too little faith in rationalism.

This loss of faith applies to the media too, but entails more than better fact-checking as a means of establishing trust. The journalist Matthew d’Ancona argues, for example, that “the social basis of post-truth is the collapse of trust in social institutions. It all stems from this one, poisonous source … We live in an age of particular institutional fragility”. To put it differently, the basis of the collapse of trust in social institutions is the collapse of social institutions. As Gonzo journalist Richard Poplak once put it: “The system we’re in is melting down. It is rotten to the core.”

The question of how this has come about, and what is to be done, requires some sense of what overarching dynamic or condition is at work, and also a consideration of what new institutions are in the process of coming about, however shaky or ungraspable they may be. The question itself is asked under conditions in which consensus is fraying.

Internationally, the consensus on democracy, at establishment and popular levels, is becoming more and more contested. In South Africa, a consensus located in 1994, the moment of democracy, and which is embodied in the constitution, is being questioned by parts of the ruling ANC, students, and the EFF. The media are implicated in this loss of consensus, and it is argued that far from deepening democracy (investigative journalism notwithstanding), the mainstream media favour moneyed elites and render invisible secondary citizens who are poor and marginalised. This is a view shared by establishment and opposition politicians.

A possibility of consensus on news, what it is, what its role is, requires some sense of what it is that we’re in the middle of, whether we can get out of it, or if we even want to. This is not an existential question. What is the story that is to be told beyond the infosnacks we nibble on through the day?

Postmodernism proposes that all is metaphor, and that there is slippage in all meaning. But the names by which we call the problem, if they do not represent a lazy slide into jargon, do point to what it is that is imagined as an alternative. Globalisation, late capitalism, post-industrial capitalism, neo-liberalism: these are likely to be found somewhere in debate, usually with an implicit anti-globalisation sentiment in the mix. Capital is the engine in all these understandings.

Engagement with issues requires understanding, without which all action is random and ultimately meaningless. It would be impossible to state emphatically “these are the times we are in”, because as the Guardian writer Alison Gibbons despaired, we just don’t know what to make of what comes out of the lucky packet of labels: “altermodernism, cosmodernism, digimodernism, metamodernism, performatism, post-digital, post-humanism, and the clunky post-postmodernism”. Which one to choose? Closer to home we also have fallism, post colonialism, decolonialism and factionalism, some of which falls under pan-Africanism and some under constitutionalism.

The sociologist Zygmunt Baumann talked of “liquid modernity” to describe the culture of the times, one in which “all agreements are temporary, fleeting, and valid only until further notice”. The gig economy in a nutshell, populated by a “precariat”, in which trust is low and disorientation and insecurity high.

The philosopher Tim Morton proposes that the era we are in can be defined as the Anthropecine, and that our ability to create a non-dystopian future is compromised by a ‘’traumatic loss of co-ordinates”, threatening the destruction of Earth itself.

Sometimes you just have to cut to the chase, and the actor John Cleese simply believes that “We’re living in the age of assholes now.” True, but not terribly useful as political insight.

But whichever of these “big pictures” we see, it informs everything else that we glean from the news. If on top of this we follow a settler narrative or a liberation narrative, so will our reasoning, our hope for the future be coloured, as too by race and class, the terrible twins of South African politics.

Which way to shift? Veteran anti-apartheid activist turned farmer, Jay Naidoo, believes, like Archbishop Themba Makgoba, that in South Africa, rather than rehash the political battles of the 80s, there needs to be a paradigm shift in what are considered to be dominant issues of the day, which, echoing Morton and many others, are “ecocide and technology”.

However one may conceptualise the overarching forces and the theoretical understanding that must drive any attempt to engage with them to achieve a better society, the Guptaleaks saga in South Africa’s polluted public sphere laid bare (in case anyone was in any doubt) how extensively implicated government, business, individuals and ruling parties are and have been in breaching social compacts, corrupting transactions, manipulating processes and, in their own ways, sabotaging the future. The template for relations between politicians, business and customers and voters is that which governs the shadow world, and not the nominal template of openness, accountability and integrity.

The question for the “average person”, now as under apartheid and Nazism before that, is at which levels is this template authorised by small, daily actions and utterances, and whether they contribute to fake democracy in the process. For some, the moment of democracy, 1994, is the moment of fakeness, a sell-out compromise that obstructed the passage from oppression to liberation. For others, the same moment is one of consensus, on which was built a constitution and all the democratic institutions on which the country rests: courts, parliament, free press etc. One argues that the revolution was aborted, the other that globalisation is the incontrovertible logic of contemporary society. Neither fake news nor real news will settle the argument, but both will continue to be deployed. DM

Yves Vanderhaeghen is editor of The Witness, where this column first appeared

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