“Tennis anyone?”, a phrase popularised at the turn of the 20th century in various plays, is usually used to express the disdain of the aristocracy and upper classes for the economic hardship and social ills suffered by social classes beneath them.
Given its long history of exclusivity, it is no surprise that tennis came to be used as a marker of elitism. However, there was a moment in the life of the sport where a tennis court became the site of radical, world-historical change.
On 20 June 1789, a group of men representing the Third Estate of French society, the commoners, but largely comprising members of the rising bourgeois class, met, amid a rising tide of revolutionary struggle, to assert the power of the majority against the absolute power of the monarchy.
Shut out of their original meeting room in the Palace of Versailles by King Louis XVI and his soldiers, the 577 members of the Third Estate moved their meeting to a nearby tennis court in the Saint-Louis district. It was in this indoor tennis court that they took a collective oath not to disband until a “constitution of the kingdom is established”.
The establishment of a constitutional assembly imbued with the power of the majority of society in the time of absolute monarchy had been, even, a few months before, simply unthinkable. It became a pivotal event in the history of the modern world, an event that continues to shape our world today, including in Sudan where the movement against the dictatorship is facing brutal repression.
How did such extraordinary, and completely unprecedented, revolutionary change occur in society? How did those who had ruled for centuries, and who were believed to have been anointed by God to rule, suddenly find themselves unceremoniously evicted from their gilded Palace of Versailles by masses of working women in the women’s march of October 1789?
By June of 1789, King Louis XVI was a wholly uninspiring monarch, who increasingly demonstrated his inability to rule on Earth on behalf of God. He was a man out of ideas. His kingdom was bankrupt after years of expensive wars. Two years of failing crops and bread scarcity had led to several food riots. The growing bourgeois classes found the feudal system detrimental to their profits, due to heavy taxations, closed markets and a backward legal system. By the second half of the 18th century the French bourgeoisie had experienced exponential wealth growth but still lived under inferior legal status. They became acutely aware that while they were contributing to the coffers of the kingdom they were not enjoying any of its benefits.
In addition, the new bourgeoisie began to engage in intellectual pursuit and invention. This led to the flourishing of philosophical ideas that generated new notions of individual liberty, communalism and other ways to imagine new forms of social organisation. All this, together with the callous disinterest of the rich in the economic hardships of the majority, swiftly and suddenly ended the rule of the one over many.
By the end of the 19th century, most of Europe had ended the absolute rule of the old monarchies and replaced it with different versions of bourgeois constituent assemblies with varying degrees of democracy. While these radical changes in Europe led to fundamental changes in society, the absolute monarchical rule was not replaced with absolute democracy. What emerged was a compromised new system of governance. The new elites that emerged sought to sustain slavery and colonialism abroad. At home, the rule of the one over the many was replaced with the rule of the few over the many. As Lenin pointed out in 1919:
“Bourgeois democracy is democracy of pompous phrases, solemn words, exuberant promises and the high-sounding slogans of freedom and equality. But, in fact, it screens the non-freedom and inferiority of women, the non-freedom and inferiority of the toilers and exploited.”
For the next 100 years people of the colonised world, women, the LGBTQIA+ community, the working class and others had to fight to gain recognition under the new democratic dispensation. These struggles were made all the more difficult by the relentless rise of capitalism and the extension of market logic over the quality of the lives of ordinary people.
Today, 230 years after the French Revolution, France is still roiled by popular protest as migrants and the increasingly impoverished working class continue to struggle for a fair deal and a better life. In France, and across the world, political authority increasingly serves the interests of the super-rich, at the direct expense of the majority. The phrase “Anyone for tennis?” seems more fitting than ever.
As popular consent for increasingly unequal societies started to break down, the right sought to capture political discontent and mobilise it behind a set of big men who offer forms of authoritarian populism, or even fascism, to drug people with an illusory sense of racial, national or religious belonging to prevent demands for social justice from gaining traction.
Figures like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi and Paul Kagame have become the horsemen of a looming environmental and political apocalypse. Here at home Cyril Ramaphosa is positioned as a representative of the liberal centre, a project that is unelectable and unsustainable in much of the rest of the planet. But Ramaphosa followed the global lurch to the right with a xenophobic election campaign and already leading figures in the ANC, the commentariat and elsewhere are suggesting that South Africa needs to emulate Kagame’s dictatorship.
Many roots of this disastrous shift to the right lie in the 2008 financial crisis, which hit ordinary people hard. But it was not a crisis for capitalism or the rich. In fact, since then the number of billionaires has doubled. Globally the rich continue to get richer while the poor get poorer. Every two days a new billionaire is made
In South Africa, the few in that wealthy minority are completely out of touch with the majority that is collapsing under the weight of poverty and unemployment. According to a recent World Bank report, 70% of the South African economy is owned by 1% of South Africans. There is mass, structural unemployment. The election of a billionaire who aims to discipline society in the interests of capital will not solve our profound problems. On the contrary, if Ramaphosa is able to impose a programme of austerity and open up more of society to capital the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.
And if the left cannot offer a coherent emancipatory programme, and build the social forces that can advance it, the right will seize hold of the crisis to drive an authoritarian agenda. The urgent task of our time, in South Africa and internationally, is to build a credible and effective left.
In many countries, there are important developments in this regard. For instance, in the US, Bernie Sanders’ call for democratic socialism is winning strong support, especially from young people, opening new political possibilities.
But in South Africa, we are relentlessly told by the commentariat that a “clean” form of capitalism, led by Ramaphosa, is the only alternative to Zuma and the faction of the ANC organised around looting the state.
It is vital that we refuse this attempt to foreclose even the possibility of left alternatives to both Zuma and Ramaphosa. It is vital that we do not allow a form of capitalist fundamentalism to shut down debates and discussions that have barely started.
As the famed novelist Ursula Le Guinn correctly observed: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
Even if the Ramaphosa faction of the ANC does succeed in containing the remnants of the Zuma faction the centre will not hold. No society can indefinitely sustain the levels of inequality and impoverishment that blight our society. Change is coming, and it’s possible that it could come much more swiftly than most people assume.
The real question is what form this change will take. Will the elite be able to manage the economic crisis by turning to authoritarianism and xenophobia? Or will we be able to build an emancipatory alternative that can work towards a society for the many and not the few? DM
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott