Defend Truth


The critic is compelled to get as close to the truth as possible — and defend it


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

If the critic does not identify the link between state power (including structural violence) and the most vulnerable in society, they will have done the public a disservice. It is simply wrong to treat potentially harmful policies ‘objectively’ or even ‘fairly’.

I had a brief exchange with an apparatchik of the ruling party about educating cadres to serve as, well, cadres who will probably be loyal to the ANC’s democratic centralism — a cornerstone of Leninism — and become docile bodies in the public service. One of the apparatchik’s responses was that my criticism was like someone who criticised a book without having read the book. My immediate reply ought to have been that I have not read Mein Kampf, nor The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but I can be critical of both books.

The problem is that in a society where the ruling party (and, to be fair, the more “radical” factions in society) have arrogated to themselves the right to absolute truth pronouncements, never mind the absence of truth conditions, I thought it best to stop engaging with the apparatchik.

It did get me thinking about the role of the critic in society, and one typical response — “you don’t know what it’s like so you can’t criticise” — which contains a modicum of truth. However, I have never been in a war, but I can be critical of war. This reminds me of that old bugger Freddie Nietzsche, who once wrote that Europeans “require not merely war, but the greatest and most terrible wars, thus a temporary lapse into barbarism”.

Nietzsche had never fought in a war (as opposed to Thucydides, or Carl von Clausewitz who actually were active participants in wars), but this did not stop him from being highly critical of war. Likewise, I have never abused my spouse (not that I have one), but I can be critical of spousal abuse. I don’t have children, but I can be critical of child abuse. You get where I am going with this, dear reader.

The critic as society’s conscience

I want to use as a departure point the claim that the role of the critic is to produce criticism. The object (or subject) of criticism is, invariably, people, systems or structures that have the power to abuse people, where “abuse” is both physical and structural. In this way, and itself not completely protected from criticism, the critic serves as society’s conscience. With all that said, if my neighbour voices an opinion on a policy that I find objectionable, I take her or him less seriously than I do the person who is, actually, in a position to propagate and implement a policy.

The social critic has the (necessary) role of connecting the policies of politicians or governments to the people most affected by such policies. One starting point, always, is to examine the immanent contradictions in a policy. For instance, it’s difficult to make the argument that liberal economics ensures equality when its cornerstones, free enterprise and competition, necessarily lead to winners and losers. The critic is also obliged, nay compelled, to ask a politician to produce evidence of where a particular policy has produced sustained progressive outcomes and social justice — or just generally hold their feet to the fire.

One thing that the ANC and the nomenklatura have achieved is to deflect all criticism away from themselves when it is they who are in power, and over the past 10 to 15 years they have done very little in a way that can be described as life-affirming for the growing precariat. If the critic does not identify the link between state power (including structural violence), and the most vulnerable in society, they will have done the publicum a disservice. It is simply wrong to treat potentially harmful policies “objectively” or even “fairly”. The objective is to uncover irreconcilable contradictions and antinomies, measure policy proposals against evidence, and get as close to the truth as possible — and then defend it.

There is no harm in close scrutiny

As the reader may have detected by now, I have focused quite closely on the rise of populism, creeping fascism and the evil that lurks within the politics of revenge. Quite often I receive “hate mail” or insults for focusing on the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). I am accused of being obsessed with the EFF. That’s besides being told to “go back to Asia”…

The truth is that I follow, almost daily, the rise of populism around the world, and trace the way that fascism has evolved from the 1920s to 2020s.

There is nothing wrong with close scrutiny of potentially harmful policies, and inflammatory rhetoric. Rhetoric requires especially close scrutiny because it is used, quite artistically, to make potentially dangerous and inflammatory claims and statements by manipulating the emotions of people. The critic has to engage with this and turn up the volume of the voices that may be affected by harmful policies.

In some way, then, social criticism makes way for social interpretation without losing sight of responsibility, and without shirking from the critic’s authority or lack thereof. This issue of authority is mentioned because the critic has to avoid raising herself or himself “above” the masses as some kind of grand authority. While a measure of detachment may be required, a dose of humility is always good…

As for the ANC, they are in power, in office, and effectively control all state-owned enterprises and agencies through placing loyal cadres in positions of power. Even supposedly independent agencies.

For example, the vice-chairperson of the Independent Electoral Committee, Janet Love, highlights (second paragraph) in her bio, her role as a freedom fighter and return (presumably from exile) in 1990. Hendrik Verwoerd or PW Botha is not peering over their shoulders while doing their jobs. The sooner the ANC acknowledges that the sooner we may make progressive changes that lead to greater justice and equity (a share in wealth and prosperity) the better.

As for educating the next generation of cadres: there is a certain possibility that the (ANC cadre-led) management and academics have the power of certification. This process starts with a type of group-making and proceeds through a kind of alchemy that transforms individuals into docile bodies of a nomenklatura that are loyal only to “the party” and implements policies on the basis of democratic centralism.

To some of us, it is no surprise that Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky warned about the dangers inherent in centralism. Luxemburg was especially critical of “the blind subordination, in the smallest detail, of all party organs to the party centre which alone thinks, guides, and decides for all”.

This is the inherent danger in an ANC-created and ANC-led school for the next generation of cadres. The role of the critic is precisely to identify the parallels between historical and contemporary movements and formations. The critic has to draw attention to education presented as a body of knowledge, hermetically sealed, to which nothing new or critical should be added, and once the student has learned the body of knowledge, he or she is certified. The power of certification should not be in the hands of the nomenklatura. DM


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