SACSIS: On the Political Significance of the Local

On the Political Significance of the Local

By Richard Pithouse

Courage…is a local virtue. It partakes of the morality of the place. – Alain Badiou

There is no denying the import of the very public dramas that play out in the sphere of elite politics. Jacob Zuma’s decision on how to respond to Thuli Madonsela’s report will certainly have some consequence in shaping the trajectory of our increasingly compromised democracy. But politics is about force and reason and reason on its own is seldom a sufficient check on either the construction or renegotiation of common ground by contesting elites.

The old left delusion that a crisis of capital will automatically open the way to some form of subordination of capital to society looks entirely ridiculous in the wake of the financial crisis. The same elites that caused the crisis are dictating a resolution from which they will profit at the direct expense of society. The Greek or British poor will pay a much higher price than any banker in London or New York.

And while a political crisis might reach the point at which a popular refusal to accept dictatorship can have some success, even spectacular success, there is no guarantee that the people who have deposed a dictator will be able to build a new society in keeping with their achievement. The Egyptian drama is not concluded but the seriousness of the attempt to co-opt, deflect and repress popular energies is clear enough.

A crisis, be it economic, political, or both, that arises without a popular politics sufficiently well organised to force through a real alternative is quite likely to strengthen the hand of the social forces that created the crisis in the first place.

One of the respects in which our democracy deviates from the model of donor driven parties largely competing in the realm of media spin is that there is one component of the ruling party, COSATU, that has a large and well organised popular base. It’s possible that things could reach a point at which COSATU could take a decisive step in response to the degeneration of the ANC, a process that was steady under Thabo Mbeki but has collapsed into free fall under Jacob Zuma. But there’s no guarantee that this will happen. And if it does there’s no guarantee that it will fare better than experiments in political trade unionism elsewhere in the region.

COSATU is certainly the most ethical and progressive force in the tripartite alliance and Zwelinzima Vavi’s willingness to call things as they are, has, despite the unedifying spectacle of the inevitable election time flip-flops, won him a degree of admiration amongst both the more progressive elements of the middle class and the organised poor. It is not impossible that COSATU could emerge as a force with sufficiently broad support to challenge the rapid decline of the ANC under Zuma into authoritarianism and corruption.

But the fact that COSATU, at the moment, prefers to ally itself with NGO based civil society rather than the popular struggles rooted in communities is not a good sign. It indicates a political laziness, an elitism and an inability to grasp the profound political significance of the scale at which a unionised job, limited as its security and benefits may be, remains an unrealisable aspiration for millions of young people. And, despite COSATU’s shameful role in the Zuma débâcle, there are clear signs that the trade union federation remains more invested in the illusory hope of the politics of the machinations within the alliance rather than in any attempt to build popular organisation that could link the factory floor to the community.

In the wake of both a widening appreciation of the bankruptcy of the Zuma presidency and the crude and self interested attempts by the ANC Youth League to politicise poverty, there have been a variety of calls for a renegotiation of the deal on which post-apartheid society was founded. There have, for instance, been calls for an ‘economic Codesa’ and a ‘land Codesa’.

Without sufficiently mass based and resolute popular organisation around alternatives any attempt to recalibrate policy and practice will inevitably take the form of an intra-elite negotiation conducted in the interests of elites but in name of the poor.

In the 1980s South Africa became a site of extraordinary political innovation. The experiments in popular democratic practices in the United Democratic Front were, as all politics is, imperfect. But although they were compromised by state repression and a current of millennial fervour there was a real challenge to the elitism of standard forms of representative politics. If the UDF had not accepted the authority of the ANC as absolute, the transition may have played out differently.

But our country remains highly politicised. The extraordinary wave of popular protest that emerged at the turn of the century and gathered real momentum from around 2004 continues. The organisational forms on which this protest depends, and its politics, vary considerably from place to place. But the central progressive idea that has continually reoccurred around the country over the last ten years is an affirmation of the humanity of ordinary people against a political and economic system that, in practice rather than principle, routinely denies that humanity.

It is in this ferment, diverse and contradictory as it is, that the prospects for sustained popular organisation lie. However this politics is often intensely local and in the eyes of many its localism doesn’t sit well with aspirations for national or international change. But without a solid material base, aspirations for change at a higher level are nothing but empty dreams. They are reason without force.

We should recall that for most people sociality is practised, to a significant degree, via the local. There are certainly times when some people are willing to struggle to realise ideas that are, initially anyway, abstracted from their lived reality. But, along with sufficient and sustained commitment, this requires a social structure appropriate to the task. The commune, the Soviet, the council, the congregation and the street committee have their place, and it is a very different place to that of the vanguard party, in the history of popular insurgency for a very good reason. It’s certainly possible for local councils or committees to come together and take on a broader project beyond their local concerns but it is not possible for this to happen when they have not yet come into their own local existence. It’s also the case that every movement that reaches the point of being able to constitute itself on a national or international stage as a material force remains rooted in some sort of local organisation be it particular factories, campuses, prisons, communities, women’s groups, party structures and so on.

There will be no progressive resolution of the crisis into which we have drifted without solid and committed local organisation. And this is not solely a matter of constituting sufficient material force. We should not forget that in politics, as in art, an intense engagement with the particular is the route to the universal. It is at the local where the particularities of the underside of our society are experienced and resisted most directly and intensely.