Towards renewal

Mike Berger says there's a growing recognition that identity politics is incompatible with adaptive democratic societies


"Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits -- and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!"

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Fitzgerald compilation)

I have in front of me 7 articles. A couple are 'factual'. Marie-Louise Antoni in PW of 16 August outlines the systematic and selective targeting of white racism in the South African media which underpins the dominant moral narrative within the academic, political and media domains in South Africa - and the West more broadly. Her article is especially powerful because it's largely free of the usual loaded words and her claims are meticulously documented. It is a refreshing blast of truth; not the whole truth but much of the truth that is left out.

Similarly relevant is Ed Herbst, also on the 16 August 2018, in Biznews, in a review of the emotionally and physically violent strategy of the Fallist movement imposing their version of transformation and 'decolonisation' on a confused, divided and intimidated University. If one is morally serious such exposes should elicit honest reflection from those who hold themselves out as moral spokespersons. But what do we get?

To answer that we need to take a step back to a longwinded apologia by Prof Leslie London in GroundUp on 8 November 2016 in response to a critical article from Judge Dennis Davis. I will try through the use of representative quotes to give you some idea off why the term 'apologia' is appropriate. Other than adding italics and orientation in brackets where I deem significant, it is as written:

"It (referring to Davis's article) takes a broadside at academics who have not been willing to join the stampede calling for the securitisation of our campuses and, strangely, blames them, rather than the main protagonists, for the outcomes of the protest movement."

"For example, in the Health Sciences Faculty at UCT, there was a concerted effort by protesting students making use of numerous forms of disruption and discussion, that had a strategic goal of bringing the Faculty Management to a point of negotiating on 34 key demands students. None of these demands was outrageous. The disruption was instrumental to attaining an agreement between the Faculty Management and the students..."

"It (Davis again) implies that any support for students’ action that is peaceful and disruptive is simply the same as support for any action that is violent and abusive. Academics who stand by the right of students to protest, even where that disrupts university activities, are then tarred with the brush of being in the same camp as “kill all whites”, “Fuck the Jews”, and “Hitler was a great leader.”

"We know many activists from the anti-apartheid movement have been thoroughly captured in the current neoliberal political environment and serve interests and goals vastly different to what they did when campaigning against injustice."

"When academics oppose the calling of security onto campus, it is not to facilitate thuggery on the part of a small number of students...It is because we fear that the militarisation of our campuses will generate a counter-violence,..."

I will stop here but this is a tiny and quite representative selection from a 2500 + word article co-signed by 31 prominent medical academics. I hope further comment is unnecessary.

Davis's original critical article itself, which provoked London et al's defensive response, signals his own ideological membership in the following quote "Hence while progressive academics no matter their particular politics should join students in respect of the two core demands, the politics of the disrupters should be seen for what it is – at best populism which has its racist doppelgänger in Trump voters".

It is generally recognised that the Left broadly speaking has moved from primarily economic and class to identity and power issues. As always there is a gap between the theory and practice but historically the Left has focused its concerns on perceived disadvantaged and excluded groups in order to restore them to full partnership and dignity in the human enterprise. That surely is a commendable aim together with its implied moral foundation of a universal humanity.

But what has happened with increasing ferocity over the past few decades is a transformation of reasoned engagement with potential for personal growth and consensual political change into a zero-sum conflict between 'untouchables' or 'clerisy' on the one hand and 'deplorables' on the other. Such dynamics rapidly descend into political and personal power struggles, slurs and the exclusion of perceived (or constructed) ideological-ethnic enemies, who are often fellow citizens, from moral and empathic consideration.

In response an increasing spectrum of informed opinion perceives the combination of grievance and identity politics as a quasi-religious, potentially totalitarian clash incompatible with the practices and norms of adaptive democratic societies. Francis Fukuyama, although he takes great care to identify himself with the 'liberal' establishment, puts it this way:

"Democratic societies are fracturing into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action by society as a whole. This is a road that leads only to state breakdown and, ultimately, failure. Unless such liberal democracies can work their way back to more universal understandings of human dignity, they will doom themselves—and the world —to continuing conflict."

Peter Turchin, one of the new transdisciplinarian historians predicts the USA slipping into a seriously perilous decade characterised by unrestrained intra-elite competition. Serious futurists fear the effects of climate change, artificial intelligence, pollution, a vast excess of unskilled, unemployed youth and the failure of global coordination will lead to widespread social conflict in the era of nuclear weapons and other instruments of mass destruction.

China in the meantime is focussing on "cyber-sovereignty" and "hopes to eventually lead the world in advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and robotics". Throw Russia, India, Japan, the Koreas into the mix along with a huge Muslim world in turmoil, the spread of international criminal-political gangs and state failures in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia and South America, and the current 'progressive' political discourse is tired and irrelevant at best and quasi-religious totalitarianism at worst.

Antoni is right to suggest at the end of her article "At this critical juncture, it is clear South Africa needs new stories". And not only South Africa: it is the most pressing and important task of the next century.

We will need to build on the recognition that creating voluntaristic and inclusive modes of political cooperation is the overriding challenge of the rapidly approaching mid-21st century crisis. This is not the place to outline the dimensions of this challenge but they are considerable. In response to the naysayers I would only ask, if not now, when?

As a step in the right direction we can apply Fukuyama's comment "Societies need to protect marginalized and excluded groups, but they also need to achieve common goals through deliberation and consensus" to South Africa. He went on to suggest that that this could be promoted by a common 'creedal identity' which could bridge the gap between various ethnic, class and ideological groups by identifying the "substantive ideas, such as constitutionalism, the rule of law, and human equality".

Fukuyama was of course referring to the USA but it seems that a similar debate and cultivation of an overriding national identity, moral purpose and common fate is urgently required in the South African situation. Simplistic slogans of "the rainbow nation" and similar shallow branding are not sufficient to counter the polarising forces at work in this country.

Our constitution, fully understood and re-interpreted as a framework for national cooperation around a common mission of social and economic renewal could serve as a foundation for our national salvation. Failure to do so will condemn South Africa to capture by the connected, ruthless and greedy and their foreign accomplices.

Mike Berger