Delusion and Despair: democratic politics in a time of the collapse of a hegemonic order
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, “Wave of Materialism” and “Crisis of Authority” (NY: International Publishers), (1971), pp. 275-276.
It is a cliché these days to quote Antonio Gramsci, the master of the notion of hegemony, on what happens when a hegemonic order declines. Nevertheless, his poetic words are of enormous relevance to us today as the political, cultural, ideological and social dominance of the ANC begins to break apart.
For the past 25 years the African National Congress has had South Africa in its ideological grip, to the point where it has been almost impossible to think and speak outside of its frame of reference. Those who attempted to do so have been variously ostracized, persecuted, mocked or demonized. This is what hegemonic systems do, and in fact it is what South Africans are used to. After all the country has been governed by a dominating authority since 1948 and knows no real alternative. To us, true democracy remains strange and perhaps a little frightening, as it involves breaking free from the certainties provided by domination.
However, that time is now coming to an end. The ANC has decayed to the point where it can no longer hold the ideological and cultural centre. This has led to something of a cultural crisis in our society. Bereft of a confident and reasonably legitimate ruling class, social actors who previously found a comfortable place within the hegemonic system are floundering.
This includes many societal commentators, who by virtue of their occupation are required to have firm views on the standing of the social order, but who seem lost in the newly unstable world. But it also includes the ANC itself, numerous institutions, and of course the population as a whole. We are indeed seeing a ‘great variety of morbid symptoms” emerging, ranging from violent and anarchistic behavior through to the emergence of bizarre belief systems in the fields of religion and politics, with many others appearing between the two.
I want to focus on two of these “symptoms”. The first is the ANC’s own reaction to the situation. The self-image today of the ANC is of a party which, because it has noble origins in a righteous struggle, shines with an eternal glow. That glow, it is believed, places it alongside the good and the great, those who stand for freedom from tyranny and who are on the side of the poorest and the most oppressed. There is no event or occasion without which some reference to the righteous struggle is righteously – some might say self-righteously - made. This is supposed to provide continuous light to feed the glow. They invoke the past to bestow upon a sadly reduced shell of a party a shine it no longer can generate in the present.
But it is a glow that is no longer visible to all - indeed it is barely visible to any. But many do say they continue to see it. Like the King’s New Clothes, though, what they claim and what they actually do see – the ramshackle and rusted reality - are not one and the same.
But our society has become addicted to the dimming glow. It wants it to be real. It wants it to shine anew. It wants the myths promulgated by the ANC to reflect reality, however painfully obvious it might be that they do not. This is the origin of the brief romance of Ramaphoria. At last, said its adherents, the “real” ANC, the glowing one, the one still replete with the glory of the struggle, has returned. We should sympathise with these naïve believers, with their semi-magical notions of rescue from the awfulness of things. It is incredibly painful and difficult to acknowledge that we have moved into an era where the many prices we have to pay in order to have a Ramaphosa include a Mabuza, a badly wrought policy of EWC, the death of non-racialism, and economic stagnation. And so self-delusion remains the order of the day in large swathes of our society.
However, self-delusion is no longer completely dominant. In recent times, especially since it has become clear that EWC might actually happen, self-delusion has in many cases been replaced with its polar opposite - complete disillusionment. Emigration queues are apparently longer than ever before. Despair seems widespread. Anarchy and millenarianism are common. All of these are signs of a complete loss of belief in the efficacy of the existing social order. The opposite of self-delusion is such deep despair that it cannot be borne.
Both of these states of being – illusion and despair – are the byproducts of an unhealthily hegemonic order. When those in power impose their world view upon all aspects of the society so that it comes to believe there are no alternatives, as the ANC has done, then the decay of those in power will shock the society to its core. People will either cling to the dying hegemon with increasing desperation, or give way to chaos. It is in this kind of situation that populism and millenarianism (the backbone of the EFF) will thrive. As will crime, disorder and anarchy.
Thus it is not surprising that the illusion remains that we still have a party in power with something of a noble tradition, whose essential pillars must remain, and which will somehow find its way through the morass and come to life once more. And it is not surprising that simultaneously we see the rise of magical thinking, or that we observe the rising belief in such millenarian fantasies as the notion that the return of the land will bring impossible things to us in our time of despair.
What does a self-deluding society such as this make of an opposition party such as the DA? The DA cannot truly be understood by those caught up in the extremes and the fallacies in such a setting. If you are waiting for the ANC glow to return, then an opposition party is a waste of time. You can see this view expressed all over the place. You will spend all of your time and energy trying to get the ANC to reform. If you despair then you will seek total escape, either from society or from the country itself. The existence of a pragmatic alternative is incomprehensible. Our entire society is caught up in the binaries of an imaginary wholeness versus visualized chaos.
Those millions who have joined the DA are thought to be either racists longing for the apartheid past, or deluded black people who don’t understand what’s really going on. (in the universe of the critic of the DA there are only two possible types of member). My experience of the actual members of the DA has been quite different. They tend to be thoughtful people of a huge range of backgrounds who are not fooled by the ANC ‘s illusions about itself, and who find the EFF either a joke or a frightening, violent monster.
They relish realism, practicality, application and loyal hard work. They wish our society to be an actual, not a fake, democracy. Most of them have direct experience of ANC patronage politics at its worst, at grassroots level, and are determined that that system should be destroyed. These are the potential bedrock of the actual liberal democracy that needs to be built. Demonizing them is an old trick born of the hegemonic era. It will no longer do.
By claiming that it can be a practical alternative to the ANC the DA is a profound threat to the mythologized versions of the ANC and of our society. The DA doesn’t buy into the “glow” theory and it doesn’t buy into its opposite - “despair”. Instead it says “here are ways of doing things that will improve society over time, without magical intervention or fantasised versions of a glowing future.
Our future requires us to face the awful truths about the ANC which we are trying so desperately to pretend do not exist. Our future requires us to work extremely hard. It requires us to face reality and to reject magical solutions. And it requires to reject some of the shibboleths of the ANC, shibboleths which we have come to believe are indispensable truths.”
Such a message requires mature acceptance to fully absorb. It requires weaning oneself of fantasy and refusing despair. It requires a willingness to penetrate the veil of hegemonic thinking.
It is against this background that we are better able to understand some of the common myths about the DA. For many are unable to perceive it without relating it in some way to the hegemonic world of the ANC and its visible decay.
To those who continue to delude themselves that this is a party for the people, the DA seems to represent the opposite of the ANC – so it must be right wing, against the common people, and far from radical. You see this accusation quite often. It survives even the most comprehensive of refutations and is entirely a product of hegemonic thinking. Everybody knows that the ANC is not really a left-wing party. In fact it is much closer to being a party of right wing nationalist rent-seekers and aspirant capitalists who seek permanent dominance and who have shamelessly neglected, even killed, the poor.
To those who have given way to despair the DA also seems conservative because it does not buy into the apocalyptic and magical visions that the despairing – who are sought after by the EFF - promulgate. Resolutely practical and totally committed to a constitutional order and to parliamentary processes, it cannot be swept up into the millenarian version of events – a version which even the ANC cannot resist at times. But the despairing path is also not really a “left” solution. Rooted in wishful thinking it does not offer actual long term solutions to the poor – instead it lies to them about what it can promise and cares not for their future disappointment when those promises are unable to be met.
Allied to this view is the idea that the DA “lacks policy solutions”, the implication being that some sort of policy magic bullet is what is needed to get us out of the hole we are in and to replace the ANC’s failing hegemony and end our despair. Of course, policies are important, but no policy alone is going to fix our dire situation. The DAs real strength lies in its commitment to action rather than in the perfection of its policy offering. We have all experienced 25 years of ANC policy-making and are only too well aware of the dozens of policies that lie dormant, never having been implemented.
So in each case the DA’s offer is – perhaps willfully, perhaps disingenuously, perhaps naively – misperceived.
The ANC has consistently promulgated an idea of itself as a “radical, left wing” party with the interests of the poor at heart, for example. It clearly is not that. It is now a party of plunderers and looters, who lurk behind the Ramaphosa front and who seek to gain, (or regain where they have lost it), control over all the institutions of state in order to continue looting.
Worse, they now seek to gain control over land and private capital as well and will undoubtedly in the near future seek to plunder pensions and other tempting private funds. It is time for our intellectuals to break free of the binaries of delusion and despair offered by the crumbling edifice of ANC hegemony and seek to build a robust democracy outside of its terms of reference.