The pol­i­tics of de­sire and fear in SA speak to re­coloni­sa­tion and rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion,writes

The Sunday Independent - - DISPATCHES -

THE South African state, on which the fate of most cit­i­zens de­pend, has to change in its re­sponse to the re­struc­tur­ing pro­cesses ini­ti­ated by the glob­al­i­sa­tion of mo­nop­oly cap­i­tal.

At the pre­cise mo­ment in South African his­tory when cit­i­zen­ship seems most in­clu­sive, the sub­stance and ca­pac­ity of cit­i­zen­ship is be­ing chal­lenged by the neo-lib­eral cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­ogy that pro­vides the so­cial and cul­tural logic for glob­al­i­sa­tion.

While de­colo­nial­i­sa­tion im­pulses is­sue mainly from ground-level so­cial move­ments, re­coloni­sa­tion im­pulses are also flow­ing from politico-eco­nomic im­per­a­tives in­her­ent in cap­i­tal­ist transna­tional trade agree­ments and state cap­ture mech­a­nisms and from the raw power in­her­ent in the mo­bil­ity of transna­tional cap­i­tal.

Cap­i­tal­ism ad­vo­cates a min­i­mal­ist state whose pri­mary ob­jec­tive is en­sur­ing the con­di­tions for prof­itabil­ity unim­peded by public own­er­ship and reg­u­la­tion.

This has re­sulted in the trans­for­ma­tion of the de­vel­op­ment state, so well ar­tic­u­lated in the Re­con­struc­tion and De­vel­op­ment Plan, and the drift to the pri­vati­sa­tion of core public ser­vices and labour-mar­ket dereg­u­la­tion.

Not even con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy is im­mune to cap­i­tal­ist de­mands for the im­per­a­tive of eco­nomic ra­tio­nal­ism, even at the cost of frac­tur­ing demo­cratic pro­cesses, con­sti­tu­tional obli­ga­tions, cit­i­zen ca­pac­ity, and the sovereignty of both the state and the peo­ple.

The logic of this no­tion is premised on the prece­dence of eco­nomic, es­pe­cially in­vest­ment in­ter­ests over em­ploy­ment growth, in­clu­sive pro­duc­tiv­ity, and so­cioe­co­nomic jus­tice. In sum, the sovereignty of the state and the peo­ple is be­ing re­de­fined by global mo­nop­oly cap­i­tal.

Con­se­quently, state cap­ture lim­its cit­i­zen­ship ca­pac­ity in favour of con­sumer sta­tus and nour­ishes the de­sire for com­modi­ties. Be­yond sys­temic dom­i­na­tion and struc­tural vi­o­lence, cap­i­tal­ism main­tains a grip upon cit­i­zens’ sen­si­bil­ity and imag­i­na­tion through the in­cite­ment of de­sire and en­joy­ment, which in the cur­rent con­junc­ture are nei­ther pro­hib­ited nor reg­u­lated but rather psy­cho­log­i­cally de­manded.

These de­mands upon ap­petite, upon the sen­su­ous body, are a form of fan­tasy which shapes at­ti­tudes and drives be­hav­iours un­der neo-lib­eral cap­i­tal­ism. De­sire is not reg­u­lated by moral norms, as was en­vis­aged in the Free­dom Char­ter and the Re­con­struc­tion and De­vel­op­ment Plan, but ex­plic­itly de­manded and ad­min­is­tered through the con­sump­tion of com­modi­ties that act as the em­bod­i­ment of the mean­ing of life. In this way, de­sire, even in its most ego­tis­ti­cal form, is le­git­imised so long as it can be­come a site of prof­itabil­ity.

Con­sumerist de­sire, the de­sire for more and more en­joy­ment, as well as fan­tasies of end­less sen­su­ous pos­si­bil­i­ties, present neo-lib­eral cap­i­tal­ism as a realm of free­dom, choice and in­di­vid­ual rights. Un­der­ly­ing all this is the grip of mo­nop­oly cap­i­tal and its lack of in­ter­est in the ex­i­gen­cies of or­di­nary life. Hence the spec­ta­cle of job­less, at times job-loss, growth.

How­ever, there are fault lines in cap­i­tal­ism. These fault lines, par­tic­u­larly the im­pos­si­bil­ity of ful­fil­ment of de­sires and fan­tasies, threaten to dis­rupt the op­er­a­tions of cap­i­tal. So the var­i­ous so­cial move­ments – on land, ed­u­ca­tion, cul­ture, gen­der, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, dis­abil­ity, labour – to­gether should fo­cus upon this par­tic­u­lar point of con­tra­dic­tion and rup­ture within cap­i­tal­ism.

For­tu­nately, the im­pos­si­bil­ity of full en­joy­ment en­sures that the econ­omy is al­ways the po­lit­i­cal econ­omy. For, ul­ti­mately, what we de­sire – houses in sub­urbs, fancy cars, ex­pen­sive life­styles, slim­fit at­tire, ex­otic wigs, lu­cra­tive deals, trav­el­ling first class, drugs, va­ca­tions over­seas, al­co­hol, anti-age oint­ments – are just com­mod­i­fi­ca­tions or reifi­ca­tions of the con­di­tion of ab­so­lute joy that eludes us for ever.

Be­cause ful­fil­ment of de­sire and joy al­ways eludes us, be­ing a cit­i­zen in South Africa en­tails learn­ing how to pur­sue com­modi­ties through­out our lives. Of course, the cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy thrives on this logic of de­sire. Com­mer­cials, of­ten couched in im­ages of erotic de­sire, in­struct us what to de­sire, but ev­ery time we pur­chase some com­mod­ity, we sense that some­thing is miss­ing, that ‘it is quite not it’, and that we should con­tinue to pur­chase more and more com­modi­ties in pur­suit of the ‘supreme com­mod­ity’ that will end de­sire and fear.

There is, there­fore, a fun­da­men­tal im­passe in cap­i­tal­ism. The im­pos­si­bil­ity of ful­fil­ment, the lure of a fun­da­men­tal fan­tasy in cap­i­tal­ism, pro­vides the so­cial move­ments in South Africa the ra­tio­nale and jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for dis­rup­tion and rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion in the midst of the seem­ingly closed, self-sus­tain­ing econ­omy of com­mod­i­fied de­sire.

Fear of the loss of com­modi­ties with which cit­i­zens sur­round them­selves is what ul­ti­mately se­cures the power of po­lit­i­cal ex­ec­u­tives and thereby the neo-lib­eral cap­i­tal­ist so­cial and eco­nomic or­der.

The po­lit­i­cal ex­ec­u­tive is kept in power by the cit­i­zens’ fear of pun­ish­ment, which must al­ways be main­tained. Thus fear of ma­te­rial loss be­comes all-em­brac­ing, thereby un­der­min­ing each cit­i­zen’s pos­si­bil­i­ties for re­al­is­ing a pos­i­tive vi­sion of her or his life.

A leader who le­git­imises her­self or him­self and en­sures the loy­alty of cit­i­zens by the use of fear is ba­si­cally not cre­at­ing a democ­racy and con­di­tions for rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion, since the strat­egy of fear un­der­mines the free­dom that is the core of democ­racy.

More ex­ec­u­tive dis­cre­tion, more pres­i­den­tial pre­rog­a­tive, more se­cu­rity and sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies, more ma­nip­u­la­tion of elec­tion suc­ces­sion out­comes, more me­dia ex­po­sure of the pri­vate lives of lead­ers, more neo-lib­eral poli­cies and laws, will not do.

Neo-lib­eral econ­o­mists in South Africa have a lot to an­swer for. Since 1994, they have jus­ti­fied poli­cies that have made the coun­try more prone to state cap­ture and eco­nomic cri­sis, se­verely un­equal, pol­luted and vi­o­lent. But al­ter­na­tives are un­likely to be­come ac­tual pol­icy un­less the in­flu­ence of mo­nop­oly cap­i­tal in the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is dras­ti­cally re­duced.

Fi­nally, we have to ex­am­ine not just neo-lib­eral cap­i­tal­ism as a sys­tem of struc­tures and prac­tices but also, and mainly, the neo-lib­eral cap­i­tal­ism within us, that causes us to de­sire our own dom­i­na­tion. We should un­der­take a so­cial, psy­cho­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis of de­sire and fear as they are ex­pressed and ma­nip­u­lated in ne­olib­eral cap­i­tal­ist in­sti­tu­tions and net­works.

In the anal­y­sis, we are most likely go­ing to find the re­silient and adap­tive ca­pac­ity of neo-lib­eral cap­i­tal­ism that seeks to pre­vent rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion ev­ery­where.

Nkondo is a mem­ber of the Free­dom Park coun­cil and Unisa coun­cil. He writes in his per­sonal ca­pac­ity.

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