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