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The abuse of political power

Power is abused, probably a million times a day, the world over. A man who abuses his bodily power to subjugate a woman for his (power) pleasure, or who abuses her economic dependence on him to get what he wants, are just some of these. Not that women cannot, or do not, abuse their (sexual) power over men to get what they want. It is important to note, however, that even such apparently “personal” abuses of power require an institutional framework to be possible at all. What interests me here, therefore, is precisely the abuse of institutional power, for example as it is most obvious within a university or a majoritarian representational democracy, like South Africa. (Personally, I prefer a consensual democracy, like they have in Switzerland and The Netherlands, where diverse parties have to come to an agreement about implementing new legislation, for instance, instead of doing it by means of majority vote.)

Within a university power can easily be abused, such as when, because of prejudice towards certain staff members, the rules for promotion or for the acknowledgement of specific types of achievement are changed by management to justify withholding such recognition from meritorious persons. Or, in another scenario, a staff member may be disliked for whatever reason by members of his or her department — either because of her or his cultural background, race, or (crazy as it may seem) because of their popularity among students, as reflected in student feedback — and for such reasons, her or his deserved progress in the institution (through tenure, for example), may be denied. True, at most institutions (though not all), there are systems of appeal to rectify such prejudicial treatment, but there is no guarantee that even these would let justice prevail. It takes a certain, rare, kind of magnanimity on the part of one or two of those “in power” (that is, empowered by their positions in the discursive regime) to be instrumental in overturning a series of decisions or actions that have discriminated egregiously against an individual.

Turning to a broader political arena, the apparent determination, on the part of the ANC, to expedite the passage through Parliament of the controversial Protection of Information Bill, without any further concessions to other interested groups, individuals or political parties in light of their objections, also seems to me to be a clear case of the abuse of political power. The fact that the IFP has gone as far as encouraging parties to use the practice of “filibustering” — that is, using existing parliamentary procedure to the utmost for the delay of passing a law — stresses how strongly some parties feel about this piece of legislation, not to mention those across a broad societal spectrum who have already spoken out strongly against it. Just how keen it is to force the Bill through Parliament in its present form, is evident from the ANC’s unwillingness even to add a clause concerning “public interest” defence to it, which strengthens one’s suspicion that there are fairly indefensible reasons behind its determination to have legal means for muzzling the media as well as potential whistle-blowers as far as so-called “classified information” goes.

Should the Bill become a reality, it means that there will be no opportunity to test whether such information is classified because it really concerns “state security”, or merely the “security” of certain (secretly) compromised or corrupt individuals. What seems to be lost on the ANC is the resemblance between the proposed law and comparable laws that existed in apartheid South Africa, as well as the stain it would inflict on the “democratic” status of the country in the eyes of the rest of the world.

How should one understand this combination of blindness and amnesia on the part of the ruling party? As is usually the case, Žižek casts this — and any other abuse of power, for that matter — in an interesting light. In Living in the End Times (2010, p. 10) he refers to an ambiguity in Immanuel Kant’s essay on Perpetual Peace, where Kant first argues against a “secret law” or “maxim”, unknown to the people who would be subject to it, and for obvious reasons. If such a “maxim” or principle (behind the publicly promulgated laws) can only work if it is kept secret, it is certain to provoke general opposition if it were revealed, given the injustice that it would entail in light of what Kant regarded as the “transcendental formula of public law” (quoted by Žižek). It reads: “All actions relating to the right of other men are unjust if their maxim is not consistent with publicity” [publicness].

Is this not perhaps a possible way of understanding the proposed Protection of Information Bill? That its true, but hidden, motivating reasons display the structure of such a “secret maxim”, the publication of which would be met with universal outrage and rejection, and is therefore kept secret so that it can succeed via the proposed law? What Kant also points out, of course, is that such an unknown law or maxim would be nothing less than a justification of “the arbitrary despotism of those who exercise it”.

The ambiguity pointed out by Žižek concerns something quite unexpected. It turns out that, in a (what Derrida would call “dangerous”) supplement to this essay, Kant introduces an exception to the formula referred to above, in that he argues in favour of a secret clause governing the contract which obliges sovereign states to maintain “perpetual peace”. As Žižek remarks, one might anticipate a stipulation regarding possible “sordid compromises” between states (of which citizens of these states are blissfully unaware, but which concern their material living conditions), but it turns out to be quite different, and revealing, namely (quoted by Žižek): “The opinions of philosophers on the conditions of the possibility of public peace shall be consulted by those states armed for war.”

One might call this, I believe, Kant’s version of Plato’s desire for a “philosopher king” (which Aristotle, who tutored Alexander before he became “the Great”, came closer to actualising than Plato), except that it has a telling twist: the phrase, “the conditions of the possibility of”. This phrase is part and parcel of what is known as “transcendental philosophy”, inaugurated by Kant, and is characteristic of a way of philosophizing that always asks what the grounds are that first make something possible (“zurückfragen”). In other words, Kant thought that philosophers trained in this tradition would be able to advise “statesmen” in such a way that the conditions which have to be met for world peace to be maintained would be kept firmly in mind (which the statesmen would not do) — something for which Kant may be forgiven, I believe.

However — and here Žižek shows his genius once again — there is another side to this belief that “philosophers” would be able to advise the leaders of states. (Needless to say, the term “philosophers” here denotes “those who supposedly know” — to my mind a misunderstanding of what a true “Socratically skeptical” philosopher is.) The hidden aspect of Kant’s and others’ belief that political leaders should depend on the advice of “those in the know” is formulated as follows by Žižek: “Why should this clause remain secret? If made public, it would appear humiliating to the legislative authority of a state: how can the supreme authority, to whom ‘we must naturally attribute the utmost wisdom’, seek instruction from its subjects? This may sound absurd, but do we not respect it even today? When Habermas was in England during the period of Blair’s government, did not Tony Blair invite him to a discreet dinner which went unreported in the media? Kant was thus correct: this clause should remain secret, because it does something more terrifying than exposing the dark, cynical underside of legal power (in today’s epoch, a state power can proudly admit to its dark side, advertising the fact that it is discreetly doing dirty things it is better for us not to know about [it is not difficult to think of examples!]). It underlines the blindness, stupidity and ignorance of power, none of which is personal, but is rather institutional: in spite of input from hundreds of highly educated experts, for example, the results of the US invasion of Iraq were catastrophic.”

If one reflects on the reasons for advancing the Protection of Information Bill in light of these considerations, it seems to me highly probable, in fact, quite certain, that some “highly educated experts” must have acted in an advisory capacity to the politicians who felt the need for such a Bill. That is, apart from the unknown, “secret maxim” or principle, which — if we take Žižek’s interpretation of Kant seriously — is the true motivating force behind the Bill, and which the politicians cannot afford to reveal.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.