Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Protests herald the emergence of new democratic subjectivities

We are in Valletta, Malta, at a conference at present, and I have just done a presentation on the reasons for the widespread nihilism in the world today. What struck me was the fact that a number of the other delegates who came to me afterwards to talk to me about my presentation expressed their agreement with the diagnosis of global nihilism under neoliberalism, as perceived by Manuel Castells and Bernard Stiegler (whose work I discussed in my presentation). What also struck me during our discussion was the fact that my recent post on student protestors “acting out” (in protest against costs of education) is related to the wave of nihilism sweeping across the world, driven by capitalism’s reduction of everything to exchange value (money) – even people: witness the “exchange value” of soccer players, who are traded as if they are commodities, for instance.

The work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri sheds light on a factor connected to these protests – something easily overlooked – namely, that new forms of subjectivity emerge in the course of protests and revolts against what is ultimately an expression of neoliberal (finance) capital’s rule. I have previously written on the four types of subjectivity that they focus on here, so I won’t go into all the detail concerning those again. Instead I want to focus a bit on the implications of new subjectivities being forged in the furnace of resistance to neoliberalism.

This is important, because these protests are connected to a number of other things regarding the promotion of “authentic” democracy, as against the sham democracies that exist in the world today, including in South Africa. These caricatures of democracy are known as (so-called) “representational democracy”, which is not democracy at all, but a representation of the interests of the supposed representatives themselves, and not of the people at large (as could easily be seen in the way that certain politicians in South Africa and elsewhere use their political positions for self-enrichment).

What strikes me as being particularly relevant is the following remark by Hardt and Negri (in Declaration; published by Argo Navis, New York, 2012, p. 6): “Movements of revolt and rebellion, we find, provide us the means not only to refuse the repressive regimes under which these subjective figures suffer but also to invert these subjectivities in figures of power. They discover, in other words, new forms of independence and security on economic as well as social and communicational terrains, which together create the potential to throw off systems of political representation and assert their own power of democratic action …

“To consolidate and heighten the powers of such subjectivities, though, another step is needed. The movements [they are talking about movements such as the Occupy movement], in effect, already provide a series of constitutional principles that can be the basis of a constituent process. One of the most radical and far-reaching elements of this cycle of movements, for example, has been the rejection of representation and the construction instead of schemas of democratic participation. These movements also give new meanings to freedom, our relation to the common, and a series of central political arrangements, which far exceed the bounds of current republican constitutions. These meanings are now already becoming part of a new common sense. They are foundational principles that we already take to be inalienable rights, like those that were heralded in the course of the eighteenth-century revolutions.”

Some of the “movements” that Hardt and Negri are referring to here include (in addition to the Occupy movement, referred to above), the Arab Spring protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, as well as the race- and economy-oriented riots in London soon after those. Very significantly, they elaborate (p. 4-6) on the fact that, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, the protests were “leaderless” – that is, although various agencies tried in vain to identify leaders among the protestors with whom they could negotiate (an oft-practised strategy on the part of repressive powers for gaining a foothold for the co-option of individuals and for undermining the democratic power of movements), they failed to do so, given the frequent protean shifting of shape and composition of the groups of protestors.

The latter process was, of course, the radical democratic element in the protests, which enabled the protestors to gain unexpected success. In the course of the Occupy movement, too, there were no leaders as such, only prominent public figures who addressed the protestors in places like Zuccotti Park in New York. This “non-representational” character of the protest movements is what has given them their power, and what Hardt and Negri regard as paving the way for the emergence of newly empowered subjectivities. The pertinent question is whether the protesting students in South Africa can turn their protests into something that gives impetus to the democratic thrust of the movements that Hardt and Negri refer to, and in the process contribute to the emergence of novel subjectivities the way that other protests have done.

What I should stress – in relation to the above question – is something that Jacques Rancière points out in regard to what he sees as the gist of politics, namely “equality”: for anyone to claim equality, she or he has to demonstrate their eligibility for equal status by rising above “mute” violence. Mere violent protest, for Rancière, is no legitimate claim to equal democratic status – you have to perform your claim to democratic equality through your participation in “logos”, that is, in language. What Rancière has in mind here goes back to Aristotle’s argument, that slaves cannot expect treatment equal to that of “free citizens” because they lack logos or “reason” (which they were not given the opportunity to show in ancient Athens, of course).

What this translates to in practical terms is that protests founded on the principle of equality presuppose Rancière’s claim, above. In other words, the protesting students have to refrain from the mindless and self-contradictory destruction of the very means of higher education, including university buildings and works of art – they have to state their educational (including financial) needs and demands in a linguistically articulate (or at least comprehensible), manner, so that it at least has the chance (if not guarantee) of penetrating the “deafness” on the part of the educational authorities. In this way they could transcend blind “acting out” and stake a legitimate claim to being heard, AND they would participate in forging the new democratic subjectivities that Hardt and Negri discern as emerging in the process of rebelling against neoliberal capitalism — because that is the (perhaps hidden) force that they are ultimately revolting against.

The final test facing the protesting students is therefore whether they would like, and are able to present their behaviour (which is only “action” if they can take ethical responsibility for their behaviour) as promoting the interests of true democracy, particularly in terms of equality. If this is the case, they have to demonstrate their undeniable equality through their capacity for “logos”, instead of their wish for, and promotion of unqualified destruction. This does not absolve the educational authorities of responsibility, of course. They, too, have to demonstrate their participation in the domain of “logos”, instead of simply relying on mute security forces to control students – they have to show this chiefly by their willingness AND capacity for listening with demonstrable receptivity, instead of pre-determined agendas. Only in this way could the present turmoil at universities contribute to the production of new, democratic subjectivities of the kind that Hardt and Negri write about in Declaration.

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