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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.


  • 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.


  1. michael michael 8 March 2016

    Very good analysis but hardly applicable where mobs are driven by emotion.

  2. Richard Richard 9 March 2016

    Apologies in advance for the length of this reply to your interesting piece. The paradigm from which this piece acts is, to me, only partially true. Whilst it may be the case that money is increasingly the means through which goods (in all the manifestations of that word) are valued in a multi-cultural world, I disagree that it is the cause of the nihilism we see around us. There are several trends that I think demonstrate that the real causes are something different. The commodification of culture and its products is not identical with the valuation of culture in its own terms. A Chinese buyer does not pay more for a Rembrandt because he believes it is intrinsically better than a Raphael, but does so simply because it is likely to produce greater financial returns and reflect well on its purchaser. “Doesn’t so-and-so have good taste, the painting he bought has doubled in value!” The only way it is of greater “value” is to the extent that we all participate more than ever in the system of intermediation in which such values are bestowed. People will complain, but secretly each of us will stop complaining the moment we emerge into the system. The more we emerge, the less we will complain.

    The idea that people need to rationalise what they are doing is, I think, part of a disappearing Enlightenment tradition. In universities in the West (and that they are in the West is important, as I will explain) the notion of “safe spaces” and racially-segregated spaces is now more important than notions of intellectual challenge and inclusivity. We see black-only or black women-only events at universities in Europe nowadays. Speakers who pose “safety” threats are routinely denied opportunities to speak: legal students in the US have complained at having to hear about previous legal cases of, say, child abuse, because they have experienced such abuse themselves, and do not feel “safe”. Transgender people, Muslims, all manner of groups, say they just “want to feel safe” and not have their notions questioned. In this, they can appeal to human rights legislation, which dishes out equality like soup to the unemployed.

    I suggest that the very idea of having to show entitlement to equality is likely in itself be seen as unequal, because it privileges a certain group as being able to judge another group worthy or unworthy. Having to formulate argument and use reason to posit a thesis which you then defend now seems like a notion from prehistory to many in the West. That, at least, is the prevailing wind in the social sciences, not the physical sciences, which exist solely to resolve physical and mathematical problems and not to provide an intellectual (such as it is) dimension to power politics.

    This state of affairs is a Western malaise, and has to do with the demise of the West, largely through mass immigration of unassimilable groups who cherish their own cultures, and relative economic decline. Decline does not happen in a vacuum, it has manifestations, and one of these manifestations is a loss of indigenous culture. The use of reason to resolve issues of society and health, say, are not universal. They had their origins in Europe. As Europe declines, it is therefore axiomatic that these values will decline, there is no reason to believe they will be privileged. Bits and pieces will remain, perhaps, in the same way that South African parliament retains some vestiges of the Palace of Westminster.

    The other point is that events such as the Arab Spring do not represent anything other than politicking and unarticulated (and unarticulatable) dissatisfaction. Something that was interesting about that brouhaha was the utter lack of challenge to any fundamental precepts of Arab society. Women were still required to be veiled, prayers still had to be attended five times a day, non-Muslims were still denied full participation. There was no call for emancipation, no “burning of bras”, no recognition of Israel as a legitimate state, nothing substantive. All that was protested was who runs different departments, and whether there should be elections. When Egypt had elections, Islamists became the new government, precisely because there was no real desire for fundamental change.

    The only mechanism that seems to be constant through everything is the obeisance people pay to money, and the hope that they will get some. Market capitalism is actually quickly becoming all that remains of the West. The West has not proven to be nearly as durable as one had imagined, but then I suppose those living under the protection of Rome could not imagine it not being there. The Leftism of the “Occupy” movement and others like it is nothing other than trendiness and being seen to support “right-on” causes. Like virtue-signalling (the wearing of various coloured ribbons, bracelets and so on) has been consumed by its own self-righteousness, and the same will happen to many of these. They represent a parallel method to achieving social power to that offered by money, nothing more. They are, if you like, the lumpen-proletariat, interested only in riding the coat-tails of those asking the real questions.

    The nihilism we see is a Western phenomenon, bought of Western decline, nothing more. It does not exist in other societies, which are not caught in this cycle of despair.

  3. Rory Short Rory Short 9 March 2016

    Yes a very perceptive analysis indeed.

    Current ‘democratic’ structures operating through representation are in fact not democratic at all. Because they are trying to achieve democracy through a mechanism which is flawed. It is flawed by the fact that social power is automatically married to the representation as follows. It is automatically assumed that once the representational hierarchy is in place the total social power resides at the topmost level and is dispensed at will from there downwards to the lower levels. For this way of operating to really work every representative at every level within the hierarchy has to be a Saint. Of course this is an impossibility and if the person at the topmost level isn’t a Saint then things go completely awry.

    The Quaker approach to representation is completely different. The social power never leaves the bottom most level in any Quaker organisational hierarchy. If a person at any level starts behaving in a way which is not sanctioned by the bottom most level they will immediately cease to be an authorised representative.

  4. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 10 March 2016

    Michael – Wrong: it is particularly ‘where mobs are driven by emotion’ that this is ‘applicable’. That is, where they allow themselves to ‘behave’ in an ethically unaccountable manner, instead of ‘acting’. In other words, the ’emerging democratic subjectivities’ that Hardt and Negri detect in various uprisings would not be perceptible in these students’ behaviour if it is merely bent on destruction, and not on working for a better educational dispensation.

  5. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 10 March 2016

    Thanks for the interesting responses.
    Rory – if only governments the world over would learn from the Quakers! That would make them much more democratic.
    Richard, thank you for your interesting response, although I cannot agree with you, except insofar as we agree that the trend under neoliberalism is to value everything in terms of money. The difference between us is, I believe, that you seem to accept this as something irresistible, while I believe that there is every reason to resist it. Besides, there are many indications worldwide that there is a growing resistance against it – read my recent piece on changes taking place worldwide, where I talk about Castells’s research to this effect. Moreover, I don’t believe that you are right about capital not being the cause of nihilism – it IS, mainly because it reduces everything to one measure of value in quantitative terms; what about irreducible qualitative differences? Besides, Stiegler’s investigation into ‘uncontrollable societies of disaffected individuals’ as well as into ‘what makes life worth living’ – both of which I have written about recently – confirm this. But the days of neoliberalism are numbered; what Hardt and Negri call ‘multitude’ is growing, and it is intent on overthrowing “Empire” – not in a bloody revolution, but through the means that already exist, such as communicational networks, the internet, etc.

  6. michael michael 11 March 2016

    Time will give the answer in SA.

  7. Maria Maria 21 March 2016

    Re “The final test facing the protesting students is therefore […] their capacity for “logos”, […]. ”

    This is why the subject called inter alia Academic Writing, Academic Literacy or English for Academic Purposes is such an important/foundational subject. It is an opportunity
    – to make students aware of the power of logos/the word/the text/a plan (of action)
    – to SHOW them how a text/system WORKS
    – to arm them with a few classically useful rhetorical tricks
    – to give them an experience in the act and art of constructing an effective text
    – etc.

    That is why Derrida remains relevant – he gave us not only excellent examples of what happens in texts/systems but also provocative demonstrations of how to deal with this happening/event(uality)/what must come.

    An academic armed with insight into Derrida’s oeuvre is therefore in a very favorable position to introduce new students to the power they have at hand with their handling of logos/the word/reason/a plan.

    Saussure is also still very useful – the two actions of selecting and arranging he pointed out regarding constructing a text make the act of writing not only very simple, but it is also not too difficult to see the implications of these two very basic actions. Selecting implies the making of a certain apartheid, while the making of a good arrangement is clearly something of an art.

    That is then also why under-staffing of the compulsory academic writing module – in terms of both quantity and quality – is such a tragedy. (Where I tutor this module, students don’t get their essays back before exams.) This module is both nothing and everything, i.e. it is a module which requires one to have a taste for its secret.

    In a way one can understand why people revert to burning and breaking down things – they are frustrated with their inability to write persuasive texts.

    Perhaps we still lack respect and awe for what Derrida showed us time and again and now we have to pay the price. I feel very sorry for some of my students – they little time they usually have for mastering the basics of academic writing has been cut by about 30% I would say. Many will have to pay to do it again. I try to warn/scare them into action by saying: Universities are basically businesses these days, so study hard!

  8. ian shaw ian shaw 27 March 2016

    So exactly what will replace neoliberalism? Please professors, define it.t.

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