On false certainties, nihilism and downward spirals — American and (South) African

tornado_with_lightningWe urgently need a discourse that embraces greater inclusion, greater fairness AND continuing co-operation. The gains from co-operation indeed are unfairly distributed, as we have become increasingly aware in this era of rising inequality (and of rising awareness of our unequal realities).  But the risks are high that movements that arise in response to this unfairness result, not in a zero-sum redistribution in the direction of greater equality, but in a downward spiral in which everyone loses. This is underscored by some brilliant recent writing which I highlight below.

False, quasi-religious certainties, unmoored from reality, drive downward spirals. As per Albert Hirschman’s 1991 book on ‘the rhetoric of intransigence’, false certainty  can come from the populist right or the populist left. In both cases, as Hirschman suggests, the psychological drivers and dangerous political consequences are similar.

Donald Trump (on whom only mercifully few words, but  just in case you want to read more take a look at this  October 17, 2016 analysis from the Washington Post, which finally is willing to call a spade a spade….) shows all-too-vividly how this can work from the populist right. South Africa’s increasingly nihilistic so-called ‘fees must fall’ movement offers a potentially nightmarish example from the populist left. The  African political philosopher, Achille Mbembe, currently at South Africa’s Wits University,  and the rising scholar of the politics of bureaucracy, Ivor Chipkin, have written brilliantly and bravely about the hazards of the current upsurge of left populism on South Africa’s campuses and beyond.

As Mbembe underscores in his recent article, ‘university shutdown… is the last thing Africa needs’ (you can access the full article by clicking on the link) the ‘fees-must-fall’ militancy risks destroying South Africa’s universities. Mbembe describes how the process played out in some other African countries:

“In those countries which adopted the politics of closing down universities, the police or the military would usually be unleashed upon students on behalf of undemocratic governments. At other times, unemployed youth from the townships and shantytowns would be brought to campuses to foment mayhem, destroying infrastructure….. At times, years would pass without any degrees being awarded.”

“The long-term consequences of such organised chaos were devastating. Those (faculty, staff and students) who could leave the country promptly left. Those who could not leave were trapped in the fields of ruin their universities had suddenly become. By the late 1990s, the ‘welfare model’ of the university that had become dominant in the aftermath of decolonisation (no tuition, bursaries for almost all, free transport, free accommodation) was clinically dead. Private providers soon moved in……”

“If the experience up North has anything to teach us, it is the following: Whenever public institutions are destroyed, crippled or rendered dysfunctional, the first loser is not necessarily the government. Nor is it the rich private citizen. The first loser is usually the poor. Why? Simply because their exit options are drastically limited.”

“Another lesson from up North is the following: it is pretty easy to destroy institutions. But there is no guarantee that once the destruction is over and violence recedes, those institutions will be easily rebuilt. It is never easy to rebuild what has been willfully erased…. There was a time in the rest of the continent when universities were considered pivotal tools in the building of the nation. They were seen as a public good……. Public universities should be the last thing we try to shut down…..”

Ivor Chipkin, in his article ‘separating Treasury’s truth from ultra-left fiction’, explores how the the fees-must-fall has been fueled by a false narrative of  ‘neo-liberal austerity’ in the evolution of a fiscal policy in South Africa. Viewed through the comparative lens of middle-income countries, South Africa has had a remarkably pro-poor set of social policies. Chipkin provides  details:

  • Since 2000 government non-interest spending has risen year on year, peaking in 2010 at more than 27% of GDP.
  • Spending on ‘social protection’ per capita,, more than doubled between 2000 and 2013, well above inflation, made possible by the impressive growth of government revenue – the dividend less of economic growth than of an effective tax authority.
  • In 2014/2015 R76.3-billion, 2% of GDP, was spent by government on post-school education. The universities received the lion’s share of moneys at R52.9-billion.
  • Between 2000 and 2013 government grants to universities dropped substantially, from 50% of their income at the turn of the millennium to only 40% now. But during the same period government support for student fees increased dramatically, from 2% to 11% in 2013. NSFAS loans now account for about 40% of student fees. Taken together, government support to the sector actually rose modestly from 49% to 51% of overall revenue.
  • Between 2010 and 2013 technical and vocational colleges increased their intake from 360,000 to 640,000 students, a 70% increase. The growth in university enrollments was no less dramatic. Between 2000 and 2013 student numbers rose 80% from 560,000 to 980,000.

The false claims of ‘neoliberal austerity’ says Chipkin: “provide an ideological fig leaf to an anti-democratic assault on the state. Patrick Bond complains, for example, about the ‘ferocious liberal attacks on Zuma and his Gupta patronage allies’, suggesting that a more neoliberal, anti-poor agenda would result if Zuma was removed. In this Manichean world of opposites, the removal of Gordhan and the weakening of the National Treasury is cast as ‘progressive’. It is not.”

From any fact-based perspective – indeed, from any perspective which takes as its point of departure the realities of what it takes to achieve collective, public gains in the face of the messy realities of political contestation and human self-interestedness and shortsightedness – the positions of the ultra-left and populist right  not only are profoundly unserious, they are profoundly destructive. Their roots are quasi-religious. They reflect, in their less-obviously- malignant variants a desire for certainty in an uncertain world (as manifested by Donald Trump in his childlike neediness to always be a ‘winner’). In their more malignant variants, they are movements that glory in apocalypse.

In a second extraordinary contribution from  2006, ‘South Africa’s second coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome’  (which he reposted on Facebook a few days ago), Achille Mbembe explores parallels between  contemporary South African politics and the Xhosa cattle-killing episode of 1856-7. (I’ll leave it to others to excavate some illustrations of the evangelical, far-right, American versions of apocalyptic thinking.)

“By 1856, as a result of the deliberate destruction of their means of livelihood, confiscation of their cattle and the implementation of a scorched-earth policy by British colonialists, the Xhosa had lost a huge portion of their territory and hundreds of thousands of their people had been displaced…..Then, a 16-year-old girl, Nongqawuse, had a vision on the banks of the Gxarha River. She saw the departed ancestors who told her that if people would but kill all their cattle, the dead would arise from the ashes and all the whites would be swept into the sea….Although deeply divided over what to do, the Xhosa began killing their cattle in February 1856. They destroyed all their food and did not sow crops for the future. Stored grain was thrown away. No further work was to be done….. By May 1857, 400,000 cattle had been slaughtered and 40,000 Xhosa had died of starvation. At least another 40,000 had left their homes in search of food…..As the whole land was surrounded by the smell of death, Xhosa independence and self-rule had effectively ended.”

“The Nongqawuse syndrome – the name for the kind of political disorder and cultural dislocation South Africa seems to be experiencing – is once again engulfing the country. The Nongqawuse syndrome is a populist rhetoric and a millenarian form of politics which advocates, uses and legitimises self-destruction, or national suicide, as a means of salvation…..It is a syndrome many other post-colonial African countries (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Sudan) have experienced with tragic effects over the last fifty years.”

Just three generations back, some of my relatives were part of the six million (or, depending how and who one counts, the eleven million….) that were slaughtered in an eruption of false-certainty, blame and apocalyptic thinking that engulfed Europe. Does humanity really have to repeat historical disasters again and again? Can we not learn from history? Can we not learn to look more dispassionately into the mirror of our own insecurity and (even legitimate) grievance – and act from a place other than grandiosity and rage?


8 responses

  1. Brian, firstly thank you very much for the thought provoking piece. Secondly, I most certainly agree with your sentiment that South Africa is at point of crisis – a point of inflection – where, in my view, change is upon us, but without certainty of what this change might be/look like. Hence, I wonder whether this state of crisis is synonymous with ‘destruction’ as has been implied in our local media. I think that such point of inflection can act as a quick pause to re-imagine what societies we aim to create moving forward. I think starting, rather than acting from a place of “grandiosity and rage” can be somewhat sobering, forcing creative processes to take place.
    Lastly (and perhaps on a slight tangent) having read this and the articles prescribed, I am leaning towards agreeing with Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the book, Between the World and Me, that indeed the arc of the moral universe (history) bends towards chaos (naturally). I suppose there is a case to be made about how to bend the arc towards justice and equality, but one needs to hear beyond the noise.

    • Hi Jabulile,
      Thanks for this thoughtful comment. A ‘quick’, ‘sobering’ pause is indeed a good thing. Ta Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, is a very powerful, clear statement of how unconscious ‘white privilege’manifests, and is experienced by those who do not define themselves as ‘white’. I certainly agree that there are many South African, Capetonian, and UCT ‘whites’ for whom the sobering shock of what is transpiring at UCT and elsewhere is a powerful wake-up call. I worry, though, that the risks of a downward spiral may be great — and could be (at least for UCT) quite imminent. So if a basis for re-opening UCT (and other campuses) can be reached soon, and can be credibly sustainable, then perhaps one could look back on the events of the past month as a powerful (and, in retrospect, positive) point of inflection in building an inclusive, transformed South African society. But time, it seems to me, may be running out for this to be the outcome…..

  2. Good morning Brian. This piece gives so much insight into the current narrative. Indeed we need a dialogue of the sober collective who will look at the losses and gains that normally results from the chaos of the proportion we are faced with.
    I shudder to imagine the society that will be alive 20 years from today if the current situation is not arrested.
    A good piece indeed.

  3. Dear Brian, a thought provoking article indeed. Great pity indeed that a legitimate cause by students seems to have degenerated into a self defeating chaos that we see. The destruction that we see at universities is akin to what we saw in some communities like Vuwani and Kuruman where communities destroyed schools while fighting for the right to have a municipality of their choice on the one hand and preventing children from attending school in order to get a proper road to be erected. Certainly in my view there’s lack of astute leadership within the Fallist movement itself which has provided an opportunity for a radical lunatic fringe to assume centre stage. The situation is not helped much by the factional battles within the ANC which make it difficult for a coherent and decisive response to be advanced to avert this crisis.

  4. Hi Brian. I read this piece on October 17 and I was deeply troubled. I forwarded the article to my colleague with the following comments:
    “It has some very deep recollections of history, to show how we are repeating history…and therefore can foretell, with some certainty, the consequences.
    It invokes some deep worry about the current state of affairs…almost like seeing home in flames. Yet hope remains, only if we all fight to be one, like Mandela taught us”
    To be honest, I was completely depressed and afraid. But in the same week, I need to meet a Japanese delegation to give an insightful presentation on the state of the investment climate in South Africa, including predictions about the upcoming credit rating, etc. I was challenged to give an honest account (which is currently bleak), but also prepare for the question: “why should we, as international investors, invest in South Africa, given the current state of affairs?” That was a great responsibility to me to make a case for our country. This forced me to think past my emotions. I thought about what you taught us in Growth and Governance. I reflected on our current institutions, the threats upon them, but also the good that punctuates all what is happening. We have mounting evidence of state capture – but then again media is upon this, exposing the rot, and that is good. There’s a way to do things, and Fees must fall is clearly not on that way. But, there’s likely enough interest on this matter to save us from a point of no return. The consequences will be felt, mostly by students, and that is good – we need consequences. What is happening in the ANC is both bad and good in some other respects, as we saw from the elections.
    It is a very hard job to be a prophet of good things to come. And you taught us to be the prophets of good news. You said of your class “this is a good news class”. It’s easier to be a prophet of doom. You just sit back and wait to be proved right. And when doom happens, you glory in being seen as insightful, a “thought leader” (a term that’s becoming quite common in South Africa). That’s partly what I took away from your class and from Working with the grain”.

    • Dear Musa,
      Thank you for this thoughtful comment — and for the timely reminder of a theme that I try to sustain as central in my teaching. As you put it:
      “It is a very hard job to be a prophet of good things to come. And you taught us to be the prophets of good news. You said of your class “this is a good news class”. It’s easier to be a prophet of doom. You just sit back and wait to be proved right. And when doom happens, you glory in being seen as insightful, a “thought leader” (a term that’s becoming quite common in South Africa). That’s partly what I took away from your class and from Working with the grain”.
      As I see it, the most optimistic (but real) framing I can come up with is that SA currently is in a place of “dynamic tension” — with risks of a broader downward spiral (not only vis-à-vis universities), but with a variety of checks and balances institutions having demonstrated their resilience, and ability to push back against predatory interests. However, this cannot continue indefinitely. At some point, positive energy will need also to emerge from political leadership……… Take a look at a blog post I wrote about 18 months ago on “puzzling over anti-corruption”, which points to a ‘tipping point’ moment when it becomes necessary to give attention not only to positive possibilities, but to risks as well…..

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