Taking a cue from the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks’ epigraph which reads: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” I want to look at this year, as an interregnum with morbid symptoms precisely because the old is dying and the new cannot be born. The quotation from Gramsci ascertains three basic facts: the impending death of the old, the inability of the new to be born, and the uncertainty of the future. As such, interregnums are dangerous — and doubly morbid if unaccompanied by a readiness to think anew about changed power structures. The world is once again living an interregnum. It is poised between the failed economic model of recovery from the crash of 2007-08 and the birth of a new model, one that would actually work for the majority. Morbid symptoms abound, including slow economic growth, persistent poverty, and obscene levels of inequality. Perhaps even more significant, especially at this point in the so-called recovery, when according to mainstream economists and policymakers full employment has not been achieved while workers’ wages are actually declining. In all likelihood, things will stay the same or get even worse for most workers in the next years.
In addition, the world is poised between inward-looking to old powers and reluctant emergent ones. The post-9/11 era is over; it has bequeathed an exhausted America. Trump’s rise is a consequence of the ongoing and deepening crisis of global capitalism and the resulting crises have made it difficult for the political and economic order to reproduce itself in a reliable way. For decades capitalists confronted this problem by cutting costs, especially the cost of labor power: slashing wages, benefits, health care, education, and housing. In the former Third World this entailed gutting the developmentalist regimes that took power after decolonization. In the capitalist core (like the U.S. and Europe) it required dismantling social democracy.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, capital sought to remove any roadblocks to profitability, starting with institutions such as unions and labor parties, and the rights won through a century of worker, civil rights, women, and queer struggles. The great concentrations of industry and proletarian power were broken apart through globalization. Labor parties and nationalist governments were incorporated into the management of capital, and made partners in exploitation.
The technocrats who came to power in the 1980s-90s had no answer to the crisis except redoubled austerity and expanded police powers. Set adrift, they have been threatened or swept aside in many core capitalist countries. Centrist parties have been displaced by new left wing coalitions. But even in power, they were helpless to address the structural malaise of capital. Unable to redistribute profits that are shrinking or nonexistent, yet equally unwilling to abolish the wage system, they have thus far failed to deliver.
Movements in the former Third World have similarly run aground in Latin America and by the uprisings in the Middle East dubbed the Arab spring. When existing elites are delegitimized and left movements reach their limits and dissolve, a vacuum appears. For Gramsci, this was an impasse in which “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” That vacuum can be filled by nationalist and far right movements and parties, of which Trump is the latest expression.
Nationalist and far right movements thrive by proposing their own solutions to the ongoing disintegration of the political and economic system. Often they seek to restore a “natural” order that they believe existed in the past, in which labor and capital shared in the national wealth. They blame traditional elites for undermining this order, along with stigmatized groups who they believe have gained privileges with the tacit support of the elite.
They seek out internal and external enemies to the nation, and appeal to violence as a way to regenerate the humiliated, victimized self. In the capitalist core, far right movements show their fallen status onto foreign countries, immigrants, women, etc.
Today capital faces serious blockages to accumulation, and the reproduction of the entire system is growing increasingly unstable. In the process, events that were unthinkable yesterday become today’s “new normal.” Social polarization creates the possibility for new kinds of politics that fundamentally question the status quo, some of them nightmarish and some visionary. Millions of people are waking up to this scary and hopeful reality.
By looking at Trump’s success in a bigger and more systematic way, we can understand his rise as part of a global right wing resurgence enabled by capitalist crisis and the limits of the social democratic left.
On the international scene, Morbid symptoms include a dysfunctional United Nations Security Council, a Syria that bleeds, an American economy squeezing its middle class and Europe and Africa that leave their youth jobless. But does anyone want the superpower’s mantle?
America withdrew from Iraq and pullback from Afghanistan, and had the last-minute retreat from military strikes against Syria, and the deal with Iran on its nuclear program. Never have the ambitions of the European Union been so circumscribed. Consumed with internal problems, particularly those of the euro and the Brexit, it has lost coherence. Europe, for the foreseeable future, will spend more time debating its internal architecture than defining its external objectives.
The French-German alliance, the motor of integration, is frayed to the point of near rupture. America’s inward turn finds Europe introverted, unable to take a leadership role on any crisis but its own. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, is a spoiling power above all. Its ambitions lie in turning back the clock while China, the heir apparent to nobody’s world, has scarcely a word to say on Syria, less still on Iran. Stability is its watchword, with an eye on full development by midcentury. Neither China nor India shows much interest for now in new organizing principles for the world. Perhaps, those principles are now defined by technology, social networks and individual empowerment, forces that lie outside conventional notions of geostrategic power. But this is just another way of saying that the world’s current interregnum is little understood.
Coming closer to home, Ayabonga Cawe, a South African development economist who writes on public policy, race, power, economics and history wrote an article titled; The ‘morbid symptoms’ of exile and incumbency reminding us of when in 1967 Chris Hani had written a memorandum decrying the luxurious lifestyle of the exiled leadership and their reluctance to prioritise the armed struggle. The situation may best be described as an “interregnum”.
Like in a theatre play, transition away from such an interregnum often needs the “exit stage left” by the “old” and “enter stage right” of the “new” so that the play can continue. This has happened before in the history of the ANC. Of interest here are the two stages, when the “old guard” and the “youth” were in conflict and what was at stake was control of the party machinery and the continued struggle for the total liberation of Africans in particular and blacks in general.
More importantly the appearance of “variety of morbid symptoms” leads us to believe that these are recurrent features of the history and present of any party. Also, the parallels are too obvious to ignore: the Hani memorandum led to the historic Morogoro Conference in 1969, and the #OccupyLuthuliHouse campaign has at its center the demand for a Special Consultative Conference.
The first part of this history relates to the ANC during the days of the Native Representative Councils (NRC) and other structures and their rejuvenation by the ANC Youth League in 1944. Furthermore to this, there was the critique that ANC leaders had “grown remote and aloof from the African community and were trapped between apprehensions over losing the few privileges (by virtue of their involvement in the NRCs) they received from the government and their qualms over mass African protest bringing down the wrath of the government”. Both in the 1940s and two decades later in the 1960s there was this strong perception of “distance”, “corruption”, “reluctance to intervene in the social crises faced by the African people” and the “reluctance to cede elite privileges in pursuit of justice”.
In addition to these “morbid symptoms” was the growing sense of securitised responses to internal dissent, and the common perception that leaders protect individual interests above those of the organization. The Hani memorandum is telling in this regard: “There are certain symptoms which are very disturbing and dispiriting to genuine revolutionaries……. for instance, in Lusaka a furniture industry is being run by the ANC. In Livingstone a bone factory whose original purpose was to provide cover for underground work in Botswana is now being used as a purely commercial undertaking…… And some of the people in charge of these enterprises are dubious characters with shady political backgrounds”
Couple these “symptoms” with the difficulty of navigating a deep socio-economic and political crisis not only in South Africa, but the world over. This is the difficult space the ANC is in. Despite its often “progressive” policy postures, the ANC is been accused of having a “vision of integration into a society dominated by white monopoly capital”. Webb argues that one outcome of these “morbid symptoms” has been that the ANC has been able to articulate a pro-poor posture through social policy whilst at the same time promoting the neoliberal logic of accumulation and class formation.
Thus, the “morbid symptoms” we are seeing this year here in Namibia are nothing new despite what Tjiurimo Hengari want us to believe that you can teach an old dog new tricks. They are a repetition of an old song. They include among others, the land conference and the upcoming SWAPO Party Congress and what Prof. Diescho aptly described as signs of a nose dive such as ‘ self-triumphalism, scape-goating, name-calling, intolerance and grandstanding’ coupled with financial headwinds and the many scandals such as the fishy SME saga. We would therefore do well to be interested not only in what the contending forces are resisting, but also what they propose.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper but solely reflect my personal views as a citizen.