Sunday, 02 November 2008

Damning the Flood

Mute Magazine, October 2008

By supporting NGOs instead of popular movements, is the left suppressing a radical politics in Haiti and elsewhere? And is it possible to defend a popular movement without deifying its leader? Richard Pithouse reviews Peter Hallward's new book on the containment of popular politics in Haiti.

The inequality of class, first universalised into a global Manicheanism in The Communist Manifesto, is not just complicated by gender, race and sexuality. There is also the fact that the globalisation of capital has always been accompanied by the violent division of the world into different kinds of spaces meant to be inhabited by different kinds of people. The unequal allocation of rights and resources across these spaces has always been held to match unequal capacities for thought, speech and action. Attempts at building solidarity across these divisions have often been insufficiently attentive to their objective material differences or too willing to treat claims about subjective difference as objective.

In the contemporary world the failure to attend to the objective difference of particular situations often results in the assumption that all struggles should aspire to the form that the anti-globalization movement has taken in the metropole. Amongst other problems this immediately renders the (usually) white Northern activist an automatic and universal expert on what a popular radicalism should really look like. A failure to attend to the subjective choices with which people confront particular situations often results in a reifying culturalism that sees struggle as a natural expression of cultural difference. It is inevitably complicit with some form of racism and often risks an inability to discern domination within a nation or movement.

Peter Hallward is a philosopher who has thought about the question of solidarity across the divisions that structure domination with a rare combination of subtlety and militancy. The themes that link his work on contemporary post-colonial theory, French philosophy and Haitian politics include a consistent stress on the fact that every one thinks and that thought is the subjective confrontation with specific objective situations. Hallward affirms the specificity of particular situations and affirms the subjectivity with which they are confronted and thereby “maintains the relation between subjective and objective (and between subjects) as a relation in the strict sense”.

He is committed to a prescriptive politics. He argues that genuinely political actions must elaborate universal principles (principles that hold for everyone), that for these principles to be meaningful they must be adhered to directly and immediately, that adhering to them is necessarily divisive and requires collective unity and a willingness to confront domination. In other words he proposes a politics of popular self-emancipation organised around popular intellectual work and consensual disciplined commitment. From the beginning his work has taken the view that, following Paulo Freire, “true generosity consists in fighting to destroy the causes which lead to false charity.”

Damming the Flood is a richly detailed account of the popular Haitian movement Lavalas (‘the flood’) in and out of power. There is a focus on how the movement was vilified and its president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, removed from office by the American military with considerable support from global civil society.

Hallward’s basic argument is that as Lavalas developed into a formidable force in the late 1980s it began to constitute a serious threat to the US-backed Haitian elite. They responded to the election of Aristide to the Presidency in December 1990 with an attempted coup in January 1991 and then a successful military coup in September 1991. It left 5 000 dead. Aristide returned to office in November 2000 with 92% of the vote and disbanded the army at which point the Haitian elite, with strong support from elites in Canada, the US and France, began to wage an elaborate propaganda and destabilisation campaign against the Lavalas government. This was supported by many NGOs, including those on the left, and was followed by a military attack after which Aristide was removed from the country by the US military in February 2004. Lavalas supporters were then subject to sustained repression by occupying United Nations forces at a cost of several thousand more lives. Nevertheless resistance has continued.

Hallward takes the view that the objective constraints imposed on Aristide’s administrations by imperial power were severe and that there was no prospect for fundamental transformation. Nevertheless there were important innovations by way of a higher minimum wage, a literacy programme, a school building project, health care and so on. Even IMF statistics confirm clear progress in these areas. But Hallward’s analysis breaks with the economism of much leftism and he also takes symbolic and political movement as significant. For instance he takes seriously the political ramifications of Aristide’s choice to open up the swimming pool in the presidential palace to children from poor families. But the primary thrust of his assessment stresses that popular support for Aristide was never passive and was rooted in a network of grassroots organisations through which people could work for their own empowerment. It is also noticeable that the practical action taken by Aristide’s governments in support of the poor often found ways to combine material support with support for popular democratisation. For instance housing was not reduced to the provision of houses but included the development of town squares in shack settlements.

Hallward deals frankly with the problem of opportunism, a problem that every movement has to confront when it reaches the point of winning some access to or control over state resources. He also deals directly with the reality that any movement operating in a repressive environment in which its membership is generally criminalised is going to have to take on some of the judicial and security functions usually reserved for states with inevitable risks and inevitable condemnation. Nevertheless he concludes that “Over the last twenty years, Lavalas has developed as an experiment at the outer limits of contemporary political possibility. Its history sheds light on some of the ways that political mobilisation can proceed under the pressure of exceptional powerful constraints.”

Hallward’s claims about a campaign of demonization against Lavalals are persuasive. It is instructive to set aside Hallward’s arguments about this and apply Chomsky’s propaganda model to the recent history of Haiti by excluding highly disputed events and examining only those on which there is some agreement as to the basic facts, and comparing only those that can be as closely matched with others as is possible. It quickly becomes evident that, for instance, violence attributed to Lavalas has been systematically treated in a very different way in the elite media and civil society to that of other actors such as the Duvalier’s paramilitaries, the Haitian Military, the US Military, the anti-Aristide paramilitary groups, the United Nations and so on.

The fetishisation of leaders of popular movements has a sorry history and it is worrying that some of the solidarity work with Haiti seems to be more interested in deifying Aristide rather than supporting ongoing popular struggles in Haiti. Hallward describes his book “as an exercise in anti-demonization, not deification.” This seems fair – especially given that he is clear that Lavalas emerged from discussions amongst ordinary people in the shack settlements of Port-au-Prince and that its continued strength after Aristide’s kidnapping is rooted in the ongoing practice of similar discussions and the modes of grassroots militancy that they have engendered.

Aristide is an interesting theorist in his own right and his own thought provides as good a measure as any for measuring the value of moblisation. His political thought is rooted in liberation theology. For Aristide, who says that when we say God “We mean the source of love; we mean the source of justice”, liberation theology is “the Christian impulse that does not separate belief from action, that exasperates conservatives, and annoys so many people on the left who dream of realizing the happiness of others...without the others.” He is clear that the political movement that twice bought him to power begins from and is sustained in the ‘little church’, or what liberation theology in Latin America calls ‘base communities’. They are small groups that meet in their own neighbourhoods to discuss, on their own time and in their own language, their ideas about politics and society. The fundamental principle in the little church is that “All persons are human beings, and to be cherished.” The fundamental political task is to “fan the fire of hope and to turn it into a tool for the people.” This theological politics is not unwilling to take a side. Aristide has long been clear that the preferential option for the poor should be “total, unrepentant, intransigent” and that “If they [elites] do not wish to share fraternally...They must accept that it is they, not I and my colleagues, who are advocating war.” He’s also made it very clear that as people assume political agency “Liberation theology then gives way to a liberation of theology, which can also include a liberation from theology.” This is a politics of popular self-emancipation. It recommends, as Lavalas seems to have achieved, a form of organisation closer to that of a series of linked congregations rather than a party and rooted in the self-organisation of the poor.

Hallward argues that although “NGO administrators and left-leaning academics are often uneasy with what they see as a merely populist deviation” this popular power is necessary for any kind of meaningful challenge to domination. He has a point. As C.L.R. James noted in his history of the Haitian Revolution “It is force that counts, and chiefly the organised force of the masses…It is what they think that matters”.

Lavalas took state power under extremely hostile circumstances and sought to subordinate the state to society by demobilising the military while continuing to mobilise society. When Aristide was first elected President in 1990 he declared that “I will not be president of the government, I am going to be president of the opposition, of the people, even if this means confronting the very government I am creating.” He held to this position and ten years later wrote that people should “not confuse democracy with the holding of elections.”

The often hysterical demonization of Lavalas can easily be understood and slotted into a familiar pattern of imperial attempts to contain oppositional movement that includes the fate of Lumumba and Allende, the war against the Sandinistas and the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002. William Robinson provides a useful lens for this kind of analysis in the years after the Cold War. He argues that the US and its allies moved away from supporting dictators and that this shift was rooted in a recognition that support for dictators like Botha in South Africa, Marcos in the Philippines and the Duvaliers in Haiti had produced oppositional movements that were not only demanding the removal of dictators but also the popular democratisation of society. This recognition led to a shift in policy that saw the creation of liberal democracies as a more effective way of containing popular aspirations. There had been, Robinson argued, “a reconceptualization of the principal target in intervened countries, from political to civil society, as the site of social control.” Robinson quoted Bill Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot as observing that “Even after our [military] exit [from Haiti] in February 1996 we will remain in charge by means of USAID and the private sector.” In South Africa and the Philippines this worked well enough as the new regimes were enthusiastic about demobilizing the movements that had brought them to power. But in Haiti the Lavalas project was to subordinate the state to society via ongoing popular democratisation. This was unacceptable. The result was a return to political society as a key target of political control – a return to regime change.

But there is another aspect to the demonization of Lavalas which may be more discomforting for some on the left. Hallward elaborates a consistent critique of NGOs. His criticism of racist ideas about enlightened white charity, the role of NGOs in promoting the agendas of foreign governments and his critique of the limits of the human rights project all cover familiar ground. But his criticism extends to the explicitly anti-neoliberal NGOs that position themselves on the left. He is completely sceptical of their political effectiveness in opposing domination arguing that:

"Rather than organize with and among the people, rather than work in the places and on the terms where the people themselves are strong...[they]... organize trivial made-for-media demonstrations against things like the uncontroversial evils of neo-liberalism or the high cost of living. Such protests are usually attended by tiny groups of 30 or 40 people – which is to say, by nobody outside the organizers’ tiny circles."

However Hallward sees their support for regime change as a very significant in offering an appearance of some kind of legitimacy for the coup. His explanation of why the left NGOs would oppose a movement with tremendous popular support centres around an interview with a women’s rights activist who explains the NGO hostility to Lavalas in terms of class rivalry. “Foreign observers underestimate, she explains, the massive gap between elite (wealthy, French-speaking, internationally orientated) NGO professionals and grassroots (poor, Kreyol-speaking, neighbourhood-orientated activists. Aristide makes a similar point arguing that:

"Everything comes back, in the end, to the simple principle that tout moun se moun – every person is indeed a person, every person is capable of thinking things through for themselves. Those who don’t accept this, when they look at the nègres of Haiti – and consciously or unconsciously, that’s what they see – they see people who are too poor, too crude, too uneducated, to think for themselves. They see people who need others to make their decisions for them. It’s a colonial mentality, in fact, and still very widespread among our political class. It’s also a projection: they project onto the people a sense of their own inadequacy, their own inequality in the eyes of the master."

There is a fundamental difference between forms of left politics that propose alternative policy arrangements or ways of being without developing any capacity to force the realisation of their goals and those that actively develop popular power and alternative modes of community and are willing and able to confront domination collectively and directly. The former can be called the expert left and the latter can be called the popular left. The expert left tends to operate in the languages of imperial power, to be dependent on state or donor funding, to require certification from bourgeois institutions as a condition of entry, to be located on the side of the razor wire where the police offer protection and to organise via international travel and the internet.

It is not unusual for the expert left to be entirely unaware of the existence of a popular left even when it is a literal stone’s throw away. Discourse in the wrong language, in the wrong place, in the wrong philosophical matrix and, most of all, in the mouths of the wrong people is often just invisible to the expert left. This lamentable fact is never innocent of class and can be deeply racialised.

If the popular left reaches the point of being able to stage some sort of major interruption into bourgeois space it is not unusual for the elite left to be entirely unable to comprehend the rationality of that revolt. This is often predicated on an inability to comprehend the existence of grassroots intellectuals or grassroots political militants.

When the expert left is confronted with the concrete reality of the popular left via a direct demand for recognition and respect it is not unusual for the response to take the form of denial, paranoia, criminalisation and recourse to conspiracy theory in which the speech of grassroots militants can only be understood as manipulation by a rival elite.

In his essay on the Paris Commune Alain Badiou defines the left as “the set of parliamentary political personnel that proclaim that they are the only ones equipped to bear the general consequences of a singular political movement. Or, in more contemporary terms, that they are the only ones able to provide 'social movements' with a 'political perspective'.” He concludes that the decision of the communards to take public affairs into their own hands was a decision to break with the left and that a political rupture, a rupture with the logic of representation, “is always a rupture with the left.”

Badiou also agues that after Lenin concluded that the slaughter of the communards necessitated the development of a centralised, disciplined project aimed at seizing state power the party has been the mode by which the left has sought to organise popular politics. But Badiou does not address the new form that the official left has taken in most of the world – the NGO. The party is not dead. On the contrary it retains considerable power in places like India and in South Africa. And there are countries, such as Haiti or Brazil, where the church is also a contender for influence over popular struggles. But while there is a large critical literature on vanguardism and clericalism the critical literature on NGOs generally criticises NGOs that work for directly imperial agendas - such as the NGOs that work with the World Bank, USAID and so on - while valorising the left NGOs that operate in spaces like the World Social Forum. But in most of the world it is precisely the left NGOs that assume the right to give direction to social movements and to monopolise the resources that can mediate the development of international solidarity. Most of the left texts that seek to offer a global picture of the contemporary moment are based on the experience and thinking of these NGOs rather than the experience and thinking of popular movements. Most attempts at international solidarity are organised through these NGOs. Hallward’s book breaks decisively with this consensus and seeks direct engagement with popular politics.

Damming the Flood is rich with empirical detail and nuanced insight. Its author has paid close attention to the realities of the situation confronted by grassroots militancy in Haiti as well as to the key choices made within that militancy. One of the clearest contributions of the book is the concrete development of Hallward’s early theoretical work on the question of solidarity. An aspect of this that is developed with particular force can be formulated in terms of a choice confronting anyone wanting to develop solidarity across the brutal divisions of human existence: will that solidarity be with the expert left or the popular left?


i Peter Hallward Absolutely Post-Colonial: Writing Between the Singular and the Specific, Manchester: Manchester University Press,, 2001, p. 330.

ii Hallward Absolutely Post-Colonial, p. 335.

iii Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment London: Verso, 2007, Damming the Flood, p.314.

iv Hallward, Damming the Flood, p.Xxxv.

v Jean-Bertrand Aristide Eyes of the Heart Monroe: Common Courage Press, 2000, p.63.

vi Jean Bertrand Aristide Dignity, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996, p. 103.

vii Jean-Bertrand Aristide, In the Parish of the Poor: Writings from Haiti, New York: Orbis, 1990, p. 57.

viii Aristide, Dignity, p.49.

ix Aristide, In the Parish of the Poor, p.18.

x Aristide In the Parish of the Poor: Writings from Haiti, p.17.

xi Hallward Damming the Flood Haiti, p.318.

xii Hallward, Damming the Flood, p.137.

xiii C.L.R. James The Black Jacobins, New York: Vintage, 1989, p. 286.

xiv William Robinson Polyarchy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 291

xv Aristide, Eyes of the Heart, p.36.

xvi Robinson, Polyarchy, p. 68.

xvii Robinson, Polyarchy, p. 311.

xviii Hallward, Damming the Flood, p. 181-182.

xix Hallward, Damming the Flood, p.184

xx Cited in Hallward, Damming the Flood, p.342. This kind of situation is not at all unique to Haiti. See, for instance, the comments on NGOs from The National Convention Against Displacement & SEZs held at Bhubaneswa in India in 2007 at In South Africa there has been an extraordinarily hysterical, vicious and entirely dishonest set of responses from within the NGO left to the polite rejection of their authority by the popular left. The paranoia and ruthlessness of the NGO left in the face of autonomous popular mobilisation has rivalled that of the state. For an early comment on this see the statement by the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign at

xxi Consider, for example, the inability of the letter campaigns in support of Amina Lawal in 2003 to comprehend that there was a project to defend Lawal within Nigeria and within Islam. See the statement against the letter campaigns at[157]=x-157-18546

xxii Emilio Quadrelli developed an excellent analysis of this in an essay on the 2005 revolt in the Paris banlieaus. Quadrelli’s intervention simply contrasted interviews with grassroots militants with the pronouncements of the elite left who could see nothing but an inarticulate cry for help by the ‘socially excluded’. See ‘Grassroots Political Militants: Banlieusards and Politics’ Mute, 30 May 2007

xxiii This is typical of all of the various forms of discourse by which a faction of the academic and NGO left in South Africa have tried to render explicit and constant rejection of their authority from popular movements as speech that does not count.

xxiv Alain Badiou ‘The Paris Commune: A political declaration on politics’ in Polemics, London: Verso, 2006, p. 272.

xxv Badiou, The Paris Commune, p. 289.

xxvi This is not to suggest that NGOs and academics are necessarily separate from and opposed to popular mobilisation. On the contrary these relations are a matter of choice and it is in principle perfectly possible for the NGO and the academic to work to support the popular left from within its practices, spaces, languages and structures. But when this is achieved the resulting project remains an instance of the popular rather than the expert left. Similarly an NGO that secures a constituency (or the appearance thereof) for its projects via some form of patronage and clientalism remains an instance of the expert left.
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Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Land & Housing

Text of a speech by S'bu Zikode at the Diakonia Council of Churches Economic Justice Forum - an audio recording of the speech, including the discussion afterwards, is available from Diakonia. Click here to read the report on the speech in the Sowetan.

Land and Housing

Thursday 28 August, 2008

I have been asked to speak on the burning issues of land and housing. I only get these invitations because of the strength of the movement of which I am part and so, on behalf of Abahlali baseMjondolo, I thank Diakonia for this platform.

The churches have rallied to our struggle in difficult times – after fires, after arrests, after beatings. We know about the role that the churches have played in Brazil and in Haiti and we believe that the churches can play the same role here if they take a clear decision, as some church leaders bravely have already, to be with the people, to clearly take the side of the people instead of being just another 'stakeholder'. Bishop Rubin Philip has stood strong in the politics of the poor and tonight I want to say that we wish him a quick and full recovery from his illness.

The right to land and the right to housing remain huge problems in South Africa. These problems are not technical, they are political. These problems will not be solved by consultants' reports, academic conferences at the ICC and meetings with the MEC at Suncoast. These problems will be solved when the people who do not count in this system, the people that have no proper place are able to stand up and to take their place and to be counted as citizens of this country.

Our politics starts by recognizing the humanity of every human being. We decided that we will no longer be good boys and girls that quietly wait for our humanity to be finally recognized one day. Voting has not worked for us. We have already taken our place on the land in the cities and we have held that ground. We have also decided to take our place in all the discussions and to take it right now. We take our place humbly because we know that we don't have all the answers, that no one has all the answers. Our politics is about carefully working things out together, moving forward together. But although we take our place humbly we take it firmly. We do not allow the state to keep us quiet in the name of a future revolution that does not come. We do not allow the NGOs to keep us quiet in the name of a future socialism that they can't build. We take our place as people who count the same as everyone else. Sometimes we take that place in the streets with teargas and the rubber bullets. Sometimes we take that place in the courts. Sometimes we take it on the radio. Tonight we take it here. Our politics starts from the places we have taken. We call it a living politics because it comes from the people and stays with the people. It is ours and it is part of our lives. We organize it in our own languages and in our own communities. It is the politics of our lives. It is made at home with what we have and it is made for us and by us. We are finished with being ladders for politicians to climb up over the people.

Sometimes it gets hard but we keep going forward together. Sometimes we don't know what to do any more but we keep thinking together. Sometimes a settlement stays strong. Sometimes a settlement fails to stay strong. But we keep going forward together.

Tonight we need to talk about the politics of land. We need to talk about the politics of housing.

We need to talk about the politics of fire. We need to talk about the politics of toilets. We need to talk about the politics of xenophobia and the politics of rape.

To think about all this we must start with where we come from.

It has become clear to us that when ever we talk about history we are seen to be launching an offensive. It has become clear to us that this is because the rich want to believe that we are poor because we are less than them – less intelligent, less responsible, less clean, less honest. If we are poor because we are just less than the rich then we must be happy for every little thing that we are given, we must be happy with a hamper or some old clothes when our children are dying in the rats and the fire and the mud.

But we are not poor because we are less than the rich. We are poor because we were made poor. The rich are rich because they were made rich. If your ancestors had the land you will go to university and get a nice job and look after your family well. If your ancestors lost the land you will be lucky to find a dangerous job that you hate so that your family can just survive.

The growing poverty in rural communities encourages mostly young people to migrate to the cities. Therefore as long as the cities grow in the same way as poverty, urbanization is not an exception. People will have to keep moving to the cities in search of hope. This reality calls upon all city authorities to learn to share the cities and to accept this growth. It is the same poor people that build cities and then get kicked out to rot in places like Parkgate once they are finished building for the attraction of foreign investment. It is the same poor people that wash and iron for the rich who have live in shacks where it is very difficult to wash and iron their clothes. It is the same poor people that bravely guard the homes and business of the rich who come home to find their homes illegally destroyed by the criminals that are called the Land Invasions Unit.

This is wrong. We need democratic cities. We need fair cities. We need welcoming cities. We need cities for all.

We need to think about how we can create a new kind of communism, a new kind of togetherness. A living communism that recognizes the equal humanity of every person wherever they were born, wherever their ancestors came from, whether they are poor or rich, women or men. This new togetherness must also understand that the world, what God has given to us all, must be shared by us all.

The system we suffer under now keeps the land in the hands of the descendents of those who had stolen it through the barrel of colonial guns. The system turns the once most trusted leaders in our cities into enemies. The enemies that do not only hate and neglect the poor but the enemies that send police to beat the poor, arrest and shoot them when ever we voice out our concerns. Tonight we remember Mthokozisi Nkwanyana, a student and a shack dweller, who was killed by the police in a student protest on Thursday last week. The system talks a lot about democracy, but does not practice democracy. The system talks more about all the rights, gender equality and justice but does not make any of this real. This is a system where almost everything is done in the name of the poor but only for the poor to be betrayed and undermined again and again. This is a system that allows formations of many institutions such as NGOs, NPOs, businesses and states to violate the human rights of the poor and the marginalized in our society.

We need to ask ourselves what is this system?

This system is a system where the people are separated into two – those that count and those that do not count. Those that count are those with money. Those that do not count are those without money. This system values business profit before humane value. This system turns democracy into a way to become rich. Money is made to dominate human thinking. Therefore we have to turn it upside down and put the human being first. Always we must start with the worst off.

What went very wrong in our society is when business profit is put ahead of human value. What went very wrong in our society is the thinking that sees development as being only the job of the few clever technical people, who are meant to think about development for the majority. Grass root organizations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo are strongly opposed to this top-down approach to development that sees people as nothing else than the helpless individuals who can not think for themselves. In this view the work of the poor is to vote when we are told and to be passive receivers of services. This is why the so called experts on the poor and our struggles always want to call our protests as 'service delivery protests' even when we clearly state what we are struggling for.

We are the people that are not meant to think. We are the people that are not meant to participate in planning and to debate on issues that affect us. We are the people that should be happy to live on hampers. The poor are strongly opposed to these dehumanizing human characteristics of the top down system that has terrorized our communities and our lives.

Abahlali have said over and over that the majority of our people believe in a true democracy, a democracy that caters for every gogo and mkhulu's at home, a democracy that does not see people differently, a democracy that does not make few people better than the majority, a democracy that is not driven by the wealth that has torn our society apart. We believe in a participatory development of the people, for the people and by the people themselves. We are concerned that at least most of the houses that are being built, they are built for the people, without the people. This is why some people reluctantly accept these houses and then they either rent them out or sell them to some desperate fellows and run back to jondolos. This is not a matter for the police and the NIA. The reason for this is not that shack dwellers can not think or are stupid. The reasons for this is the failure of authorities to involve shack dwellers not only in the planning but right from the project identification through to the implementation, monitoring and evaluation - in fact all through the project cycle. If you take people out of their communities, sometimes at gun point, and move them to rural human dumping grounds where there is no work they will not stay there. People have to survive. We want it to be clearly understood that the bottom up development approach that recognizes that a properly human life is what the majority of the poor prefers. Thus communication and consultation is vital if authorities were to be serious and respecting of those that they call 'beneficiaries'.

It is very sad that some business men, like Ricky Govender in Motala Heights, have been terrorizing their communities in search for a land to expand their business and wealth. In Motala Heights the settlement leadership and very senior families have been forced up and down the lawyers and courts to defend their right not to be evicted from their land. It is the same with the eNkwalini community who have consistently been threatened with eviction by the farmer, who had just bought the farm in Northen KwaZulu-Natal. What is more upsetting with all the evictions that are taking place in eThekwini is that they are not only illegal because they are carried out without the court orders but that they are also criminal. We have had to advise the police and municipal officials quite several times of section 26 of the South African constitution and the Prevention of Illegal Occupation of Land Act that protects the homeless, the poor and most vulnerable members of our society, children and women. Abahlali baseMjondolo has managed to stop most evictions in eThekwini in settlements like Motala Heights, Shannon Drive, Pemary Ridge, and Arnett Drive just to mention a few. But while we were winning an important victory in the High Court against evictions in Arnett Drive on Tuesday the Municipality was outside illegally demolishing shacks in Siyanda at the very same time! If already the law is not respected by the authorities then it is difficult to imagine how other new laws like the very notorious KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Slums Act will be used.

It is very sad that some academics and NGOs continue to think that it is their natural right to dominate instead of to support the struggles of the poor. We have kept our silence for years but now we must say that it is clear that at the Centre for Civil Society the work of the intellectual is to determine our intelligence by trying to undermine our intelligence. They try to buy individuals, intimidate our comrades and tell the worst lies to try and show that we are too stupid to think our own struggles. They fail to understand that we are poor, not stupid. This is their politics.

The shack dwellers believe that land and housing in the cities will bring about the safer environment, an environment that is free from shack fires, an environment that is free from rats, rapes and crime when our children and women have to find water and toilets in the bushes. If we were to be serious about caring cities, the first step will have to be to respect human life and human dignity. Mnikelo Ndabankulu a spokesperson for Abahlali baseMjondolo often says that "we do not need electricity, it is needed by our lives''. Our settlements are not temporary. Some of us have lived our whole lives in them. Our children have grown up in them. Electricity, water and sanitation can no longer be denied to shack dwellers. The eThekwini Municipality has often told us that money is not a problem, but that the problem is land. But the problem has never been just that there is no land in the cities as we have always been told. There is land. The political problem is that that land is privately owned by companies like Tongaat-Hulett. That problem can be solved but that would require recognizing the humanity of everyone and there has never been human recognition in the first place. For this City being poor, living in a shack or selling in the street, is seen as a crime. Until this is fixed right the poor will always be taken as trouble makers when in fact they are excluded from positive thinking that could contribute in the building of a caring city. A city where everyone has a say and an equal opportunity in shaping and reshaping this city into a caring one.

One of the biggest mistakes when planning development in the city is when the city does not provide basic services that are urgently needed by human lives. I am talking about services like the inadequate provision of water supply, not enough toilets and no proper collection of refuse as there is no access road to inner shack settlements. The result of these denied services is very serious. Without refuse removal there are rat bites and diseases. Without electricity there are shack fires. Who is to be blamed for the fact that we still live without these life saving services other than those who are meant to save the public in governments? We have seen the authorities shifting blame to the poor themselves with childish claims that the shack dwellers are dirty or lazy or that we do not want to move from filthy conditions. They say in the newspaper that "Zikode must educate his people'', as if people living in shacks are stupid and as if they all belong to one ordinary man like Zikode. I want to make it very clear that we have built a democratic politics and that our settlements are far too well organized to be controlled or thought by one man like Zikode. Zikode has his own kids to educate like any other responsible parent who cares about the future of their children. But Zikode does not educate the people who elected him to speak with them and then for them. In fact every day Zikode is educated by the suffering and the courage and the intelligence of the people that elected him. Therefore it is very disrespectful to say that elderly people must be educated to light paraffin stoves or light candles. The solution to fires is not education. The solution to fires is that electricity must be provided in all settlements. Electricity is not a luxury. It is needed to save lives. We cannot compromise on this point. I hope that tonight we can all agree on the need for the settlements to be electrified.

Abahlali's concerns over the shack fires that have terrorized our communities have caused this Movement to call upon all shack settlements to discuss this matter openly and to allow every shack settlement to have a say on what they think could be a solution. We have called a city summit on shack fires that will include all those who care about the lives of our people, be it the municipal authorities, progressive NGOs, churches, individuals etc.We believe that all of what is seen to be problems associated with the shack dwellers can be resolved by and with shack dwellers themselves. Thus Abahlali believes that the issue of land and housing is not just the issue for the technical people and for the government but of all who are meant to benefit from it.

The shack fire summit will be held on Monday 22 September. The day before, Sunday 21 September, we will hold a mass prayer for all the shack dwellers who have died in the fires.

People are often confused about what our movement stands for when it comes to land and housing. Tonight I want to suggest a list of ten demands on the burning questions of land and housing that could be used to begin a discussion about a platform for a united front on land and housing. These demands cone out of years of discussion in our movement. We would be very happy if you could discuss them in your own organizations so that we can, together, start the work of shaping a new vision for our cities.

1. There must be no more evictions.

2. Life saving basic services, including electricity, water, refuse removal and toilets, must be provided to all settlements.

3. The land on which the settlements have been founded must be transferred to the collective ownership of the people living in each settlement.

4. Settlements must be upgraded where they are where ever this is possible.

5. When people have to be relocated they must be given the option of moving to well located land.

6. Land must be expropriated from Tongaat-Hullet to house the poor.

7. There must be no more forced removals. People must only be relocated voluntarily.

8. Government must negotiate with the organizations that represent each settlement and not with the councilors.

9. Shack dwellers have a right to disagree with the government.

10. Shack dwellers have a right to organize themselves outside of the political parties.

We have asked people to speak to us, not for us. We have asked people to work with us, not for us. We have asked people to think with us, not for us. We have asked people to understand that our movement will always belong to its members and never to any NGO or political party. We have asked people to understand that we need a living solidarity, a solidarity that is built in partnership with our living politics, a solidarity that is built around the real everyday suffering and struggles of our people. I thank Diakonia for this invitation to speak. I thank the churches for their brave support during difficult times in our struggle. I invite everyone here to work to build a partnership for a democratic city together with us and with all democratic organizations of the poor. I invite you all to our summit on shack fires. Maybe we can start there. Let us see.
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Friday, 25 July 2008

Politics at stake: a note on stakeholder analysis

by Mark Butler and David Ntseng, Abahlali baseMjondolo, July 2008

People in government, business, and political and civil society organisations routinely talk about 'stakeholders'. They do exercises in stakeholder analysis to inform their 'strategic planning'. Invariably they use the stakeholder language to advertise claims about the inclusivity of their thinking, their processes, and their practice. The organisation we work with was asked recently to prepare an input for a 'stakeholder analysis' for a collegial NGO and this forced us to reflect on why we were so uncomfortable with the very idea. We presented some of our thinking as the basis for discussions at the NGO meeting. It was good that there was a mix of people there including grassroots militants as well as civil society employees. The note below includes some thoughts we had prepared, as well as things we learned from people at the meeting. It outlines why we conclude that the stakeholder discourse, and the practices that go along with it, are in fact part of an order that functions to exclude and silence. For those at the meeting who came from grassroots formations, it was clear that this approach fitted very much with their analysis and experience. Summarising their key points, it was said that the stakeholder approaches exclude, enslave, silence and demobilise. The combined effect is to try and reduce their struggles to what can be managed within the terms set by the rich and powerful.

Stakeholders = those who count. Emancipatory Politics = made by the uncounted.

By definition, stakeholders must mean those people or groups who are recognised as having a stake in something. Part of CLP's evolving way of understanding the world we're in has meant moving decisively away from the assumption that we get toward good praxis by analysing, and working with, relations with 'stakeholders'. It's not that we think stakeholders don't matter – on the contrary, they constitute 'what is' and they therefore affect a lot of things that people have to deal with. But they cannot constitute spaces for a liberatory politics. The 'stakeholders' are those who are counted and who are qualified to speak – their counting, qualifications and speaking being constituted by and within the terms of the existant order (of 'the police' as Rancier would have it). A liberatory politics is the opposite – it is precisely the disruption of those terms by those who are not counted, not qualified, and therefore, should not be speaking. In short: naming the stakeholders is in order – liberatory praxis is the 'out of order' of those who do not qualify to be stakeholders.

This critique of stakeholder (anti)politics seems to us in line with the analysis of the French philosopher, Jacque Rancier. Luka Arsenjuk, says of Rancier's thinking that he is opposed to kind of politics "that makes decisions on the people, for the people, instead of the people; a politics that holds that in the political order, all sections of the community have been assigned their proper place." The critique in turn finds support in the experience of those whose struggle and are, as a result get 'assigned their proper place' as stakeholders. Mama Rose who is a street trader argued that:

“For us street traders, being a stakeholder is a slavery term. This is because government and big business think for us, plan for us and all we are left with is to fit in their plan and do as we told, even if we feel hurt and oppressed by their plans”.

Rancier himself says:

"There are two ways of counting the parts of the community: The first only counts empirical parts - actual groups defined by differences in birth, by different functions, locations, and interests that constitute the social body. The second counts 'in addition' a part of the no-part. We will call the first police and the second politics.... there is politics inasmuch as 'the people' refers to subjects inscribed as a supplement to the count of the parts of society, a specific figure of 'the part of those who have no-part.'...Politics exists as a deviation from this normal order of things. It is this anomaly that is expressed in the nature of political subjects who are not social groups but rather forms of inscription of 'the (ac)count of the unaccounted-for.' The 'poor,' ... does not designate an economically disadvantaged part of the population; it simply designates the category of peoples who do not count, those who have no qualifications to part-take..., no qualification for being taken into account.” (Ten Theses on Politics).

Ironically of course, notwithstanding the claims of liberal apologists (including those on the left in civil society) for the inclusivity of the “stakeholders + state” machinery, that machinery actually really excludes nearly everyone by now - if inclusion meant more than managing them and their opinions! As Alain Badiou has it: “Today the great majority of people do not have a name; the only name available is 'excluded', which is the name of those who do not have a name. Today the great majority of humanity counts for nothing”.

Mr. Ndlovu, who is a street trader activist stated:

“we are being used under the banner of being stakeholders. Whenever the government makes a policy they consult us individually and say different things to us. Having caused enough chaos among us, they say they have consulted stakeholders. Whereas those among us who are not well learned they are often ignored”.

Emancipation is not a 'deliverable'

For our context, it is for these sorts of reasons we agree with the analysis of Michael Neocosmos that the terrain of (anti)politics established by, and in relation to, the state project is essentially dead. At a certain level, so many people's experience and analysis shows this to be so – the list of un-met expectations of what the state promises and consistently fails to deliver is so long, that most people really do feel deep anger or despair. But the space where the possibility of actual emancipation emerges, is constituted in the moment when people's movements and actions proceed from the brutal truth that “we are on our own” and move forward only once they have clarified that we are finished with (anti)politics of the state project. In a similar way, Frantz Fanon observed so long ago that:

“To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the magic hands of the people” (The Wretched of the Earth, 159).

This break is decisive – it is a movement from illusion to truth. The illusion is that the state project as a vehicle for delivery is also the vehicle for human liberation (an illusion absolutely necessary for perpetuating the tyranny of the liberal democratic rule). Truth is in the insight that the reinvention of politics through the out-of-order actions of the uncounted on the principle of a genuine, living democracy (that everyone really matters) is the meaning, means and content of human emancipation. On the basis of that insight, people first announce their humanity and, as a consequence, make explicit their prescriptions on the state. Perhaps from that point on, they may establish a sequence of politics and action where they are 'stakeholders' – but they must first (or at least simultaneously through their action/struggle) make everyone see that they are precisely those with no stake in what exists! It is their status as non-stakeholders that explains the contempt and disregard of the rich and powerful and that makes the people's reclamation of humanity and dignity so scandalous that it cannot but be out-of-order and unable to be accommodated without a rupture to the existing order.

In our own searching for a better praxis, we have concluded that we only find a certain kind of human freedom and solidarity in and through our connection with politics defined as the disruption of the order of the existant by those who are excluded - and in working with the processes that flow from, and that remain in fidelity to, these moments. The clear implication is that, to define our own praxis on the basis of a stakeholder analysis would be to inevitably inscribe our praxis as part of the existing order – precisely the dead-end that we needed to break with!

So we needed to clarify for ourselves: what can it mean to make a contribution to a 'stakeholder analysis'? What is more important?:

• to try to list those groups, classes, categories that make up 'what is'; to analyse what they are doing or trying to do; to make informed guesses about who's likely to win and lose what given the current 'balance of power'??; or
• to analyse 'what is' by showing how all these different groups and 'forces' are in fact simply part of a moribund system of unfreedom, stultification, oppression and exploitation – even though some of them imagine themselves as part of its opposition?;
• perhaps to try and describe what we have learned about 'what is' from the perspective of the politics of those who are not, those whose politics would establish something actually new and liberating?.

Who counts?

Perhaps first we must remember the inappropriateness of a civil society or NGO elite sitting around discussing and analysing 'stakeholders' – inappropriate because it still assumes that the real agency for change is located in this civil society. In the liberal and neo-liberal discourses of this civil society, what are counted as the stakeholders are the 'interest groups' who engage with (and include) the state. From our experience, the typical stakeholder list would be something like: labour, business (black and white, big and small), churches, universities, women's organisations, 'communities', political parties, the media, NGOs, and so on. In our discussions at the meeting, Rev. Willem said: “It seems that the poor and excluded are perpetually being fragmented by the authorities in the name of being stakeholders”.

Underpinning this approach has to be the rule that there are grounds for the justification of each stakeholder and each interest group's voice. But this reduces all 'politics' to the management of partial claims within the ambit of the terrain of the state. A proper politics is the opposite – it exists only in the universal truth claims implied in the political actions of those who have no 'place', no justification. Thus in Neocosmos' rendering of Badiou: “an emancipatory politics is universal and not linked to any specific interest, it is 'for all' never 'for some'. It follows we can say that for Badiou emancipatory politics does not ‘represent’ anyone:

'Politics begins when one decides not to represent victims [...] but to be faithful to those events during which victims politically assert themselves [...] Politics in no way represents the proletariat, class or nation [...] it is not a question of whether something which exists may be represented. Rather it concerns that through which something comes to exist which nothing represents, and which purely and simply presents its own existence' (Badiou, 1985)”(Michael Neocosmos “Civil society, citizenship and the politics of the (im)possible: rethinking militancy in Africa today”).

It would be more appropriate to recognise that these questions can only be answered in specific contexts of specific people's struggle. When those who suffer it lead self-initiated action/s against it, then part of that process might presumably look something like a 'stakeholder analysis'. But the stakeholders that matter in that analysis would be those that actually affect the real situation of the people and that actually feature in the thinking and analysis of that situation by the people.

It might be possible to try and make some very tentative notes about what the kinds of stakeholders that do seem to feature in many such struggles at the moment in our context. Of necessity, what we hint at here is incomplete. Nonetheless, it seems to us that what people fairly consistently name in this regard are what we might call the apparatus of the liberal democratic state – including its armed wing/s. (It is noticeable that this conclusion is systematically ignored, mis-read and/or ridiculed by all the elite observers, commentators, analysts and practitioners – including those of the Left.) The most common targets of critique and rebellion are thus: local councillors, local government (and often too, the provincial – less often, national government), local activists and fora of the political parties, the police. Then there is a layer of stakeholders that, often together with players in the preceding list, shape local spaces of democratic discussion and politics – especially elites who oppress the majority (whether these are purely political elites tied to the parties or those with very localised economic interests – e.g. shacklords, landowners, etc – or those with power derived from other resource bases like formal education, connection with mainstream churches etc.) Perhaps another layer of stakeholders that seems to emerge again and again are those from civil society, who try to mediate and control the relation between people's action and the state project – lawyers, churches, NGOs, Left activists, etc..

Fanon stessed that “The nation does not exist in a programme which has been worked out by revolutionary leaders”; it is created by “the muscles and brains of the citizens”. Abahlali baseMjondolo President, S'bu Zikode, has articulated a powerful extension of this idea in his commentary on a discussion of globalisation in the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo (i.e., a learning space constituted and populated by shack-dwellers) during September 2007. Regarding globalisation, Zikode said:

“It was clear to all that you have to approach it from the bottom, start small in a form like struggling against Baig, Mlaba etc, because in no ways you can jump into the World Bank while failing to identify a close enemy that you can see, touch, an enemy that denies us a right to life. Thus as much as all debates are good, fighting only by talking does not take us much further. Sometimes we need to strengthen our muscles for an action debate, that is a living debate that does not only end on theories [Zikode 2007].

Indeed, as Fanon insists: “we must rid ourselves of the very Western, very bourgeois and therefore contemptuous attitude that the masses are incapable of governing themselves”.

Under current conditions then, emancipatory politics can only be initiated by those who are not stakeholders. The basis of any decent politics that is faithful to the universal principles elaborated in their thinking and struggles is that everyone counts (i.e., the opposite to what currently obtains). What kind of analysis could be done under that assumption? Surely not an analysis by elite analysts of the stakeholders who currently count? Surely only by and with those who speak and act out-of-order?

Even if we began with an idea that presumes everybody is or should be somehow a stakeholder of the state system (on the democratic basis that they are here and are human), we still reduce politics and people to the idea that they are recipients of something that the state will 'deliver' to them (a toilet, freedom, whatever). This is the deadening impact of both the 'human rights' and 'basic services' discourses – both of which, when applied to the massive number and scale of rebellion and action across the country, function to hide the demand for a human(ising) politics which is usually at the top of what the people actually involved in these actions list! It is also the deadening effect of conscripting those rebellions and voices into the 'stakeholder forums' that are the 'in order' channels for sustained enslavement.

It is necessary to repeat and clarify that by talking of the 'state project' and the (anti)politics it establishes, we include (most of) civil society which, even in its apparently oppositional roles, is very much part of what is counted. Discussions with grassroots militants helped us to see that civil society organisations often land up playing a key role in de-politicising their struggles by jumping in with 'capacity building' and 'education' interventions that are designed not primarily to strengthen the poor in their own struggles but to bring them into order and to play according the rules and expectations of the dominant order by teaching them to be better 'stakeholders'. Dudu from the Eastern Cape NGO Coalition asserted: “having observed social formations and their politics, I have this question to ask: Why is it that every time the Poor come together, NGOs and Leftists jump in and take over? In their conventional praxis they provide capacity building. Whereas my observation is that capacity building demobilises people, it takes them away from their original agenda”.

With this sort of 'help' from civil society, it can hardly be surprising that the experience of grassroots militants was that the move from being part of the -not-counted' to being a 'stakeholder' is not really a move from exclusion to real inclusion – it is is just a move to another kind of enslavement and exclusion: “They bring us into these structures and then they tell us what must be conveyed down to our people! This keeps us in a kind of slavery”. Mr. Mqabi (also a street trader activist) correctly concluded: “We need to look within ourselves to find strength and courage to fight our own battles first, and then look outside for additional support”.
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Monday, 23 June 2008

Politics Beyond the State

All through the 1980s and early 90s [U.S. army intelligence officers] recognized that 'the most serious threat to U.S. interests was not secular Marxist-Leninism or organized labour but liberation theology'. - Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood.

Politics Beyond the State

by Brother Filippo Mondini, Abahlali baseMjondolo

Michael Neocosmos argues that there is a politics beyond the state and that, within this form of politics, lies the true and trustworthy alternative to the status quo. This 'politics beyond the state' is carried out by active citizens who think, and who engage themselves in politics as militants rather than as politicians. In Neocosmos' words, citizenship, from an emancipatory perspective, “is not about subjects bearing rights conferred by the state, as in human rights discourse, but rather about people who think becoming agents through their engagement in politics as militants/activists and not politicians”.

The 'politics' which emerges from active citizenship is completely different from that of the state and the political parties. It is a politics which requires communal thinking, direct engagement, and new (different) style of leadership. It is a politics where everyone is important because every idea matters. By contrast, the politics of the state is a politics which requires only “opinions” concerning “ideas” thought by other people, intellectuals, NGO, churches and so on.

Several features of this concept of active citizenship which can be traced in the intellectual work and praxis of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM):

Firstly, Active Citizenship is inclusive. In a context of struggle, distinctions are made on the basis of the devotion to the struggle and not on the bases of other categories such as classes, races or religious beliefs.

Secondly, Active Citizenship enables the right to think by suggesting the possibility of something different to one way thought. It is the thinking done in the community and with the community that opens spaces for new possibilities that are completely different from the status quo. The aim of this communal sharing of ideas is not to grab power but to transform it.

Thirdly, Active Citizenship enables the formation of a moral community of active citizens where “one’s duty to the community is connected directly to actively engaging in political activity for the common good” (Neocosmos, 3).

“The Children of the Resurrection”

We have observed that the process of struggle is of pivotal importance. It is within this process that people become aware of their dignity, ontological goodness and possibilities. Fanon argues that “the 'thing' which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself” (Fanon, 1963: 36). It is through the struggle that people discover that it is possible to fight oppression and challenge power.

The rise of AbM struggle therefore, can and must also be understood theologically. We need to find theological categories which might help us to read these striking signs of our times. The fact that impoverished people come together to fight oppression and cry out to the world that they are human beings able to think and determine their own future, is the verification that a ‘politics beyond’ the state is possible. It is the proof that the AbM embodies the idea of an active citizenship and this is the main thing which has to challenge and inform theology.

The rise of AbM, their struggle and their politics, can be read with the theological category of Resurrection. Surely, the paschal mystery of Jesus as a whole, his crucifixion, death and resurrection, helps to understand theologically the rise, praxis and politics of the movement. It is also impossible to separate and comprehend only one of the events in the sequence without taking into account the others. Nonetheless, the particular experience of AbM, and its understanding of politics and its humanity, encourage us to stress Jesus’ victory over death.

A theology which has as its starting point the Resurrection and not the Calvary, stresses Jesus’ final victory over every evil force. It is clear however, that the dimension of people’s suffering is not diminished - shack dwellers suffer because of fire, floods, violence, insecurity… - but this suffering, as the struggle of AbM has demonstrated, is not the last word.

Jesus’ resurrection stands as an analogy to the struggle of the people. As Jesus did not remain silent in the tomb, so too have people from various settlements of kwaZulu Natal not been overcome by their suffering and pain. As Jesus did not remain nailed on the cross, so too have 'bahlali started to break the chains of their oppression.

When we recognise people who are involved in the struggle as “children of the resurrection” (Lk 20:36b) - and not as poor people nailed on the cross - the 'usual' ways of the church relating to them are completely disrupted. There is something of a crisis when it is realised that they cannot be cast as the beneficiaries of our charity; when it is no longer possible to assume that they are 'voiceless' people to whom some intellectual or church lends their voice. They are, on the contrary, the moving principle of every church action and a source of inspiration for society. They are the embodiment of the Reign of God because they are sacrament of Christ’s victory over evil.

When we say that this theology starts with the resurrection and not at Calvary, we say that these people have something to teach and that they are not students; we say that they are a gift for the church and for society, and that they are not people who need someone else to defend and represent their rights on their behalf.

In this way then, people’s struggle represents the “Upper Room” because it is the theological site where the crucified and risen Lord manifests Himself as the Lamb who overcomes death, misery and oppression.

Reading people’s struggle with the theological category of the resurrection, allow us to understand that people’s attempts to resist oppression and to found goodness and justice, is a response of faith to God’s project. God’s project for humanity has been made manifest in Jesus, and it is therefore in Jesus that we find the model of the new humanity. Jesus’ life remains the ultimate example for Christians and, in our specific case, for people involved in the struggle. When we look at Jesus’ life from the perspective of the struggle for a dignified life, we understand in a new way God’s project for the world. The rise of AbM helps us to understand that when God manifested Himself or Herself in Jesus, S/he revealed a God who dreams a society of equals where goods are shared among people and where every person is important. Utimately, God dreams happiness for His/Her people. 'Bahlali from several settlements have discovered this image of God. They have unveiled a God who dreams something different from oppression. This is a very powerful discovery and, it is this breakthrough that reveals to churches and society at large a new face of God. This is the God of the poor. This God, the God revealed in Kennedy Road, is a God who bears scars of suffering and pain but also expresses Joy - a subversive Joy which streams out of the awareness that evil can be defeated. Thus, paraphrasing Fanon words, we can say that through the struggle the “thing” not only becomes man but also becomes aware that God’s project is a project of happiness and joy and not a project of suffering and alienation.

God’s intention and project is 'the Reign', and the Reign is made real and present whenever Christ overcomes the power of evil. To consider people involved in struggle as “children of the Resurrection” is to assert that, through their struggle, they are collaborating in establishing the Reign of God. It is within the process of struggle that the Reign is built and discovered as a gift from God. Holloway affirms that “In the process of struggle-against, relations are formed which are not the mirror image of the relations of power against which the struggle is directed: relations of comradeship, of solidarity, of love, relations which prefigure the sort of society we are struggling for” (2005:143). These new relations that are forged in the process of struggle, and their more general and decisive impact in the community and individuals, are therefore a sacrament of the risen Lord.

One of the most beautiful things that the struggle, through the individuals involved in it, does, is to historicize eschatology and the Reign of God. Thanks to the process of struggle and the individuals involved in it, we rediscover that the Reign of God must be understood as a historical reality. The Reign of God is something in which human beings are called to cooperate with now, in this world, and in this time. AbM has shown this mystery of this collaboration with God. The work AbM has been doing is like the work of the man of the parable (Mk 4:26-29) who scatters seeds on the land but the sprouting and growing of the seeds is God’s work. The Movement has only the task of harvesting them and welcoming the fruits as God’s gift. Understanding the Reign of God as a historical reality therefore also makes clear that the Reign is God’s gift to humanity. It is in the fidelity to this gift that humanity can discover its freedom. Consequently, the struggle of AbM, their cooperation with God, is gift and prophecy for the world and the churches because they are collaborating with God in making this world a better and more just place to live in. The astonishing fact is that all these things are happening now, in our present time. Of course, in and through these struggles of movements, the Reign is not realized in its fullness. The scars of a life lived in a shack remain. The suffering and pain is not cancelled. The way ahead is still long. But now they have shown that God’s dream is possible, that Jesus’ resurrection is not a pious religious fact but an event able to transform history and people’s life. That is why the ordinary struggles of ordinary people, become sacrament of God’s presence and proclamation of resurrection. When the struggles of oppressed people are understood as part of salvation history, they become the way to overcome the sin of the world, the instrument of God’s restoration and a practical way of understanding resurrection. This is why Marcelo Barros says that in situation of oppression “resurrection means insurrection”.

Jesus’ resurrection from the death is an attestation of God’s fidelity. The resurrection from the death in fact, is not something that Jesus does out of his own will or action. On the contrary, Jesus wins over death because the Father remains faithful to the crucifix, to His/Her son, to the man of Galilee. Once Jesus is nailed on the cross, the only thing He can do is to commit His spirit in the Father’s hands. Jesus dies believing that the Father will resurrect Him; and the Father fulfills His promise by bringing Jesus back from the death.

In our context we see God’s fidelity realized in what is happening in the struggle of AbM. As the Father remained faithful to Jesus, in the same way He is faithful to people’s suffering. It is possible to affirm that, when people come together to fight for a better life, as in the case of AbM movement, the Father’s fidelity takes flesh in them and, in this way, God’s action of resurrecting Jesus becomes a concrete fact in history. The rise of AbM is the proof therefore, that death and suffering are not the last words. As the Father raised Jesus to new life, so S/he is taking care, in fidelity to his/her being, to the people in struggle. The story and praxis of the movement therefore, tells us that God will never forget his/her children - as the prophet Isaiah says: “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine. Should you pass through the waters, I shall be with you; or through rivers, they will not swallow you up. Should you walk through fire, you will not suffer, and the flame will not burn you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Liberator. (…) Do not be afraid, for I am with you” (Is 43:1-5).

Finally, we see a strong link between what Neocosmos described as a truly emancipatory politics and Jesus’ praxis. Jesus' critique of earthly powers (the Temple, Religion, Empire…) was not aimed at some reforms. Jesus did not occupy any form of position but started His movement from the margins, from a despised place such as Galilee.

Moreover, Jesus’ critique of power is evident in several accounts, especially in John 6:15 “Jesus, as he realized that they were about to come and take him by force and make him king, fled back to the hills alone”. Jesus proclaimed a “New Jerusalem”, and a “New Heaven and the New Earth” which do not come from the centre but from the periphery. The Reign of God is not something that is given from above but, on the contrary, it is built up from the bottom. What really matters in this action of building up from the bottom is the popular-democratic-participative method which the builders employ.

From this point of view therefore, it is not important for the oppressed to gain power and position on the terms established by the existing orders of power. In a profound sense, the oppressed who struggle are already living out what they are demanding. This is the Reign of a God that is not a solitude but a communion in relationship.


To understand the concept of 'Event' as the radical French philosopher-activist, Alain Badiou, has articulated it, it is important to start with the question of agency. Badiou argues that “it is not so much a question of how a subject can initiate an action in an autonomous manner, but rather how a subject emerges through an autonomous chain of actions within a changing situation” (2007:15). According to Badiou therefore, it is not everyday actions and decisions that provide evidence of agency but those extraordinary events which isolate an actor from their context. Those actions which show that a human being can be a free agent are important and a sign of agency. As a result, Badiou affirms that ‘not every human being is always a subject, yet some human beings become subjects; those who act in fidelity to a chance encounter with an event which disrupts the situation they find themselves in’ (2007:15). Thus, there is no universal conception of an ethics founded on human subjects; and that is why there cannot be projects, like the State or the human rights discourse, founded on human beings.

Badiou describes the Event as something which points to alternatives to what it is. The Event is the possibility of something different. Moreover, an Event names the void, the absence, what was considered simply impossible, that which is not imaginable from within the situation. The Event, therefore is something which radicalizes and transforms people into militants or seekers of truth. An example from our context may help to clarify the concept of Event: S'bu Zikode, in referring to the famous road blockade (WHEN?), affirmed that “the struggle that started in Kennedy Road was the beginning of a new era”. (‘The Third Force’).

Speaking a different language

To understand the idea of the Event theologically, we turn to pneumatology. It is the Spirit in fact, that transforms people and situations. The iconic Spirit action is the Pentecost event. (Acts 2:1-13)

Firstly, accounts of the Pentecost event make plain that the Spirit is given to a community of people and not to someone special. It is all the community of Jesus' disciples that receive the gift of the Spirit. The fact that the Spirit is a gift to a community and not to select individuals, is in turn reflected in the praxis and politics of the movement that the Event establishes. The style of leadership, the efforts at wider inclusion of all the residents, and the particular popular democracy, are signs of a communitarian action.

Secondly, it is the gift of the Spirit which transformed frightened and dispirited people into bold witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. Through the gift of the Spirit, the apostles were able to think the impossible, to name the ‘void’ and thus go out to proclaim the good news of the risen Lord.

Thirdly, the gift of the spirit enables the apostles of Jesus to speak new languages, languages which can be understood by everyone. The spirit did not transform fishermen into scholars but gave them the possibility of speaking a kind of language which everyone can understand, a language which speaks directly to people’s hearts. It is not a difficult language; on the contrary it is a language of hope which everyone waits for. This is the language of possibilities which point to alternatives.

Lastly, the gift of the spirit is a threat to the status quo: “Some, however, laughed it off. ‘They have been drinking too much new wine’, they said” (Acts 22:2:13). Frightened people, according to society, must always remain frightened people; that is the way it works. It has always been like that. It is very difficult to accept that marginalized and oppressed groups could raise their voice and speak new languages. Thus, the system tries to bring order back through criminalization, repression and other methods.

A theology which starts in the Upper Room where the Spirit was poured onto the disciples, and that tries to be relevant within the rebellion of shackdwellers' communities, speaks of Gratuitousness, Epiphany, and Transformation.

It speaks of the Gratuitousness of God, because the spirit is first of all a gift and this gift speaks of God’s love. God’s fidelity to the people therefore, is not something abstract and far-away but concrete and historical. The promise that God will not leave the people alone becomes concrete in the struggle of AbM. The fact that people organize themselves, speak together with one voice and make their ideas heard, is proof that God has not forgotten his/her people. Moreover, God becomes their companion in the journey towards a better future pouring onto them his/her spirit. That is why the struggle can be considered also an act of love, the love of God towards the people and the love of the people towards other fellow human beings. It is a love which arises from the conflicts of the struggle, from the comradeship created in the many difficult moments and from the sharing of the burden of thorny decisions. The Love which arises from the struggle is therefore a subversive Love, a Love which prefigures the form of society we are struggling for.

Our theology speaks of epiphany, because we understand the struggle as a revelation of God. If it is because of the gift of the spirit that people are able to struggle and speak for themselves, the struggle itself becomes a manifestation of God. God reveals his/her loving face in the rising people of Kennedy Road and all the other “… Road” in rebellion. As God the Father revealed himself in the Event of Israel's liberation from slavery and as Jesus revealed his healing power amongst the poor, excluded and oppressed, so the same love and caring is been made manifest in the struggle of AbM. It is the being of God that is revealed. In fact, God is also struggle for liberation. Reflecting/Acting theologically from the viewpoint of people’s struggle helps to discover God’s radical call to freedom.

Our theology speaks of social and personal transformation because it is the spirit which makes all things new. God’s work in history is carried out by the action of the spirit. However, the spirit does not act as a demiurge. The spirit is manifest only in through the people’s collaboration and availability. The struggle of AbM is a typical example of such a collaboration. This kind of struggle, as a matter of fact, is a spiritual struggle in the sense that the spirit struggles within/with people and thus transforms society in order to make the world a better place to leave in.

However, the struggle of AbM has also highlighted the fact that the transformation brought by the spirit is also a personal one. The spirit allows people in the struggle to recognize their ontological goodness and the fact that they are created in God’s image. It is the spirit, through people involved in the struggle, which reminds us of the presence of the divine person in the concrete history of creation. In this sense too, we again stress that the struggle, to a certain extent, is a self-communication of God. People in the struggle recognize that the Son became incarnate in order to divinize human beings, and that the Spirit dwells in us in order to unify all things and to lead all creation to the Reign of the Trinity.

The vacuum named by the spirit is this divinization of the human being. Marginalized, oppressed, poor people recognized that their destiny is to be drawn in the Trinitarian life and this fact opens up new possibilities of commitment, inspiration and critique for the context they live in.


Fidelity in Badiou’s theorization is the attempt to sustain the consequences of the event in thought. It is a refusal to return to the “status quo ante”, to return to the idea that what happened was impossible. Fidelity to the event is not something granted and obvious. It requires a “disinterested-interest” on behalf of the participants. Therefore, the perseverance of the “being-subject” remains uncertain. A being, in order to be transformed in subject, has to remain true to disinterest. There is no certainty in this process. The Stalinists, the vanguards, 'know' the way ahead - we don’t. We believe that the “alternative, the direction of our struggle, will come out of the thinking that we do in our communities” (S’bu Zikode, ‘The greatest threat to future stability in our country Vs The greatest strength of Abahlali baseMjondolo movement s.a.’).
According to Badiou, “politics begins when one decides not to represent the victims but to be faithful to those events during which victims politically assert themselves” (Neocosmos, 2007:18). This is the uncertain way of fidelity to the Event.

…He made his face firm to Jerusalem…

The theological category which expresses this fidelity is the Cross. In order to understand this we have first of all to highlight some classical interpretations of such category. These are interpretations which were developed in the past and that, within a context of struggle, are no longer useful, and do not help to read this particular reality.

Firstly, throughout history Jesus’ death has been interpreted as an expiatory sacrifice for the sins of his people. According to this theory no human sacrifice suffices to placate God’s wrath. Then the incarnation created the possibility of a perfect, spotless sacrifice that would win God’s entire pleasure. Jesus undertook to be the sacrifice that would represent all people before God. We have to admit that, this theory presents a vindictive aspect of God. This image of God does not fit very well with the image of a merciful God revealed by Jesus Christ. A second theory presents the death of Jesus as redemption as ransom. According to this model Christ’s death is regarded as the price demanded by God in ransom for all human beings held in Satan’s snare. The shortcoming of this model resides in the underpinned vision of human beings, understood only as mere spectators. They are not participants, they are not considered as inserted in history. A third theory considers the death of Christ as vicarious satisfaction. According to this theory, human beings, through sin, have violated the order of creation and thereby offended God. The divine justice demands that this order should be healed and restored, but how can a finite human being make an infinite reparation before an infinite God? Only God can achieve infinite satisfaction. Therefore, God must become a human being and, as human being, God will be able to do what a human being must do: make reparation. Jesus’ death healed the scar of sin and restored the order of the universe. The shortcoming of this theory is the one of portraying a vindictive, cruel and sanguinary God.

In all these theories the elements of Jesus’ life and praxis is practically absent. Jesus’ death is not seen as a consequence of his life. On the contrary, the good news is that Jesus died because of his life, his option for the poor, his fidelity to the Kingdom and his radical solidarity with human beings. Also according to Paul, the Cross is a symbol of the full story of Christ’s becoming human, suffering and dying. That is the good news! Jesus remained faithful to the project of the Kingdom and in this way entered in solidarity with all those who are bearing a Cross for their fidelity, love and liberating actions. This is the meaning of the Cross! In his death, Jesus transformed the cross from an instrument of humiliation into an instrument of struggle against slavery, oppression and death. This can also be seen in Luke’s Gospel. The evangelist centers his Gospel on Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem. Lk 9:51 is the turning point of the Gospel: “When the days drew near for Him to be received up, He made His face firm to Jerusalem”. This journey towards the centre of political and religious power symbolizes Jesus’ fidelity to the Father’s project and this is what led Him to die.

Therefore, the cross of Jesus can be understood as a consequence of His fidelity. In the same way, Jesus’ disciples are called to follow Him along this path. It is very meaningful that immediately after Jesus’ resolution, Luke tells us of some “would-be” followers of Jesus: “As they travelled along they met a man on the road who said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go’. Jesus answered, ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’. Another to whom he said, ‘follow me’, replied, ‘Let me go and bury my father first.’ But he answered, ‘leave the dead to bury their dead; your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you Sir, but first let me go and say good-bye to my people at home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’” (Lk 9-5762). In this passage are described the hardships of the discipleship and the cost of Fidelity. We do not know if these people had followed Jesus or not, but this is not the point. What is important is to understand that following Jesus means to assume His project and carry the heavy burden of a cross which results from the fidelity to the Reign. The way to Jerusalem is the way of the cross, the way of the rebel and this journey requires renunciation, courage, fidelity, truth, commitment and love.

It should be clear by now, that there are two different kinds of suffering: that provoked by oppression and that provoked by the struggle to overcome such oppression. Only this second can be understood as Cross. This idea should be made clearer by the fact that the cross was the instrument that the empire used to execute political rebels. Thus, the Cross opposes two logics: that of the empire (the state, civil society, human rights discourse…) and that of the reign (politics beyond the state…). When militants, subjects, act in fidelity to the Event usually face repression, pain and suffering. It is at this point that they become the embodiment of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and with Him they challenge earthly powers, unmask false images of God and disclose their truth to the world. Jesus’ subversive journey becomes theirs.
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Sunday, 22 June 2008

Art is Going Elsewhere: And Politics Has to Catch It.

Jacques Rancière interviewed by Sudeep Dasgupta in the Dutch journal Krisis. Translated by Dirk Haen and republished on the Jacques Rancière blog.

The reflections of the French philosopher Jacques Rancière shift in between literature, film, pedagogy, historiography, proletarian history and philosophy. He came to prominence when he contributed to Althusser’s Lire le capital (1965) and, shortly after, published a fervent critique of Althusser – La Leçon d’Althusser (1974). He is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at University of Paris VIII (St. Denis) and continues to teach, as a visiting professor, in a number of universities, including Rutgers, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Berkeley. A recurrent motif in Rancière’s work is capturing the relation between politics and aesthetics, and their various meanings in different contexts. Much of his work can be characterized as an attempt to rethink and subvert categories, disciplines and discourses. On October 30 2007, a Dutch combined translation of Le partage du sensible and L’inconscient esthétique was presented in Amsterdam. On this occasion Sudeep Dasgupta
interviewed Rancière on sensory experience, the play of art, and politics as a form of disturbance.

The first moment in your intellectual career was your engagement with Louis Althusser and marxism, in particular with the notion of philosophy as having a strong function in defining or in distinguishing science from ideology; philosophy was closely linked to a strict definition of science, producing concepts. You made a big impression with your important essay on critique in Marx. After that, you turned away from a particular way of thinking about philosophy and went to the archives, particularly to research on nineteenth century workers in France. What motivated that turn away from philosophy to the archives, which is not a very common turn that philosophers take? What did you hope to find there? Could you connect it to how your work developed subsequently?

I am not the first philosopher who decided to go to the archives. There was, of course, the example of Foucault. He did something very surprising for my generation; it was the first time a history of madness appeared. What was it? A book of a philosopher and it’s all about questions of the poor, of medicine, of asylums. There already was this model and it was not a bad model, I think. Second, it was the leftist movement of ’68; it became obvious that something was wrong with the idea that people were exploited and dominated because they didn’t know the law of exploitation and domination; so the sciences were there to bring them the knowledge of what they wished to know. There was a sort of vicious circle: the people cannot understand the place where they are in the system because it is precisely a law of the system that it conceals itself. It was a kind of tautology.

Science was supposed to free people and to give them the knowledge in order to emancipate them, but what science basically would explain is what people necessarily are to ignore, that is, what science could tell of their position. People were dominated because they were ignorant and they were ignorant because they were dominated.

So what I tried to do was get another idea of that vicious circle. First, of course, I had a kind of naive idea: let’s go to the archives to see the reality of social movements, of workers’ movements; let’s find a sociology of workers’ practice, workers’ movement, workers’ thinking and workers’ emancipation.

But what appeared to me in this research is that it was impossible to oppose something like an ‘authentic’ workers’ thought to Marxist thought. It was impossible to deduce the workers’ movement, socialism and revolution from a lived experience from popular culture and so on. Why Precisely? Because of the vicious circle. Just a little earlier Ruth Sonderegger explained in which way Plato said everything about the workers’ condition. According to Plato, workers have to do just their own business. They cannot do anything else but their own business for two reasons. The first reason is that they have no time. The second is that they have the aptitude fitting that business, which is the same thing as saying that they have no other aptitude. They have the aptitude to do this, and to be in this place, and to be in this space-time – which of course is the reverse of their exclusion. What interested me, and what I’ve discovered, is that the possibility of workers’ emancipation is to transform the circle in a kind of spiral by getting out of that workers’ identity which was not just a condition but a whole sensible world, that is, of domination and exploitation. It was a matter of what could be seen, what could be sensed. What does it mean, the distribution of the sensible? What kind of world is given to you, and how do you make sense of that given sensory world? What I’ve tried is to build from their collectivity a new kind of subjectivity. This means that proletarians had a possibility of getting away from that workers’ identity, that workers’ culture, that workers’ body. Emancipation would be about creating for themselves a new body, a new lived world. And so it was clear that the problem was not that they ignored their condition but that for them it was being able to ignore it. To do as if they were not in that position. There is this famous text of Kant, Critique of Judgment, saying that aesthetic judgment asks us only to be sensible of form. When standing in front of a palace, it does not matter that it was built out of the sweat of the poor people; we have to ignore that, says Kant. I think Kant was right. At the same time I came upon a text written by a joiner, a floor-layer, and he explains precisely what he sees as he is laying a floor in a rich house. He decides to acquire an aesthetic perception of the room, of the garden, of the whole perspective. So he decides to do as if he had a disinterested gaze, and could get an aesthetic judgment, notwithstanding the fact that he is poorly paid, that he works for a boss, and that he works for the rich. For me this was important. It reminded me of my view of aesthetics – aesthetics not being a sociology of art but as being a form of experience. That is, an experience of disconnection. This has been conceptionalized by Kant and Schiller in terms of disconnection: there is something that escapes the normal conditions of sensory experience. That is what was at stake in emancipation: getting out of the ordinary ways of sensory experience. This thought has been important for my idea of politics, not being about the relations of power but being about the framing of the sensory
world itself.

Where do you locate your work? This has been a problem for a lot of people over the years: What is Rancière? Is he a philosopher? Is he a literary critic? Your books cover fields from pedagogy, the writing of history, philosophy, cinema and literature. You’ve occupied a position in philosophy and in aesthetics. Yet you have very strongly stated that you are neither a philosopher of politics nor are you a historian of art. Would you say that your work, through the decades, has leaned or been closer to a particular discipline, or could you say the point of your work has been precisely to critique them and if so, how? What kind of central themes come up?

You are interested in an object and you try to understand it. For instance, you try to understand how people can change the sensible frames of existence – as was the case in the process of emancipation. So you go to the archives, to see documents about workers’ conditions, workers’ thought, et cetera. At that point you are supposed to be in the field of the historian. Historians ask you: what is your historical method? You have to apply a historical method. My question became: what is historical method? You only try to understand something; therefore you go to materials that may help you to understand. Then you try to make sense of them. What kind of method is this? You use your brains. You try to find something and you use your brains to make sense of it. Historical method does mean something; I am not saying it does not mean anything. It means you have to be located in this place, because this object is social history. Workers’ thought was part of workers’ life, workers’ experience, the expression of that experience. There was a leading social historian of the working class in France who made a bibliography about literature on workers. And it happened that my book was put in the subcategory ‘cultural and religious conscience of work’. The right method of the philosophers, sociologists, the literary critics, is just the same as the Platonic commandment: you have to do your own business. But, of course, if I do my own business, it means I have to give up my object. My object is people who don’t want to keep to their own business.

From my point of view, there is no real field of discipline. The borders of a discipline just mean: you are not supposed to go outside of this. To understand the question I just had to go outside. I had to put together things that do not go together. Namely, Plato’s text about workers’ lack of time, and a worker’s text in the nineteenth century – thousands of years after Plato – dealing precisely with what it meant to have no time. So if I want to understand, I have to cross the borders of disciplines. This kind of delineation of borders is the other face of an inner prescription.

There are two ways of thinking. There is the thinking of the poor, which is the expression of his condition. And there is the thinking of a thinker, who makes the bibliography and who organizes the category. And this thinker knows he can encompass the totality and understand that in this totality are some manifestations of thought. But thought is just an expression of a condition. So basically when my work doesn’t belong to a discipline, it belongs to an attempt to break the borders of the disciplines. Because borders are only there to say you must not cross the border, and
to say: there are two kinds of thought, two kinds of thinking beings. What I’ve tried to demonstrate is there is only one kind of thinking being and that everybody uses his or her own brains to try to understand something. So a discipline is a fiction. This does not mean it is imaginary. It means it is a kind of construction of a territory with a population, with forms of sensory representation, with ways of making sense of things. It is also a political, or a meta-political, fiction. If you think of sociology, for instance, and the way Bourdieu ‘discovered’ the habitus and so on, it reminds us of the fact that sociology is not a kind of science that has fallen from the sky at a certain time. Sociology was politics. It emerged in the nineteenth century, that is, after the revolution, because there was the big concern at the time that people are no longer at their place, that there are no more
common representations uniting people, no monarchy, no religion, no feudality. Thus we had to invent a new form of aggregation of society and new forms of collective thinking. And in this case, of course, new forms of anomie and of heresy, a form of modern thinking about emancipation, about being different from oneself, had to be pushed aside.

Part of the growing importance of your work and its reception in the art world, has been your very strong critique of a certain kind of teleology, a certain kind of historical narrative, which goes, very quickly put: realism, modernism, postmodernism. You have also been very critical of contemporary art which claims to be political, to the extent that it is very critical of capitalism, for example, and the fact that we are all caught up in the consumer culture, and you have argued that what art keeps doing in this kind of denunciation of capitalism is to bear
witness to its own powerlessness. You reject this narrative of realism/modernism/-
postmodernism, and you’ve brought up three regimes: the ethical, the representative, and the aesthetic regime. The aesthetic regime has been crucial to a lot of your arguments in different fields. If there are problems with the realism/modernism/postmodernism-narrative, could we see the ethical, representative and aesthetic regimes as a kind of parallel historical narrative?

To put briefly, is it one narrative rejected by you and replaced by another, or is there something specific about these three regimes that make us rethink how to think about our relation to history? I am thinking in particular of the category of the ‘aesthetic regime’.

My first problem with the narrative of realism/- modernism/postmodernism is that it doesn’t help us to understand what happened in art and in aesthetic experience during the last two centuries.

Take for instance the case of realism – and in Bram Leven’s talk about literature – what is the signification of the realistic novel in the nineteenth century? It is not at all a kind of peak of representation because it would represent everything in all kinds of ways. It was a break with a regime in which only some things could be and had to be represented in a certain way. So what realism means is not a kind of fanatical imitation of reality. What the realistic novel means, on the contrary, is the disruption of the dominant way in which reality was represented. If we think that for
realism that every subject is good, this means ultimately that there are no subjects – very well sensed by Flaubert – that all subjects are equivalent and that ultimately there are no subjects at all. This counts for the realistic novelists, as well as for abstract art. There is no subject matter at all. So this opposition between realism, modernism and postmodernism is all a fake imagination. We really have to get rid of it. Take, for instance, the idea of modernism as the autonomy of the arts. Historically modernism was about the contrary: it was the idea that art had to be committed to modern life, the idea that art had to create forms of life – no more paintings and symphonies and so on.

It’s not that I want to replace concepts with better concepts. What is bad about those categories for me is that they rely on an idea of historical necessity. In the case of the three regimes I try to define three forms of function. But this does not mean: three historical ages. The aesthetic regime is the regime in which all forms can coexist. At the same time, the aesthetic regime is defined by a specific form of aesthetic experience. But basically, this regime is of coexistence. Let us look at the notion of the classics. This notion is a modern invention; an invention of the aesthetic regime. Before, we had the distinction between the ancients and the moderns. The very idea of ‘the classics’ is to re-qualify and to re-inscribe ancient literature in the present. In the seventeenth or eighteenth century nobody ever played Sophocles, or Aeschylus. They were praised, but not played. And now they are played. The point is that the aesthetic regime allows old forms to coexist with new forms. It is fascinating if you think of cinema. What cinema did in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and specifically in Hollywood, was to reinvent definitions of genres, and old separations disappeared. For instance, look at the directions of the great Hollywood producers: the idea that a plot must be like this. The idea of action and plot was the same as the idea in the eighteenth century about theatre. This also means that the aesthetic regime is a regime of ambivalence. Aesthetic experience is experience of the ambivalent. The aesthetic experience is set up as a kind of disruption. In Kant and Schiller, for instance, there is a kind of experience that is distinguished from the ordinary connections of experience. At the same time, we know, as it is disconnected from the hierarchical organization of the sensible, it became the basis of a new idea of revolution and a new idea of community where people are equal as sensible creatures and not only as citizens. So the aesthetic regime gave a new form to ethical thinking. It is clear that revolutionary art is a kind of wavering between the idea of aesthetic experience and of art that is supposed to create new forms of life and to suppress itself. So what I tried to do is to substitute teleological concepts and historical necessity, by categories that help us to understand the entanglement of different logics.

Let’s turn to the question of political or politicized art. Are there any criteria or valid foundations on the basis of which we can judge whether an artwork is political or not? Or what the politics is of a particular artwork? Your response has been: there are no criteria, only choices. But in your readings in cinema (in Eisenstein’s The General Line for example) you talk about the narrative that desires to produce a certain meaning but which always gets interrupted or in some way thwarted by an element in the artwork which is non-signifying, which cannot as quickly be ascribed to a meaning. So there is this kind of play between meaning and materiality in an artwork. Connecting that argument of yours, which you have shown in literature but also in cinema, could you say if that would be, if not a foundation, a way to judge whether the artwork is political or not? Would that be going some way towards it by highlighting this aspect of meaning and its interruption? Does that relate to politics and aesthetics?

First of all, we cannot enclose the question in the concept of politics of art. What is efficient is not art in and of itself; art is part of a certain distribution of the sensible – part of a certain reconfiguration of experience. What was important, in the case of workers’ emancipation, was the possibility of leisure and the ability to see paintings, much more than specific words or paintings. People were not emancipated by revolutionary painting. But they could acquire a new kind of body, a new gaze out of this availability of any kind of painting. There is something wrong with the idea that political effects are to be located in the artwork itself or, in particular, in the intention of the artist. What happens in the aesthetic regime of art is that artists create objects that escape their will. Sometimes it denies their will. There are democratic works that are made precisely by artists who were not at all democrats.

Secondly, there is a political potential where there is a disruption of a given organization of the relation between the sensible presentation and forms of meanings. We know that this idea was implemented by political artists – like Eistenstein. Eisenstein was playing a double play: on the one side, Eisenstein was playing on the rigours of editing and cutting, the organization of the shots as a production of a meaning. And at the same time, he plays on something quite different. There is a kind of lyricism in the sequences of The General Line that is obviously borrowed from the tradition of Russian painting. Let us look over and over again at the political artist, who plays on the disturbing element; I am thinking of estrangement in Brecht, of course. I would say estrangement is also a kind of double play, because there is this kind of straight line, you actually choose something that is strange; but as you choose it, it is disturbing in the very scenery of the sensible.

This disturbing element must lead to the awareness that there is something wrong with the social order. But obviously there is no reason to believe that civil disturbance, as an effect, will lead to an awareness of the political situation of the world and to mobilization. On the one hand, Brecht’s view of estrangement relies on the Marxist theory of alienation; on the other hand it relies on the surrealist and Dadaist practice of disturbing elements. But in this case the disturbing element leads to no specific form of awareness or mobilization. This politics of the uncanny elements is always ambivalent because of the meaning and the withdrawal of meaning. When you look at this play, you can define a politics of aesthetics – using some forms of disturbance or the uncanny. But what’s important: you cannot define the effects of it. The politics of literature, or the politics of art, is not oriented at the constitution of political subjects. It is much more oriented at the reframing of the field of subjectivity as an impersonal field. In a certain way, the political interpretation of the uncanny in terms of effects is always a kind of negotiation. Art is going elsewhere. And politics has to catch it. The problem is not what artists have to do to become political; the question has to be reversed: what do political subjects have to do with art?

You’ve talked about the constitution of the subjects as an impersonal field. In your books you have made very clear that one cannot ascribe a certain set of qualities to a certain group of people, which is exactly the ‘police regime’. There is no prescribed subject of the revolution as in the old days we used to talk about the working class, et cetera. In a sense, then, your theory about the subject, who would be related to the practice of dissensus, is always in formation and hybrid. The hybridity of the subject becomes very clear in The Nights of Labor. These workers are workers, but the problem is they are something else. So you have developed a theory of the subject as hybrid, as changing, and in a way as errant – wandering in a place they shouldn’t be wandering. How would you relate this theory of the subject to the rise of identity politics, theories of our identity both within and outside the academy? One field is postcolonial studies, where there has been an ongoing critique of the unified subject with a fixed essence. How would the development of your theory of the subject throughout your work relate to some of these ways of thinking?

As you probably know, I am French [laughter]. In France there is no identity politics, there are no postcolonial studies. This means I never had to address those kinds of issues that are crucial in other countries. They are systematically ignored in France. So my dealing with the question of the subject never was an attempt to address issues of identity politics or hybrid, postcolonial identities and so on. Basically I have no interest in creating a theory of the subject. When I was young, in the time of Althusserianism, there were these strong statements about the subject who is ensnared or entrapped in the symbolic order and we would know what happens when the subject wants to get out of the trap. My interest was to define subjects in terms of capacity and not in terms of incapacity. Also I did not want to define natures of subjects, but processes of subjectivization.

This was thirty years ago; I wanted to get out of a certain description of social identities like, for instance, the idea of popular culture, workers' thinking, and so on. What I’ve tried to define is the way in which every form of subjectivization is a form of dis-identification. Certainly there you can see some relations between my dealing with identity and subjectivity, and the problems in postcolonial studies. I’ve only taken a different perspective. But I don’t like so much this notion of hybridity, because it seems to refer much more to the constitution of a subject rather than to processes of subjectivization.

You have been extremely critical in many of your books about the turn towards a kind of politics which gets reduced to the state, and in particular, about the ways in which experts, philosophers, sociologists, other intellectuals and administrators withdraw into something like a state apparatus which then claims to function as a democracy. Here in the Netherlands, we have a certain history of the partage du sensible as well, which is the ‘zuilensysteem’ or so-called pillar system. All kinds of groups had gotten their own institutional spaces and society was neatly divided between all of these communities. Around the late 1990’s that started falling apart when certain discussions came up around the immigrant – in particular the “not well-educated, preferably Muslim” immigrant. There was an attack on the way
Dutch society was structured; an attack on the so-called elites in The Hague. There was almost a kind of attempt of repartition of what society would mean here. The pillar system is bad, elites are wrong; and there should be a politics in the name of the people. There is this vague, amorphous thing called ‘people’ without any fixed subject. Could this development in the Netherlands be seen as an example of dissensus? And does dissensus have any political leanings? Can you think of a partage du sensible which is right wing, or not emancipatory?

I am not arguing for people or against the elites. I argue about two forms of structuration of the community. The logic of police versus the logic of politics does not mean the elites are the bad ones and the people are good. What I try to distinguish are not two categories of populations, but two logics of functioning. The logic of police is the logic of separate competence; that there is a specific competence for governing people. The logic of politics is the logic of equal competence of anybody. It rarely happens that the people agree with this idea because they think that there are parts of the population that obviously are not competent and should be put aside. We are in a situation where there is this kind of oligarchic attempt to erase the political stage. When this stage tends to disappear you can see new forms of strange organization, or restructuration, of the community
and of the relation between the same and the other, and so on. This happened in France with Le Pen. What was the basis of the success of Le Pen? Precisely this void of the political stage: the possibility to present a kind of caricature or perversion of politics in the name of the people. But the question is: in the name of what people?
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