achille mbembe on the inadequacy of neoliberal definitions of humanity and citizenship

Antonia Mora

Image: Antonio Mora

The “human” in the South African context

Whether there is anything which is still to be rediscovered or to be reanimated from the term “the human” takes on a paradoxical resonance in contemporary South Africa. With the end of apartheid, South African culture and society was confronted with the urgency of engaging in affirmative politics in lieu of the politics of destruction of the years of racial segregation. Affirmative politics entailed the production of social horizons of hope. At the same time, it meant resisting both the inertia of the present and the nostalgia of the past. To reconstruct what centuries of racial brutality had destroyed, a balance had to be found between the mobilization, actualization and deployment of cognitive, affective and creative possibilities which had not so far been activated, along with a necessary dose of oppositional consciousness.

Critical humanism in this new context would have meant a persistent commitment to the possibilities and powers of life. There is substantial evidence that a return to the question of the possibilities and powers of life as a precondition for the reconstitution of “the human” in politics and culture was recognized as a matter of ethical and political urgency during the first decade of democracy. During this decade, South Africa became a model of how to dismantle a racial mode of rule, strike down race-based frameworks of citizenship and the law while striving to create racial equality through positive State action. The post-apartheid State fostered a normative project with the aim of achieving justice through reconciliation, equality through economic redress, democracy through the transformation of the law and the restoration of a variety of rights, including the right to a dignified life. This normative project was enshrined in a utopian Constitution that attempts to establish a new relationship between law and society on the one hand and law and life on the other, while equating democracy and the political itself with the ethical and the just. This Constitution’s underlying principle is ubuntu or human mutuality. It promises a transcendence of the old politics of racial difference and an affirmation of a shared humanity. Underpinning the Constitution is the hope that, after centuries of attempts by white power to contain blacks, South Africa could become the speech-act of a certain way of being-in-common rather than side by side.

This drive to “re-humanize” society and culture and to institutionalize a new political community that defines itself as an ethical community is nevertheless unfolding against various odds. Perhaps to a degree hardly achieved in the rest of the Continent, the human has consistently taken on the form of waste within the peculiar trajectory race and capitalism espoused in South Africa. Traditionally, we speak of “waste” as something produced bodily or socially by humans. In this sense, “waste” is that which is other than the human. Traditionally too, we speak of the intrinsic capacity of capitalism to waste human lives. We speak of how workers are wasted under capitalism in comparable fashion to natural resources. Marx in particular characterizes capitalist production as thoroughly wasteful with what he calls “human material” just as it is with “material resources”. It squanders “human beings, living labour”, “squandering not only flesh and blood, but nerves and brain, life and health as well”, he writes. In order to grasp the particular drama of the human in the history of South Africa, we should broaden this traditional definition of “waste” and consider the human itself as a waste product at the interface of race and capitalism. Squandering and wasting black lives has been an intrinsic part of the logic of capitalism, especially in those contexts in which race is central to the simultaneous production of wealth and of superfluous people.

Today, this logic of waste is particularly dramatized by the dilemmas of unemployment and disposability, survival and subsistence, and the expansion in every arena of everyday life of spaces of vulnerability. Despite the emergence of a solid black middle class, a rising superfluous population is becoming a permanent fixture of the South African social landscape with little possibility of ever being exploited by capital. Only a dwindling number of individuals can now claim to be workers in the traditional sense of the term. How to govern the poor has therefore become one of the biggest moral questions facing the nascent democracy. Behind policy debates on “welfare” and “service delivery” loom fundamental ethical choices that will determine the nature of the South African experiment in democracy – questions of how to right historical wrongs; what is the relationship between personal or collective injury and larger problems of equality, justice and the law; hunger and morality; owning and sharing; or even truth, hope and reconciliation. The urgency of these new moral dilemmas is such that, for the democratic project to have any future at all, it should necessarily take the form of a conscious attempt to retrieve life and “the human” from a history of waste.

Wealth and property

Meanwhile, wealth and property have acquired a new salience in public debate. They have become the key, central idioms to framing and naming ongoing social struggles – from imagining the relationship between “the good life” to redefining value itself; from claims of citizenship, rights and entitlements to the definition of the forms of property and the economy itself (whether we should nationalize or not); from matters of morality to those of lifestyle and accountability.

The centrality of wealth in the moral discourse concerning the “human’ is not new. In various parts of pre-colonial Africa, discourses on “the human”, or, on “humanity” almost always took the shape and content of discourses about “wealth”, “personhood” and “social multiplicity”. Traditional definitions of wealth usually encompassed “people”, “things” and “knowledge”.

“People”, that is, other human beings, were not only the most important unit of measurement of ultimate value. They also formed the material basis or infrastructure of human life. ‘People’ consisted of interpersonal dependents of all kinds – wives, children, clients and slaves. As Jane Guyer argues, they were sought, valued, and at times paid for at considerable expense in material terms. Kinship and marriage especially were critical components of accumulative strategies. But wealth also covered traded goods, including the imported goods brought from elsewhere. Things could be personalized objects. Goods could be functionally interchangeable with human beings who in turn could in certain respects be “objectified” or converted into clients or followers.

Wealth – embodied in rights in people – remained a persistent principle of African social and moral life even in the midst of the various shifts induced by the slave trade and colonialism. Knowledge on the other hand was understood as an ever shifting spectrum of possibility. Jane Guyer makes it clear that it was highly valued, complexly organized and plural by definition. There was no social organization of kinship and material life that did not depend, to some extent, on a regime of distribution of knowledge – the arts, music, dance, rhetoric, spiritual life, hunting, gathering, fishing, cultivation, wood-carving, metallurgy. If certain forms of knowledge were specialized, controlled and monopolized by a small cadre of experts or a secret society hierarchy, other forms of knowledge were conceptualized as an open and unbounded repertoire. This unboundedness made it possible for such forms of knowledge to be widely distributed throughout the society and among many adepts on the basis of personal capacity or potentiality.

Indeed, African pre-colonial discourses on the “human” allowed for personal differentiation or singularity. It was believed that certain qualities lived in the individual from his or her birth; which he or she had no need for “magic” to arouse although there was always the indispensable need for magical rites to conserve these. Personal abilities could be augmented, conserved and actualized within the person, making that person a “real person”, recognized as such by the community. Each individual person’s power was itself a composition.

That some of these old tropes might still be at work in current controversies on wealth and property should not be entirely excluded. But that wealth, poverty and property have become essential to the self-understanding of South African society after liberation should also be read against a long history of black dispossession. In the new phase of “frontier accumulation” made possible by the 1994 negotiated settlement, they have become the new idioms for political and normative arguments about what should be the proper relation of people to things; what should be the proper relation of people to each other with respect to things; how much property is enough for one person and how much is too much; how much enjoyment is justifiable especially for the opulent in an environment where hunger and debasement are all too real for many. It is this tension between what looks like an unstoppable logic of unproductive excess on the one hand and on the other, a logic of scarcity and depletion that is turning wealth and property into dramatic sites of contestation.

Wealth and property also operate as means of regulating access to resources that are scarce for some and plentiful for others. They are the main means by which life chances are assigned to different kinds of persons at a time when pockets of wealth and privilege are proving hard not only to account for and even less so to control, but also hard to subject to some form of accountability and redistribution. Furthermore, as Arjun Appadurai observes, the life of the poor has become a strenuous effort to produce, if not a sense of stability, then something like permanence in the face of the temporariness or volatility of almost all the arrangements of social existence. Indeed, one of the most brutal effects of neo-liberalism in South Africa has been the generalization and radicalization of a condition of temporariness for the poor. For many people, the struggle to be alive has taken the form of a struggle against the constant corrosion of the present, both by change and by uncertainty.

In order to reanimate the idea of “the human” in contemporary South African politics and culture, there is therefore no escape from the need to reflect on the thoroughly political and historical character of wealth and property and the extent to which wealth and property have come to be linked with bodily life. If what distinguishes the South African experiment from other such experiments elsewhere in the world is the attempt to establish a new relationship between law and life while equating democracy and the political itself with the ethical and the just, then we have to ask under what conditions can this project of human mutuality result in a broader and more ethical commensality.

Read the rest of this essay HERE.

One thought on “achille mbembe on the inadequacy of neoliberal definitions of humanity and citizenship

  1. Pingback: homo sacer – diagrammatic explanation | fleurmach

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