Constitutional Watch

Constitutional Democracy and Revolutionary Talk

Charles Simkins
Charles Simkins.jpg

To claim to be a constitution democrat and a revolutionary at the same time, as happens in South Africa seems odd.

One can support a constitutional democracy on the grounds that it is a better form of government than any other.

One can be a revolutionary, dissatisfied with the existing political order and wanting to overthrow it in favour of an envisaged better alternative.

But to claim to be a constitutional democrat and a revolutionary at the same time – now that is odd. Yet, we see it constantly in contemporary South Africa. What explains the phenomenon?

Three hypotheses suggest themselves.

People are really constitutional democrats and sham revolutionaries.

For instance, the Labour Party in the UK put the famous Clause IV in their constitution in 1918:

 To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable  distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

 This clause remained for decades, while Labour party policies pursued no such aim, and was removed only in 1995. Our own National Party, well into apartheid, organised from time to time to organise a ‘stryddag’ (struggle day) for its supporters. Revolutionary talk can work well on the hustings. The psychodynamics are the same as in big tent American evangelism. The crowd is worked up, enemies are denounced, the symbols are displayed and everyone goes home feeling better. The Rapture. Nationalisation. Die eeu van onreg (The century of injustice). The national democratic revolution (phase two). Different parts of the same street.

People are really revolutionaries and sham constitutional democrats.  

Austrian Nazis had as their constant aim the union of Austria and Germany, which eventually happened in April 1938. In the lead up period, the slogan was ‘Always think of it, never speak of it’.

Austrian Nazis were Hitler’s fifth column but maintained a public posture of loyalty to Austrian democracy, until it collapsed.  

From time to time (not always), the communist parties of old had a policy of ‘entryism’. While keeping their political identity secret, cadres would enter non-communist organizations and seek to manipulate them for communist goals.

Another example: Latin American politicians of the nineteenth century often regarded their democratic constitutions as something ‘for the English to look at’ rather than the basis for their own political conduct.

Or again, consider the criminality which has penetrated to the heart of the Italian state, subverting the publicly stated political positions of both left and right.

 While both these groups of people exist in contemporary South Africa, deeper consideration leads to a third hypothesis:

Doublethink.

George Orwell was the originator of this concept and defined it as follows:

 “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancel out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, and to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy.”

For Orwell, this was not just science fiction to support his novel ‘1984’.  He had seen it all around him in the 1930s (the ‘low dishonest decade’) and the 1940s.  It is a frame of mind that is induced by an autocracy which seeks to penetrate and control a whole society: the surveillance and mobilizing state.

Old fashioned autocracies required public conformity, but left private space. The terrifying thing about ‘1984’ is that the realm of the private has ceased to exist altogether.

The mark of doublethink is not just pervasive deceit.  It is also disabling self-deceit. As Orwell knew, the defences against it are plain speaking, plain writing, and accurate observation.    

To know and not to know. South Africa is full of convoluted disquisitions about race and class written with a nervous eye to political correctness. Hermeneutical suspicion is directed at anything resembling a fact, or worse, a statistic.

“There is nothing outside context”, said Derrida, and attempts to supply it have become increasingly fantastic. The social scientists who studied poverty in the 1920s and 1930s were wiser. They simply got into their Model T Fords and went to have a look. The world is all that is the case.

To know and not to know. Blade Nzimande told the Youth Communist League in December 2014 that:

“One of the principal challenges facing our movement at the moment is that of defeating what the SACP has correctly characterized as an anti-majoritarian, liberal offensive, whose objective is regime change to dislodge the liberation movement from power.

“What we see happening in parliament to-day is an attack on majority rule and all its institutions…The agenda is simply that where the ANC is the majority, the opposition must rule through the courts, the public protector etc, and that when all this fails, the opposition must resort to hooliganism… A big component of this anti-majoritarian offensive against our movement is sections of the media, including pockets inside the public broadcaster.”

As though majority rule were the only component of democracy, as though the majority party could not change without ‘regime change’, as though democracies do not require free speech, freedom of the press, the maintenance of rights, an independent legal system, respect for all citizens, and the testing of ideas in open debate.

The South African state’s surveillance and mobilizing capacity is limited and it cannot prevent a growing perception of Monty Python absurdity in current politics.

For the CEO of ESKOM to say: "There is no crisis at Eskom. I think the way Eskom gets reported on creates the perception of a crisis" is absurd.  

To say that SA's energy problems are a product of apartheid and the government is not to blame for the current blackouts, is absurd.

To dress up pre-modern patrimonialism as avant-garde cadre deployment is absurd.

 The failure to see and confront effectively the seriousness of current South African economic circumstances will turn out to be tragic. What is really revolutionary now is breaking the spell, seeing things plainly and acting accordingly. 

                                                                                                            by Charles Simkins

 (Charles Simkins is senior researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation and this article first appeared on the foundation’s website. It was slightly subbed  by Piet Coetzer.)



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