These words – seven of the most pernicious that, in terms of import and impact, have ever been uttered by any politician – launched a new phase in the globalisation of the neoliberal project, as well as, its offspring – poverty and inequality. But the neoliberal project has been deleterious much more in terms of its impact on democracy and, in this respect, South Africa has not been spared. What is even more dangerous is the zombification of politics and the unholy bond between (il)liberal democracy and capitalism. The seven deadly words I have referred to above were spoken more than thirty years after the end of the Second World War by the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
As stated in the book, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed (Cultural Politics and the Promise of Democracy) by Henry A. Giroux, “In 1945 or 1950, if you had seriously proposed any of the ideas and policies in today’s standard neo-liberal toolkit, you would have been laughed off the stage or sent off to the insane asylum.… The idea that the market should be allowed to make major social and political decisions; the idea that the State should voluntarily reduce its role in the economy, or that corporations should be given total freedom, that trade unions should be curbed and citizens given much less rather than more social protection—such ideas were utterly foreign to the spirit of the time.” Today, the doctrine and dogma of neoliberalism is as true as the Bible to governments all over the world including our own African National Congress (ANC) government which, unlike others, still has the decency to hide its neoliberal impulses behind a facade of revolutionary-sounding verbiage. What happened to the world? What happened to us?
University of Cape Town professor, Dr Lwazi Lushaba, talks about how capitalism creates human beings with certain appetites, what I call ideologically engineered appetites. These appetites make these human beings consume that which profits, promotes and sustains capitalism and the classes whose interests it exists to reproduce and buttress. This human being now believes that the primary duty of citizenship is to consume that which capitalism tells him and her is socially, politically and economically nutritious. This human being, so created by capitalism, now believes that consumerism – the constant hunger for material things and consumer goods – is the pinnacle of human evolution and development. This zombie – a creation of capitalism and its spouses neoliberalism and liberal democracy – is uncritical of the market, and to him and her, capitalism and democracy are the same thing. This human being, this zombie, as Henry Giroux puts it, is a product of an education system whose component parts – crèches, schools, colleges and universities – are dead zones of dis -imagination. To these human beings, these zombies, human solidarity is a perversity and extreme individualism is progressive. To be social in attitude, orientation and impulse is to be pathological. There is no such thing as society!
In another book by Giroux, Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, a critical question is posed,“What kind of society emerges when it is governed by the market-driven assumption that the only value that matters is exchange value, when the common good is denigrated to the status of a mall, and the larger social order is composed only of individuals free to pursue their own interests? What happens to democracy when a government inflicts on the American public narrow market-driven values, corporate relations of power, and policies that impose gross inequities on society, and condemns young people to a precarious, debt-ridden existence in which the future begins to resemble a society of zombies engaged in a remake of dystopian films such as Mad Max (1979), Brazil (1985), RoboCop (1987), Minority Report (2002), District Nine (2009), Comopolis (2012) and The Purge (2013).”
The answer (from the same book)?, “We now live in a world overrun with flesh-eating zombies, parasites who have a ravenous appetite for global destruction and civic catastrophe.”
I have already made reference to us, citizens, as victims of capitalism, neoliberalism and liberal democracy – the building blocks of our zombification.
But I understand Giroux to be talking about something else: You know how an experiment goes wrong and a scientist is turned into a monster by his own formula? Understood this way, Giroux is talking about how capitalism is no longer the creation. It has become the creator – the zombifier. The capitalist and those who sustain the system on his behalf have become zombified. Their appetites, as we have seen during the current COVID-19 crisis, these zombies, insatiably hunger for poverty, inequality and the tyranny of money. The Covid-19 crisis has infected them with more obscene wealth. What makes this variant of zombies unspeakably corrupt is the fact that it has a mind but parts of its consciousness, where the moral and ethical should reside, are dead – by choice. The political class, at a global and domestic level, is integral to this dynamic. The post-apartheid state, a neo-apartheid state, and the post-apartheid ANC government, as well as, the Democratic Alliance are all integral to this dynamic of zombification. Does this mean there is no way out? There is no hope?
Because the zombie is used as a metaphor in this article, we must refuse to breathe life into it. Even if capital and our political class are content with being zombies, a condition from which they derive immense benefit in power and the power of money, we must become creators of a new social, political and economic order. We must become authors of a new socio-political and socio-economic order. The starting point is freedom from the known and the destination is the elimination of the gap between policy and reality. We must engage in struggles to eliminate the gap between words and what they describe. The lived reality of South African citizens must describe the words – beautiful words such as freedom, democracy, equality, non-racialism, non-sexism, reconciliation and radical economic transformation. We, through struggles in a context of the social, must breathe life into these words, the words of our Constitution and create a new reality for new words. Freedom from the known is the most revolutionary and democratic thing we can do to breathe life into the words, The People Shall Govern!
What is the known?
The primary ‘known’ is you – your identity, fears, political preferences, pre-existing views and ideas, and so on. Another known is what ‘is’. In this case, the challenge is to transition from what is – the current political system, economic order, the ruling party, the Constitution and so on – to what ‘should be’ or ‘can be’. The movement between what is and what should be is creativity, that is; the creation of something new – a complete departure from what is. Another known is the ‘knowledge’ we have acquired since knowledge by its nature is always in the past and in our neoliberal-capitalist matrix, knowledge exists more for the accumulation of credentials and job interviews than as a tool for the amelioration of the human condition. Worse, knowledge is a commodity to be traded in the zombie markets of capitalism. To the extent that knowledge is what ‘was’ and what ‘is’, freedom from the known is the first step towards creating what ‘should be’. Freedom from this known will help us avoid the errors that come with using old and past knowledge to find solutions to the challenges of the present. But, freedom from the known is, in part, contingent on understanding and mastering the known. Therefore, freedom from the known is about resistance to attachment but detachment, disinterest and indifference are not the opposites of attachment. Freedom is the opposite of attachment. Other ‘knowns’ are inequality, poverty and unemployment. In this regard, the ‘known’ is the face of a black woman. In this respect, freedom from the known is a non-negotiable. If capitalism, neoliberalism and liberal democracy are as corrupt as I say they are, what is it that sustains them? In the words of Frederic Bastiat, who was a member of the French National Assembly, “When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.” As Giroux says, that is why the crooks known to us as hedge-fund managers and other banksters enjoy our respect and admiration.
If democracy must have meaning Margaret Thatcher’s words must be treated as the rambling of a insane liar and lunatic. As citizens and civil society, we must reclaim the social space as a place where human solidarity is integral to the natural order of things. As the Indian philosopher, J. Krishnamurti, taught us, true freedom from the known means we must be independent from gurus, authority, primary definers and all other ‘knowns’ that hold us back. We must create a new known, a new social reality that will be the antithesis of the zombie state we are in. There is no such thing as society? Codswallop!
Aubrey Matshiqi is a seasoned political analyst and writes in his personal capacity.