A Protest Nation’s Crisis


For Antonio Gramsci, crises become organic when they are thrown up directly by contradictions in how the capitalist system functions; when they are dynamic, in that they are not confined to particular actors, events, issues, or moments in time or place; and consequently when they are a process rather than a momentary eruption. The demands being raised may be diverse, and at times even incompatible. Such crises usually arise when a particular regime of capitalist accumulation becomes unsustainable because of its own internal contradictions. In such circumstances, the ruling bloc (or the coalition of interests that underpin a particular ruling group) loses its legitimacy on a mass scale. An organic crisis develops when the following conditions are met:

* popular capacity for action increases;

* more people can be detached from the previous hegemonic bloc and be convinced to side with the subaltern classes;

* there is a decline in the capacity of the elite to offer significant concessions; and

* there is also a decline in the capacity of the hegemonic bloc to mobilise effective repression.

Under these conditions, the hegemonic bloc cannot offer concessions easily, yet neither can it repress easily. The question of whether protests, including those in South Africa, are part of a revolutionary wave, rather than being isolated, single-country protest cycles, is an important one, as it speaks to whether the protests will fizzle out in time or escalate into fundamental and transformative challenges to the system on a worldwide scale.

It seems fair to say that the neoliberal phase of capitalism has entered a period of organic crisis in several regions of the world. This phase is characterised by the financialisation of the economy, the rise of permanent mass unemployment and the decline in rates of profit, creating conditions for a political crisis. In other words, these features make this phase particularly unstable in that it creates conditions for mass revolt, as fewer concessions can be offered than in earlier expansionary periods (such as was the case under social democracy), while the system cannot generate enough profit to prevent itself from contracting and even collapsing, worsening the socio-economic conditions even more. Yet, in order to continue ruling, managers of the neoliberal system – governments, financiers and other big capitalists – need to maintain consent, which they find increasingly difficult to do. If they resort to coercion to stabilise the system, they risk losing even more support. Their inability to resolve these crises lie at the heart of the current period’s organic crisis.

The mobilisations in Chiapas, the Occupy movement in the United States, the ‘pink tide’ in Latin America, the ‘Arab spring’, Palestinian struggles against Israeli occupation, and anti-austerity protests in a range of countries, culminating in the election of the Syriza government in Greece, are all examples of challenges to the system in different regions of the world (some more successful than others). Less well known and studied is the wave of protests that engulfed sub-Saharan Africa in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian political revolutions, with the most pronounced ones erupting in Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

For Laurence Cox, if protest cycles are sustained in more than one region of the world over a period of at least fifteen years, this is a further indication that the crisis is organic rather than episodic; as a result, the multiple resistances that have been mounted against the system could be described credibly as a revolutionary wave. Sustained regional disruptions usually happen at least once every twenty years. The fact that some have not led to regimes falling, and that where political revolutions have been achieved they have not necessarily deepened into social revolutions, becomes less significant if revolutionary waves are understood as a process rather than an event. If these protests have brought new political actors onto the streets, resulting in new forms of organisation, and extracted significant concessions from ruling elites, shaking the state in the process, then they could be described as moving in an anti-systemic direction. This is because the protests build confidence in the power of collective action, and consequently have the potential to extract even more significant concessions in future, culminating in fundamental shifts in power and even revolutionary outcomes at a later date.

Needless to say, the ruling elite may well choose repression over accommodation if they feel sufficiently threatened, leading to them relying increasingly on the coercive rather than civil capacities of the state. But as Cox has observed, decisions such as these can come with high political costs, which may make them less-than-inviting options. Regimes that have resorted to widespread repression have not lasted but have eventually been swept away, and many of those associated with this hegemonic bloc have become de-legitimised in the process. This is why in moments of systemic crisis there may be mass defections to the growing counter-hegemonic bloc. The police and standing armies may rebel and refuse to shoot protestors as they may identify with their grievances or fear the consequences of their actions, triggering a political crisis that the elite cannot recover from as they lose the coercive power necessary to remain in office by force. Furthermore, if members of a hegemonic bloc are defeated, they may face retribution after the change in power, which is another strategic consideration. Anyone in power and thinking about their long-term survival will need to weigh these considerations very carefully before resorting to repression.

With these points in mind, the important question arises: is the South African state likely to kill again in the manner that it did in Marikana? Not likely, as the political costs of resorting to massacres are too high. While it is significant that no widespread protests erupted in the wake of the massacre, the event could be described credibly as a turning point, or an event that transforms structures, and popular agency is restructuring itself increasingly outside the hegemonic ANC alliance. In addition to the political shifts mentioned in the previous chapter, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which provides the ANC with a mass voting base, has also been fragmenting. Fewer social actors can be integrated into the existing system, and more people are being detached from the previous hegemonic bloc dominated by the ANC alliance. This means that the massacre has extracted a longer-term political cost from the ANC that the party ignores at its peril. The ANC appears to be feeling the heat and has begun to make significant concessions; for instance, it has promised to act more decisively on land reform.

These developments are indications that – in spite of the ANC government having increased the coercive capacities of the state – there are significant constraints on its ability to use violence to stabilise social relations. Furthermore, the government cannot rely on the military to suppress the populace if insurrectionary conditions arise, as the military itself is a troubled institution and its internal discontent has even spilled out into the streets in the form of protests. Political elites are inevitably tempted to use coercion to suppress dissent, but unless they can be sure that they will maintain political consent they simply cannot risk going down this path: losing legitimacy is too great a cost to bear. This is especially so if a national movement does succeed in generalising many of the protest grievances and demands and relating them to neoliberalism; workers and the poor, who face the brunt of the system, are increasingly unlikely to consent to supporting and funding their own oppression.

The administration of President Jacob Zuma presented the working class and the unemployed with a historic opportunity to make gains. It seems fair to say that this opportunity has not been realised to the extent that was hoped by those who supported the ‘Polokwane revolution’ (as the shift in power from former president Thabo Mbeki to Zuma at the ANC’s 2007 elective conference in Polokwane has come to be known). While the subjective conditions for a shift away from the neoliberalisation of South Africa existed at the time, the objective conditions did not. Zuma came to power just after recession swept the globe, narrowing the scope for progressive manoeuvrability. In other words, the current government’s ability to resort to repression is limited; but so too is its ability to offer meaningful concessions. This means that the South African political landscape bears the hallmarks of having entered an organic crisis.


This is an edited excerpt from Jane Duncan’s latest book, Protest Nation (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press), which is available at all good bookshops. 

Main Photo: Protestors set fire to a bus in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, during student protests at Wits University — By Daylin Paul

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