Mass mobilisation, democratic transition and transitional violence in Africa

Published on Pambazuka News, by Michael Neocosmos, March 31, 2011.

The North African protests have renewed enthusiasm for ‘a popularly driven process mass mobilisation’, not only as a means for people to force changes in leadership, but also to ‘demand a greater say in the running of their own lives’. But can the masses sustain their status as ‘full-blown political subjects’, rather than ‘victims’ in need of ‘empowerment’, asks Michael Necosmos … //

… It follows that to attempt to understand political change in Africa through the medium of a transition from authoritarianism to democracy privileges the thinking of state politics. As a result, it can only fail to make sense of the increase in certain pervasive forms of violence in neo-colonial (post-democratic) African states. Such forms of violence are not an indication of regression to authoritarianism or of loss of momentum in an ongoing democratic transition, but rather are a necessary outcome of the combination of neoliberal capitalism and neoliberal democracy in a context of neocolonialism wherein a dominant form of oppression is national in content. 

My critique of neoliberalism and democracy along with its understanding of ‘transition’ thus extends well beyond the usual radical Left critique which consists in stressing that human rights and transitional justice fail to acknowledge the issues of social justice and re-distribution [e.g. of land and other resources] in favour of the historically dispossessed.[17] This perspective ultimately boils down to ‘extending’ the conception of rights to include social, economic or cultural rights much along the lines propounded by T.H. Marshall in the 1960s.[18] This radical nationalist critique is thus limited and fundamentally statist because founded on notions of legal redress, so that it remains well within the terrain of a depoliticised technical process. At best it may advocate a modification of the state and a form of justice which is not founded on the power of victors but which would ensure greater social inclusion in the interest of all survivors.[19] Rather, social justice issues constitute only a part of a much broader national political question which is systematically reproduced in a neocolonial context by the politics of state and empire, and which is thus irresolvable via the deployment of state nationalist thinking. Given the disastrous politics of both state nationalism and state democracy which are founded on the immutability of the social, the solution to this question can only begin to be constructed by bringing affirmative politics back in to thought in order to re-politicise what has become a fundamentally depoliticised subjectivity. In this manner politics can be (re-) apprehended as subjective thought detached from social location and hence as capable of transformation rather than as the objectively immutable ‘truth’ of power and institutions. In other words the lessons of popular mass politics in North Africa must be allowed to percolate into the domain of the subjective so that a politics beyond the state can become and remain the object of thought. (full long text).

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