Ralph Mathekga

Could identity politics be necessary to highlight democracy's shortcomings?

2019-03-31 06:00
Francis Fukuyama, politieke wetenskaplike, politieke ekonoom en skrywer

Francis Fukuyama, politieke wetenskaplike, politieke ekonoom en skrywer

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Perhaps populism is good to an extent that it creates discomfort that results in the necessary modification of liberal democracy. Even the EFF members would not like to live in a communist society, writes Ralph Mathekga.

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to host a discussion with the renowned scholar Professor Francis Fukuyama during his book launch here in South Africa.

Fukuyama needs no introduction in academic and foreign policy circles, having authored the controversial 1989 essay titled The End of History.

I was introduced to Fukuyama's work as a first-year political philosophy student and have since followed his work throughout my studies. He has irritated progressive leftist thinkers when he argued that liberal democracy – or the western version of market society – has come out as the most preferred method of organising society for the world.

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Fukuyama's theory is more complicated; but his main idea by then was that the world's destiny is liberal democracy, the system that he argued triumphed over communism. This made perfect sense towards the end of the '80s; the period during which communism succumbed to liberalism as the Soviet Union collapsed. The iron curtain fell, and the '90s saw a big push towards liberal western democratic models, including the fall of apartheid in the early '90s.

Fukuyama's idea that human kind – whose progress is the movement of history – had come full cycle. Hence, he also saw prospects for a big global push towards liberal democracy.

To Fukuyama's mind the world had settled for liberal democracy, of course with some variations and modifications here and there. For a while, he was the superstar of the so-called neoconservative thinkers; especially those foreign policy hawks in the United Stated who pushed the idea that liberal democracy (and the western version for that matter) can also be extended to the Middle East. What a disastrous turn of events!

History pulled a big surprise and demonstrated that the world has not fully accepted liberal democracy, although there was willingness to try this system out.

The reality of that liberal democracy is not as dominant as Fukuyama predicted; it has internal weaknesses that have inspired some to question its fundamental values and the way it organises the society including resultant inequalities that have grown very widely.

The Soviet Union collapsed in the '90s, but Russia did not become democratic. China has embraced a state driven market economy but the country has not democratised. Democracies emerged across the world, yet they did not necessarily become fully fledged liberal democracies. There has been such modification of liberal democracies to a point where there is just a little liberalism left in some democracies. Today we talk about illiberal phenomena that attempt to push for recognition.

Populism a threat to liberal democracy

To all these variations, Fukuyama has an answer in his latest book Identity, which we discussed during his current visit to South Africa.

His response to how things have turned out since he wrote the End of History is that, liberal democracy is under threat due to identity politics. He argues that identity politics have inspired populism that ultimately threatens the values of liberal democracy.

I have been fascinated with populism as a phenomenon that keeps popping up in democratic societies, including model western democracies. There are different types of populism; ranging from right wing populism to leftist nationalistic populism. Despite the differences, the basic claims for populism have been to challenge liberal democracy as failing to understand the conditions of modern society.

To put it simply, when the right-wing groups come out and demand to be recognised as people with challenges that require that they are given space in a democratic society, what they are saying is that the liberal democratic system whereby everyone is treated equally is flawed and unfairly subjugate these groups to the dominant culture. This is seen as being unfair and unworkable; the main flaw of liberal democratic system.

Such (populist) challenges to democracy have taken different forms and are triggered by different factors. Some of those challenges are genuine, whilst others are plain opportunistic. To me, it does not matter whether the motives behind the populist moves are genuine. I do not care much as to whether Steve Hofmeyr's idea that Afrikaner culture – whichever way he formulates it – is under siege and not being recognised in post-apartheid South Africa.

It does not matter to me whether the EFF is genuine in their populist nationalist radical rhetoric. I don’t care much if those who are behind the #FeesMustFall campaign are genuine or simply opportunistic. Such judgements are often subjective anyway, and it is not my place to pass one as I seek to understand such movements.

The reality however is that the demands that are made by those groups are possible in a democratic society, and a liberal society. The question is whether those demands threaten democracy, or whether they enhance it. Quite often in South Africa, we write off populism as a project preferred by lunatics; as politics of the outliers or identity politics.

I asked Fukuyama how he sees the politics of the EFF, particularly their non-apologetic idea that they are concerned with the plight of black people.

The reality is that the EFF has observed South Africa and concluded that main stream politics – characterised by the cordial relationship between the DA and the ANC – does not function to the betterment of black people, the majority of whom have been historically disadvantaged.

The EFF therefore decided that the party's main project is delegitimising political moderates – and usher in radicalism. Ironically, Donald Trump made the same calculation when he maintained that Washington politics was illegitimate and did not represent the interests of the whites who are continually marginalised.

Using liberal democratic tools for populist agendas

Why is it possible for our societies, or liberal democratic societies for that matter, to create space for expressions of populist agenda?

If one looks at the political parties that have emerged recently towards the 2019 elections in South Africa, the majority of those parties are not located at the centre of our politics; they are radical parties that are interested in some form of identity politics.

Some of the newly formed parties are exclusively socialist, some are exclusively nationalist, whilst some are exclusively gender based. Those are parties that Fukuyama sees as a danger to liberal democracy because they emphasise lived experience as a source of mobilisation for political participation. This makes those parties ultimately rigid and impenetrable.

Quite interesting is that, proponents of identity politics who are raising concerns about the flaws of liberal democracy are using the tools of liberal democracy including constitutions to launch their conversations and political projects. Therefore, are they threatening democracy or are they making it better? Does liberal democracy require significant improvements, and how much "liberal" would remain once the improvements have been concluded?

ALSO WATCH: Fukuyama - Why SA must defend its institutions

These are questions that may not be answered conclusively. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that if left unchecked, liberal democracy is vulnerable to undue domination by interest groups, something that Fukuyama emphasises.

Some of the seemingly vile conversations that exist as ways to challenge liberal democracy may ultimately strengthen it and make it more inclusive. Perhaps populism is not bad, so long as it does not capture the centre of our politics.

Perhaps populism is good to an extent that it creates discomfort that results in the necessary modification of liberal democracy. Even the EFF members would not like to live in a communist society, or would they?

I often hear admiration for the China model, except that nobody wants to live in China. Identity politics is essential to an extent that it highlights the deficit of liberal democracy in a way that inspires the necessary modifications of the system. The best thing that has ever happened to capitalism is Marxism; which has inspired some significant reformulations of capitalism and the political system behind it.

Ultimately, all the radicals in South Africa may become more moderate as they get closer and closer to power. Their radicalism may simply be a way to open a conversation regarding some of the maladies of centre politics. The ultimate goal may not be to collapse the centre, but to improve it and make it more inclusive, or not?

- Ralph Mathekga is a senior researcher at UWC's Centre for Humanities Research, and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    francis fukuyama  |  china  |  democracy
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