Hyper-political anti-politics

Are we standing on the brink of a new kind of nihilistic governmentality, where politics is turned into perpetual theatre, disconnected from any kind of coherent government programming?

Andries du Toit
9 August 2017

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma ahead of the ANC 5th National Policy Conference in Soweto, South Africa, June 30, 2017. SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Press Association. All rights reserved.In many parts of the world, there is a growing crisis in the hegemony of what has commonly been called the ‘neoliberal’ project and its domination of the global order. Whether we are talking about the unexpected lurches that have characterized British politics since Brexit, the crisis that seems to have descended on US governance with the election of Donald Trump, or the rise to power of populist demagogues like Modi, Duterte, Erdoğan, Orbán or Zuma, a new kind of politics appears to be afoot.

As a result, we seem to be living in a world very different from the much more stable, possibly more conservative but certainly more legible world order presided over by the likes of Obama, Clinton and Mbeki. While the details differ from place to place – there’s worlds of difference, for instance, between the modalities of kleptocratic state capture in South Africa and the chaotic politics of Brexit Britain – there are also many uncanny resemblances and resonances, particularly at the level of political style and strategy. 

Post-truth populism?

Most fascinating and perplexing is the key role played in these new forms of populism of what is popularly called ‘post-truth’ politics. This in itself is a bit of an unsatisfactory term, often used as a short-hand for a wide range of dissimilar phenomena: the increased dissemination of gross lies and untruths in political discourse; the undermining and hollowing out of institutions of public science; the erosion of the authority of experts, scientists and professionals in political life; and an impatience with the limitations of constitutionalism, good governance and the institutions of statecraft. Much is often made of the connection between these phenomena and the increasing role of the Internet and social media. What are we to make of them? Are they coincidences?  Are they merely dramatic manifestations of perennial aspects of politics (‘the big lie’, ‘disinformation’, ‘mob rule’) that are not very novel after all? Or are we witnessing something novel and distinctive, the development of new strategies of rule and contestation systematically different from those that characterized the global political since, say, the fall of the Berlin wall?

Neoliberal technopolitics

One interesting vantage point from which to consider these questions relates to the study of what I called the government of poverty. 

For the last 10 years or so, my research has been concerned with trying to understand the potential and the limitations of present-day poverty and development research as a field of activity. In particular, I have argued that social and pro-poor policymaking in post-apartheid South Africa has happened within a distinctive framework of socio-technical deliberation.  

My working hypothesis has been that the best way to understand the enormous resources devoted to ‘pro-poor’ and ‘social cluster’ knowledge production and policymaking is to grasp that their key purpose is neither ‘social transformation,’ nor to bring about a major change in South Africa’s macro-economic environment or growth path, but rather to manage, contain and ameliorate the negative consequences of jobless growth and rising inequality. 

This has obviously inter alia involved the purely instrumental mobilization and distribution of economic resources to ensure political stability. But much more is going on here than the rolling out of cash transfers or social programmes as a calculated strategy to prevent radicalization. Rather, what has happened is the displacement of a political practice of popular mobilization and social transformation by a new technocratic rationality of government that seeks to construct poor populations (and poverty as such) as objects of scientific knowledge, understanding and technical intervention. 

One important component of this shift was the development of an enormous body of ‘poverty knowledge’ that sought to make poverty visible and available for intervention by a (mostly quantitative) focus on the characteristics of poor populations and the attributes of their members. Another was the increasing prominence of a usually fairly positivistic and often technocratic discourse concerned with promoting ‘evidence-based policymaking.’ This was a kind of meta-political project concerned with the ‘government of government,’ aiming to ensure the centrality of spaces of technical liberation in the policy process, and to institutionalizing the power and voice of a distinct cadre of technical experts and professional bureaucrats.

Together, these shifts have helped to constitute a distinctive form of biopolitical deliberation, in which sociological and economic knowledge are deployed in the day-to-day calculations that agencies of government make about the investment or withdrawal of resources into the wellbeing and survival of vulnerable and marginal populations.

This is, of course, a fairly familiar picture. Perhaps the most well known example of this approach is provided by James Ferguson’s seminal work in The Anti-Politics Machine, in which he showed how development discourse functioned to obscure the nature of social change in Lesotho, entrenching a mystifying narrative about the stakes and consequences of capitalist incorporation and presenting as merely technical and value free changes and decisions that were deeply political in nature. Other critics of processes of the ‘rendering technical’ of political issues have argued that they are intrinsically anti-democratic, giving power to unelected officials or technocrats, and marginalizing popular voices or spaces for democratic deliberation.

The politics of ‘the government of poverty’

Valid though these critiques often are, I think they can also miss much of what is interesting and important about the emergence of the ‘government of poverty’ as a political project.  

-       For one thing, the kinds of resources that can be mobilized and redirected within these spaces and through these forms of technical deliberation can of course be significant, and are not to be dismissed. Billions of Rands are at stake, and for many of those affected access to the resources so redistributed can literally mean the difference between life and death. 


-       Secondly, it is important to note that the ability to frame a social question in terms that are not overtly political or ideologically overdetermined can play an important role in protecting vulnerable or marginal groupings, or in directing resources to groupings that are otherwise not powerfully represented. (To mention only one current example, consider the role played by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office in the course of Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in the USA). 


-       Thirdly, it is also important to note that the process of ‘rendering technical’ does not in itself end political contestation or make partisan or political challenges impossible.  It merely means that political contestation and political challenge has to proceed in a different way. (A good example from South Africa is provided by the political struggles around HIV/AIDS policy, in which the politics of abandonment advocated by the Mbeki administration was contested and eventually defeated through the development of detailed economic and sociological arguments by the Treatment Action Campaign.)

Technopolitics as a form of political reason

It should be clear that these considerations raise bigger theoretical and political questions, questions that relate to much more than the immediate concerns of pro-poor and social policy.

For what is at the bottom of this, of course, is how to imagine and frame the role of states and state-like structures in the context of late capitalism. 

If the interests of ‘society’ are not immediately and transparently available as a kind of luminously evident plenitude – if government requires a process of adjudicating and judging between competing demands, interests and definitions of the common good –  deliberative spaces are needed where the answers to questions of social allocation and the design of ‘distributive regimes’ are not simply ideologically or politically overdetermined. How are those spaces constituted? What kinds of reasoning are to take place within them? 

This requires moving beyond the use of ‘neoliberalism’ as a kind of readymade category of analysis or opprobium (for more on this, see e.g. Collier, 2012; Lemke, 2001). Rather than programmatically dismissing the practices and arrangements of late-capitalist ‘poverty government’ or ‘development management’ out of hand, a more interesting line of enquiry is to carefully investigate the strengths and the weaknesses of the forms of biopolitical deliberation that take shape in South Africa and elsewhere. Take South Africa. Not all kinds of technopolitics are the same. What are the different kinds? To what extent do they make space for transformatory forms of political practice?

From this point of view, it becomes interesting and profitable to consider the possibilities and limitations of techno-political deliberation as a form of political reason. For not all kinds of techno-politics are the same. What are the different kinds and formations of technopolitics? To what extent do they make space for more (or less) transformatory forms of political practice?

-  One important source of difference, for instance, is related to the different kinds of underlying ideological framework or moral-metanarrative that informs and animates a technopolitical project. 

This seems to be, for instance, at the heart of Tania Murray Li’s critique of the politics of ‘making live and letting die’ in the context of stalled agrarian transitions in south-east Asia: are biopolitical calculations only ever to be informed by a primary consideration of people’s value as workers, producers and consumers, or can a biopolitics be conceived that considers human lives as intrinsically valuable?

Similarly, James Ferguson’s recent discussions of the politics of distribution pivot on the distinction between welfare systems situated within a narrowly productionist approach, where social transfers are seen as parasitic on the labour economy, and systems based on the notion of a rightful share.


-  Much also rests on the details of the functioning, operation and dynamics of technopolitical deliberation in specific institutional contexts. Aside from the consideration of underlying ideologies and moral meta-narratives it is also useful to consider the details of specific technopolitical assemblages:  what is the object or concern around which a forum is constituted? Who is included and who is not? What is sayable, and what isn’t? What are the ways in which decisions are reached, and how are they given effect?


-  Finally, it is important to understand the relationship between these spaces of technopolitical deliberation and political processes elsewhere in society. How are different groupings, interests, or institutions represented?  What are the processes of translation or intermediation that allow political questions and problems to be made available for technical deliberation? What are the institutions, and who are the actors, that can act as intermediaries or brokers? Here, I am particularly interested in the extent to which there is scope for kinds of political reasoning that can form connections with popular or plebeian politics, or for agendas and demands that can be connected to forms of social agency that include the marginal.

All this, of course, forms a framework from which to look at the potential and limitations of the ‘government of poverty’ as a particular form of late capitalist biopolitics. For the past ten years they have formed part of my own thinking about the politics of pro-poor policymaking in South Africa. 

Politics without policy

Can these points of reference help us understand the present conjuncture? As I noted in the beginning of this essay, there are many places in the world where the forms of rule and government that characterized development politics since the end of the 1980s are being thrown into disarray.  

It may be that the distinctively neoliberal forms of biopolitics that have been instituted in much of the world since the collapse of the Berlin wall, are themselves now being displaced. Certainly we seem to be witnessing the rise of a new kind of populism that seems to be less about taking ‘control’ of the state and the institutions of governance, and more about subverting and abandoning them. One of the more alarming aspects of these changes is that neoliberal forms of biopolitical governance may be in the process of being replaced by something altogether more dangerous.

In South Africa, an example has been provided by the transition from Mbeki’s presidency, which might be characterized as South Africa’s moment of ‘high neoliberal’ governmentality, to that of Jacob Zuma. 

Mbeki’s rule was characterized by significant degrees of centralization of power within the state via the vehicle of a powerful presidential hegemony within the framework of a constitutional order, and the central position of the office of the Treasury within an overtly neoliberal political and economic policy framework. 

The Zuma regime, for all the overt positioning of Zuma as an ideological opponent of Mbeki, has not replaced his policy programme with an alternative, competing ideological project. Indeed, South African policymaking has been characterized by the erosion of overt presidential control of the formal policy framework. Thus since 2009, the South African presidency has been presiding over an increasingly fragmented landscape of ideologically disconnected, politically unaligned and often competing line departments and political principalities. As the authors of the recently published Betrayal Report have made clear, this is partly due to a systematic process of state capture in which informally constituted groupings within the shadow state have ‘repurposed’ central elements of the state apparatus to suit their own ends.

One of the side effects of this repurposing and fragmentation has been the increasing incoherence of the policy process. While the work of government goes on in parts of the state, where officials try to ‘get on with it’, this is happening in spite of rather than because of the efforts of those in the Union Building. The serious business of policy making has thus become increasingly marginalized, at times taking on the character of ineffectual ritual activity, often subverted by ideological grandstanding and political theatre.

Authoritarian populism and the crisis of neoliberal reason

Which brings us to post-truth politics. It is in fact arguable that already from 2008 onwards many of the features of the Zuma presidency foreshadowed some of the distinctive features of present day politics in the global north. 

Far from Zuma being a South African Donald Trump (a comparison he rightly finds insulting!) it may be that Trump is the American Jacob Zuma. Or to put it more seriously, the possibility exists that some of the phenomena connected to the emergence of authoritarian populism and ‘post truth politics’ may represent instances of distinctively new forms of late capitalist governmentality: strategies of government and control that can no longer simply be understood as ‘neoliberal’ and which create radically new challenges for technical policy deliberation as a form of political reason.

Interestingly, the earliest use of ‘post-truth politics’ as a term is credited to a blogger called David Roberts, who defined it in 2010 as “a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation)”. This is a very useful conceptualization, because it suggests that the problem of post-truth politics is not simply limited to the dissemination of political falsehoods or the erosion of the political currency of truth or facticity. In fact, from this point of view, the insistence on ‘evidence-based policy-making’ that characterized liberal techno-politics under Clinton, Blair or Obama, and the enormous emphasis on ‘fact checking’ during the 2016 American election, are as much part of the problem as are the fact-free political advertisements of the Leave campaign or the ungrounded Twitter ravings of President Trump. Far from Zuma being a South African Donald Trump (a comparison he rightly finds insulting!) it may be that Trump is the American Jacob Zuma.

The result is, paradoxically, that the neoliberal ‘anti-politics machine’ is being displaced by a new kind of hyper-political antipolitics defined by the primacy of the public sphere and the hollowing out of policy content from political discourse.

Thus Trump, instead of putting forward a coherent far-right political programme for implementation by government, seems to be in the process of subverting government as such, and replacing it by a kind of perpetual political theatre. 

The same might be said about land reform in South Africa, where the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform has for some years now been churning out green papers and policy documents that seem completely disconnected from the capacities of his own department – and from the priorities and concerns of land reform’s actual beneficiaries. The most thought-provoking formulation of the logic of this new, nihilistic antipolitics has come from Alan Finlayson, in an essay considering how the new politics of the Tory party and the proponents of a hard Brexit seem to involve a denial of the very possibility of connecting political judgment and rational policy discussion:

“In the emergent system of communication and information, power doesn’t consist in the capacity to structure or direct what is thought and said, ‘hegemonising’ it and connecting it to a system of decision-making which is thereby legitimated. Instead it rests on the ability to read the ebbs and flows of mood and opinion so as to anticipate what is coming, find a wave that it is useful to amplify, and capitalise on the temporary force and intensity of numbers. It is a practice of politics analogous (not coincidentally) to high-frequency trading on financial markets or venture capital speculation. And it is the political right that has so far been best able to exploit it.

The question is: is this true or not? Are we standing on the brink of a new kind of nihilistic governmentality, where politics is turned into perpetual theatre, disconnected from any kind of coherent government programming – a kind of Ideological State Apparatus without the State? 

Is this increasing disconnection between the apparatus of serious government – the calculative deliberation about the allocation of resources within the polity – and the public discourse about politics turning into a distinctive new modality of rule? 

Is the marginalization of formal systems of state power and decision-making, and the increasing influence of parasitic ‘grey zones’ and ‘shadow states’, where fluid networks of alternative power hollow out the apparatuses of government, becoming the new normal?  

Or is this an overblown reading, just a sensationalist exaggeration of features of late capitalist governance that have been present all along, and are merely temporarily more visible?



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