Waiting for Mangabe or Slavoj Zizek on Mandela’s Socialist Failure

This is a reply to Slavoj Zizek’s article “Mandela’s Socialist Failure” published online in The Stone (a New York Times maintained philosophy blog) on December 6, 2013. In eight pithy paragraphs Zizek endeavors to expose the real legacy of Mandela as opposed to his current “beatification.” The Catholic Church used to have someone play the role of Devil’s Advocate to denigrate the reputation of a person nominated to become a saint. Zizek has taken it upon himself to see to it that Mandela’s “beatification” does not progress to full fledged “sainthood.”

Zizek’s mantra is that “Mandela was not Mugabe” — the “good” as opposed to the “bad” Black African leader. Mandela is seen as “a saintly wise man” and Hollywood even makes movies about him. He was “impersonated” by Morgan Freeman who, Zizek points out, also impersonated God! Oh my! — what are they trying to tell us? Zizek should perhaps be reminded that Morgan Freeman is an outstanding actor (or impersonator if you prefer) and has played many roles — including a chauffeur. And, Zizek notes, “rock stars and religious leaders, sportsmen and politicians from Bill Clinton to Fidel Castro are all united in his beatification.” Somehow I don’t see Fidel Castro as a “politician” in quite the same way as the unprincipled pragmatist Bill Clinton. Nor do I think Fidel and Clinton are “united” in their evaluations of Nelson Mandela — far from it. According to Zizek, Mandela is hailed for leaving behind “a multi-party democracy with free press and a vibrant [!] economy well-integrated into the global market and immune [!] to hasty Socialist experiments.”

But what is the truth about this man’s legacy? The Devil’s Advocate will reveal  “two key facts”  that are “obliterated” by all the pro-Mandela beatification activities. Fact One: There is still wide spread poverty and social misery in South Africa and an increase in “insecurity, violence, and crime.”  The majority of Black South Africans are living “broadly,”  Zizek says, “the same as under apartheid.” This fact “counterbalances” any “rise of political and civil rights.”  What is the “main change” in South Africa since the time of Mandela according to Zizek? It is a “new black elite” has joined the “old white ruling class” — not a new constitution giving equal rights to all citizens and allowing all South Africans to live and work together.

Zizek’s statements are completely ridiculous. There are deepening economic problems in South Africa today as well as class divisions but Black people and all South Africans no longer have to carry passes, all can vote, people can go to the same beaches and hotels, etc. The millions who mourned the death of Mandela are acutely aware of the problems facing their country and also aware that the repressive, dehumanizing regime of official racism and apartheid is dead. To think that reality has been “obliterated” in the consciousness of South African people by a Mandela sainthood cult is an insulting affront to the citizens of the new South Africa and reeks of a colonial European outlook towards African peoples. So much for “Fact One.”

Fact Two: Black South Africans are becoming angry because the memory of the aims of the “old” African National Congress (social justice and a “kind of” socialism are being “obliterated from our memory.” Far from being “obliterated” the program of the ANC and its allies in the labor unions and the South African Communist Party are constantly debated and discussed by the people of South Africa and the demands for more radical reforms and more progressive policies can be democratically advanced. Zizek overlooks the fact that there is a real living democracy at the root of the New South Africa and that Nelson Mandela played a major role in its creation. The millions mourning his passing are not mindless masses with “obliterated” memories.

According to Zizek South Africa is just another example of the current left paradigm: the left comes to power promising a “new world” but then confronts the reality of the international neoliberal capitalist consensus. Imperialism can speedily punish countries trying to embark on the socialist road. In South Africa’s case political power was ceded to the ANC on condition that the existing economic system was preserved. It was thought that this prevented a civil war of massive proportions. This Historic Compromise (called by some a Faustian pact with the old regime) is at the root of the current problems of poverty and mass discontent in the country.

Zizek is sympathetic to Mandela’s dilemma — create a “new world” — risk a civil war — or “play the game” and abandon the “socialist perspective.” [There is too much focus on Mandela here -- these decisions were made collectively by the leaders of all the major forces in the liberation movement.]  Zizek asks a question that is still hotly debated today. Given the  constellation of forces facing the ANC et al on the assumption of power “was the move towards socialism a real option?” [Compromise was indeed necessary, but did the ANC concede too much?]

Seemingly inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (a coming of age novel for adolescent libertarians), Zizek looks for “the grain of truth” in the “hymn to money” found in the novel: “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice — there is no other.”

Not only is there no “grain of truth” in this “hymn” but when human beings only deal with each other on the basis of money we get all the horrors of blood, whips and guns that humans employ against each other in order to obtain and control more and more money (slavery, colonialism, imperialism, fraud — you name it). It is not humans, per se, of course, who engage in these horrors, but a special class of humans (capitalists) created by the dominant economic system of monopoly capitalism.

Not content with uncovering a grain of truth in Randism, Zizek imputes the same idea to Karl Marx — a most un-Randian leap of fallaciousness. He asks if Marx’s ideas about “the universe of commodities” were not similar to what Rand said in her hymn about money. After all Marx said under capitalism “relations between people assume the guise of relations among things.”  This is a perfect example of a non sequitur and I defy anyone to find the similarity between Marx’s statements about the fetishism of commodities and Rand’s view “that money is the root of all good.”

Zizek’s confusions continue. He thinks that the relations between people in the “market economy” can appear “as relations of mutually recognized freedom and equality.” Maybe in the days of Adam Smith but I doubt even then. Donald Trump and his chauffeur hardly are equals or exercise the same amount of freedom. Mitt Romney thought 47 per cent of the American people were social parasites and he is an outstanding representative of the freedom and equally offered by the “market economy.”  Most working people know exactly their relations to their bosses and it not only appears to be unequal and unfree (who gets the pink slip and loses unemployment insurance) it is unequal and unfree — and all of Ayn Rand’s baloney will never make it otherwise.

It is obvious to any aware working person, that the blatant inequality and restrictions on human freedom under the “market economy” lived and felt by millions of Greek workers, Spanish working people, and others in the EU and throughout the world, that  Zizek’s view — under capitalism “domination is no longer directly enacted and visible as such” — is just nonsense. Such ruminations by a famous philosopher can only give philosophy a bad name.

While Zizek says that Ayn Rand’s ideological claim (only the love of money can free people) is ridiculous, he persists in reminding us of the “moment of truth” it contains. The problem, he thinks, is Rand’s “underlying premise” which is “that the only choice is between direct and indirect relations of domination and exploitation” and any alternative is “utopian.” Ayn Rand has no such premise. She thinks in simple dichotomies. Unfettered dynamic capitalism and the love of money is GOOD and it is in no way, direct or indirect, involved in any relations of domination and exploitation — it is the root of GOODNESS. On the other hand any efforts by liberals, socialists, misguided Catholic popes, or anybody else that impinges on this system of goodness is EVIL and a direct source domination and exploitation.

Zizek, however, thinks the “moment of truth” in Ayn Rand’s theory of money is that it teaches us “the great lesson of state socialism.” Despite Zizek’s discovery of the Randian “moment of truth,” I don’t recommend using Atlas Shrugged as a prolegomena to any future socialism. This is the “truth” that Zizek has discovered.

If you abolish private property (God forbid!) and the market without concretely regulating production, then you resuscitate “direct relations of servitude and domination.” What does this mean? What “state socialist” country or countries can he be referring to that did not, or do not, have plans that regulate production? So called “state socialism” was famous for having “central planning” and tried to concretely regulate both production and distribution. As it stands Zizek’s lesson is pointless.

He expands on his lesson. If we just abolish the market “without replacing it with a proper form of Communist organization of production and exchange, domination returns with a vengeance, and with it direct exploitation.” This isn’t very helpful. Communism doesn’t spring full blown from the brow of Lenin the day after the revolution. What does Zizek think is the “proper form” of Communism? He gives us no clue in this article. I fear there is no lesson at all to be learned from Ayn Rand’s “moment of truth.” Certainly not Zizek’s tautology that socialism fails to create communism if it doesn’t create the proper form of communism.

Zizek now propounds a “general rule” — it is really just his way of saying the more things change the more they stay the same. It goes like this: when the people rise up against “an oppressive half-democratic regime” [what is a "half-democracy" -- people either have democratic rights or they don't] it’s “easy” to get large demonstrations underway [I think that's what rising up means] and crowd pleasing slogans are devised (pro democracy, anti-corruption, etc.) but after the “revolt succeeds” the people find themselves still oppressed as they were before except in a “new guise.”

This seems to me to be a strange concept of what a “successful” revolt is. Zizek seems to think it is some sort of spontaneous generation of all things good and great for the people and if doesn’t happen overnight, then the revolt has failed. His case studies are of the revolts “in the Middle East in 2011.” He doesn’t seem to understand that these are ongoing processes. The French Revolution didn’t end with chopping off the King’s head. The revolts may have been begun in the Middle East in 2011 but they are ongoing processes with ups and downs, advances and set backs and it much to early to decide which have failed and which have succeeded or even what “failure” or “success” will mean in the longue duree.

Zizek plogs ????? (prods??) along. The people do not succeed because they are prevented from seeing that their exploitation continues in the new guise after the revolution by the “ruling ideology” which blames them for their failure because they don’t understand that they are not yet mature enough for full democracy [ and anyway, as Lady Thatcher  put it, 'there is no alternative" to capitalism (TINA)]. Zizek doesn’t make sense here because he maintains both that the people don’t realize the same old exploitation is going on and that they do realize it but are themselves blamed for it by the “ruling ideology.” I think Zizek will find “the people” a bit more sophisticated and not as simple minded as he portrays them.

Zizek now explains how US foreign policy has developed a strategy that redirects the revolutionary energy of a popular revolt into political forms desired by US imperialism (not a word used by Zizek in this article). The US did this in South Africa after the end of apartheid. If this is the case, then the ANC, Mandela, the SACP, and entire liberation movement were puppets of US imperialist foreign policy. While he is at it, Zizek also says the same was done in the Philippines, post Marcos, in Indonesia, post Suharto, “and elsewhere.”

Now US foreign policy is indeed a formidable enemy of the peoples of the world but the explanation for the problems of liberation movements in attaining their stated goals after the assumption of power can’t simply be explained by saying they are victims of US foreign policy’s elaborate “detailed strategy of how to exert damage control.” In fact, as Wikileaks has shown, the people in charge of US foreign policy often don’t know what they are doing, set in motion ridiculous plans, and often end making a mess out of whatever they had in mind to accomplish.

US foreign policy is by and large incompetent and its agents, diplomats, Congressmen and women, generals, cabinet members, and intelligence professionals can only foam at the mouth and yell “treason” when a young soldier, performing his duty to the Constitution of the the United States, Chelsea Manning, reveals some “secret” wires showing up the blunders and failures of the “professionals” in the state department and others and how they try to mislead the American people.  In any event,  Zizek says the big problem of the liberation movements is in finding a way to counteract US policies. As he puts it — “how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe.” Perhaps a dialectical synthesis. Is  Zizek waiting for Mangabe?

Finally, Zizek tells us what to do “to remain faithful to Mandela’s legacy” — a legacy he just told us was a failure and capitulation to imperialism. Zizek is just the philosopher of that kind of legacy. One he himself calls of “unfulfilled promises” and one that didn’t “really disturb the global order of power.”  We must forget the “celebratory crocodile tears” shed for Mandela and his leadership. I think that the people of South Africa and many of the dignitaries (but not all) at his memorial and funeral would, and should be, outraged to be accused of faking their feelings for Mandela. We must instead concentrate on his failures. He ended his life as a “bitter old man” realizing his hero status “was the mask of a bitter defeat.”  How does Zizek know this? He thinks, this is the type of philosopher he is, that “we can safely surmise” this to be the case because “of his doubtless moral and political greatness.” What sense is there in saying there is political greatness in being a bitter old defeated man? Is the true founder of democratic South Africa then president F. W. de Klerk who is neither bitter nor considered a failure? Where is the moral greatness in bitterness?

The truth is that Mandela was a realist who made unavoidable compromises to free his people from apartheid, that he and his comrades in the ANC and SACP and the trade union movements forged a revolutionary struggle that toppled one of the most repressive political regimes in the world — one backed by the post powerful imperialism in the world and its allies. This was not a failure to attain “socialism.” Socialism cannot be imposed from above, it must be struggled for by working and oppressed people themselves and Mandela helped found the preconditions for that struggle.

The fact that the mighty of the world came to his memorial is testimony not that he failed “to disturb the global order of power” but that he profoundly shook it and they are eager to co-op his message and be identified with him because they know that all over the world at this very moment millions of oppressed people in both the centers of capitalist power and in the neocolonial fringes are beginning to rise up and demand their rights and that they have much to learn from the tactics of the South African liberation movement. Slavol Zizek’s libels notwithstanding,  Nelson Mandela was a great revolutionary leader who freed his people from oppression and inspires masses  around  the world to fight for a better world– he was the farthest it was possible to be from a “bitter old man.”

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.