#FeesMustFall & The Liberal Imagination

Rhodes Must Fall: Are they fascists? The title seems to promise a conceptual analysis of the term ‘fascism’ and an effort to locate contemporary protest actions in a historical context. Instead, we are presented with arbitrary definitions and no attempt to understand the multifaceted, sometimes contradictory, intellectual currents that inform the protest movements. That’s a bit rich given that one of the more pointed criticisms favoured by self-styled guardians of rational discourse is that #FeeMustFall associates and ‘identitarians’ are grievously anti-intellectual.

“The actions of some thirty or so members of the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement, and perhaps people inspired by them, have become so indiscriminate and grotesque that we simply cannot avoid the question any longer: Are they fascists?”

If we can’t avoid the question, it is because these guys keep raising it. That RMF members are not fascist is self-evident to the rest of us. Of burning painting and destroying heritage items, we are told on social media that “these are the tactics of fascism”, “this is indistinguishable from fascism”, etc.

It’s weird that a group with a Redditor’s pedantry for logical fallacies would have us buy the dodgy syllogism ‘fascists burn paintings, RFM members burn painting, therefore RFM members are fascists’. If during the course of the 1976 protests, Soweto students had burned paintings of Vorster would their actions be indistinguishable from fascism? If postwar Germany had chosen not to eradicate symbols of the Third Reich from public buildings, would Jewish activists who tore these down and destroyed them literally be enacting the tactics of fascism?

Of course, the argument is not as fallacious as it seems to the innocent observer, containing as it does implicit premise that the students in questions are not actually relevantly marginal and dispossessed and using unlawful means for broadly egalitarian ends (perfectly or imperfectly, with more or less success, tactically or recklessly) or whatever, but that they are hooligans who represent the tyranny of the majority against liberty and equality. There are many ways to beg the question, but it’s doubtful any take us closer to what are good liberal friends would call ‘the truth’.

To its credit, Rhodes Must Fall: Are they fascists? sets out to analyse the movement and explain exactly how it is fascistic.

… some members have proved themselves worthy of the label. Their unwillingness to negotiate, compromise, debate, listen, reflect, or think of others (recall the terrible consequences that the associated #NationalShutDown campaign would have had for the poor), was obvious to anyone willing to listen to their slogans, slurs and stipulations. Indeed, their rhetoric — structures, power, systems, safe spaces, decolonisation, power, bodies — is characteristically Marxist jargon. Last week’s violence was always coming.

So being stubborn and militant, or setting objectives and refusing to compromise, is tantamount to fascism? That’s obviously too broad to be meaningful or useful. The rest of that paragraph is more interesting: “structures, power, systems, safe spaces, decolonisation, power, bodies — is characteristically Marxist jargon.” That’s strange, because many of those terms sound like characteristically post-modern and/or post-colonial jargon, terms which are in direct tension with the universalist concepts touted by many traditional Marxists.

‘But, wait’, you might say, ‘you asked whether they were fascists. Fascists are right-wing and Marxists are left-wing. If their rhetoric is Marxist, can they be fascists?’ This is a fair question, given the remarkable success of the left in magically distinguishing the near-identical features, methods and consequences of the two ideologies. So, what do these two great stains on our humanity have in common?

Good question.

The words and the deeds of these students reveal that they share a view of people and politics that is essentially determinist. They conceive of ‘structures’ and ‘institutions’ as objects that exist apart from the multiple, always ongoing, interactions that constitute them. These objects emerge out of relations of power that are unequal.

I’m not entirely sure about the ways in which fascism is deterministic, but I hope we can at least all see that a teleological view of history (something explicitly eschewed by post-modernism) that envisions the liberation of all working peoples has some salient differences from Social Darwinism. Plus the idea that structures exist apart from the interactions that constitute them is contrary to the the principles of dialectical materialism (‘dialectical’ is not intended ironically in that formulation).

As for the belief that structures and institutions determine human freedom and flourishing, well we could also implicate the IMF and the World Bank.

In fact, all human relationships are characterised by domination. Our ideas, values and identities are products of our ‘lived experiences’, which are the result of what our social norms ‘say’, that is, of structures and institutions. They reject the notion that the humanity of individuals is partly contingent on the choices that they freely and willingly make. In short, all individuals are produced by forces external to their free wills — by the structures of class, race, gender, etc.

Well, not everyone ‘on the left’ has the same view of how power relations work, and many contend that the point of addressing these relations is in fact to maximise individual human flourishing, but either way, the consequences are grave…

These various beliefs explain why we hear so much about the pervasive, all-consuming and inescapable forces of capitalism, neo-liberalism, institutional racism, problematic language, and whiteness — but, so little about individuals and their particular beliefs and actions. For ultimately the individual does not matter.

So the innumerable narrative accounts of how individuals feel systematically excluded by the pervasive, all-consuming and inescapable forces of capitalism, neoliberalism, institutional racism, problematic language, and whiteness don’t count? Or are the people telling those stories invisible? Maybe they have a point.

As products of class, race and gender, they are not concerned with our identities as unique and distinct individuals. What matters is the group. As mere members of groups, individuals are in the final analysis irrelevant — dispensable.

Who says this? The claim, or rather claims (black consciousness thinkers, those operating in different feminists traditions, Marxian analysts, activists who attempt various intersectional accounts, etc. will have sometimes overlapping, sometimes incompatible views) are frequently about the historically determined ways in which individual freedom is diminished.

Because people are ‘produced’, they do not see their opponents as subjects who are capable of transcending — through imagination and empathy — their given stations. We only ever live our particular experiences. We cannot, except through accident, act on universally valid decisions. Talk of universals, in fact, is an illusion; part of a bourgeois false-consciousness.

I don’t think I disrespect the dignity of someone denied a formal education and social capital, who works ten hours a day for R2,000 per month, when I say that she is unlikely to transcend her ‘given station’ without some redistributive measures. If that is too narrow an example, let’s see some better ones (Affirmative action?). Again, that is a prelude to a distortion of intellectual history: “Talk of universals, in fact, is an illusion; part of a bourgeois false-consciousness.” Many Marxists would find that surprising indeed.

So, the duty of those in power is to ‘recognise’ and accept without question what those in pain have to say about themselves — and to act in a way that ends or lessens this pain. Only then can the oppressor begin to redeem their original sin, whatever this may be: their maleness, whiteness and/or class membership.

That’s quite a leap of logic. RMF et al. think universals don’t exist(?), they don’t care about about the individual(?) therefore(??) the powerful must accept any political claim made by the oppressed.

When individuals are understood in this way, it is a small step to conclude that violence is a legitimate political instrument. When politics is seen as a problem concerning produced objects, rather than a question of how to regulate disagreements that arise from the interaction of equal rational agents, it becomes conceptually united with violence. As objects, we do not change our minds through persuasion, deliberation and choice. We are the playthings of History. What matters is the end, with the means always justified by that end. This is why the theorists who are responsible for the jargon used by these students speak of individuals having to be molded, fractured and cut — always for the sake of ‘the cause’.

Wait what? It’s bad enough that identity politics sees people as unable to transcend their given position, but in fact individuals have no capacity for reasons or ability to determine their own values or make autonomous choices? I guess this is kinda internally coherent, given the caricature of leftist thought so far presented. It also shows no care for or attention to the actual claims of of Marxist and/or post-colonial and/or BC and/or radical feminist activists and critics.

What then is the point of, for example, ‘decolonising the university’? Is it a revolutionary call for the sake of it? When young black female intellectuals talk about their struggle to have their innovative ideas taken seriously amid the hegemonic discourse prevalent in contemporary intellectual spaces, why are they bothering if they’re not trying to persuade anyone of anything? Why work so hard to tell their stories? When … well, there are infinite examples, but the onus is on the person who claims that those who hold that historical forces favour some at the expense of others necessarily also hold that no individual matters and that public discourse is useless or bad to show that this is so.

Because they do not distinguish power and violence, they see violence everywhere. Since it is everywhere, the most effective action will often be a strategic, but indiscriminate, counter-attack against anything and everything perceived to have or support such power. From spray-paint to petrol bombs, all means are legitimate — so long as they are directed against the enemy, which for now are the colonial institutions (read: superstructure) that characterise our society.

We all know that the violence of power is conceptualised as a bad thing, right? (And is a pernicious effect that inhibits personal autonomy and thus needs to be resisted.) Anyway, if the claim is that it follows from the notion that given historically embedded injustices can only be overcome with violence, then any claim for revolutionary justice is fascism, and the term has no meaning. (Was armed resistance against apartheid fascist?)

Whereas violence is natural — after all, terror is justice — debate is pointless. Just as it is futile to debate the forces of nature, it is pointless to debate the forces embodied in structures. In fact, there is only one way to deal with power: force.

Who said terror is justice? And if force is the only way to deal with power, why are there concurrent demands for additional legal restrictions on racist speech? (And if RMF are specifically into violence and anti-legislative reform, in what precise sense is their political ideology more fascistic than those who espouse identity politics in a way that demands strong government intervention?)

As Mmetsa Mahlabela for RMF has put it, ‘you always have to respond violently’. So, they silence, exclude, remove or suppress people or things that they perceive to be their enemies. You are either with them or against them: ally or foe. If you are against them you are ‘illegitimate’ and you must be removed from power (read: liquidated).

Ah, so these guys have specifically endorsed violence and threatened to ‘liquidate’ (does the RMF politburo propose assassination by ice pick or merely sending dissenters to the gulag?) their opponents. As I’ve said, that claim is itself insufficient to show them as fascist, or any violent revolutionary or fundamentalist group would be fascist and the term would be uselessly vague. But more to the point, a genealogy of their world-view needs to show more than the fact that they see structural limits to reform and therefore wish violently to disrupt those structures to show that a structural critique entails violence (which is somehow equivalent to fascism), or any ideology contrary to the status quo that is pessimistic about reformist change is equivalent to fascism, given the possibility that some who hold it will attempt change through violence.

A politics that proceeds from and implements this collection of ideas — privileging the group over the individual; claiming to act on behalf of ‘the people’ or ‘the masses’; trying to control language, art and symbols; embracing violence and rejecting dialogue; emphasising the end, but neglecting the means; eliminating opposition; silencing dissent — has a name: fascism.

Again, the meaning of these outward forms is gained against a historical context. Would burning oil paintings of Hitler by a German during the Nazi reign by fascism? Would attempting to eliminate Nazi talk of racial purity from public discourse be an attempt to silence dissent? These examples feel grotesque even to consider, but I wish to stress the way in which equating student vandals who demand broad equality with fascism diminishes to world-historical crimes of actual fascists.

The piece continues, but I will leave you to make up your own minds, assuming you can briefly escape the iron shackles of history.