An unreal order?


“On what is the liberal-democratic order that was established in 1994/1996 based? Is it based on reality, or is it rather based on premises alien to reality?”

Below, this is answered against the grain of existing opinions. We argue that the constitutional order of 1994/1996 is unfortunately not based on reality.

In particular, the existing order is not an expression of one of the most inescapable facts in political reality, namely that stable and functional orders in the modern world are based on the authority and power of specific cultural communities and areas (or a federation between such communities and territories) rest.

When the authority and power of such communities is undermined, the stability and functionality of the order itself is undermined. The prevailing order (or lack of order) in South Africa is a disturbing witness to this fact. His hesitation on the edges of chaos is the direct cause of his lack of sense of reality.

Instead of the ruling order assigning meaningful powers (and not just ceremonial powers) to the multitude of cultural communities and areas, an artificial unity is imposed on reality by new elites of incompetents from above. No promises contained in the Constitution regarding the rights of the individual are resistant to the centralist coercion of the elites.

In the past, liberal democracies worldwide could claim to be successful. Contrary to what liberals still believe, however, their successes were not a result of their liberal and unrealistic premises, but rather because of the de facto authority and power of specific cultural forces and traditions that underlay and also made it possible.

Despite the admiration that the prevailing constitutional order provoked (and still provokes) from praise singers, its premises have been exposed as fictions during the last thirty years. Already in the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke referred to these fictions as “metaphysical ghosts”.

What fictions?

We focus in particular on one such fiction, namely the liberal view that man is a detached individual. And that the constitutional order must therefore be based on the rights of the individual.

Historically speaking, the origins of these concepts can be traced back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In these centuries, liberals (and revolutionaries) attempted to do away with the traditional notion that man is “by nature” a social being.

In liberal thought, man is detached from his natural and historical communities (such as his families and cultural communities) and understood as a detached individual. Despite the concessions that liberal thought has made in recent decades with respect to communities, it still maintains this fictional conception of man.

According to the liberal view, the modern state is also nothing but a contract between independent individuals. In this contract, communities are not assigned a substantial role, but rather a ceremonial role. Communities themselves do not have substantial powers with the help of which they can, for example, govern their own affairs.

On the contrary, despite its apparent resistance to centralism, the liberal states almost invariably give rise to some form of covert or overt centralist government. Communities and their own authority are again and again neutralized or eliminated.

In truth, the liberal conception runs counter to the essence of man. To take man out of his communities means to diminish him in his essence as a human being. As human beings, we exist only in and through our communities.

In connection with liberal thought, several Afrikaans commentators during the 1994 transition started from the unrealistic point of view from liberal thought that man must indeed be defined as an individual.

At the same time, they repeated the unrealistic point that communities do not have to take any significant place in the political contract. Communities did not need any ‘special rights’, they argued at the time. According to them, the rights of the individual were sufficient to protect communities.

Pleas from commentators at the time that communities are not just a ceremonial part of the new political contract, and that they must have the necessary democratic powers to be able to govern themselves as far as possible, were dismissed as a remnant from the old order.

Today, the fictions in which the liberal order is founded give rise to various tensions in its own montage. While it makes all kinds of nice theoretical promises about the individual and his rights, in practice it often leads to the opposite. A few examples can explain this.

Example 1

Despite the importance of the individual in the constitutional agreement, the ruling elites ironically impose the will of a particular community, namely the majority, on everyone. The individualistic principles of the constitutional order stand powerless against the majority politics of the elites.

If the constitutional dispensation rested on the essential recognition of communities and territories, it could have served as a concrete counterbalance to the foolish and prescriptive politics of the elites. However, because this is not the case, the elites impose their will on a community like the Afrikaners. In what is the strict application of BEE, the insistence on expropriation and the proposed Bela legislation other than deep hostility against Afrikaners based?

If the state rested on an understanding between communities, the powers could have been divided in a meaningful way. Ironically, this is what liberal thinking promises, namely a division of powers. In truth, the elites go out of their way to consolidate power in their hands and place every aspect of everyday life under their control.

Example 2

In defense of liberal thinking, it can (rightly) be argued that in the past it attempted to qualify the “liberal” control of the elites over the state with the “democratic” participation of the ordinary citizen. It wanted to be a liberal-democratic order.

Across the Western world, however, the liberal-democratic agreement is under tension. “Liberal” and “democracy” diverge widely today. Nowhere does it find such expression as in “ordinary citizens” (the populi) who rebel against the left-liberal elites. Ordinary citizens feel excluded from the political orders… also here on the spot.

Although there are many misunderstandings about this, both the “left” and “conservative” populism in South Africa are sharply in tension with the unrealistic and corrupt elites. This represents the deeper dividing line in the political order. Although the constitutional agreement of 1994/1996 did not provide for this, it made this dividing line possible. Why? Because due to its emphasis on the importance of the individual, it did not make proper provision for the democratic participation of communities.

We close. What is the political alternative that was forgotten during the negotiations of the early nineties and was not offered? The answer lies in what Ruben Alvarado describes in a recent publication as the real alternative to the “rationalist individualism” of liberal thought, namely the federative tradition with its sense of independent communities.

Alvarado joins an old tradition in political thought that considers Johannes Althusius, a Dutch thinker from the early seventeenth century, to be the father of the modern federative alternative.

In tension with liberal thinkers from the same century, Althusius accepted that man is by nature a social being, and that political order functions best if power is spread over different communities and is not based in a central power.

Althusius does not belong to the past. In many respects, his thinking rather represents the future of especially political orders that are characterized by diverse cultures and communities.