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Democracy as Death

The Moral Order of Anti-Liberal Politics in South Africa

Jason Hickel (Author)


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The revolution that brought the African National Congress (ANC) to power in South Africa was fractured by internal conflict. Migrant workers from rural Zululand rejected many of the egalitarian values and policies fundamental to the ANC’s liberal democratic platform and organized themselves in an attempt to sabotage the movement. This anti-democracy stance, which persists today as a direct critique of “freedom” in neoliberal South Africa, hinges on an idealized vision of the rural home and a hierarchical social order crafted in part by the technologies of colonial governance over the past century.

In analyzing this conflict, Jason Hickel contributes to broad theoretical debates about liberalism and democratization in the postcolonial world. Democracy as Death interrogates the Western ideals of individual freedom and agency from the perspective of those who oppose such ideals, and questions the assumptions underpinning theories of anti-liberal movements. The book argues that both democracy and the political science that attempts to explain resistance to it presuppose a model of personhood native to Western capitalism, which may not operate cross-culturally.
List of Illustrations
A Note on Translation and Transcription

Introduction: The Question of Freedom
1. A Divided Revolution
2. The Habitus of the Homestead
3. Urban Social Engineering and Revolutionary Consciousness
4. Neoliberalism as Misfortune
5. Death in an Age of Wild Ghosts
6. Colonial Nostalgias and the Reinvention of Culture
Conclusion: On the Politics of Culture

Glossary of IsiZulu Words
Jason Hickel is Postdoctoral Fellow at the London School of Economics. He is coeditor of the book Ekhaya: The Politics of Home in KwaZulu-Natal.
"This is political anthropology at its best, a brilliant meditation on politics and culture in South Africa today. Its lessons go to the heart of one of the most vexing contemporary issues on the African continent - the posibility of democracy in an illiberal world. Masterfully written and smartly argued, Democracy as Death will be required reading for scholars across the disciplines."—Charles Piot, author of Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa After the Cold War

"With poignant clarity, Hickel tackles a vexing conundrum: Liberal democracy’s post-apartheid triumph in South Africa triggered a protracted civil war. Against the individualism and ethnic pluralism that urban dwellers and the ANC-led state prized, Zulu rural migrants championed an array of illiberal dispositions: gendered hierarchies, homophobia, and collective rituals. These formations emerged not from cultural intransigence but from a complex desire to preserve social well-being in the face of economic dislocation. Hickel’s deft ethnography of Zulu resistance to the threat of 'social death' resurrects and vindicates a Boasian focus on culture conceived as the 'internally coherent frameworks of values and desires' that make political action possible. Hickel’s analysis illuminates illiberalism far beyond South Africa as well. This is a brilliant book."—Joseph Hellweg, author of Hunting the Ethical State: The Benkadi Movement of Côte d'Ivoire

"Democracy as Death raises crucial questions for people who care about bringing a just world into being. It challenges the failure to recognize the Eurocentric assumptions that limit the left’s vision of democracy, and highlights how the left’s modernizing project marginalizes and objectifies rural and indigenous people, their values and worldviews. The left can and must learn from such critiques. Hickel’s work is an important contribution to academic literature that is relevant to real world struggles for economic and social justice." Wende Marshall is author of Potent Mana: Lessons in Power and Healing, and a member of United Academics of Philadelphia/American Federation of Teachers, Local 9608.

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