As a third culture kid, I was never particularly Afrikaans. I spoke Afrikaans at home, and my name is unmistakably Afrikaans. I love rugby, and I’ll always carry the moral sobriety of the Calvinism that comes with the cultural turf—but, still, I am what many Afrikaners would call a ‘Soutie’ (lit. ‘salty’). That is, an English person.
I spent well over half my childhood in rural Ireland, sequestered far away from the many pressures exerted on Afrikaans boys. Afrikaner culture could be described as a ‘macho’ one if you were being crude, but the reality is, like always, more nuanced.
Many off-handedly refer to Afrikaners as ‘Dutch.’ It’s a fair stereotype—the language is a close cognate of Dutch, for example—but it’s worth noting that Afrikaners are quite diverse. I’m of German, Swedish, Scottish, and, yes, Dutch stock. We are a melange, composed in large part of people that were hounded out of Europe by poverty, oppression, or outright persecution (like the Huguenots). And I suppose that feeling of being on the back foot, the defensive, is one that never quite left the culture.
The legacy of Afrikaans people in South Africa is, it goes almost without saying, a mixed one. Through an insular culture focused on community uplift, religion, self-help, ethnonationalism, and violence, Afrikaners ascended from colonial subjugation and, in many cases, dirt poverty to govern South Africa with an iron fist. Minority rule in South Africa—known as ‘Apartheid’ (lit. ‘separateness’)—was built on social control. Not solely of non-whites—but among Afrikaners too and very much along class lines. The Afrikaans Brotherhood (or Broederbond) being perhaps the most notable example of how an inner sanctum of Afrikaner elites controlled the culture.
A core pillar of in-group social control was (or indeed is) a defined portrait of masculinity. Faith, family, work, conservatism—it’s precisely what you’d expect from the somber Calvinism that Afrikaners traditionally adhere to, and this schematic of what makes an Afrikaner man taught and retaught over generations holds an almost epigenetic grip on Afrikaans boys.
So even for me, marooned in the rural backcountry of Ireland, even with a father as open-minded and loving as mine, there was claustrophobia inherent to my identity. I have always wondered what it must be like for boys growing up back home, especially in this era of diminishing economic expectations.
Around 2003, though, something happened. My dad told me about my second-cousin who had made his name as the lead singer in an Afrikaans punk rock band. Fokofpolisiekar, they were called (‘fuck off police car’). Francois van Coke (his stage name as respectful deference to his family) and his lyrics immediately appealed to me. Not the least because I was an awkward, shy, and brooding teenager.
Now, van Coke was no Leonard Cohen. His lyrics have, in hindsight, a slightly emo tinge to them. But I can’t explain what a thrill it was to hear an Afrikaans voice, a gruff manly Afrikaans voice at that, rage against the staid conservatism of Afrikaans middle-class life.
From the song ‘Tygerberg Vliegtuig’ [Tygerberg Aeroplane]:
Dis aaklig om te sien hoe
Die skaap-mentaliteit ons kry
Ons almal werk saam aan Afrikaans-amerika
Lees net mooi en volg dan
[It’s awful to see how]
[The sheep mentality gets us]
[We all work together in Afrikaans America]
[Common thought dysfunction]
[Just read carefully and follow]
These sorts of lyrics were commonplace in their music, and while in more liberal, permissive cultures, they may have been met with ambivalence, in South Africa, they lit a fire. Their lyrics dealing with anhedonia, crises of faith, sex, drink, drugs, and hedonism almost immediately got stuck in peoples’ craws. At one point, the band received numerous death threats after their bassist drunkenly scribbled ‘Fuck God’ on a fan’s wallet.
It was radical—or, at least, it felt radical at the time. All of these memories were triggered for me recently when I saw Francois van Coke on Instagram, his once long dirty blonde hair now neatly cut, doing sponsored content for an insurance company. Let me preface this by saying that I’m not attacking him. The man’s got a young family, and the work pays. For me, the point of this story isn’t Francois or some Gen X-style contempt for ‘selling out’ (we’re all sell-outs, to some extent).
Instead, it had me wondering: ‘what does it mean to be radical?’ No doubt if you had asked a suburban South African dad in 2006 whether these Fokof lads were ‘radicals,’ you would have received an unflinching yes. And yet, here we are in 2020: Francois van Coke has been successfully laundered through the spin cycle of recuperation and is selling insurance.
Again, this is not a slight on him. What he’s doing is simply what all working people must go through writ large. As the late Marxist academic Marshall Berman pointed out, capitalism forces us all to “carve up” our personalities for the market, “to look at yourself in the mirror and think, ‘Now what have I got that I can sell?’”
As has been endlessly noted elsewhere, neoliberal capitalism has a frightening capacity to metabolize ‘radical’ ideas, slogans, and people and sell them back to us. The biggest corporations are all ‘woke,’ for example, because radical posturing costs them nothing from an accounting perspective. Jeff Bezos pens impassioned letters backing BLM as his organization fires a black worker for organizing colleagues for better pay and conditions, with company execs denigrating the worker as “not smart or articulate” in leaked emails.
This is not to say capitalism can assimilate truly radical ideas. Or actually, it can deftly ‘accept’ a radical notion while skimming over its ramifications. As Mark Fisher remarked about the climate crisis, “environmental catastrophe features in the late capitalist culture only as a kind of simulacra, its real implications for capitalism too traumatic to be assimilated into the system.”
Capital will happily ingest its surface-level critique before “vomiting it out as a dreadful, apocalyptic spectacle intended only to instill a sense of guilt into its observers.” Corporations speak openly about climate change or their green credentials, but it’s a carefully curated conversation.
The fundamental truth that the doctrine of endless economic growth is hostile to life on this earth is given a wide berth. Instead, the crisis recast as an issue of private consumption. Conveniently, the solution to our climate crisis is seemingly buying the right products and not consuming less but merely consuming better.
Once radical possibilities can no longer be safely swerved or recuperated, that is when the knives and guns come out. History contains a litany of intense violence carried out when capital encountered an idea or a group it couldn’t defang, swallow and either commodify or turn into another market actor. Vincent Bevins’ ‘The Jakarta Method’ is an excellent whistle-stop tour of the 20th century’s savage CIA-backed “anti-communism.”
The critical challenge for the Left is to identify what actually constitutes dangerous ideas, then. I don’t really have a concrete answer, but I’ve got a few hunches. Employee ownership schemes are a good example. I’m not arguing that these schemes are full communism or anything of the sort but simply that any move towards collective ownership (hell, even mild stakeholder capitalism) always seems to elicit a hostile response from bosses.
After all, the Meidner Plan finally broke the incredibly durable post-war social democratic consensus in Sweden in the 1970s. Under the Plan, the Swedish government taxed a proportion of company profits and put into special funds charged for buying shares in listed Swedish firms. The goal was to transfer companies from private to collective employee ownership gradually. The point, I suppose, is schemes like the Meidner Plan point towards an overarching ‘dangerous’ (that is, an actual threat to capitalist hegemony) idea.
Fred Hampton’s rainbow coalition is another example that stands out. The Black Panther leader had united Chicago’s different ethnic gangs into a ‘rainbow coalition.’ As Hampton explained:
We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism … We’re going to fight their reactions with all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.
Hampton was clever enough to recognize the incipient power of a diverse working-class united by shared material interests. Not long after he formed his rainbow coalition, the Chicago Police murdered Fred Hampton in front of his pregnant partner. That’s the thing about dangerous ideas, you see, they tend to get people killed.
The Left—whatever that means anymore—would seem to be a political movement aligned with changing the world. As daddy Marx said, “we have a world to win.” Winning requires big, dangerous ideas. After the immense disappointment of Labour’s 2019 election campaign in the UK, I have resolved to leave aside ideological purity in search of these ideas, fully realizing that some aspects may seem ugly to me. But embedded within them, I might glimpse genuinely transformative potential.
Consider Brexit. These days I live in Bristol, which is basically Remainistan. A cosmopolitan, rather self-congratulatory liberal enclave in the otherwise small- and big-“C” conservative South-West of England. I voted Remain as well, back in 2016, mainly down to a discomfort with the Leave campaign’s reactionary excesses.
In hindsight, I realize the Leave campaign didn’t represent all Leave voters and, as I survey the smoldering wreckage of Brexit, I’m amazed that the Left was unwilling—or indeed unable due to its class composition—to engage with, let alone capitalize on, what was, among other things, a popular repudiation of neoliberal, globalist capitalism.
There is a lot of wishful thinking that happens on the Left. What if the workers could just understand their own lives as well as we do! What if they could simply embrace social liberalism or read the right books, or just spoke the correct way! There is a profound lack of intellectual and ideological humility at work here.
With Brexit, I would go so far as to argue working people’s analysis of the situation (that the EU is an unelected, endemically corrupt neoliberal institution beholden to economic dogmas that have immiserated working people across the continent) was actually more incisive than any Twitter blue check’s mealy-mouthed liberalism.
The Brexit aftermath required the Left to be brave. To interact with and be a part of a popular democratic renewal, without giving one inch to racism or xenophobia. Instead, we got four years of condescension toward working people, basically saying: “We know what’s good for you. You don’t understand your own class interests.”
What to make of a Left that’s frightened of the working class? For all the talk of Anarchism and Mutual Aid, the academic and professional Left is a movement that betrays an immense lack of faith in the average person, seeing them as unenlightened bigots who need to be controlled and corrected.
I reflected on this the other night after I watched the 1993 Sly Stallone classic Demolition Man. At the end of the film, the muscle-bound super cop John Spartan tries to reconcile the film’s two conflicting classes. He tells the effete nincompoops of San Angeles “to get a little dirty” and the sewer-dwelling non-conformists led by Edgar Friendly to get “a lot clean”. I believe that’s precisely right: the Left needs to get a little dirty. These days, leftists are seemingly unwilling to engage with popular working-class movements, frightened of anything that pulls them out of their comfortable orbit.
That’s not to say someone or something being ‘working class’ automatically renders it unimpeachably correct. We must be careful not to fetishize the working class. But there’s quite a bit of grim dirtiness involved in building any meaningful relationship, let alone a broad political coalition. It’s difficult, no doubt, but then again, changing the world was never going to be simple.
Amid all of the confusion, a good place to start would be to change how we approach the wide world outside of narrow academic and online Leftism. We live in a weird world where workers are increasingly receptive to left-wing economics but profoundly alienated from the Left’s insistent focus on a growing oeuvre of weird cultural issues.
We need to accept that ideas and concepts that may seem radical to us, that make us feel good and morally above-it-all as Leftists, are actually, ultimately denuded of radical possibility (or, at worst, actually useful to capitalism as a commodity or a tool of social engineering). It’s here where some good old-fashioned humility will do the trick.
My aim is not to sound like I have all the answers. I most certainly do not. Then again, I suppose that’s the point: I accept there are things I don’t know or even things, if I channel Donald Rumsfeld, that I don’t know that I don’t know. The challenge is to go looking for the truth, knowing that sometimes it’s hidden in places you wouldn’t necessarily care to look. But here’s what I do know from looking at history: Left-wing, emancipatory movements built and led by working people have, time and again, changed this world for the better. They can do so again.
I still love Fokof. When I listen to their music, I can always remember the initial soaring thrill of hearing someone speak to me and my feelings in my language. That experience had personal and artistic value. But I’m under no illusions: while Fokof’s music may have raged against the establishment, it didn’t threaten it. Because if it did, Francois van Coke wouldn’t be selling insurance.