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John Holloway


A conference titled ‘Politics at a distance from the state’ is being held on 29th and 30th of September 2012 at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa.

The conference is intended as a space at which academics and activists sympathetic to or supportive of ‘politics at a distance from the state’ can openly and freely explore, discuss and debate this idea and form of politics. The conference arose in the light of the visit later this year to Rhodes University by John Holloway and Jacques Depelchin, both of whom will be in attendance at the conference. The conference seeks to consider anti-statist politics in South Africa and beyond.

Political practices in South Africa, since the end of Apartheid, have been dominated by state-centric forms of politics under the hegemony of the African National Congress (ANC). Although state-centred struggle and the capturing of state power were embedded – as important trajectories – within the anti-Apartheid organizations of the 1970s and 1980s, there was also a pronounced anti-statist tendency that sought to build alternative forms of communality in a pre-figurative way. Of significance in this regard was the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Black trade union movement. In large part, with the de-mobilization of anti-Apartheid struggles in the 1990s and a technocratic, neo-liberal programme pursued vigorously by the ANC state since 1994, anti-statist politics in contemporary South Africa are heavily compromised and marginalised. This form is politics is also rarely discussed in the academia. The conference, in its South African focus, seeks to revisit the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s and, in so doing, to identify and articulate the anti-statist moments inherent in them. Activists centrally involved in the BCM, UDF and trade union movement will be present to facilitate and contribute to these discussions. The three leading academics in South Africa who presently think and theorise about politics at a distance from the state will also be in attendance, namely, Michael Neocosmos, Richard Pithouse and Lucien van der Walt (co-author of Black Flame, 2009). As well, community activists and groups in South Africa supportive of and pursuing ‘at a distance’ politics, such as the shack-dweller movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, will be present.

The conference seeks to locate South African politics in the broader, more global, debates and activism. Academically, John Holloway’s book Change the World without Taking Power (2002) ignited an intense debate a decade ago about emancipatory politics and change; this work though spoke directly to the lived experiences and everyday politics of the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico. His overall critique of state-centred change is not an entirely new argument but his Autonomist Marxist perspective is certainly rich in nuanced insights about the prospects for interstitial revolution today. Jacques Depelchin, the highly esteemed Congolese historian, has – with Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba – tried to rethink politics in the Congo in Africa. The critique of state-centric emancipation has deep roots in Anarchist theory (and practice), and reaches back to the debates between Marx and Bakhunin. Over the last few decades, post-Anarchism (as a ‘fusion’ of Anarchism and post-Structuralism) has emerged (for instance the works of Richard Day and David Graeber), claiming that many of the localized struggles taking place globally have anarchistic principles (such as pre-figuration) embedded within them. Simultaneously, a range of other (often older, ex-Marxist) scholars – in the ongoing light of Paris ’68 – have constantly highlighted the significance of anti-statist politics (beyond ‘the political’) for authentic emancipatory processes. Of particular importance in this regard are Jacques Ranciere and Alain Baidou – it is from the latter that the title for the conference is taken.

Crucial differences exist between the different theoretical and political tendencies highlighted above. But they all share a comment interest in questioning emancipation in and through the state, and in exploring the possibilities and actualities of a lived immanent politics (some call it a living communism) taking place in the interstices of the current capitalist and hierarchical order. It is this shared common interest that forms of the basis for the ‘at a distance’ conference.

The conference is specifically designed for academics and activists with a particular interest in engaging constructively with politics at a distance from the state. This gathering is the first of its kind in post-Apartheid South Africa and it should appeal not only to individuals and groups within South Africa but also to individuals and groups outside South Africa who wish to engage through an interchange of ideas and practices with like-minded academics and activists in Africa.

The format for the conference has yet to be decided upon. But it will be as informal as possible yet very vigorous and engaging. It will entail a number of conversations in which all will equally participate.

For any further information, please contact:
Kirk Helliker, Sociology, Rhodes University:
Richard Pithouse, Politics, Rhodes University: 


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