The poetics and politics of summits: Ramaphosa and the performance of creditworthiness

Cecilia SchultzCecilia Schultz is a PhD candidate, looking at the politics of numbers in financial markets, specifically risk metrics like sovereign credit ratings. Her research interests fall in the fields of economic sociology, the geographies of money and finance and the philosophy of science.

In recent years, the “Big Three” credit rating agencies (CRAs) – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s (S&P’s) and Fitch – have become common parlance in South Africa’s polity. CRA’s rate the creditworthiness of a government’s debt, issued as sovereign bonds and traded on exchanges like the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE). A sovereign bond can be thought of as a debt-based investment, where investors lend money to a government in return for an agreed rate of interest. The interest rate is determined by the government’s credit rating, namely ‘the future ability and willingness of sovereign governments to service their commercial financial obligation in full and on time’ (S&P’s 2017). ‘Ability’ refers to aspects like economic growth, GDP per capita, debt-to-GDP ratio and inflation. ‘Willingness’ on the other hand, relates to the extent a government conforms to an established set of socio-political standards. Sovereign credit ratings grant governments access to liquid capital markets and the necessary debt financing to facilitate programmes of national self-determination such as health care or fiscal stimulus. More favourable ratings translate into lower cost of borrowing. Conversely, less favourable ratings demand a higher premium or dry up, with consecutive downgrades – as we have seen in the past few years. Thus, despite claiming to be ‘informed opinions’, sovereign credit ratings are imbued with power and knowledge by establishing an infrastructure of referentiality – via the ‘AAA’ scale – to denote what correct and ‘normal’ fiscal conduct should entail (Paudyn 2014).

Although modalities of public borrowing can be traced back to ancient and medieval times, it was the advent of credit money as a means of payment in seventeenth-century England that inaugurated sovereign debt as we know it today (De Goede 2005). Contrary to commodity money, credit – like paper money – is detached from a direct relationship to any actual commodities. It is a claim on goods, based on promises of future income streams (Ingham 1999). In order to fund its numerous wars and colonial conquests, the English state established a system of long-term public debt through the creation of joint-stock companies like the Royal African Company (RAC), which enjoyed special privileges and monopoly power granted by the monarchy. Shareholders could not demand their capital back but instead retrieve their funds by selling their shares to third parties. The shares, credit certificates and tickets became marketable in themselves and established a liquid secondary market for trading public debt instruments, whose value rose and fell based on the public’s confidence in the state’s political, military and financial transactions (Pocock 1975).

Credit transactions therefore rely on social imaginations of trust, which are inherently political. In modern financial markets, creditworthiness assumes a distinct geopolitical imagination that envisions spaces beyond the horizon of “the West” as sources of chaos and danger. The ‘global’ in global finance, refers not to a ‘composition of equal and pacific elements but a hierarchy of places, from known to unknown, most friendly to most dangerous’ (Agnew 2003, 16). ‘Emerging markets’ like South Africa are often portrayed as ‘fragile’, ‘volatile’ and beleaguered with policy uncertainty. At the same time however, these are destinations to be conquered: ‘risk-versus-reward’ investments. In order to gain credibility, emerging markets are encouraged to display their willingness to conform a global set of standards. From the 1980s, these standards have mainly been informed by neoliberalism (a very problematic term with many meanings, but one with which we must now live) (Paudyn 2014). This paradigm encouraged a set of free-market reforms such as deregulation, trade liberalisation and an autonomous central bank to keep inflation low. Such reforms signal a ‘favourable investment environment’, which assumedly increase possibilities for economic growth that strengthens a government’s ability and confirm its willingness to repay debt obligations (Paudyn 2014).

Sovereign creditworthiness, especially in the case of emerging markets, thus involves a distinct theatrical element (Seabrooke 2006). According to Seabrooke (2006, 158-160), CRAs, investors and traders pay more attention to emerging markets’ ‘willingness’ to behave in a creditworthy manner, i.e. to ‘talk the talk’ than their necessary ‘ability’ to repay debt. Here, President Cyril Ramaphosa seems to have identified summits as key sites to ‘perform’ his government’s creditworthiness. Apart from his involvement in international summits like the G20 Summit, BRICS Business Summit or the AU Troika Summit, Ramaphosa also launched a much revered ‘investment’ summit last year, in which he managed to garner nearly R290 billion in investment pledges. Earmarked by a number of promises and projects to improve South Africa’s investment environment, Ramaphosa portrayed this summit as ‘an expression of shared hope and renewed confidence’. Addressing concerns of policy uncertainty in the past few years, the president emphasised his government’s determination ‘to put behind us the period of uncertainty and discord and embrace a future of cooperation and partnership.’

In order to comprehend the role summits play in the movement of global capital, it is necessary that we move away from the common portrayal of summits as ‘empty rhetoric’. Even in cases where governments fail to act in accordance to the declaratory statements and promises made, summits are moments of political theatre that provide a stage on which politicians can perform their roles and portray themselves in a particular way to global audiences (Death 2011). The declarations, policy positions and promises can be thought of as poetic speech acts: instances where the ‘palpability of the sign’ becomes more important than what it means (Jakobson 1985, 356-367). Roman Jakobson identified the poetic as one of six different functions in a speech act, the others being emotive, referential, phatic, expressive, conative and metalingual. In any speech act, several functions operate in a hierarchical order, where the dominant function influences the general character of the message. When the poetic function dominates, the speech act is organised according to the material qualities of the signifier (the words used) instead of its referential aspects (meaning). To take Jakobson’s (1985) paradigmatic example, when a word is selected in a poem in order to rhyme, its referential function is less relevant than its homophonic relation to another word. Poetics thus places attention in the materiality of the signifier itself, which allows a process of doubling where the purported objectives of summits become loosened from their real-life consequences (Larkin 2013).

The symbolic, performative and theatrical role of summits enable politicians to persuade actors such as CRAs, investors and/or citizens that they are serious about issues such as repaying their debt obligations, fostering a favourable investment environment or creating jobs. Sovereign creditworthiness must be seen to be done and summits are crucial sites where this performance gets played out (Death 2011, 2). Indeed, compared to ‘frontier’ or ‘pre-emerging markets’, emerging markets enjoy considerably more ‘room to groove’ in signalling their creditworthiness to the market. Although they reify dominant ideas, subjectivities and relationships and significantly undermine democratically-based ways for imagining creditworthiness, the symbolism and dramaturgy of summits grant emerging markets agency to attract investment. The same cannot be said for ‘frontier’ economies who depend on loans from the IMF and World Bank. Much like the infamous Structural Adjustment Programmes, these economies must follow strict economic and political reforms to demonstrate their creditworthiness before gaining access to global capital markets (Seabrooke 2006).  


  • Agnew, J. (2003). Geopolitics. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Death, C. (2011). ‘Summit theatre: exemplary governmentality and environmental diplomacy in Johannesburg and Copenhagen’, Environmental Politics, 20(1):1-19. 
  • De Goede, M. (2005). Virtue, Fortune and Faith: A genealogy of finance. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Ingham, G. (1999). Capitalism, money and banking: a critique of recent historical sociology. British Journal of Sociology, 20(1):76-96.
  • Jakobson, R. (1985). ‘Closing statements: linguistics and poetics’ in R.E. Innis (ed), Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Larkin, B. (2013). ‘The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 42:327-343.
  • Paudyn, B. (2014). Credit Ratings and Sovereign Debt: The Political Economy of Creditworthiness through Risk and Uncertainty. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. Pocock, J.GA. (1975). The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Seabrooke, L. (2006). ‘Civilising global capital markets. Room to groove?’ in B. Bowden and L. Seabrooke (eds), Global Standards of Market Civilisation (pp. 146-160). Abdingdon: Routledge. Standard & Poor’s (S&P’s). 2017. Sovereign Rating Methodology. Online:

Secularism is not the answer to fundamentalist violence

John SanniJohn S. Sanni is a Postdoctoral Fellow in political theory at the University of the Witwatersrand. His research areas include African political philosophy, conflict studies, religion and politics, and contemporary philosophy.

Religious fundamentalist violence is becoming increasingly pervasive and enduring in many parts of the world. In the past few years alone, we have witnessed horrendous acts of violence perpetrated by groups such as al-Shabab in East Africa, which is allied to al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, the West African branch of Islamic State, among others.

They use religion strategically to advance political and social change. Their use of religion is based on a genuine conviction that it will provide solutions to social problems.

The way to combat religious fundamentalist violence is not through further secularisation or attempts to extinguish religious thoughts altogether. (Nichole Sobecki/ AFP)

One could argue that while these groups have religious motives, they aren’t religious in their actions.

There have been attempts to deal with the problem of religious fundamentalist violence, and one such attempt is secularism. 

In my recent doctorate at Stellenbosch University, I drew on the ideas of German philosopher Martin Heidegger to argue that secularism provides a significant starting point in this regard, but it does not adequately help us to address the problem of religious fundamentalist violence — it has to be augmented.

Most religions provide a transcendental justification for worldly activities, for example, the belief that ethical actions in this world are necessary for eternal rewards in the afterlife.

The desire to carry out moral actions is believed to be influenced by God. This argument stems from the conviction that God is the creator of all good things, including the world. The world is often considered a place of sojourn and humans must strive toward the end, which is otherworldly. Religion plays a major role in the understanding of not only the world but also of life after death. It offers a moral and spiritual guide for people in their desire to make sense of the world and also provides answers to existential questions such as: Why were we created, what are we doing in the world and where do we go when we die?

Heidegger provides a different perspective to these questions. In his books Being and Time and What Is Metaphysics?, he maintains that human beings must return to the fundamental question (the question of existence), which he believes has been distorted by the desire to look beyond the very nature of the person posing the question. In other words, the question of existence posed by human beings must not be distanced from the nature of the existence of human realities. For Heidegger, the world itself is the essential starting point for addressing the question of existence.

He argues that our engagement with this question must rid itself of the belief that the answers lie beyond that which is presented within the phenomenon of human experiences. In other words, Heidegger insists that it is only within our experiences that effective interpretative tools can be derived. Phenomenology, simply understood, refers to the understanding of things as they appear to us, and how these things reveal themselves to us.

Heidegger emphasises that the world is the only reliable discursive space. He rejects positions that do not start from the world and return to the world. Conversely, religious views, although they address lived realities, may not necessary be worldly in their framework. This tendency informs some religious beliefs that sometimes legitimise acts of religious violence.

Heidegger does provide a legitimate theoretical model for addressing the problem of religious fundamentalist violence that emanates from a certain kind of religious disposition. He provides a secularist position that is critical of religious beliefs that seek to view human experiences from other-worldly religious perspectives. He limits human ability to the phenomenal. This position is valid in that it considers the lived world as a significant starting point.

But it reduces, as French philosopher Emmanuel Levin as would argue, the nature of human experience to that which can only be ascertained by lived realities.

In addition, secularist views can promote violence, especially when world views are absolutised. Heidegger’s position risks being labelled absolutist in the sense that it imposes a particular world view. This is not to say that his position does not provide a significant starting point for addressing the problem that has been attributed to religious fundamentalist views. But it does not provide a sufficient solution for addressing the problem.

A solution to religious fundamentalist violence is neither a secularist view nor religious in nature; it entails a blend of both. On the one hand, Heidegger’s framework provides a significant and necessary starting point for reimagining religious views, especially views that are potentially dangerous. On the other hand, religious freedom must be promoted, especially as lived human realities are considered very important. A secularist position, with its emphasis on human reality as a starting point, must be reconciled with religious viewpoints to address the possibility of religiously motivated violence.

The way to combat religious fundamentalist violence is not through further secularisation or attempts to extinguish religious thoughts altogether, because they respond to a legitimate, authentic and enduring human need: asking about the ultimate meaning of human existence.

This article was first published by the Mail & Guardian, 18 Apr 2019.

The ‘M-WORD’

Terrell CarverTerrell Carver is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol, UK. He has published widely on sex, gender, sexuality and masculinity/ies, and on Marx, Engels and Marxisms. His latest book is Marx in the ‘Classic Thinkers’ series for Polity Press (2018), and his current project is a short book on masculinity/ies and International Relations.

Feminism is a theory of women’s oppression. Few would disagree with that, or anyway few who can stop to think about this statement, rather than simply react to the word ‘feminism’ with a for/against binary ‘logic’. And similarly few would disagree with the corollary: feminist practices are constructed and pursued in relation to the attested facts through which oppression is understood and experienced.

I have put this proposition to a number of small, seminar-size classes, at final-year undergraduate level, and to MSc students, who are typically older ‘returners’, having had some employment and life-experiences, generally more than most undergraduates. And I have then asked the question: what causes this? who’s doing it? how does it happen?

Going round a group, one-by-one (my characteristic method of ensuring equality of participation), the answers are remarkably consistent: tradition, patriarchy, culture, religion, social forces, history, attitudes, ideologies, sexism, social structures and suchlike. Notably these are all abstractions, and notably appear gender-neutral, or as I’ve argued, ‘apparently de-gendered’ in an article of 1996 (see reference list). As such, they don’t reference human beings very clearly, just some abstracted and generalised notion of human agency, activity and continuity.

These seminar groups are female-dominated and sometimes exclusively female. I have found it really interesting that not one person has ever mentioned the word ‘MEN’ in an answer. This seems quite remarkable to me and worth reflecting on – which I have done over time with each group. And at the time – when I tactfully note my surprise – everyone else also looks surprised. No doubt the academic setting, and academic practice in other classes, encourage what seems to me a flight to abstractions, which are impersonal, de-politicising, evacuations of agency. All of which, to a political theorist who encourages political engagement – however modest and reflective – must be highly problematic.

The closest anyone has ever come to the ‘M-WORD’ in these little experiments is ‘toxic masculinity’, which is getting there, but does rather imply that the remaining masculinities are pretty ok. Another common reaction among female-identified participants is to deny much knowledge of men and things masculine. This is truly counter-intuitive, and must be counter-factual, since complete isolation from men – even in Saudi Arabia – isn’t really on the cards these days, given the very limited number of ‘closed’ nunneries and the like. I assume that hareems have vanished, and even they had eunuchs. Something interesting is going on here.

I have sometimes slightly ‘lost it’ and enquired: where does this oppression come from? outer space? alien invasions? plate-tectonics? global warming? Even that doesn’t solicit the ‘M-WORD’. What mental block is erasing the obvious? Or rather how is it that ‘MEN’ so easily disappear into clouds of abstractions, an absolution of non-appearance, a taboo-zone of the sacredly unmentionable, even a realm of the utterly unknowable? One immediate answer is of course intimidation, but even in the 100% female groups no one says this, and my guess is that some or even most would not like to own up to being intimidated quite so comprehensively as that.

Of course ‘MEN’ isn’t anything like the whole answer, or as such and in itself the most intelligent ‘go’ at one. But it would seem to be a start. Getting a bit further would involve some consideration of at least some characteristic masculinities: the late Jean Elshtain got this going with Public Man/Private Woman in 1982 (see reference list). She was working from personal observation, which is no bad thing, rather than from any great body of sociological research on the subject (which hadn’t yet got started). Her characterisations, ideal-type if you will, were: patriarchal-family, clerical-celibate, warrior-protector, and bureaucratic/rational.

Any of those would do, since they all convey, to some degree yet quite consistently, the idea that men are the important humans who ‘look after’ women, who – evidently – are a lesser breed or anyway ‘unequal’ gender. This is where the women’s movement – in some versions only, I stress – moved into an identity-politics of liberal inclusion, modelled as a politics bringing a subordinated ‘identity’ up to the level of a privileged group, whether majority or minority – a distinction often unhelpfully imported from Lockean liberalism. The more helpful concept here is patriarchy (rule of the fathers) or fratriarchy (rule of the brothers), which at least suggests the ‘M-WORD’, and foregrounds the notion of ‘rule’, through which subordination (restyled as ‘inequality’) arises in the first place.

But we’re still not there, because there is yet another elephant in the room. It isn’t the diversity of attitudes, behaviours, practices, mind-sets, morals and manners of individual men – after all, they are humans, and indeed ‘the very model of the modern individual’ (apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan). Feminists have made the very serious point that the ‘human individual’ isn’t ‘woman-shaped’ but rather masculinised and masculinising as one gender of two, or rather ‘gendering’ humans into two (as Judith Butler puts it – see reference list). But just as bodily sex as a binary is an effect of binary gender as conceptual practice (Butler again), and just as gender only makes sense within heterosexuality as a narrative of species-reproduction (more Butler), and just as heterosexuality constructs heteronormativity as the normal way to be human (the last word from Butler here), it follows that the ‘M-WORD’ we’re looking for is ‘heterosexual men’.

This is not to say that all heterosexual men are actually or violent to women and additionally rapists, or that homosexual men are necessarily nicer to women and more feminist-friendly. Some of the latter are possibly nicer and relatively more feminist-friendly, and only some of the former are violent to women and additionally rapists. Taken analytically here, ‘heterosexual men’ is a reference to heterosexuality as a practice that inscribes the gender-hierarchy of men over women, and some men over others, in practices where women are valued as tokens or possessions. Or in other words there might just be something wrong with heterosexuality as a practice through which women are not born, but ‘become’ (as Beauvoir put it so succinctly – see reference list), and men’s dominance over women fades into abstractions.

Just as my students didn’t want to utter the ‘M-WORD’, so no one (or hardly anyone) really wants to hear anything bad about heterosexuality, and in sexuality-studies it’s not the major focus of interest. Again following the politics of liberal inclusion and equality-concerns, marginalised sexualities hold the stage in research and politics. But how did they get to be marginalised? By whom and by what? And into what are they being included? What do we really think about that? Or are we again assuming that masculinising/hetero-ising practices are pretty ok as such, just needing to ‘loosen up’ and stop discriminating?

My conclusion here is not that heterosexuality should go out with the bathwater, but rather that complacency has to go, and in particular romanticisms that create and construct mythologies of male agency and female passivity, or rather agency as masculinity and passivity as femininity. And that in turn suggests that agency and passivity themselves need refiguring. After all, female super-heroes might look a bit different in the chest and hips, but in terms of what they do to make a story it’s much the same, isn’t it?

Unreconstructed heterosexuality is founded on domination, which is an obvious potential for violence. Romanticisms that make this not just all right but wonderful! Or so it would seem until feminists began detailing how wonderful it wasn’t, and how close Prince Abuser is to Prince Charming. The first step in resolving this is to name heterosexuality, consider it and men’s position within it as a problem, and make that a subject for critical reconstitution, which some have bravely done. I append a short reading list, comments and additions welcome.

Reading List

  • Jonathan Ned Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality, new edn, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  • Gayle Rubin, Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of Politics of Sexuality. In Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance. London: Pandora. 1992, pp. 267-293.
  • Stevi Jackson, ‘Gender, Sexuality and Heterosexuality: The complexity (and limits) of heteronormativity’, Feminist Theory 7(1) (2006): 15-21.

Reference List

  • Beauvoir, S. 1997 [1949]. The Second Sex, trans. H.M. Parshley, new edn. New York: Vintage.
  • Butler, J. 2006 [1990]. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Milton Park: Routledge.
  • Carver, T. 1996. ‘Public Man’ and the Critique of Masculinities, Political Theory 24: 4, pp. 673-686.
  • Elshtain, J. 1993 [1982]. Public Man/Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought. 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.

Let’s not kill all the populists

Bright Nkrumah

Bright Nkrumah is a Postdoctoral Researcher whose research interests include populism, constitutionalism, socioeconomic rights, peace and security, good governance, resistance, freedom and democratization.

Why we need to address the challenges that come with an upsurge of populism in the Global South

Dick the Butcher is one of the lesser known characters in the second part of Shakespeare’s trilogy about Henry VI. As a member of the gang of Jack Cade, who is a pretender to the throne, Dick often makes amusing and highly comedic statements. As a Grade 5 pupil, he lobbies his mates for class prefect position, promising shorter class days and delicious lunches. Cade (in the comic relief part of the play) makes vain boasts about how he’d provide free food and drinks for everyone, how drinking light beer would be a crime and a penny would buy seven half-penny loaves. Dick’s ultimate sell is: ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’. To this henchman, this is the best way to address societal problems and improve the country.

This claim of the mutually intrinsic linkage between lawyers and lawlessness is significant in the context of populist movements. To some they are seen as a threat to democracy and the primary source of social disintegration (Canovan 1999; Canovan 2004). Thus, in light of this negative connotation, should the Global South heed the advice of Dick and ‘kill’ all populists with moral condemnation and demonization? No!

To reverse the populist evolution, it is vital to adopt an analytical viewpoint and cast aside the simplistic account of the media that presents populism as simply irrationality, utopian thinking or mob rule.

Populism can simply be defined as a means of constructing a political frontier by dividing society into two antagonistic groups: the ‘people’ against corrupt ‘elite’. To be exact, it is the rhetoric of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Given that the composition of both groups is not clearly delineated, it is vital to distinguish between the different kinds of populism.

The rise of populist movements in the Global South should be seen against the backdrop of contemporary liberal-democratic politics. This was triggered by the compromise reached between the parties of the centre-left and centre-right on the notion that neoliberal globalization has no other substitute. By complying with the demands of international financial institutions such as the IMF’s structural adjustment programmes, key democratic concepts such as parliamentary sovereignty and popular sovereignty, which allows people to influence public policy, have not only been drastically watered down but abandoned. In recent years, any reference to ‘democracy’ in the Global South merely refers to the protection of human rights and conduct of elections. These developments (marked by a form of regulation of Capitalism) has resulted in massive poverty and glaring inequality. It is, thus, not far-fetched to say the Global South has been plunged into a state of oligarchisation.

Since political and social crisis can be seen as fertile ground for populist appeal, several populist movements have sprouted claiming to represent the interest of the people being ignored by the elites. Notwithstanding some of the strategies these movements adopt, it is vital to acknowledge some of the legitimate democratic ideals some aspire to restore. In South Africa, the belligerent character and combative tone of populist party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has somewhat eliminated concerns that dominant party syndrome (of the ruling African National Congress) will undermine the constitutional mandate and diminish the independence of strategic institutions such as the National Assembly. It is the lack of a narrative capable of providing a distinct terminology to construct the struggles against our contemporary society that shows that populism resonates in several sectors of our political and social order.

To this end, populism should be conceptualized in a progressive way. It should be seen as a force that enhances and consolidates the neoliberal project rather than one that simply dismisses the issues they have put on the agenda. One would agree that the growing number of supporters for movements such as the Black Management Forum (BMF), the Black First Land First (BLF), the Decolonisation Foundation and the EFF demonstrate that ‘killing’ the populist through moral chastisement has not been effective in countering right-wing populism, especially as it reinforces the anti-elitist sentiments among the popular classes. What is lacking, and urgently needs to be done, is to address the issues they raise, like poor service delivery and state looting. These need different responses, one which is capable of rallying support towards social justice and equality. The best remedy to oppose existing right-wing populist movements and forestall the emergence of new ones is through the development of a real left-wing populist movement.

When the EFF first emerged in 2014, it was often described as left-wing populist (Buccus 2019). But in hindsight this is obviously incorrect. The party’s populism has demonstrated to be more of the right – a mixture of the authoritarian decrees of its 2019 manifesto banning the private sector from owning land and lavish lifestyle of its ‘firebrand’ leader Julius Malema. The feasible grounds to construct a real-left populist movement will be the new social forces that have sprouted from the shack settlements and trade unions outside the ruling party. Besides deepening democracy, this project’s focus should be the constitution of a collective that creates synergy between the multiplicity of political forces and social movements.

Despite these promises, there is a missing link – there is no visible charismatic leader who could unite these forces and progressively articulate the democratic demands existing in contemporary South Africa, or the countries in the Global South. If this challenge is addressed, there is a prospect for this collective to become hegemonic and have a transversal character, especially since several social sectors have been hammered by financialised capitalism.

Contrary to the anti-populist narrative of political commentators and the media who see populism as an affront to democracy, the most suitable political force to recapture and expand democratic ideals in contemporary South Africa and the Global South is left-wing populism.

  • Buccus, I. 2019. ‘Imraan Buccus: What chance does the ‘left’ have in the 2019 elections?’, First Thing
  • Canovan, M. 1999. ‘Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy’ Political Studies, 47(1): 2-16.
  • Canovan, M. 2004. ‘Populism for political theorists?’ Journal of Political Ideologies, 9 (3): 241-252.

What is ‘An Ethics of Care’ and Why is it Important?

Sophie Harbour

Sophie Harbour is a recent Masters of Political Science graduate from the University of Witwatersrand. Her research interests include human rights, political motivation and the ethics of care.”

In the wake of the New Zealand terror attack, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who took office towards the end of 2017, has been hailed across informal and formal media sources as a true leader. This is not due to her swift action in terms of gun control measures, but instead due to her immediate and continued displays of compassion that drew praise from individuals in New Zealand and across the world. A New York times editorial hailed her as ‘the leader America needs’ and a range of journalists, professors, celebrities and social media sharers all contributed to the tide of applause. This display of compassion – of care – has made the New Zealand PM an overnight symbol. What political effect does this have? Does it show the power that compassion can wield in the public sphere? And, could it push mainstream discussion towards greater engagement with ‘an ethics of care’?

In general, ideas of care can be found across current political spaces. For example, the UK’s Brexit and Venezuela’s presidential crises, along with numerous other events in recent years, have caused concern over the lack of politician’s care for citizens’ views and demands. In South Africa, the most reported violation of human rights is discrimination, particularly hate speech, suggesting the continuing deterioration of caring relations between persons and groups. In addition, with regard to dependency (one of the key tenets of care theory), there is often the persistent recognition yet continued disregard of the dependent nature of people and nations politically, economically and socially.

At the same time, exploration of an ethics of care remains undervalued. In general, the theory places emphasis on crucial realities in human societies including dependency, vulnerability and emotion. It has its origins in feminist thought and feminist moral theory, specifically in the early works of Carol Gilligan (1982/1993) and Nel Noddings (1984/2013) who argued, respectively, that the female ‘voice’ carries with it important contributions to understanding justice (largely as a consequence of a better grasp of care) and that focus on relationships, rather than individual justice, should form the basis of our moral reasoning. It is important to remember that an ethics of care is not just about ‘caring more’. It is, instead, an important range of considerations, theories, and arguments that create an alternative foundation for moral reasoning and that lend themselves to a better understanding of social and political realities in a way that may create useful approaches to modern crises. Crucially, these approaches rely on giving more attention to the way humans operate, and are motivated to operate, from within networks of relations and in an overwhelmingly contextual manner.

The theory continues to be extended by a number of authors with regard to various topics: in relation to the moral sentimentalism of Hume, understandings of empathy, and in reconciling care with talent (Slote, 2007; 2013); in terms of equality with particular regard to caregivers and their dependants (Kittay, 1999); for insights on political violence (Held, 2006); for the potential of a such an ethic to be applied globally (Robinson, 1999); and how such an ethic fits into an approach to human security (Robinson, 2011), amongst others. Yet, there is still more research to be done and time to be dedicated to the application, in a more real way, of an ethics of care in current societies.

It is an approach that has an important stake in conversations around compassionate leadership, emotions in the political space, concern over individual and group immorality, and global dependency – conversations that are continually circulating in current politics. Adopting and adapting understandings from this theory could have some important insights for current crises and for political motivation. Hopefully, the attention the New Zealand PM has received in her recent actions will continue to bring the ideas of care and compassion into key conversations.

  • Gilligan, C. 1982/1993. ​In a Different Voice.​ Harvard University Press.
  • Held, V. 2006. ​The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global.​ Oxford University Press.
  • Kittay, E. F. 1999. ​Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency​. ​New York: Routledge.
  • Noddings, N., 1984/2013. ​Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics.​ University of​ ​California Press.
  • Robinson, F. 1999.​ Globalising Care: Feminist Theory, Ethics and International Relations. ​Westview Press.
  • Robinson, F. 2011. ​The Ethics of Care: A Feminist Approach to Human Security. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Slote, M. 2007. ​The Ethics of Care and Empathy.​ Routledge.
  • Slote, M. 2013. Education and Human Values: Reconciling Talent with An Ethics of Care. New York/London: Routledge.

What is the point of political theory?

Lawrence HamiltonLawrence Hamilton is the NRF British Academy Research Professor in Political Theory, Wits and Cambridge. He contributes to rethinking political theory from and for the Global South. His works include Amartya Sen (2019), Freedom is Power (2014) and The Political Philosophy of Needs (2003)

If politics is about who rules whom and how, theorizing about politics seems like a luxury, especially in the Global South, where many live precariously in the daily struggle to survive. Democratic political rule can seem secondary to more pressing needs, such as securing enough water, food, shelter and security. But this is wrong. Politics determines the extent to which ‘basic’ needs can be met, and under democratic conditions it is where ordinary citizens collectively select their representatives who determine the more complex needs that constitute their lives and livelihoods.

If we ignore or remain passive vis-à-vis politics, we vacate the space within which it is decided ‘who does what to whom for whose benefit’ (Lenin 1972; Geuss 2008). This is perilous, for citizen passivity allows the more fortuitous, wealthy, voracious and venal quickly to fill the space and dictate our politics. Our politics then becomes not about our collective, if often plural and competing, needs, interests, powers and ideas, but about the lives of those who thus capture the state. This is no mere theoretical threat, as Zuma’s South Africa, Chavez’s Venezuela and Bolsonaro’s Brazil make graphically clear; as do Trump’s America, May’s Brexit and so on. Populism is a dangerous byproduct of our passivity as citizens. By contrast, if our focus is on the quality of our lives and the powers to secure and improve them, democracy remains the only real contender. It is impossible to see this and improve it without political theory.

This is the case because political theory is the means through which we marshal or invent concepts, norms, ideas to comprehend and thus contest our politics. Like most other things that involve language, politics cannot proceed without concepts and ideas to overcome pressing practical problems: how to hold to account our political leaders; which collective goods require public provision; how best to engage with global political power relations; and so on.

In other words, because politics involves judgements within a particular concrete context regarding our agency, power, needs and interests (Hamilton 2009, 2014a), the existing theoretical framework for our judgements heavily affects how we collectively conceive of the associated power relations, benefits, penalties and priorities. The practical, historical context of concept formation is therefore of utmost importance in politics. In South Africa today, for example, the fact that we use human rights as the main means of thinking about or formatting politics is relatively new. It is also a very bad idea. This is only apparent if we look carefully into the history and deployment of human rights and the deleterious effects they have had on our political power, agency and imaginative capabilities (Moyn 2018; Geuss and Hamilton 2013).

‘What is the point of political theory?’ is therefore a practical question. It is about working out how best to proceed at a particular moment in local, national and global contexts. This is about comprehension, orientation and judgement about our lives’ central questions, facts and values. For this we require knowledge of where we are and where we would like to end up; and judgement as to how best to get there. We also need to understand why we are where we are.

This is no easy feat. It requires capacities that constitute the art of good judgement in politics: a view of the world that acknowledges how our individual well-being and freedom is linked to our collective well-being and freedom (Hamilton 2014b); a willingness to deliberate about everyday facts and deeply held values; the timing and courage to find ways of judging collectively under conditions of likely disagreement; the capacity to persuade others of the collective worth of a proposal; and so on. In sum, the skill individually and collectively to decide when and how to act and what to prioritize. This is not easy, nor is it parochial, something the existential threat of our current global climate crisis exemplifies.

Political theory is the framework through which we acquire these skills and practices. Contrary to received theoretical opinion, this is not just a matter of conceptual or normative clarification. It is about learning to acquire and pass on the craft of political judgement. One of the reasons that democracy stands out in the modern world is because it is the one political arrangement that enables this collective process of (sometimes antagonistic) learning. A lot of political theorists, myself included (Hamilton 2014a), have supposed the panacea lies in innovative institutional arrangements, on the assumption that there may exist an institutional fix for democracy’s deficiencies. But this is wrongheaded; we need more, always and everywhere. Democracy must be constantly worked on, by leaders and ordinary citizens, to ensure it prioritizes and enables this collective process of learning for good political judgement (Cabral 1974; Hountoundji 2002; Dunn 2014). In other words, the health and vitality of everyone’s democracy is, ultimately, each individual person’s responsibility.

This, then, this the main point of political theory, especially in precarious democratic contexts: continually to remind fellow citizens of this responsibility and how best to meet it; and to arm them with the conceptual and factual tools to carry it out. If democracy is necessary for the free, collective determination of individual needs, good political judgement at all levels is a requirement for the health of democracy. Political theorists must guide this political judgement. If they shirk this responsibility, the very existence of the globe is imperiled.

Most political theory that emanates from the Global North does just this as it retreats into the life of the ‘ivory tower’ or actively turns away from the messy business of real politics. Political theorists from the Global South are well placed to resist this ‘flight from reality’ (Shapiro 2005) due to the visceral nature of their politics. They are forced to face the actual politics of their time rather than build philosophical castles in the sky. Critical South is a forum for the expression of this practical, postcolonial imperative. It thus aims to empower everyone to judge well in politics.

  • Cabral, A. (1974), ‘Análise de alguns Tipos de Resistência’, in Colecção de Leste a Oeste (Lisbon: Seara Nova).
  • Dunn, J. (2014), Breaking Democracy’s Spell (Yale University Press)
  • Geuss, R. (2008), Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton University Press)
  • Geuss, R. and Hamilton, L. (2013), Human Rights: A Very Bad Idea, Theoria, 60.2.
  • Hamilton, L. (2009), ‘Human Needs and Political Judgement’, in New Waves in Political Philosophy, ed. Zurn and de Bruin (London: Palgrave)
  • Hamilton, L. (2014a), Freedom is Power: Liberty Through Political Representation (Cambridge University Press)
  • Hamilton, L. (2014b), Are South Africans Free? (Bloomsbury)
  • Hountondji, P. (2002), The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture, and Democracy in Africa (Ohio University Press)
  • Lenin, V. (1972), Materialism and Empirico-criticism (Beijing: Foreign Language Press)
  • Moyn, S. (2018), Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Harvard University Press)
  • Shapiro, I (2005), The Flight From Reality in the Human Sciences (Princeton University Press

Watch this space

Critical South is a new blog launching in April 2019. It aims to provide theoretically-informed and -rich perspectives on politics and society, with particular focus on and from the Global South. Prior to full launch, please use the contact page if you would like any further information.