Praising Hitler (from 2015)

IT IS easy to sympathise with former Wits University student representative council president Mcebo Dlamini, who was ejected from office earlier this week. Dlamini rose to prominence when he praised Adolf Hitler for his “organisational skills” and claimed there was “an element” of Hitler “in every white person”. He also argued (perhaps less controversially) that Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib “is not God” and so could not legitimately fire him.

He later conceded that he was focusing on “Hitler’s good side” (suggesting that he was dimly aware of more negative assessments of Hitler’s political legacy). But his supporters reiterated that Hitler could not have been all bad because he fought against evil imperialist Britain.

Dlamini probably did not become an intellectual vacuum all by himself. Perhaps he was not sufficiently exposed by his teachers to the tragic history of modern nationalism, the emergence of mass industrial war or the dispiriting events that occurred less than 75 years ago in Germany, Russia and the “bloodlands” between them. His intellectual disempowerment may demonstrate the perils of a humanities curriculum increasingly focused on the legacies of colonialism and on the exploitative character of capitalism.

The UK’s politics are still of great interest. Thursday’s election showed that it was just as capable as SA of setting itself on a hazardous course towards political instability and economic decline, in pursuit of largely illusory or symbolic objectives. The UK now faces an uncertain future in which neither of the two big parties can secure a parliamentary majority. This is a major change. Across the second half of the 20th century, strong party identification among electors and a first-past-the-post electoral system almost invariably brought majority government.

Coalition politics arrived in 2010, when the Conservative Party was forced to form a coalition government with the centrist and pro-European Liberal Democratic Party. Other players emerged, including a Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) that now runs a partly devolved Scotland, and a xenophobic UK Independence Party (Ukip). This more complex party system reflects a resurgence of deeper societal deliberation about nationality, the nature of contemporary capitalism and the significance of international integration. Struggles for independence or autonomy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in some respects resemble the final throes of a belated decolonisation. Subnational assemblies and delegated executive powers have not eased separatist sentiment in Scotland. Labour may now have to form a coalition with an SNP that does not even believe the UK should exist.

Labour is led by Ed Miliband, a social democratic intellectual preoccupied with remaking market capitalism for an era of economic integration, rising inequality and an unsustainable welfare state. As for the Conservatives, they may have to share power with Ukip, which advocates British withdrawal from the European Union (EU). Conservative leader David Cameron has proposed a dangerous referendum on EU membership in 2017, in order to quieten anti-EU sentiment in his own party and to reverse defections to the nationalist right.

In truth, conventional policy variation between the two big parties is modest. Labour favours slightly higher taxes, and the Tories advocate fiscal conservatism, but both support a dynamic private sector softened by an activist welfare state.

The questions electors have been asked to answer run much deeper. Can this state ever become a society? And how can the dynamic of international capitalism be harnessed to such a society’s collective project of enhancing human welfare? These are crucial questions for South Africans too, and ones that Dlamini has not been empowered to ask, or even to understand.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

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