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Reviewed by:
  • Power in Action: democracy, citizenship and social justice by Steven Friedman
  • Laurence Piper (bio)
Steven Friedman (2018) Power in Action: democracy, citizenship and social justice. Johannesburg: Wits University Press

Steven Friedman has long been one of South Africa's premier public intellectuals, making invaluable and thoughtful contributions on the political issues of the day. In Power in Action, he zooms out from everyday issues to reflect on politics and democracy more generally, but it's a view deeply informed by quotidian struggles and also by the South African experience. At its heart, Friedman's argument is that contention and agency are what bring political change, and that making democracy real means that the poor and marginalised must confront the state in an organised way and on an ongoing basis. Only by challenging government every day through collective action will ordinary citizens claim the power to influence decisions that affect their daily lives – which for Friedman is the fundamental meaning of democracy.

Politics as popular agency and contention, and democracy as popular sovereignty are key themes in Power in Action, and they are themes that appear to run against the mainstream institutional accounts of politics. However, Friedman is a sophisticated thinker, and he links agency to institutions though the notion of collective action. In South Africa, we invariably think of protest and popular mobilisation when we think of collection action, but as Friedman rightly points out, this is just one part of the concept. Collective action is also becoming organised to engage the state through a suite of tactics from lobbying, to participating in invited spaces, to contesting elections, to protest, to forming alliances and setting media agendas, and so on and so forth. Indeed, Friedman notes that routinised collective action may be more frequent and more important [End Page 155] than protest, and that it is through routinised collective action that the wealthy are better able to influence government between elections.

In pointing to the centrality of politics between elections, Friedman appears to join the chorus of participatory democrats in claiming that deepening democracy requires citizen participation in decision-making. This reading is only half-true however. Power in Action includes a trenchant critique of the pacifying and sedating effects of 'invited' spaces of government. Against this Friedman argues that change only comes through the engagements 'invented' by popular movements that retain a contentious spirit, even when engaging the state in routinised ways.

Throughout this account of politics and democracy the reader can detect an activist sensibility forged in the heat of post-apartheid South African politics, especially the moments of significant policy change brought about by social movements like the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), to whom Friedman dedicates a chapter. Much of the spirit of Power in Action is testimony to the remarkable achievements of this social movement. In the early 2000s, the TAC effectively changed the HIV-AIDS policy of a dominant political party with 70 per cent of the popular vote, and a president dead set against this policy change. The lessons of alliance formation, working international as well as locally, politicising, organising and mobilising inside and outside formal institutions, all of this flows through Friedman's conceptions of politics and democracy.

Some larger implications…

Although conceived from an activist imaginary of post-apartheid South Africa, Power in Action provides resources to read against some current trends in political thinking globally. First, against contemporary arguments that democracy is falling under the assault of authoritarian capitalism and resurgent nativist nationalisms Friedman holds that democracy has survived worse, and is still the most popular form of government, including in Africa, and the only kind that can offer ordinary people control over their lives. While he concedes that democracy might be staggering, it is not about to fall and neither is it beyond rescue from the (supposed) dominance of the global market, nor its (partial) origination in the west.

Friedman notes that the mainstream liberal conception of democracy is one particular form of the idea of popular sovereignty that also contains certain elitist features. Indeed, it is the Anglo-American model that the [End Page 156] democratic consolidation paradigm wrongly assumes is the norm to which all new...


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pp. 155-161
Launched on MUSE
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