The Drift Goes On.

September 2, 2014

In the South African government, nothing has been attempted, no new initiatives established, not a single challenge confronted, since the elections. It is not necessary now that the elections are won and Zuma does not need to take any action to confirm his position in power. So we continue to drift towards the rocks, with only a few gentle bumps under our keel to illustrate what awaits us.

Such as the exposure of Pallo Jordan. Such as the bailout of African Bank. Such as the dismal failure of the Farlam and Seriti Commissions. These are not substantial events, but they are pointers towards our ultimate disaster.

Jordan’s is a mildly interesting case. He constructed a remarkable career as a victim of the ANC’s anti-intellectualism. He had been, it will be recalled, the chief of the ANC’s public relations in exile, not an inglorious job but not actually one providing much access to serious popular attention. The people from whom Jordan received substantial attention, however, were the whites who went to meet with ANC delegations in the late 1980s. As PR boss Jordan was naturally involved in all such meetings and was thus able to focus attention upon himself. Whites returned from these meetings to say that while there were a lot of fools and extremists in the ANC, still there were also some decent people in the ANC, like Jordan. Why, he had, according to him, almost been imprisoned by the ANC for speaking his mind! Anyone who was almost imprisoned by the ANC had to be a good guy, obviously; just as Vaclav Havel had to be a good guy because he had almost been imprisoned by the Czech Communists.

Jordan was an ideal person for this particular job. He had slipped into the ANC almost by default — his tradition was not Charterist, but Non-European Unity Movement. Not only did he thus come from a political heritage of being an impotent blowhard, but his dad was a novelist whose main work was so thoroughly uncontroversial that it was made into a TV series by the SABC in the 1980s. (Not that it’s a bad book, by the way.) He was university-trained, urbane, had a Western accent — everything which whites liked about black people.

The only thing which held him back, apart from his drinking problem, was the fact that he was not sufficiently subservient to white capital. The trouble was twofold: as a senior ANC member, but not very high up, he was not free to sell out; as a member of the ANC’s nominal left wing and Africanist wing, selling out to white capital was theoretically against his principles. Meanwhile, because he was not one of the party bosses he was not offered enough of a bargain by the whites to overcome his scruples. Hence he remained, very conveniently, as a mildly pink (but black) liberal with good connections in the white political and academic world, available after the unbanning of the ANC for parties and functions generally (at least when sober) and always ready to say things which sounded radical without actually either breaching the limits of permissible rhetoric within the ANC or alienating his support-base.

All this was very fine, and yet there was something which he lacked, something needed perhaps to earn the respect of his white bourgeois support-base if he were to be seen as an intellectual. So he falsified his curriculum vitae; he pretended that he had completed his abandoned degree at an American cow-college and he then pretended that he had acquired a doctorate from the London School of Economics. Risky? Who was going to check? He was not using academic credentials to apply for any job. But Pallo Jordan was merely a motormouthed ANC member; Dr. Pallo Jordan was an intellectual with a capital i, a man to whom you had to listen even though he had nothing to say that you had not heard before.

Since he was a man congenial to the white ruling classes, they were not going to ask too many questions. And, since having a man with a doctorate was handy for the ANC’s image, they were not going to ask too many questions. So he was safe — for a while. As it turned out, he was safe for twenty years, though for every one of those twenty years he must have had at the back of his mind the question of what would happen when he was found out. He never had the power to suppress exposure. Meanwhile, he could do nothing about it having once made the lie public; he couldn’t even register for a real PhD, because that would require him to admit that he didn’t have an undergraduate degree in the first place.

The only other question to ask is why he has been exposed at this late date. It is not really plausible that Gareth van Onselen went through the credentials of every ANC cabinet minister since 1994 looking for evidence of fakery. (Apart from anything else, he would doubtless have found a lot more stuff.) Someone must have decided to pass the Jordan story on to Van Onselen. Was it an ANC person? Then why not nail him much earlier, when he was still an undistinguished cabinet minister? Thabo Mbeki had reason to nail him long ago, when he was siding with Mbeki’s enemies — instead, as was Mbeki’s habit, he put Jordan in the Cabinet, where he remained even after Mbeki’s downfall as the least distinguished of Ministers. Of course, someone could have developed a personal antipathy to Jordan — he slept with the wrong person, he spoke to the wrong people — it is hard to guess. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely given the white liberal conduit through which the message passed, perhaps the white ruling class decided that Jordan was no longer of interest to them and could safely be sacrificed. And then came the usual flurry of humbug, fools and charlatans defending Jordan, fools and charlatans attacking Jordan, fools and charlatans distancing themselves from Jordan. Nothing is to be gained from that, of course.

But is anything ever to be gained? It is only seven years ago that the global financial system was brought to its knees by unsecured lending — that is, banks lending money to people who could under no circumstances pay it back, and then lending more money out by pretending that those people would be able to pay the money back and hence it could be counted as good debts. At that time South Africa’s banking system still existed in the shadow of a cautious Minister of Finance named Manuel; dishonest and reactionary he might have been, but he had one thing which distinguished him from the pure neoliberals — he was prepared to tolerate banking regulation, at least within some limits. So banks were required to have some solid basis for the money they loaned out, and the South African banking system itself remained largely unaffected by debt crises which destroyed banks bigger than the whole South African economy.

But then we were in a depression, and in a depression people need money, especially rich people who already have money. And the banks were getting few deposits because nobody had cash to put in them. (How foolish of the people not to have money, as the corporate economists always point out!) And meanwhile all the restraints on corporate neoliberalism were removed when all the social democrats in the ANC were kicked out of government. The next step was obvious — let the banks do whatever they want, mix and match all the “registered financial services providers”, a term which sometimes seems to mean the financial equivalent of spaza shops but usually just means bucket-shops. Confuse everybody and unleash the dogs of capital!

And so a couple of years ago a brilliant idea came to South Africa — unsecured lending! All those people out there with no money — let’s lend them money! What could go wrong? And indeed we were told that this would save everybody from loan-sharks because these were serious banks with serious knowledge of the market, and who were we to criticise them? Why, loan-sharks were responsible for Marikana! (Yes, people really said that. It’s as plausible as anything that comes out of Dali Mpofu’s mouth, after all.) And needless to say the leading light in unsecured lending was the African Bank, a bank not controlled by africans, but who asks questions when Afrika is calling? As recently as a month or so ago the corporate pages of the newspapers were telling us that African Bank would overcome the collapse of its share price and defeat the creditors circling it like bacteriophages.

Well, of course they were lying. African Bank turned out to have lent money to serious creditors on the basis of ten billion rands of bad debts and was placed under curatorship by the Reserve Bank, which had permitted it to get into such a pickle in the first place. No doubt someone will make a pile of money out of African Bank’s assets — the debtors are already being ordered to keep hurling their money into the financial bonfire which African Bank has become. No doubt nobody will be punished for the deregulation which led to the problem, and no doubt other banks which are engaged in the same practices will not stop their unsecured lending, but will instead work harder to cover it up and to try to make deals with creditors. At present the economy is moving slowly into depression. How many other banks are in African Bank’s position? Unfortunately, if we find out, the consequences are likely to be catastrophic on our already anaemic and half-dead economy.

And will our anaemic and half-dead civil society be able to bear up under the strain of such economic crisis? Not if its performance at the Farlam and Seriti Commissions is anything to go by.

These two Commissions exemplify everything which is wrong with our civil society, which runs largely on money and lawyers anyway. They were both set up on the supposition that when you put a judge in charge of something, something will get done — which is true, although since our judges are a pack of bought rascals and nincompoops, we can usually be sure that this “something” will not be worth the candle. Like all Commissions of Enquiry, they were also set up to cover the arses of government by pretending to get something done on an issue of supposed importance. However, what’s interesting is how differently they have pursued their paths, sought their goals, and been responded to by those who have pretended to clamour for truth and justice.

The Farlam Commission investigating events surrounding the 2012 Rustenburg mine strike, the violence which accompanied it and the police massacre at Marikana in August that year, was headed by a white man, the Seriti Commission by a black man. This difference accounts for much of the different treatment of the two commissions by the whites who own or control civil society organisations; the Seriti Commission was denounced from the start whereas the Farlam Commission was welcomed from the start.

However, it’s not only about racism. The Farlam Commission would potentially expose wrongdoings of the ANC government which were known to exist. The Seriti Commission would potentially expose wrongdoings of the ANC government which were claimed to exist. In the former case it was simply about revealing what was known; in the latter case, people who had been making claims for a decade and a half would have to provide evidence that their claims were real. In other words, civil society had no problem with Farlam, because they could lose nothing by prancing about making accusations about events which everybody had watched on Youtube; the problem with Seriti was that many leading lights in civil society might find themselves having to confess that the accusations which they had already made were not founded on any factual information.

Farlam’s commission stumbled about like blind men, failing to focus on anything clearly, evidence appearing before it chaotically and with endless debates over whether or not anyone could be found to pay the ludicrous, exorbitant fees which all the lawyers for the various parties — the so-called “evidence leaders” — were charging, and without which, supposedly, the Commission would grind to a halt. Farlam exerted all the physical authority of a quadriplegic with a speech impediment; he failed to provide leadership or guidance for any of the evidence leaders, allowing them to rant at will but without seemingly showing any concern about accuracy or relevance, and certainly without participating himself as all competent commission judges in the past have done. In short, it was perfect, so far as civil society was concerned — but completely useless so far as an investigation into events at Marikana was concerned, which is why nothing has come out of the commission but blather, bullshit and repetition of what had already been said many times before.

Seriti’s commission has been brisk and well-organised. Since they were (allegedly) supposed to find out whether anything had gone wrong apropos the arms deal, they structured the commission as an investigation — first call in the people responsible for the whole affair, and then call in their critics to explain what they had done wrong. So they called in the military to say whether they wanted arms (yes, they had) and whether they were happy with the arms they had got (yes, they were) and then called in the politicians involved in the arms deal to say whether they were crooks (no, they weren’t).

The whole sequence, of course, provided a glorious opportunity for the representatives of critics of the arms deal to have their say. They could provide evidence that the military had not wanted or needed arms. They could provide evidence that the arms acquired had not fulfilled the desires of the military. They could provide evidence of political corruption in the arms deal. Nothing whatsoever was stopping them.

Instead, they did essentially nothing. They called the bona fides of the witnesses into question, which would be significant if a crime were being discussed, but no evidence of any crime was presented. They cited unsubstantiated newspaper reports (probably planted by themselves) that the witnesses were lying. They blustered a lot; Paul Hoffmann even tried to bully Thabo Mbeki, and burst into tears when his bizarre boorishness led inevitably to accusations of racism against him. But nobody provided any evidence to justify having set up the Seriti Commission in the first place.

We are still waiting for the second half of this commission, during which the people who failed to provide evidence during the first half will have an opportunity to provide evidence. But why should they do so later, having failed in the first case? After all, many have already been revealed in previous court cases to have lied about having evidence, such as Patricia de Lille and Terry Crawford-Browne, or have become laughing-stocks like Paul Hoffmann. Others, like Richard Young, have (after a decade and a half darkly proclaiming what they could reveal if given the chance) suddenly discovered prior commitments and sound excuses for not turning up on time, if at all.

Manifestly, our civil society loves commissions of enquiry led by flabby weaklings which fail to confront the issue, but hates commissions of enquiry which attempt to actually investigate anything. In other words, our civil society is a crowd of bullshitters with plenty to hide. Presumably they can be bought by any bank, however insolvent, and no doubt any of them with a false CV can be sure of mutual protection. But, Lord, aren’t they good at making accusations against everybody except themselves!

Problematising the Left (IV): The Loss of Realism.

September 2, 2014

If one reads George Orwell as a leftist instead of as a neoconservative or a liberal (the images which current propaganda provide for him) one comes across two very interesting aspects of his work.

Towards the end of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell talks about the compromise with which the war would inevitably end due to the Republican government’s refusal to adopt revolutionary tactics. He was writing in 1937, after having fought with the POUM militia on the Huesca front and in the Barcelona street-fighting, and it was understandable that he had a parochial attitude to the war. Still, he understood fascist ideology; he had no excuse for imagining that the fascists would compromise if they were winning. He was simply so angry with the Stalinists for their behaviour in crushing what remained of the revolutionary movement in Catalonia (although, as Trotsky rightly pointed out, that revolutionary movement essentially connived at its own crushing) that he couldn’t see the Stalinist obsession with class compromise and alliance-building was very different from the Fascist agenda.

A related matter appears in several of Orwell’s essays between the publication of Homage and the outbreak of World War II, and also appears in diluted form in the novel Coming Up For Air. This is Orwell’s profound hostility to militarisation. In the novel it takes the form of the bomb accidentally dropped by a British bomber on manoeuvres on a British town. In the essays it takes the form of hostility to arms manufacturing, conscription and regimentation, which are persistently gibed at or denounced.

Orwell understood that fascism was planning war, but believed that this would be an imperialist war between capitalists and super-capitalists (the latter being the fascists). Therefore he did not want either side to win; rather, he wanted the capitalists to be overthrown in a socialist revolution, after which the socialists would defeat the fascists. The stronger the capitalists were, the more difficult it would be to overthrow them; therefore they should not be armed. Besides, Orwell convinced himself, the capitalists might sell out to the fascists, in which case all that weaponry would be used to crush the social revolution.

This isn’t a completely absurd assumption, but it turned out to be a disastrous one, because it assumes that the war at home is more important than foreign aggression. If Orwell’s desires had been fulfilled, Britain would have been conquered by the Nazis in 1940 and Orwell would have ended in a concentration-camp. (Orwell delivered brilliant rhetorical attacks on his own position during the 1940-42 period, especially in Partisan Review and Tribune, denouncing pacifism and anarchism in terms which he privately admitted to be unfair — sometimes in apologetic letters to the people whom he was attacking.) Orwell’s assumption seems to have underpinned a great deal of the left’s inchoate hostility to rearmament during the period.

It is sometimes claimed that this was all the fault of the Communists, but up until the Nazi-Soviet Pact the Communists strongly supported resistance to fascism, and some of the most powerful proponents of the anti-force line came from the anarchist and far-left movements who were also opposed to the Communists. If the left were unwilling to struggle against fascism, did they believe that fascism was a paper tiger, as Orwell seemed to have felt (against all evidence) immediately after his return from Spain? Did they simply think that the whole struggle was game, in which the rhetorical point-scoring of a badly-chaired party branch meeting counted for just as much as the conquest of the Sudetenland or Catalonia? Were they, in short, cut off from reality? Orwell later, bitterly, referred to much of the left as “masturbatory”, and the appellation seems appropriate to the times.

Fast-forward to the 1980s in South Africa and one sees something quite similar. The apartheid regime was trying to legitimise its rule by co-opting a black elite into serving as subordinates for the white elite. This was quite obvious, resembling what had happened in the late 1970s in Rhodesia and Namibia. Meanwhile, although in some ways apartheid repression was relaxing (for instance, in terms of censorship) numerous political leaders were disappearing or dying mysteriously, detention without trial was intensifying, and after 1984 the army was increasingly used to suppress demonstrations, while the country was placed under emergency rule after 1985. The left had an ideological duty to oppose apartheid (especially because it was increasingly conniving with multinational capital) whereas if the left failed to do this, apartheid was breeding a death-squad state which would surely crush the left in the way that it was being crushed in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, as everybody on the left knew.

But much of the left was conspicuously not struggling against the apartheid state or its minions. The elements of the National Forum — the Trotskyites around Neville Alexander, the Black Consciousness proponents of AZAPO and the various other groupings which joined or associated themselves with this movement (such as the PAC) — were not running around organising rebellions, boycotts or anything of the kind. On the contrary, they were condemning rebellions, breaking consumer boycotts, calling for people to break strikes and cross picket lines, and sometimes physically attacking members of organisations who were rebelling, boycotting and striking. Simultaneously, however, they were producing documents which proved that their own political line was infinitely more anti-apartheid than the line taken by those supporting the Freedom Charter, and also that whereas the Charterists were merely non-racist, they were anti-racist, and therefore they ought to be supported.

Why were they doing these things? They believed that their political positions were the correct ones, whereas the Charterists were incorrect. Therefore they felt that it was more important to ensure that the correct political positions prevailed rather than allowing the incorrect ones to prevail, even if that meant delaying virtually all political activity until the incorrect political position could be demobilised and defeated. They were pretending that resolving the political differences between themselves and the Charterists were more important than either getting rid of apartheid or defending the left against a potential massacre.

How could anyone sustain such a nonsensical position? This was done by demonising the Charterists in order to glorify themselves. Specifically, the National Forum contended that the Charterists were essentially in league with the whites because they were not as anti-white as the PAC and AZAPO pretended to be, and that the Charterists were essentially in league with the capitalists because they were not as anti-capitalist as the Trotskyites around Neville Alexander pretended to be. (In reality, the former were less anti-white, and the latter much less anti-capitalist, than they claimed. Alexander was the toast of the liberal white community, and the white liberal media constantly tried to promote AZAPO and the PAC as alternatives to the ANC. In the end this was a rhetorical distinction which the National Forum elevated into the status of a doctrine.)

Again, the term “masturbatory” does not seem inappropriate; the far left in South Africa at the time were fantasising in order to give themselves pleasure. This was obvious to the Charterists, who developed a deep contempt for the National Forum supporters (having earlier been willing to work with them during the period of the tricameral constitution referendum of 1983). More to the point, it meant that the National Forum opposed every anti-apartheid initiative and thus became irredeemably tainted with suspicion of being actually pro-apartheid, and of professing radical positions while actually holding reactionary ones. From this it was not far to concluding that the Africanists and Trotskyites were apartheid agents, a notion naturally congenial to the Charterist leadership and especially to the SACP, who particularly hated Trotskyism because of Martin Legassick’s failed coup against them in the 1970s. This simultaneously made the conflict between the Charterists and the far left more bitter, and ensured that the far left would lose support which it never subsequently regained because it was trapped within its negative posture.

What do these examples tell us about the contemporary realistic attitude of the far left? Logically speaking, the far left should be in a stronger position than it has been in for many decades. The SACP and most of the leadership of COSATU, for long the bellwethers of the Charterist left, have utterly discredited themselves as leftists and are simply providers of patronage — which enables them to hang on to their leadership positions but ensures the erosion of their popular support. The neoliberal business elite has largely wrecked the economy, trapping it in a low-wage, low-productivity, low-investment neocolonial mode, and its control of the government ensures that this will continue while the government only discredits itself further. It is obviously time for alternatives, and the far left can make huge play from providing them. Indeed, most of the success of the EFF, despite its inchoate policies and its problematic organisation, derives from this obvious point.

However, it is also obvious that precisely because the people have been repeatedly betrayed by their leaders, they are not going to simply support an alternative automatically. What if the person providing the alternative is a huckster, as so often in the past? What if the alternative provided turns out to be a pyramid scheme, or a system for siphoning cash into the pockets of the elite, as so often in the past (and particularly in the present). Why throw the rascals out, only to throw the other rascals in? It’s a question endlessly asked by those facing precisely the same problem all over the world.

So the far left has to show that it has a solid ground in reality and in what the people want, and here, it seems, the far left has floated away from the shore, way out of its depth, clutching concrete lifebelts.

The far left appears convinced that the masses support it and that the government is unpopular. Therefore it is not necessary to persuade the masses of anything, or indeed to provide a serious alternative to government policy. The far left has also bought into the 1960s Trotskyite concept that the masses are necessarily more radical than the leaders — a notion necessary to sidestep the “vanguardist” Leninist notion that the leaders have to educate the masses into radicalism — and therefore that a revolutionary situation always exists.

As a result, the far left has offered its support for service delivery protests and for the platinum-belt strike (interestingly the far left offered much more unconditional support for this strike than for the NUMSA strike even though the NUMSA strike was conducted by a union actively cooperating with the far left). The problem with this support is that it is support for reformist initiatives which do not in any way further the organisational or political interests of the far left. Of course such support could be used to build organisations and disseminate political ideas, but the far left has not been doing this — and as a result the platinum-belt strike benefited only the highly dubious union AMCU, while service delivery protests serve, as usual, the interests of local ANC politicians who organise them.

On the other hand, the far left also supports whatever anti-ANC campaign is available. Sometimes this entails wildly exaggerating the significance of very small local initiatives which sympathise, or pretend to sympathise, with the far left. Very often, however, this entails collaborating with right-wing anti-ANC initiatives which ultimately serve neoliberal goals, simply because this collaboration gives the far left an easy opportunity for a mention in a reactionary newspaper article. (The far left also is fond of utilising mendacious discourse around such issues as “democracy”, which the far left does not conspicuously support in practice.)

As a result the far left continues to have the reputation of being possibly closet neoliberals but undeniably untrustworthy for any serious purpose, while simultaneously arousing the hostility of local ANC supporters by their support for local anti-ANC initiatives. Hence the far left gains no reliable support at any level from these campaigns. The problem is compounded by the inability of the far left to combine; the far left in Gauteng, Johannesburg and Cape Town seems incapable of any effectual union, and even within those areas, egotistical leaders of tiny organisations insist on their own independence, probably so as to appropriate the funds flowing in from abroad (not only the Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung, but also, much more problematically, the Open Society Foundation which has links with the US State Department.)

If the far left were realistic, they would be more homogeneous and their policies would be consistent instead of being opportunistic to the point of incoherence. If they were realistic, they would be much more effective, and would have a chance of growing. Unfortunately, if they were realistic they would have to acknowledge that they have a long way to go before building a real organisation (which has been blindingly obvious for forty years). It seems that most prefer to live in a dream-world in which such organisation is unnecessary and in which they are always-already victorious, and always-already robbed of the fruits of their victory by the evil ANC. It is largely a replay of the 1980s or of the 1930s, except that there is little evidence that anyone else, whether the Tories or the ANC, will step in to save the country from the neoliberal capitalist elite whom the far left consistently either ignore or pander to.

Problematising the Left (III): What Causes The Disconnect?

September 2, 2014

There is surely no reason to become a leftist for the money or the power. Nor is there a good reason to become a leftist in order to support the established elite. Therefore we can assume that bribery or good connections are not in themselves reasons why leftists come to support imperialism or plutocratic capitalism.

Still, they do. The previous couple of posts demonstrates this in some cases, and there are many more. The “neoconservative” movement in the United States, and the “New Labour” movement in Britain, rely heavily on former far-leftists who have shifted to reactionary positions. The reasons are obviously not simply idiosyncratic — the occasional intellectual who happens to have psychological problems, as one could argue that Arthur Koestler did. There are too many cases for that. Hence it must be some sort of problem arising out of some ideological assumptions or organisational circumstances related to the left.

It is tempting to see this as an epiphenomenon of the collapse of Communism; certainly that event did immense harm to the self-confidence of actual Marxists. (Nearly three decades later people like David Harvey are terrified of being overly prescriptive for fear of seeming Stalinist.) On the other hand, a lot of the people who are in this space, like most organised Trotskyites (and their predecessors) were always opposed to the USSR and the Communist Party (and are currently opposed to the Chinese government). So that might be a contributing factor for many, but not the sole or even the most important one.

Perhaps it is a more complex variant of such an epiphenomenon, however. The collapse of Communism meant the collapse of left-wing disciplined organisation, the collapse of confidence in the idea that socialism could be attained by the efforts of a massive phalanx of intellectuals and activists backed by the gigantic fist of the working class. Under such conditions all that was needed was unanimity around the correct line, which usually turned out to be the line provided by the Central Committee who received it from the Chairman, and which usually turned out to be the wrong line, so that the entire party and its allies marched together towards disaster. It is easy to see why this kind of political activism lost its attractiveness once it lost power — although in practice, despite their disavowals of it and their endless blather about democracy, most left-wing organisations adopt strikingly similar techniques.

But these techniques do not work without a tight-knit organisation backed by a powerful guiding ideology. Therefore left-wing organisations fragment and their members see themselves in individualist terms rather than in collectivist terms. Therefore again, such members, having adopted left-wing principles, feel no organisational or ideological allegiance. Nothing overrides their private opinions, as it does in an organised political movement; there is no sense of “Well, I don’t really like this, but I’ll do it for the good of the cause”.

In the contemporary world, this is particularly problematic because the overwhelming propaganda of the neoliberal reactionary movement is everywhere. Thus on one hand such individualistic leftists are in danger of buying into the propaganda inadvertently, and on the other hand, because they are individuals and lack collective support, they are in danger of adopting the position that since the propaganda is overwhelming and there is no visible sign of an alternative, some kind of compromise is necessary and even sensible. This compromise would probably take the form of accepting some of the policies of the neoliberals while rejecting (or pretending to reject) others. This is exactly what the social democrats did, and it proved to be suicidal; the left condemned them only, seemingly, to fall victim to the same disastrous practices.

So the left is not only organisationally dissipated, but its members are liable to become stealth supporters of the current oppressive and exploitative regime. This is not the same as the way in which non-members of left-wing organisations have always flitted in and out; people who impulsively decided to join a radical movement and then equally impulsively decided to leave were leftists before they joined and remained leftists afterward. What seems to be happening now, however, is that many leftists are finding ways to cease to be leftists after they have become dedicated leftists, and therefore use their existing leftist techniques to pursue their no-longer-leftist policies, while continuing to pretend to be leftists! What we have, therefore, is a flood of Koestlers rather than Burnhams; a flood of people who insist that their socialist god has not failed, but who, when you look inside their temple, turn out to be worshipping the golden calf with a cartoon of Marx sellotaped onto its face.

Since these people don’t know that they are frauds, because they are fooling themselves, they are convincingly self-righteous, and many who see through them are repelled from the whole left, deeming this a typical characteristic — which all too often it is.

Another problem which may help account for the curious disconnect of the left from sane or healthy political standpoints is its state of being frozen in time. There is a sense in which the left’s lack of faddishness is healthy. Admittedly, the left does have its own intellectual fashions, certain ideas or patterns of ideas which are (or were, back when the left was more coherent) in vogue from time to time. However, for much of the history of the left there was a strong sense of not being fooled by the accident of contemporary circumstances. Believing that they were in touch with a historical movement which might take centuries to work out but which would almost certainly end up in their favour — a coherent popular exponent of this was Jack London in The Iron Heel — they did not allow themselves to be distracted by momentary issues whether these were for or against them. (Of course, this was taken to mad extremes by the Stalinists, who didn’t allow trifling problems like the suppression of the German Communist Party to distract them into focussing much serious attention on the Nazis until it was much too late.)

But today the left takes this to even more of an extreme. Louis Proyect, for instance, refers to those who choose to support the Eastern Ukrainian resistance (or at least condemn the imperialist project which installed the junta in power in Kiyiv) as “campists”. Does this mean that he is accusing them of being ostentatiously homosexual? No, he is accusing them of dividing the world into a socialist camp and a capitalist camp, unlike sensible Trotskyites like himself who recognise that the two sides are both capitalist and therefore should both be rejected. In other words he is living in the 1960s, or at least wishes that he were and wants his readers to believe the same. A large part of the left, at least the renegade, pro-NATO left, has adopted comparable tactics — where appropriate, adopting Cold War attitudes towards Russia or China, or transposing these onto the Islamic world (while, usually, finding themselves able to support those “Islamofascists” who happen to be receiving military assistance from NATO and its Wahhabi friends in the Gulf).

But the world is not exactly the same as it was in the 1960s. The left is in an infinitely weaker position across much of the world than it enjoyed in those days. The most important problems confronted by the world are even worse than they were in those days — and meanwhile most of the problems which existed in the 1960s have not gone away. It’s just that the left no longer possesses the power to address them, which makes it tempting to assume that they cannot be addressed except by more powerful forces — which usually means forces which are actually opposed to the left, like “civil society organisations” and plutocratic entities and so on, but which are often perfectly willing to adopt leftist guises and even permit leftists to act as their frontpeople. There, again, the left is fooling only itself — especially since the left’s ideological structures are increasingly unknown to the broader public which is not exposed to them because the left lacks the means to promote its ideas.

Can all this, then, be solved? Can the left avoid this process by which so much of its leadership, and sometimes even its organisations, turn into the opposite of what they set out to be, while loudly declaring the success and integrity of their positions?

One hopeful point is that this doesn’t really seem to happen so much in situations outside the ambit of the Western left. The Maoists in India and its environs, or even the more left-wing of the Bolivarians in Latin America, do not seem so liable to fall into this trap — perhaps because, however improbable their causes, they nevertheless have something which needs to be accomplished and which they know cannot be accomplished by reciting the phrases of their enemies while implausibly mumbling about one’s commitment to Marxism in stale jargonistic phrases. Nor are they, by and large, plagued by a lack of organisation, or even of desire for organisation. They know that there is real danger out there with which they must deal, even if their response to this danger is often irrational. Even our own Economic Freedom Fighters, however doctrinally insipid or intellectually shallow they may appear, know that things are tough and getting tougher and that someone has to fight their corner if they are to survive, and that if they don’t, nobody else will, and that their enemies are not going to magically transform into their friends through compromise or adopting their phraseology.

However, the Third World is not the solution. Ultimately, the leftists of the developed world are needed to bring about revolutionary change and stop the developed world from attacking the rest of us. Somehow, then, the wealthy leftists of the world need to be persuaded to shed their insufferable smugness and their treacherous weakness and become real leftists again, or else we are all still in big trouble; victory in Vietnam did not matter when the Western far right was able to transfer its aggression to other things, and today Vietnam is more neoliberal than not. It’s hard to see how this can be done, but perhaps South Africa and Latin America are the places to learn how to do it.

Problematising the Left (II): A Representative of the Masses.

July 2, 2014

Patrick Bond has appeared on these pages before. Some call him a sell-out and a hypocrite; the Creator has other words for him, superficially less harsh but actually no more sympathetic. Like Proyect he writes extensively for Counterpunch, being their only African correspondent apart from a lonely enthusiast for the Eritrean junta, and has played a major role in explaining why no leftist should ever support the South African government in any initiative which it ever takes. Since the South African government’s initiatives have often (at least in the past) clashed with Western desires, this suggests a softer, more gentle variant of Proyect’s ostentatious toadying to NATO. But Bond is very widely respected on the left, who incessantly quote him, and the essays to be looked at here emanate from the Znet website which is run by a fan of the “Parecon” movement, a movement essentially restricted to the Znet website, perhaps fortunately.

The reason for looking at these essays is not to dump on Patrick Bond, but to try to understand what is going on with him, precisely because he is so influential. If he is saying things which are false or foolish, it is clear that a lot of people on the left wish to hear things which are false or foolish. A close examination of his work — which unfortunately will take time, so this is going to be a long and boring screed which many will wish to avoid — is thus appropriate, and is also something which virtually never happens on the left because everybody apparently wishes to believe what he is saying without any criticism; to this extent he is like Noam Chomsky, except that Bond has never been accused of anti-semitism, fascism or unpatriotism, either because nobody outside the left is listening or because somebody in power finds his writings useful. (This will be explored later.)

Two essays are to be considered, not because they are representative but because they are easily accessible:

1.)     South Africa’s “Very Good Story” Of Social Democracy;

2.)     BRICS and the Tendency to Sub-Imperialism;

Bond’s analysis of South African social democracy is not neutral — nor should it be, of course, since Bond is a Trotskyite and therefore dislikes social democracy on principle. In practice, social democracy across most of the world is a widely-disliked ideology because virtually all of its practitioners have sold out to neoliberalism. Those who actually practice social democracy, like the government of Ecuador, prefer to call it socialism (which by any sane standard it isn’t).

However, the purpose of Bond’s analysis, expressed in the second paragraph, is not simply to expose South African social democracy as yet another sham, but to claim that it is a “patronage system . . . to help explain why the ANC gets votes”; that is, he is saying that the ANC gives money and delivers services to the poor simply so that they will vote for it. This neatly accounts for the embarrassing fact that the party standing in the recent elections which represented Bond’s views received only 0,07% of the vote (and even the party which Bond pretends to endorse, the EFF, received less than 7%).

But this is actually a horrifyingly right-wing argument. It closely resembles Mitt Romney’s notorious remark shortly before the 2012 American Presidential election, that a huge number of Americans would vote for his opponent because they mooch off the state. It is also an argument which, in South Africa, is most closely associated with the racist extreme right (who view blacks as clowns) or with neoliberals casting about for arguments against social spending. It is also, by the way, unsubstantiated by any evidence. This reminds us of Harvey’s observation that the far left often adopts uncomfortably neoliberal perspectives.

Another thing about this argument is that Bond immediately contradicts himself by saying that the ANC isn’t actually giving money or delivering services to the poor. It’s all a lie told to fool — who? Obviously not the poor who would notice if they weren’t getting money or services. Presumably, then, to fool the middle and upper classes, who all vote against the ANC anyway. So we are left with no explanation for why more than three-fifths of the South African voters went for the ANC last May. It seems that Bond’s argument is taking him around in very silly circles.

Bond then cites a corporate economist, Alan Hirsch, saying that the government’s approach is “northern European”, and cites another of the government’s backers as the SA Institute of Race Relations. These points should certainly alarm any serious leftist because of their source; if Hirsch, a neoliberal, thinks that the ANC is doing the right thing, it is very probable that it is not. (Indeed, the National Development Plan, which Bond nowhere mentions, and the National Health Insurance programme, which Bond, as we shall see, has stupidly bought into, are neoliberal initiatives of the present ANC government which big business understandably favours.) The SAIRR, which started out as the voice of white Anglophone phoney liberalism, subsequently shifted into supporters of the fascist Inkatha movement and the repressive policies of the apartheid regime and then, after liberation, shifted again into corporate neoliberal propaganda, is a long-standing opponent of everything the ANC did. If it has come to like the ANC, this suggests that something fundamental has changed within the ANC — but Bond does not notice this because he is incapable of providing context, and hence incapable of political analysis.

When Bond says that South Africa cannot be called “northern European” because only 15% of the national budget is spend on direct redistribution from rich to poor by means of cash payments to the indigent and disabled, he is talking absolute nonsense. 15% of the budget (6% of GDP) is a huge amount for redistributive spending. If this is failing to promote equality, then the forces opposing equality outside government must be enormous. However, Bond waves away the elephant on the dining-room table because he wants to focus his attention on the skunk under the sofa.

Bond then says that “[t]hese social grants were inherited from the apartheid regime” which is a flat lie and which invalidates all of Bond’s other observations on the subject. The apartheid regime gave whites some money, coloureds and indians less, and africans almost nothing; most of this money entailed pensions and disability payments. The social grants system introduced in the twenty-first century (after the ending of the GEAR policy), in response to recommendations made earlier by Sue Lund, were far wider; they entailed giving money to the sick (a key response to the HIV epidemic), to support children, and to promote foster care (a response to HIV orphans). Bond brushes all this aside as electoral machinations.

Bond is quite right to blame the “Washington-Consensus policies adopted by the National Party” for the collapse of employment in South Africa. This should focus some attention on the corporate interests which promote these policies — and such propaganda as the allegedly “inflexible” labour market, although Bond claims, quite falsely and on the basis of a neoliberal source, that South Africa’s protective labour laws don’t exist. Unfortunately, Bond veers off to blaming the Treasury, claiming that the immense roll-out of electricity, sanitation and water supplies in the first post-liberation decade never happened, citing gee-whiz percentages without providing sources. This suggests that Bond is more interested in rhetoric than reality; for one thing the roll-out did happen, but for another thing, this roll-out has nothing to do with employment, because producing pipelines, digging pit latrines and stringing power-lines doesn’t provide much employment. Of course, “infrastructure upgrades” are supposed to attract capitalist investment, but this hasn’t happened — which should lead a serious analyst to study why capitalists aren’t investing, but manifestly Bond is not a serious analyst.

He adds, in another non sequitur, that “social-grant spending was, over time, less progressive – i.e., less directed to the poorest – in 2006 than in 1995″. Since there were no social grants in 1995, and social service spending was overwhelmingly directed to the white, coloured and indian communities, this is an impressively nonsensical claim. It proves to come from “Stellenbosch economist Servaas van der Berg”, a right-wing economist whose argument is devoted to the notion that money spent on job creation is wasted. In other words, Bond is being neoliberal again. (He is, however, correct to criticise the enormous amount of public spending on corporate interests — the NDP and the NHI in particular would deserve criticism.)

He is also correct to criticise the outsourcing of social services, which almost everybody who has studied the matter considers a bad idea. However, the person whom he chooses to represent the discussion is someone almost entirely unqualified to discuss the matter — a journalism professor at the conservative Rhodes university, whose professorship is corporate-funded. This strongly suggests that not much attention is being paid to serious issues like this by the left.

Of course, nobody else is, either. It turns out that the SAIRR is supporting the ANC’s service delivery and poverty reduction record on the basis of no research whatsoever. Bond correctly points out that the figures on service delivery and poverty reduction in South Africa are utterly unreliable. (Nevertheless, a brief trip around rural areas and townships shows that water, electricity and sanitation, along with other services like roads and public housing, have indeed been delivered, and Bond admits that the government is massively redistributing wealth; Bond’s contention that everything has got worse since 1994, a favourite claim of the racist far right, is not borne out by the evidence.) There is, besides, no point in condemning the SAIRR for telling lies or blowing smoke out of its arse; it is not an organisation with any serious credibility on any subject.

Bond also points out that there are lots of protests about service delivery, which is true. However, these protests are almost invariably protests about corrupt allocation, or about inadequate allocation (very often, local authorities promise more than they can deliver, or simply plunder their service delivery coffers) and are directed towards more equitable allocation, or more effective provision, of services already available. Which means that the services are there; it’s the system providing them which is not working properly, and the public, far from wanting to overthrow the system, wants to reform it. This goes against Bond’s thesis, so he doesn’t discuss it, but it helps to explain why the public voted for the government which put that system in place.

An area where Bond says that things have got better is in the provision of antiretrovirals, the only case where he trusts the statistics without question. However, he says that this has nothing to do with the ANC, which actually developed the policy and provided the drugs, but instead was attributable to the Trotskyite Treatment Action Campaign, which did none of those things. This looks odd (although it allows Bond to offer praise for his boss, University Vice-Chancellor Makgoba, for accusing the South African government of genocide).

Without getting into anything controversial about the workings of government which we know almost no facts about, Bond’s narrative here is nonsense. That is, he talks about “the battle for free generic (not branded) AIDS medicines”. This battle was fought by the Mbeki government, especially Health Minister MaNtombazana Tshabalala-Msimang, who negotiated to purchase cheap (not free) generic antiretrovirals from Brazil, against what Bond correctly calls “Big Pharma, the Clinton-Gore government in Washington, the World Trade Organisation, Intellectual Property rights in general” — that is, Big Pharma took the South African government to court under the Intellectual Property Rights laws of the World Trade Organisation, with the support of the Clinton-Gore administration. Big Pharma, predictably, won out against the South African government. But Bond claims that the South African government and Big Pharma (and its allies) were on the same side. This is a bizarre falsification of history which is inexplicable, since this was all going on before the propaganda blasts of Big Pharma and the US government came to dominate the South African media.

It is also nonsense because, since the case failed, it had no impact on the treatment of HIV. The Treatment Action Campaign did not call for the provision of generic medicines; it called for the provision of branded medicines — nevirapine, which turned out to be both useless and poisonous, and zidovir, which at the time was much too expensive for mass use in South Africa. Thus the issue was the reduction of the (ridiculously inflated) price of zidovir, an issue which the TAC never raised because it would have antagonised its funders (which were Big Pharma and the US government). One can criticise the Mbeki government for its shilly-shallying and its sometimes bizarre pronouncements, but Bond’s entire argument here is nonsensical and based on lies.

This, of course, is a matter for the historians. Much more troubling is Bond’s gullible claptrap about contemporary healthcare scams. He refers to “the badly needed National Health Insurance” as something which must be supported. But National Health Insurance is an attempt, as in the United States, to hand over public healthcare to the medical aid schemes, funded by taxpayers. Bond demands that more money be spent on this proposal for a huge transfer of wealth to the financial sector. As such, Bond is blindly following neoliberalism, and also blindly believing the lies told by the ANC leadership at Polokwane — always a bad idea, as Julius Malema discovered. It is, perhaps, not surprising thereafter that Bond justifies his claim that South Africa is the most unequal and class-divided society in the world on the basis of data provided by the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Is there any neoliberal bullshit which Bond does not serve up as chocolate ice-cream? Apparently not. (Of course South Africa is a highly unequal society, but one does not have to use imperialist propaganda to show this.)

His conclusion (after much blather about the Marikana massacre) is that “a new anti-apartheid movement is rising quickly: a class struggle with enormous potential”. He has been telling us this now for twenty years. So far no sign of this has appeared and insofar as radicalism and resentment of the government has arisen it does not resemble the anti-apartheid movement at all. Also, of course, with the partial exception of Bond who did a small amount of peripheral work for a Charterist organisation in the early 1990s, the conspicuous participation of Trotskyites in the anti-apartheid movement was their fulsome support for the white regime and their deep-seated hostility to anyone who tried to topple it, so Bond’s comparison does not work well.

What one can say about this mass of inconsistent verbiage is that Bond is responding to the fact that the government is widely criticised by liberal intellectuals and has lost some support (though not decisively) in the black and coloured middle class, by trying to pretend that this is generating a revolutionary situation. This is a pitiful fantasy, and it is the same pitiful fantasy expressed by Trotskyites everywhere, which may have something to do with Bond’s popularity among Trotskyites elsewhere. It is something like cosplay; people childishly dressing up as revolutionaries and competing to see who can be most outrageous. Except that when a Japanese nerd dresses up as Black Canary, she does not pretend that she is actually reducing crime statistics, whereas the cosplay communists pretend that the world revolution is just around the corner from their playground.

This might seem harmless if ludicrous. Unfortunately, the golden thread running through this entire essay is that of neoliberalism. Virtually every source that Bond cites to support his thesis is right-wing. He clearly supports big corporate interests over healthcare and uses right-wing arguments against social grants. The only neoliberal source which he criticises is the SAIRR. This suggests that his hostility to the right wing and to neoliberalism is entirely instrumental; he doesn’t like the SAIRR when they support the ANC (in the past he has used their unreliable commentary when they were against it).

This raises an interesting point: that Bond’s concern is not to improve conditions in South Africa, but simply to get rid of the ANC. The latter does not automatically lead to the former, but this does not bother Bond, and hence the shallowness of his analysis and his eagerness to use dubious or spurious sources to buttress his often self-contradictory arguments. This does a little resemble Proyect’s contention about impotent people trying to piggyback on the struggles of more powerful people; it seems that Bond, like the TAC, is yoking himself to reactionaries in the hope that they will succeed, so that he can (in his own mind, at least), take credit for this, just as the TAC took credit for a provision of antiretrovirals which they actually obstructed for some years.

Bond’s bizarreries may be excusable because of the extraordinary nature of South African Trotskyism, operating in a society where real leftism brushed aside the cosplay variant and took actually existing power. There are also Bond’s personal problems; he has never forgiven the ANC after he was sacked from the dysfunctional RDP office, and his own personal support for the corporate stooge Jacob Zuma means that he is personally complicit in Zuma’s disastrous policies — hence his ambiguous and dishonest attacks on them. One might expect him to have a somewhat less risible world-view about the actual world. After all, he is not a South African, but Irish, and trained in the U.S. Trotskyite traditions which brought us great leftists like, er, James Burnham and Paul Wolfowitz. So what does he have to say about the world outside South Africa’s borders?

Bond’s line on BRICS is fairly simple: BRICS is, or could be, a sub-imperialist force.

But what is imperialism, and what is sub-imperialism? These are very tricky questions for Marxists, because imperialism arose, in the late nineteenth century, as a major new force driven by capitalism, whereas orthodox Marxism contended that imperialism was a hangover from feudal times or even earlier. Theoretically such a new social formation might have been the harbinger of a new economic mode of production, and the latter obviously did not exist, so how could the former arise according to Marxist theory? Various theorists leapt forward to explain imperialism in terms of capitalist competition for resources, or a search for markets, or the formation of aggressive ideologies by the ruling class as a result of individualism and alienation, but none of these was altogether satisfactory although many were extremely interesting as explanations.

Sub-imperialism would then be imperialism within imperialism — that is, a country or some other force pursuing imperialism on behalf of a larger country or a greater force. But if imperialism is driven by capitalism, what would sub-imperialism be driven by? Presumably out of desire for capitalist advantage of some kind — or else imperialism would not be directly driven by capitalism, but would have to be seen as part of the “superstructure” created by capitalism to serve its interests, and would be best analysed on relatively orthodox bourgeois grounds (which in fact is the way in which Marxists analysed imperialism anyway, although they claimed otherwise).

Indeed, without discussing actual imperialist activity, Bond claims (quoting himself, as he does frequently in the essay) that aspects of the BRICS countries “suggest a pattern deserving the phrase sub-imperialist”.

At first glance this seems implausible. Brazil, South Africa and India were all themselves portions of empires; China and Russia were victims of imperialist aggression. Granted, before their revolutions China and Russia were empires themselves, and one could argue that both countries exercise imperial powers within their borders to some extent, but they do not display the expansionism characteristic of empires.

As to sub-imperialist behaviour, Galeano argues that Brazil’s attack on Paraguay in the 1860s was motivated by sub-imperialism regarding Britain, and one could argue that Brazil under the dictatorship was sub-imperialist at least in theory, being suborned to the United States. South Africa under apartheid was arguably a sub-imperialist state. China’s attack on Vietnam could be seen as serving sub-imperialist goals. China, Russia and India supported the American attack on Afghanistan, but this could be seen as an anomaly. On the whole there has been little sign of sub-imperialist activity by these countries in the twenty-first century — with the exception of Brazil’s support for the Franco-American attack on Haiti, and that was a relatively minor episode. Russia and China, instead, have been notably unsympathetic to American imperialism, while Brazil has been sympathetic to the Bolivarian movement in Latin America. So where does Bond get his evidence from?

From Rosa Luxemburg, who accounts for imperialism in terms of the expansion of capitalism into previously non-capitalist spheres. This seems completely inappropriate for twenty-first century imperialism in a world wholly saturated in capitalist modes of production. Then, Bond cites “capitalist crisis conditions” for the rise of imperialism, and since these exist in the BRICS countries they must lead to imperialism. This is to take the explanation before the evidence, of course. In addition, Bond appears to be conflating neoliberal practices with imperialism itself, citing trade agreements and investments as evidence of imperialism. The problem with this is that trade agreements and investments may buttress imperialism, or provide pretexts for imperialism, but by themselves they are not necessarily imperialism. In effect, Bond is making imperialism a synonym for capitalism so that he can accuse countries which are capitalist of being imperialist, which is conveniently meaningless and contradicts his claim (which is actually more or less true) that sub-imperialism entails a “regional gendarme role”.

In addition, Bond says that since imperialism was superexploitative of its domestic labour, therefore, the fact that Bond views domestic labour as superexploited in China or South Africa under apartheid (providing no evidence in the former case, and offering only the Marikana massacre as alleged evidence that apartheid labour relations remained the same after apartheid) means that these countries must surely be imperialist. This is the reverse of a syllogism (all cats are four-legged, all dogs are four-legged, ergo all cats are dogs) and shows either intellectual disintegration or a desperate desire to prove something for which no evidence exists. It is also reminiscent of Stalinist logic, in that a conclusion is first reached, after which it is proved by reference to Marxist scriptures and arguments from authority.

Thereafter, Bond says that since the right-wing private spy company Stratfor believed that the South African military was “able to project into south-central Africa”, therefore South Africa was subimperialist. Apart from the reactionary nature of the source, which demonstrates only what one corporate entity thought, it obviously doesn’t determine whether such projection was sub-imperialist or something else. Bond then attempts to legitimate this dubious argument with reference to the conflict in the Central African Republic in 2013, where South African soldiers originally deployed to train the CAR military were redeployed to defend the capital and the government of President Bozize, but were defeated by a huge rebel army which had invaded the CAR out of Chad. Bond claims that this was an example of sub-imperialism, justifying his claim through allegations in two neoliberal newspapers which alleged, without providing hard evidence, that the operation had been launched to protect mining interests in South Africa connected to the ANC.

If these latter claims had been true, then the question of sub-imperialism would not arise; either the affair was a matter of South African imperialism, or it was a matter of governmental corruption, using the army to protect private investments. However, Bond also leaves out the rather obvious point that Chad was under French military occupation at the time, and that the invasion by the rebels could not have been conducted without French connivance. In other words, there was (to put it mildly) more than one imperialism at work there.

Bone then proceeds to argue that since Luxemburg said things, they are automatically true, and therefore whatever she says legitimates his claims about the BRICS countries (although actually his quotes from Luxemburg all relate to massive crises of capital which are not obviously present in the BRICS countries anyway). None of this proves anything much.

Again, Bond has to claim (quoting himself yet again) that “the role of regional gendarme is not just ‘peace-keeping’ but transferring surpluses from the hinterland to the sub-imperialist capital city, and often from then to the imperialist headquarters, as is especially evident for contemporary South Africa”. But a gendarme is not the same as a domestic tax collector, nor is it the same as “to lubricate, legitimize and extend neoliberal political economy”, and incessantly quoting yourself to support your allegations is not a particularly valid set of arguments. Furthermore, when he remarks that “the forms of BRICS sub-imperialism are diverse”, he quotes people again talking about investment even though they claim to be talking about sub-imperialism.

Indeed, he then talks about how the BRICS countries are facing public protests (generally exaggerating the significance of these and politically decontextualising them) and pretending, without evidence, that these represent “class struggles against super-exploitation”. This is exactly like Bond’s earlier tactics — especially since many of the protests which he cites are bourgeois urban elite protests much like those of Venezuela, and some suspect that these protests themselves were promoted by imperialist powers. Also, of course, this is much like the conclusion of Bond’s other essay cited here, in which he pretends that liberation will come through the people, which might be the case but has almost nothing to say about sub-imperialism.

It is clear that Bond has not proven that sub-imperialism exists in any of the BRICS countries, not even South Africa, and it also appears that this is because Bond does not understand what sub-imperialism is. His use of Marxist material is extraordinary in its shallowness and his argument would have been less confused and less transparently dishonest without it. However, without any hard evidence and without a coherent argument, Bond is unable to prove his case.

In which case, why does Bond want to prove it at all? It is clear that Bond dislikes the South African government, but what has he against the Brazilian, Russian, Indian and Chinese governments, and why is he trying to demonstrate, in defiance of evidence and credible argument, that they are sub-imperialist countries? Such sub-imperialism could only truly be sub-imperialism on behalf of the largest capitalist country, which is the United States. It is of course clear that capitalist expansion under such circumstances would often benefit the interests of the United States, and this is what enables Bond to pretend that capitalist expansion equals imperialism.

But in that case every country in the world, with the exception of North Korea and perhaps Cuba, is a sub-imperialist country and Bond’s point is a tautology. Why, then, single out the BRICS countries? The most likely reason is that they are a bloc devoted to challenging American hegemony, mostly out of national interest, and refusing to kowtow to NATO control. No doubt it is the national interest part of this which Bond most objects to — but nationalism is again hardly unique to BRICS.

So in the end it appears that what Bond is complaining about is precisely that challenge to American hegemony; that under the guise of a screed against sub-imperialism, Bond is writing in praise of imperialism. This is not altogether unlike the other essay in which Bond writes supposedly against neoliberalism, but utterly ignores the fountainhead of neoliberalism in South Africa, the corporate system and the South African ruling class, and makes an attack on a ruling political party which amounts to a call for the opposition to take power — and the opposition is more neoliberal than the ruling party.

How is it that a supposed leftist is supporting neoliberalism and imperialism, purportedly in the name of the very people who are being crushed by those forces, and while claiming to be opposing these things which are also opposed to the left? It is tempting to assume that Bond has simply been bought out by the enemy, that he is a “bloody agent”. However, this is a facile argument. It is also tempting to assume that Bond is siding with the powerful because he wishes to be on the winning side, as Proyect’s argument goes. However, the United States has not scored many victories over Russia, China or in Latin America lately, so this would be rather problematic if true. Also, both of these essays were written for an American website with a predominantly American audience, and a criticism of American imperialism in such places is hardly controversial; instead it would probably arouse applause. It seems reasonable to assume that Bond’s misguided politics arise out of misguided principles.

A proposition: Bond’s problem is a lack of any sound political analysis, born of a lack of ideological rigor, but coupled with a powerful commitment to moral purity. That is, he wishes, not to be on the side of the winner, but on the side of the good guy. The actual battle, in terms of global imperialism, is a battle concerned with the lesser evil: should the world be dominated by the corrupt and violent oligarchy of the United States, or by a concert of corrupt oligarchies, less violent than the United States and possibly subject to being played off against each other in order to make space for counter-hegemonic forces? Put that way it is obvious that the multiple corrupt oligarchies is better, but this requires one to support corrupt oligarchies. This is the problem faced by anyone supporting Gadaffi, Assad or even Putin. The answer, all too often, is to ignore the corruption of the oligarchy being supported and focus all attention on the evils of their enemies. This is legitimate as far as it goes because the enemies tend to be very evil, but it does sweep the ugliness of the regimes being supported under the carpet.

Bond is simply swinging to the opposite extreme. His pursuit of purity means attacking corrupt regimes which might otherwise be supported. “Do not back these people, because they are rascals”, is what he proclaims, both about South Africa and about the world, and then sits back smugly because he has stood up against bad behaviour. After all, other people will criticise the bad behaviour of the Americans or the French or whoever; it is up to Bond to point out that the victims of American and French imperialism are just as bad as, or worse than, those imperialists, and therefore should not be defended.

Of course, if you do not defend the weak against the strong, the strong tend to win. The whole tendency of Bond’s political analysis is that the strong should win. But the other tendency of Bond’s analysis is that, when the strong win, he will be there to say that they were wrong to win, to complain about their victory, and to predict that somehow, someday, the weak will win out.

But they will never win out with Bond’s assistance, and that seems to be the problem with the whole Trotskyite movement.

Problematising the Left (I): A Leftist Who Found The Road To Success.

July 2, 2014

For the next little while this weblog is going to attempt some intelligent criticism of the left for a change. Of course the Creator is not interested in the opinions of mere mortals, but at the same time it’s worth noting that some mortals have put things quite neatly (if not altogether accurately). One such is David Harvey, who in his latest book legitimates his developing thesis with the following words:


What remains of the radical left now operates largely outside of any institutional or organised oppositional channels, in the hope that small-scale actions and local activism can ultimately add up to some kind of satisfactory macro alternative. This left, which strangely echoes a libertarian and even neoliberal ethic of anti-statism, is nurtured intellectually by thinkers such as Michel Foucault and all those who have reassembled postmodern fragmentations under the banner of a largely incomprehensible post-structuralism that favours identity politics and eschews class analysis. Autonomist, anarchist and localist perspectives and actions are everywhere in evidence. But to the degree that this left seeks to change the world without taking power, so an increasingly consolidated plutocratic capitalist class remains unchallenged in its ability to dominate the world without constraint.


There’s a great deal wrong with Harvey’s analysis, or at least superficial and vituperative, but there’s also a very large grain of truth, as we shall see later. The business about blaming it on Michel Foucault and “largely incomprehensible post-structuralism” is both false and shabby, but it is true about the small-scale fetish, the lack of class analysis, and the rubbish about changing the world without changing power and the consequences thereof.

If Harvey is right, then, (and in this spheres he is) there is something wrong, something above all else lacking in direction and self-confidence, about the left. What is worth examining about the accusations in this paragraph is that there is huge contradiction within the behaviour of the left. They are supposedly leftists but reject the class analysis which is the most important tool of leftism; they are opposed to big oppressive power, and then refuse to organise in such a way that they could challenge it. Most suggestive, if they are libertarian or neoliberal, they would then have internalised intellectual structures which were invented to attack them, and thus are placed in the position of turkeys unconsciously liable to vote for Christmas.

It might seem like a big jump from this to an individual who doesn’t at first sight seem much like this. Louis Proyect is certainly no anarchist nor post-structuralist, and he entered the American far left long ago enough to view such concepts with some scorn. Proyect, who blogs under the “Unrepentant Marxist” label (the Creator has asked before why anyone should expect a Marxist to be repentant; it smells of defeatism) is not a complete nobody on the left; he moderates the “Marxmail” discussion group for Kommunist Keyboard Kommandoes. He’s also also the film critic for the Counterpunch website run by a big cabal of old independent Trotskyites, formerly lead by the late ultra-leftist and red- (and green-, being brought up in Ireland)-diaper baby Alexander Cockburn.

Counterpunch is hard to characterise politically these days, but it might best be seen as anti-establishment and above all else, anti-imperialist. If you hold the opinion that a Western government intervention somewhere in the world is destructive (and these days that is a fairly safe bet) then you can air that opinion in Counterpunch. To that extent it’s a rather narrow website, and one of its failings is that it tends to say the same things over and over again, as if we were all too dumb to understand them said only once (or perhaps because its authors are trying to keep the steady hum of imperialist bullshit in the mass media at bay).

Proyect fits in very poorly with this discourse. His line is, in fact, almost diametrically opposite to it. (Possibly Counterpunch tolerates him because they like his reviews, or because, like most of their contributors, he’s been around forever.) The Unrepentant Marxist supports the fascists and oligarchs of the Ukraine against the Russian menace. Proyect supports the Salafists and Gulf dictator-potentates in Syria (while denying that they are Salafists or that they are dictator-potentates). He previously supported the Salafists and CIA spooks in Libya. Just to complete the trifecta, he’s a huge fan of the military dictatorship in Thailand. It would seem, in practice, that wherever Obama sends his spooks and mercenaries, there we will see Louis Proyect, fluffing up their phalluses.

This would seem a little peculiar for a leftist. One could understand a leftist feeling that the Russian government is far from attractive, that the Assad oligarchy is extremely unattractive, that the Gaddaffi dictatorship was fairly nasty, and that the Thaksin regime in Thailand was hardly democratic. Thus leftists might feel entitled to sit out such conflicts and concentrate on other things, such as movies, or basket-weaving, or whatever. However, Proyect isn’t just critical of these forces, he is also uncritical about the forces which are attacking them — ignoring, or simply lying about, the extremely odious nature of the Ukrainian coup leaders, the Syrian and Libyan rebels, and the Thai military, so that he does not need to feel embarrassed on his website. To be fair, he is sometimes embarrassed when people point out the nonsense he is writing in comments, provided that they do so politely, and the fact that he allows comments and does not delete criticism is a point in his favour. Still, all this is not left-wing behaviour at all; on the contrary, it’s consistently choosing the side of the most odious and destructive and reactionary faction available. What’s going on?

Proyect offers an interesting insight into this when he attempts to account for why some people writing on the Counterpunch website (which he does not name) refuse to follow his lead and instead criticise the American-backed jihadis in Syria. He suggests that these — people like Chris Hedges — are people who have spent their entire lives in the left, and therefore in a weakened condition, in permanent opposition, without power. Therefore, when they discover an opportunity to acquire power vicariously, by supporting someone in authority, they immediately do so. It is a kind of cowardice, he suggests, bred of never having had a success and thus endorsing bad guys who are successful.

That’s a very interesting claim. On the face of it, however, it seems like the kind of argument that a drunken reactionary like Christopher Hitchens would pull out of his arse in an attempt to stifle debate. It is, after all, not clear that the Syrian regime is going to win the civil war, given the forces which it is up against. It is far from clear that the Donbass separatists in the Eastern Ukraine are going to win the civil war, given the forces which they are up against. The Thai government has been overthrown in a military coup, and the Libyan government was destroyed by foreign invasion. These are hardly examples of circumstances likely to be attractive to disgruntled, impotent power-worshippers. (One would also ask why, if Hedges and his friends are indeed despairingly clutching at victorious forces regardless of their moral status, they are all such big supporters of the Palestinians against the Israelis.)

Meanwhile, Proyect’s characterisation of the perspective of his leftist antagonists is thoroughly dishonest (and knowingly so). There are virtually no serious leftist supporters of the Syrian government in the Western world. (An attempt by an Italian commentator to pretend that such existed, published in Znet, was extraordinarily unconvincing and devoid of evidence.) Instead there are a lot of leftists who are critical of the Syrian rebels, either because they distrust their Islamic fundamentalism or because they distrust their obvious dependence on Western imperialist support and adherence to Western imperialist goals. One can argue that the overthrow of the Assad regime is more important than such quibbles, but this is growing increasingly difficult (which is why Proyect falsifies the nature of the Syrian rebel movement, more or less along the lines of NATO propaganda).

It’s notable that an extremely well-informed commentator on the subject, the Angry Arab, was for a long time an adherent of a “plague on both your houses” position, never failing to refer to the “lousy Syrian regime”. More recently the Angry Arab has been enthusiastically praising the Syrian elections. These are obviously rigged, and it is democratically absurd to hold them in the middle of a civil war — but many Syrians not under the gun of the regime have trooped off to vote, thus showing their tacit support for the regime and giving the lie to the claims of those like Proyect who claim that it is unquestionably illegitimate. The Angry Arab’s shift in focus suggests that he has finally decided that, lousy or not, the Assad dictatorship probably deserves support against its still lousier opponents. This, indeed, looks like the reason why most of the leftists who choose to line up in support of Russia or Syria, or who opposed the invasion of Libya or the overthrow of the Thai government, chose to do so. Also, they noticed that their government’s support for the destabilisation of governments in these regions and the installation of friendly governments in places like South Sudan or the Central African Republic had been a catastrophic disaster.

This is also the biggest odd point about Proyect’s claim. If these are people whose morale has been sapped by incessant defeat, and who are therefore inclined to run into the arms of power and associate themselves with it, why are they opposing powerful forces in their own country? The conspicuous thing about the positions taken by the people whom Proyect condemns is that they are all criticising the policies of their government. In contrast, Proyect is siding with his own government, although allegedly on impeccably Marxist grounds which might not suit Mitt Romney, Barack Obama or Victoria Nuland.

In all these cases, Proyect’s account of why people do not do as he does is blindingly obviously invalid about them — but it is curiously apt as an account for Proyect’s own motives. (A Projection, in Freudian terms.) He is, after all, a revolutionary in spirit, and therefore can express enthusiasm for revolution in Syria or the Ukraine or Libya, regardless of the actual nature, agenda and origin of that revolution. Thus he can vicariously experience the activities which he is not able to perform (as Arthur Koestler remarked about the glee with which the French greeted the Winter War while they were sitting on their behinds behind the Maginot Line). Best of all, he can do this in confidence that nobody in authority will criticise him, because he is in full effective agreement with them.

That doesn’t prove that Proyect has sided with NATO and the CIA simply because he would like to be on the winning side for once. It is more than likely that it is a lot more complicated than that. For instance, it is quite possible that Proyect has been so long divorced from real power of any kind that he has come to see everything in abstract terms. More to the point, since he has no organisational affiliation, he has nobody to point out that his deviations from the party line are not in the best interests of the broader Movement. Instead, when he goes to leftist gatherings, he devotes a lot of time to futilely denouncing them on his blog because they are doing silly things like opposing imperialism, colonialism and oppressive military rule. He can’t stop them from denouncing the wrong things, of course — but what he can do is remember that his side is the one that counts, the one with the money and the nukes and the agents and the aircraft carriers and the brave and bold politicians who dare to finance puppets all over the planet and tell lies about their democratic credentials. In other words, once he has become a dissident, there is nothing to stop him from becoming a traitor, because he no longer acknowledges any entity which could make such a charge, apart from the comments threads on his blog.

Can we learn something about the modern left from this horrible example, which so plainly parallels the observations made by Harvey?

Someone Got Murdered.

May 29, 2014

In a recently-written and much-reprinted article, Richard Pithouse says that “the ANC is willing to use murder, along with a set of ancillary practices such as torture, to contain popular struggle”.

That’s a fairly unambiguous statement. The ANC are murderers and torturers, and the goal of this murder and torture is to suppress the people of the country. (What Pithouse means by “ancillary practices” is less obvious — writing obnoxious letters to the newspapers? Auditing tax returns? Anyway, it sounds nasty.)

So, assuming that the ANC’s modus operandi is to murder and torture people into silence, that means that they are the same as Pinochet or Assad or, er, George W Bush and Barack Obama (no, wait a minute) well, anyway, they are very bad. This is, essentially, the same argument which you will find on websites like thetruthaboutsouthafrica and stormfront and genocidewatch; that the ANC must be destroyed because they are evil murderers. Which was also, of course, what the apartheid regime said. Now, this does not prove Pithouse wrong, but it is a bit instructive. Why is Pithouse’s discourse so remarkably similar to the discourse of racists, fascists and bloody agents of Western imperialism? Also, given that the ANC is so bad, why is it that they got nearly 63% of the vote in the last election? Is everybody terrified of that torture and murder? And why haven’t the other 37% been tortured or murdered yet?

Perhaps we should take a step back a moment. Political murder is undesirable. Is it commonplace in South Africa, and if so, is it conducted primarily by the ANC?

The short answer to the first question is no, but it has been becoming more common in recent years. The 1980s and early 1990s, as has been forgotten or suppressed, was a time of frequent political murder, most often carried out by agents of the state or its corrupt lackeys such as Inkatha. Revenge killings against such agents also took place, sometimes (though not often) carried out by ANC members with the express authority of the organisation. (A good depiction of ANC murderers is presented in Peter Harris’ In A Different Time.) However, after the collapse of the apartheid regime, the ANC worked very hard to discourage political murder, both from within its ranks and from anywhere else. There’s no real doubt about that.

Have things changed? Has the ANC decided, for no obvious reason, to become murderously totalitarian despite its absolutely overwhelming political dominance in South Africa? Or, assuming that there are more political murders now than there were, say, ten years ago, and that these are carried out predominantly or exclusively by the ANC, is there some other reason for this to be happening?

What kinds of murders are we talking about? There are murders carried out by policemen supposed to control the behaviour of riotous or merely unruly people, who think that the best way to fulfil this purpose is to shoot rubber shotgun rounds into their chests, or drag them behind police cars at speed, or fire semi-automatic rifles at them until told to stop. It is not clear that this state violence can exactly be called ANC murders, except for rhetorical purposes.

What it seems to represent, rather, is a breakdown of governmental control over the instruments of the state; nobody could seriously claim that Ficksburg teachers or Mozambican taxi-drivers represent a menace to the Zuma regime which keeps the ANC NEC awake at night. But it is easy to see how badly led, badly-trained and foolishly motivated police officers could do exceptionally stupid things, sometimes doing it to people who are, or at the time appear to be, opponents of the ANC. And it is also easy to see that the ANC will protect such people, partly because that’s what the state always does. Especially since the ANC isn’t going to admit that it made a big mistake installing incompetent cowboy-brained yahoos in charge of the security forces.

Of course this situation of police murder is a massive, Latin-American-style problem. But it resembles the escadrons de muerte of Rio de Janeiro in the early 1960s much more than it resembles the escadrons de muerte of Buenos Aires in the late 1970s. It is not in itself a sign of a terrorist state.

Then there are the murders carried out by people for party political gains of some kind. The most famous such murder is probably the murder of a leading light in the Cato Crest (Durban) land invasion movement in 2013, whom some person or persons unknown shot. We can assume that this person could well have been murdered by a political opponent, in which case the finger of suspicion must point at an ANC person simply because the Cato Crest land invasion movement is noisily anti-ANC.

So, was this the only such murder in Durban, or in KwaZulu-Natal, in the last few years? Sadly, no. If it were the case that it was the only such murder, of course, this would not mean very much. However, there have been literally dozens of political murders in the region, to say nothing of numerous failed assassination attempts on political leaders.

So doesn’t this prove that the ANC is conducting a holocaust against its political opponents? Well, sadly, no again, because most of the victims of these murders and attempted murders have been members of the ANC. Many others have been leading lights in the National Freedom Party, which is a breakaway group from the Inkatha Freedom Party and which was aligned with the ANC in various municipalities. In other words, there is indeed a culture of political violence, but it is impossible to honestly claim that it is simply a culture of political violence directed by the ANC against political dissidents; rather, it is a culture of violent political intolerance of opposition parties, including even opposition members within the same party.

Which raises one minor question; can we be sure, in the absence of any actual knowledge, that the Cato Crest murder was carried out by the ANC and not by someone from the land-invasion community jealous of the victim’s position? Such things have been known to happen in the Durban ANC, so why not in the land-invasion movement? Of course it is impossible for Pithouse to acknowledge such things, because until they defected to the DA the land-invasion movement was aligned with the Durban academic Trotskyite movement, but the rest of us are under no such constraints.

There are other places where political murders take place, of course. One of the most prominent such places, actually cited by Pithouse, is the so-called platinum belt around Rustenburg in the North-West. In 2012, some ten people were victims of political murders in that area. This year, another seven have been murdered. This cannot be attributed to the residual violence of the Inkatha-ANC wars. Therefore, one would suspect, Pithouse might be correct, and the ANC is operating a murder gang in the area –

Except that all the evidence suggests that the people doing the murders are not doing so out of any allegiance to the ANC. Of the ten murdered in 2012, six were members of the National Union of Mineworkers (associated with the ANC), two were security guards with the Lonmin Corporation (which has Cyril Ramaphosa on its Board of Directors) and two were police officers. Of the seven murdered this year, all were members of the National Union of Mineworkers. It’s almost as if someone who isn’t ANC is murdering ANC supporters. And that’s exactly what is happening, because the murderers are almost certainly members of the Associated Mineworkers and Construction workers’ Union. Which happens to be on strike, and to be fighting against the NUM, and therefore the Trotskyites support it, and therefore Pithouse cannot mention that one of the most prominent sources of political murder is an entity which he supports, and the murders committed by which he presumably exonerates or applauds.

The point here is not that the ANC is innocent and AMCU evil. Rather, what Pithouse is doing is very much what the ANC’s leadership are almost certainly doing, in glossing over murders committed by people whom he supports, and the fact that he does not scruple to accuse his opponents of murders which they may not have committed is a fault of much the same kind. This helps to clarify the problem, which is that political murder is ceasing to become something which is absolutely wrong, and is instead becoming something the merits of which depend entirely on the political allegiances of the victim and the perpetrator. Even in a revolutionary situation this is a deeply problematic standpoint, and even Pithouse has come to realise that we are not in a revolutionary situation. (It is, incidentally, possible that the desperate attempts of the Zumatics to foster the idea that the ANC is both under relentless attack and also a revolutionary organisation, are aimed at making such political violence acceptable to their constituents.)

The other source of political murder is the murder of whistleblowers by corrupt politicians. This is not at all uncommon; it happens in various provinces, most notably in some of the most corrupt ones, Mpumalanga, North-West and Free State. Possibly, also, some of the murders committed in KwaZulu-Natal are murders committed to cover up corruption — there is too little investigation, and the local journalists are too suborned by the local politicians, to be able to tell. But these political murders are not in any way aimed at suppressing dissent; they are aimed at defending greed. This is the kind of murder which the Zumatics would be most likely to condone and conceal. It is, however, probably the least common murder, partly because whistleblowers are so uncommon, and partly because corruption so often goes completely unnoticed by everybody. Also, because ultimately everybody pretends to be against corruption, and this is why this is the kind of political murder which most often faces actual punishment — at least when the guilty people don’t have the highest political connections.

So, yes, political murder is on the rise. And, yes, it is important to challenge it. However, it is also important to understand it. Appropriating it for your own purposes, and exploiting it as part of a political mythology, is no more helpful a way of addressing political murder than Peter Alexander’s treatment of service delivery protests as a nascent sign of revolution because he wishes that it were. Political murder is most often something which arises out of incompetence — incompetent policing, incompetent and intellectually stagnant politics, incompetent corruption which becomes too blatant to conceal by any means other than murder. It is a sign of the degeneracy of our political culture. As such, we need to revitalise our political culture, and then it will be much easier to deal with political murder. But that kind of revitalisation is beyond the capacity of people like Pithouse.

Stuffed In The Cabinet.

May 29, 2014

So now we have a new Cabinet. Hurray! How did we get by with the old one?


Deputy President: Cyril Ramaphosa (Hugely unpopular corporate toady)


• Minister in the Presidency: Jeff Radebe; (Strong person in a useless job)

• Minister of Women in the Presidency: Susan Shabangu; (Strong person in a joke job)

• Minister of Justice and Correctional Services: Michael Masutha; (Weakling in important job)

• Minister of Public Service and Administration: Collins Chabane; (Formerly Zuma’s shoepolisher)

• Minister of Defence and Military Veterans: Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula; (Joke person in important job)

• Minister of Home Affairs: Malusi Gigaba; (Joke person in important job)

• Minister of Environmental Affairs: Edna Molewa; (Disaster waiting to happen)

• Minister of State Security: David Mahlobo; (Corrupt links with crooked ex-minister Nyanda)

• Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Service: Siyabonga Cwele; (Disaster waiting to happen)

• Minister of Police: Nkosinathi Nhleko; (Weakling in important job)

• Minister of Trade and Industry: Rob Davies; (Preserving the disaster)

• Minister of Finance: Nhlanhla Nene; (Preserving the disaster)

• Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries: Senzeni Zokwana; (Deeply unpopular NUM boss, Zuma loyalist, weakling in important job)

• Minister of Water and Sanitation: Nomvula Mokonyane; (Ex-Gauteng premier, famed for her “dirty votes” faux pas in Bekkersdal)

• Minister of Basic Education: Angie Motshekga; (Preserving the disaster)

• Minister of Health: Aaron Motsoaledi; (Preserving the disaster)

• Minister of International Relations and Co-operation: Maite Nkoana-Mashabane; (Preserving the disaster)

• Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform: Gugile Nkwinti; (Weakling in important job)

• Minister of Higher Education and Training: Blade Nzimande; (Preserving the disaster)

• Minister of Economic Development: Ebrahim Patel; (Preserving the disaster)

• Minister of Transport: Dipuo Peters; (Preserving the disaster)

• Minister of Mineral Resources: Ngoako Ramathlodi; (Crook in a financially profitable job)

• Minister of Social Development: Bathabile Dlamini; (Weakling in an important job)

• Minister of Public Enterprises: Lynne Brown; (Disaster in an important job)

• Minister of Sport and Recreation: Fikile Mbalula; (Joke in a joke job)

• Minister of Labour: Mildred Oliphant; (Preserving the disaster)

• Minister of Arts and Culture: Nathi Mthethwa; (Joke in a joke job)

• Minister of Public Works: Thulas Nxesi; (Preserving the disaster)

• Minister of Small Business Development: Lindiwe Zulu; (Joke in a joke job)

• Minister of Energy: Tina Joemat-Pettersson; (Crook in a financially profitable job)

• Minister of Science and Technology: Naledi Pandor; (Preserving the disaster)

• Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs: Pravin Gordhan; (Disaster in an important job)

• Minister of Communications: Faith Muthambi (Weakling in a joke job)

• Minister of Human Settlements: Lindiwe Sisulu; (Disaster in an important job)

• Minister of Tourism: Derek Hanekom; (Give the whitey the whitey’s job)

That’s 35 ministers, plus 37 Deputy Ministers, mostly Zuma loyalists and hacks.

This isn’t a record — the Sri Lanka government has 65 Ministers, not counting President and Prime Minister. In contrast, the US Cabinet consists of 15 people; the Russian, around 30 (including a weird raft of Deputy Prime Ministers). The French Cabinet has around 21. The Indian Cabinet has around 38, to rule more than 20 times South Africa’s population. The size of the Cabinet might seem unimportant, but still on the whole, this looks rather bloated.

It also looks dodgy.  On the face of it, the Minister of Women is unnecessary. Basic and Higher Education still shouldn’t be separated. On the other hand, Justice and Correctional Services should be separated. Finance and Economic Development are duplicates (Trade and Industry also isn’t as separate from them as it could be), and Small Business Development is unnecessary. Several other Ministries should probably be Deputy Ministers under a Minister (Human Settlements should arguably fall under Public Works, if only public housing weren’t being privatised).

Of course, if Zuma had a clear plan around what to do to sort out the country’s problems, then it might be sensible to have a big Cabinet capable of rolling up its sleeves and taking vigorous action, a sort of large gang of Trevor Manuels and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zumas with the President and Deputy President behind them. They might make huge stuff-ups, of course, but at least they would be getting something done. As it is, however, about the best thing one can say about the Cabinet is that the Minister of Arts and Culture is a man well experienced in fiction and in creating tableaux morts.

There isn’t anything particularly interesting about this Cabinet, on the face of it. Conceivably a couple of the new, junior people might turn out, surprisingly, to be competent, but none of them is in a central position. All the really important positions are held by people who have already failed, either mildly or disastrously, in Zuma’s earlier Cabinets. Most of the middle-level positions are also held by failures, sometimes spectacular ones, sometimes consistently so. There is, thus, no real possibility of a startling success which will salvage the situation. The most which can be anticipated is that someone will unexpectedly do better than anticipated in a field of little or no significance, which will enable the media to praise them in comparison to their competitors. Even this is rather unlikely, for with Ramaphosa standing by to crack the whip there will be powerful incentives to do nothing surprising or interesting and thus challenging to the corporatist status quo.

A reasonable assumption, then, is that Zuma doesn’t have any intention of pursuing any radical alternatives to the bland subordination of his first term. Nothing else should have been expected from someone of Zuma’s calibre, but still it remains depressing because Zuma’s first term was such a disastrous failure that one might have hoped that he would at least want some kind of legacy before he departs, some accomplishment which might lead his successor to say, look, he was a shit, but at least he was a shit of substance, let’s not go ahead with prosecuting him just yet. The only way that Zuma will be able to avoid prosecution, assuming that his second term ends in the kind of slow-motion train-smash that his first term ended with, will be if he either organises a coup d’etat or else is able to install such a corrupt successor that he can threaten to bring them down if they act against him. Maybe that’s why he wants Ramaphosa in the position. (However, Ramaphosa has the big mining companies behind him who can ensure that any corruption prosecutions are blocked as effectively as the prosecutions of Zuma were blocked.)

No plan, but also no obvious conspiracy. Nothing actually interesting — just cronies and time-servers. Zuma packed his first Cabinet with similar people, but back then it was possible to claim (although impossible to believe) that the crooks, shysters and bunglers he appointed, who had mostly been sacked after failing or being caught, were all victims of Mbeki’s malice. It rapidly became obvious that this was not the case; that Mbeki had quite rightly got rid of all of them, just as he had been quite right to get rid of Zuma — and thereafter the media was placed in the mildly embarrassing position of having to denounce the people whom they had previously defended as more sinned against than sinning, or at least as victims of the evil Voldemort.

Now we just have people whom we already know to be worthless. If the general administration of the country were efficient then stuffing the Cabinet with thugs, fixers and fascists might not matter so much, but it isn’t. If we weren’t facing an economic crisis (currently being blamed on the platinum strike as if this were the only thing preventing us from soaring like a dodo into the economic skies) and a social crisis, this wouldn’t matter as much as it does. But we do face these things, and therefore bad leadership at the tier below the bad leadership of the President — bad leadership of the kind which fudges, avoids and conceals — is a remarkably bad thing. The Minister of Minerals has already put his stamp on affairs by setting up an Inter-Ministerial Task Team to discuss what might be done about the platinum strike. Sorted! That is, his responsibility is sorted, and now he can concentrate on schmoozing with CEOs and especially CFOs.

Of course, the whole Cabinet is neoliberal. There is an understandable attempt by the corporate press to gin up imaginary differences between Nene, Davies and Patel, pretending that because the latter come from the SACP and COSATU whereas the former is a bloodless and support-free technocrat, there is liable to be ideological conflict. But this is not a left-right divide, since they are all right-wingers; it simply means that Davies and Patel will do what they can to undermine Nene in order to further their private fantasies and possibly serve the interests of their political bosses — meaning that yes, there will be conflict, but it will be conflict within the context of the preposterous National Development Plan which everybody familiar with it — and not immediately benefiting from the corruption which it furthers — detests.

Therefore, neoliberalism does not mean unity. Nor does it mean coherence; different ministers will apply neoliberalism in conflicting ways which will almost certainly make for dissonance. Basically, because Zuma has appointed people without regard for appropriate skills or competence, the result will indeed be a disaster, and probably a much bigger one than the disaster of his first term of office because a much bigger economic crisis is impending and the social crisis has grown much more severe. In other words, the snap judgement of Julius Malema (which he probably made without even seeing the names on the Cabinet list, because he could have anticipated the kind of appointments even if not the specifics) is correct, as usual, and the woolly and over-optimistic fantasies of both reactionaries and liberals have been dashed.

The only thing to look forward to is the hope that we can somehow take advantage of the five-year disaster which is impending before us; having predicted it, when it happens, the EFF and everybody concerned with good governance must be there to point it out and point out that with remotely competent and honest politicians in the places of Zuma’s rubbery minions, none of this would have to happen.


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