Master Class with Gordon and Jacob.

April 30, 2008

(The scene is the top floor of nos. 10-11 Downing St, now converted into the office of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is an immense space, chill and gloomy as the former Chancellor himself, floored with tiles of artificial Carrera marble. The ceiling bears an unfinished fresco depicting the victories of NuLabour in Pristina, Kabul and Basra, with space left to depict victory over the Enemy Within. In a corner of the otherwise unfurnished space is Gordon Brown’s titanic desk made of cheap tropical hardwood, cluttered with bric-a-brac and gobbledygook. On the wall behind the desk is a gigantic gilded emblem of NuLabour’s symbol, a fat bundle of straw — symbolising the straw men mobilised to justify their policies — wrapped around the handle of a mighty sink plunger symbolising the need to clear away obstructions in the pipe of progress such as dole scroungers, asylum seekers and Islamofascists of every stripe. Below the emblem is a full-length mirror. Brown himself sits at the desk on Kaiser Wilhelm’s old saddle-chair, wearing the uniform of Her Majesty’s Death-to-other-people’s-Head Hussars, but has wearily flung aside the cast-polystyrene pickelhaube. His head is with difficulty fitted into his hands.The door opens, revealing the specially tiny padded-walled lift which the previous occupant of this room inhabited for the last months of his career in Downing Street. Emerging from the lift is Dr. Jacob Zuma, President-for-life of the ANC and Father of his People, or at least of a spectacular number of them one way or another. He wears a cheap knock-off of a black Armani suit and golfing shoes, on which, perceiving the polished nature of the marble, he ecstatically slides until he fetches up with a crash against Brown’s desk, knocking Brown’s semen-encrusted inflatable Ayn Rand doll flying.

ZUMA (cheerily): Molo, uMnumzana.

BROWN (wearily): Away with ye, man. I am developing policies and must not be disturbed, lest the very fabric of our beloved nation-state be unravelled by those who would seek to undermine and deride us. Wait a minute — this isn’t the Zambibwe meeting, is it?

ZUMA: I suppose so. At least, that’s what Kgalema said it was.

BROWN: Who? Never mind. Sit down. Oh, sorry, there’s no chair. Military Intelligence say furniture is a key security threat, you see.

ZUMA: I am so happy to be here! I am prepared to stand forever in the presence of my Lord! (Rests an ample buttock on the corner of the desk, which, being British-built, creaks alarmingly.)

BROWN: Attaboy. (He fumbles on the desk till he discovers a large pair of cheap sunglasses, which he dons and his face at once becomes an immobile, beaming mask, and reads from a sheet of fax.) Orright, Morg baby, here’s the score. Don’s crowd want the power plants — they’re willing to pay every one of you a hundred. Larry and them want the railways — they’re offering seventy-five. Stephen says he can take the Beitbridge and Bulawayo roads — you have to build the toll plazas and you get ten for that. BAe want a look at your Chinese fighters, apparently in case there’s any stuff the Yanks haven’t given our boffins. And British Airways want Zimbabwe Airways out of operation in a month or you all get your legs broken. Kapish?

ZUMA: I think you have the wrong man, boss. (Idly, he examines a golden pen lying on the desk, and pockets it.)

BROWN: You’re not Morgan Change-the-Guy? (Takes off sunglasses, peers.) No, you’re not. Who the hell are you? How did you get in here?

ZUMA: The name is Jacob. Jacob and sons. And Baas amaMilibandi said I could come in.

BROWN: Oh, God, I forgot. You’re our man in South Africa. (Long pause.) So, um, how are things at home?

ZUMA: Very fine. (Long pause.)

BROWN: Um, did you have a nice trip?

ZUMA: Very nice. (Long pause.)

BROWN: Look, could you please go and sit somewhere else until this is all over?

ZUMA: All right, master. Baas amaMilibandi gave me my statement to read on the steps. I go to memorise it. (He skates away across the floor and, as he skates in circles, begins to read in a dreamy but loud voice.) “The appalling, atrocious humani — tarian crisis . . . The horrendous, horrific totali — tarian dicta — torship. . . The grotesque, gross vio — lation of basic human rights . . . The inept, incoherent mis — management of a once productive economy . . . The cowardly, corrupt refusal of the broader community to take manda — tory action . . . ”

BROWN (bursting to his feet): Stop it! Stop it, you — you tinpot Third World bully-boy! I won’t have you criticising Her Majesty’s government in those offensive terms! We have laws in this country, you know!

ZUMA: Sorry, boss. Just reading my speech.

BROWN (falling back): Of course. Of course. I’m — sensitive today. (His head falls on the desk with an echoing sound. Zuma skates closer.) You would not believe what I have to put up with! Denigration! Disinformation! Downright lies! Smear campaigns! God, it’s awful! And if we didn’t control all the newspapers and the BBC, some of these things might even get out into the public eye, and Heaven knows what would happen to my personal popularity index!

ZUMA: Is that good?

BROWN: Absolutely fabulous. Holding steady at eighteen percent approval. As the New Statesman will point out next week, that makes me the most popular Prime Minister named Gordon Brown since records started being kept. No mean feat, you know.

ZUMA: Ninety-eight percent of South Africans want me to be President of South Africa now. One hundred and one percent do not want me to go on trial. e-TV proved this with computers —

BROWN: I don’t want to hear any more bad news! Especially I don’t want to hear any sentence with the word “trial” in it! (A Dalek rolls out of the lift bearing a tray with two tumblers, one glass containing 25-year-old Laphroaig, one plastic containing Yakisuki Caramel-and-Ethanol Imperial Salute. Owing to a programming error it rolls up to Zuma, who takes the Laphroaig. Brown swills back the Yakisuki at a single gulp, chokes, drops the glass.)

ZUMA: Are we finished yet?

BROWN: No! No! I have not yet begun to fight! Northern is the Rock on which I shall build my church, and if I must spend every pound in every working-class pocket in Britain, I will defend the rights of bankers! Why, the City is founded upon the unassailable strength of the pound, and if it were to tremble, what would happen? We’d end up having to spend filthy foreign money covered in silly pictures of people who can’t even speak English! Only a step from there and the gypsies and the pickaninnies would be dancing around my front door pushing excrement through the letterbox! That cannot be tolerated! Sooner than that, I would have to increase the term of detention without trial again! In fact, I might just do that anyway, on principle!

ZUMA: I meant, are we finished talking yet?

BROWN: Well, frankly, I hope so. I’m tired listening to you rabbiting on endlessly about your problems and troubles, your horrible diseases and your poverty and your homelessness and your overpopulation — don’t you people in the Third World ever think to wear condoms? (Zuma blushes invisibly.) It’s about bloody time you started thinking about others instead of yourselves. What about us in Britain? Do you have any idea how much trouble people like me have getting home through the traffic on the average afternoon, in constant danger of having the chauffeur say something impolite? How I long for the day when we will have executive jump-jet pads on every major building in the Square Mile! But what do you know or care about that, you who lounge in your huts in the sun swilling corn beer! What do you know about stress, about high blood pressure, about the gruelling struggle against global terrorism which I must fight night and day without rest or pause or privilege!

ZUMA: I am so sorry.

BROWN: Speaking of which, does your country want any arms? There’s be something in it for you, if you do. And you never know when you won’t need a Challenger tank or a Warrior troop carrier or an Interrogator mobile torture chamber.

ZUMA: That would be nice. Cash only, please. I have had trouble with bank drafts.

BROWN (cheering up): Of course! Always a pleasure to help. Between ourselves, we are going to sell all three things to Zambibwe when everything’s sorted out there, so if I were you, I’d start buying early, before they come over the border and start stealing your women.

ZUMA: We are in agreement. Just like in the press statement. (He looks over Brown’s desk, but he has already stuffed almost everything portable and shiny into the bulging inner pockets of his ill-fitting jacket.)

BROWN: Then bugger off. I need to be alone with my thoughts. They need a lot of room, believe me. (Zuma skates to the door of the padded lift, which opens; a Dalek comes out carrying a tray of caviar and cucumber sandwiches, which Zuma appropriates, stuffing two into his mouth as he steps into the lift. The bewildered Dalek begins to roll about in circles, emitting a hum of overload. Brown meanwhile stands up, slips his right hand into his coat at the third button, thumb on the outside, and glares at himself in the mirror.) Alone again. Always alone. We statesmen have a high and lonely destiny. But, praise be, I have resolved the hideous human rights crisis of Southern Africa. If George doesn’t mind, that is. Thank God for British ingenuity.

(The Dalek explodes.)

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The Word of the Bond.

April 30, 2008

Wrap you in his arms, tell you that you’ve been a good boy,

Rekindle all those dreams that took you a lifetime to destroy,

Reach deep into the hole, heal your shrinking soul,

But there won’t be a single thing-a that you can do . . .

He’s a god, he’s a ghost, he’s a man, he’s a cool dude,

They’re whispering his name through this disappearing land,

But hidden in his coat is a red right hand.

— Nick Cave, “Red Right Hand”.

 

After studying Commanding Heights and Community Control, the natural assumption must be that Patrick Bond can’t possibly have anything valid to say about South African political economy. His misreading of reality led him to prescribe absurd quack remedies for the country, which fortunately were never adopted. His misreading seems to have changed little, if at all.

Yet that doesn’t make Bond a worthless commentator. Noam Chomsky is an anarchist, a political posture which seems strikingly unrealistic, however much he might reminisce about what the Catalan anarchists might have accomplished if they hadn’t been squashed in 1937. (They would certainly have been squashed in 1939, when Barcelona surrendered to the Falangists.) But Chomsky is worth reading because he provides vast amounts of information and is an extremely acute and honest analyst. Why shouldn’t Bond be worth reading? The first two-thirds of Commanding Heights is provocative, even if superficial. One turns to Elite Transition: from Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa with hope.

The Creator took up the book in a state of doubt, when Mbeki had made it quite clear that he was going to continue the cautious and conservative economic policies of the previous few years. Elite Transition offered, or seemed to offer, a challenge to all that stodgy pandering to wealth. However, the Creator couldn’t get over a problem with the title.

Seen through the right lens, any transition is an elite transition, from the Smolny Institute to the Union Buildings. Unless Bond could show that there was a plausible alternative to what happened in 1993, he would be indulging in silly special pleading. Moreover, whatever had happened in the 1990s was not obviously a simple move towards neoliberalism. Argentina’s neoliberals would certainly have sold off ESCOM, SASOL and TRANSNET like greased lightning. Indonesia’s neoliberals would not have passed the Labour Relations Act or the Employment Equity Act. Such issues suggested that the politics of South African government and economics had room for positive development and critique, where Bond’s title seemed to deny this.

Bond says repeatedly that the ANC sold out the people and became a neoliberal comprador organisation, serving the Western capitalist elite. If this isn’t true, it is an unhelpful insult which would alienate Bond’s audience, so it had better be true. Bond begins by making a sweeping presentation of the capitalist crisis which, he claims, characterised the last decades of apartheid (whether it was actually a crisis or simply a transition from production-based to finance-based profiteering, he does not explain).

He then explains that big capital wanted to have the ANC supporting it, which is hardly surprising. Significantly, big capital did not reciprocate, consistently supporting the ANC’s enemies throughout the decline of apartheid and the post-apartheid period, down until the capture of the party by big capital at Polokwane in 2007. (Even now, it is likely that much of big capital distrusts the ANC and would prefer a blackface Democratic Alliance if only one could be ginned-up.) Bond’s point proves very little about the ANC or about South African politics.

At which point, Bond asks an interesting question: “How did mediocre hucksters of neoliberalism flatter and cajole so many formerly tough-minded working-class leaders and progressive thinkers into abdicating basic principles?”. Here he is asking how something has happened before he has shown that it, indeed, happened. Skipping over the difficult task of proving that the ANC indeed adopted neoliberalism as a policy (he had earlier shown that the leadership of the ANC was extremely suspicious of nouveau-riche black capital in the 1990s, not conspicuous evidence of neoliberalism) is not analysis, but rhetoric.

Bond does point out that many “scenario planners” set out to fool the ANC. It is less clear that they were indeed fooled by the planners (who outside the business community takes Clem Sunter seriously?). Bond interviews the planners and endorses their propaganda about how they deceived their enemies It is always dangerous to uncritically believe propaganda, and Bond never does this with the ANC, but he accepts corporate rhetoric which fits his political objective of claiming that the ANC sold out to big business. (Notably, the footnotes here in the 2000 edition often prove nothing like what is claimed in the text.) When Bond analyses actual economic discussion within the ANC, he merely shows is that there was conflict between different groupings who accused each other, usually justly, of being unrealistic.

Eventually Bond does address a real issue by discussing GEAR, the economic policy unveiled in 1996. The policy was simple; reduce the budget deficit by reining in public spending, cut taxes to (allegedly) increase spending and investment, and economic growth would accelerate. As Bond rightly observes, the conclusion was not plausible and did not materialise. On the other hand, Bond fails to mention the impact of the global economic crises which materialised at the same time as GEAR and undoubtedly contributed to the stalling of economic growth. These probably would have caused big problems even if exchange controls had not been ill-advisedly reduced.

Bond also does not mention that failing to cut spending would certainly have led to a rapidly-growing budget deficit (COSATU happily anticipated a return to the 7%+ deficit of 1994). This could have been more harmful to the economy than GEAR was, for if economic growth was stalled by global crisis, then swelling deficits would lead rapidly to a bloated national debt, servicing which had cost 25% of the Budget in 1994-5. This would have hammered social spending — which Bond claims to oppose. He is being disingenuous here.

Significantly, while GEAR continued subsequently, economic growth picked up, contrary to Bond’s prediction. Bond makes other predictions which were soon falsified, such as the idea that Value-Added Tax would be increased, or the privatisation of major parastatals, and thus airily discusses the harmful effects of things which did not happen. GEAR, as the Creator has pointed out, was effectively a conservative rather than a neoliberal policy intervention, and contrary to Bond’s claims it had positive effects as well as negative ones.

Bond right in pointing out that the RDP was an imperfect instrument, particularly because it was not well understood or thoroughly by the community at large. This, in turn, was understandable, since politicians and the interest-groups they represent tend not to pay much attention to broad plans of this kind, while the state in the mid-1990s was largely run by white bureaucrats who had little interest in supporting either RDP or government. These huge problems are not addressed by Bond. Moreover, Bond does not clearly explain that the political failure of the RDP was partly a product of left-wing incompetence — the belief, which Bond fosters, that there was plenty of money somewhere to fund whatever projects you wanted.

The left’s idea seems to have been that this money would be used to buy support for the left, in a virtuous circle of development and political self-aggrandizement. Unfortunately, when money became tight and the spigots were closed by GEAR, the left was in no position either to challenge this, or to negotiate a way of reversing or avoiding it. Nothing that Bond says suggests how anything better than this could have been done — and by ignoring this, he lets the left off the hook entirely, despite their apparent political and economic bungling. (In many ways it was not bungling but political good sense; after the left allowed the RDP to disappear, it no longer had to take responsibility for policy and could blame every failure on somebody else. Tactically astute, but unrealistic and self-destructive.)

In a sense, Bond is doing precisely this. The RDP was a series of production targets, many of which were in fact met (as Bond rather shyly acknowledges). However, if it was also a hook on which to hang the transformation of society, it was a weak one which broke under the weight. If, however, Bond can blame all this on the bad ANC and the evil GEAR, he can exempt the left, including himself, from all responsibility for the failure. (It is this kind of discourse which has led the left to blame almost all failures on the bogeyman Mbeki.)

Meanwhile, Bond proceeds to denounce the housing policy of the post-apartheid state. Interestingly, Bond challenges the ANC claim that late apartheid failed to provide housing, by saying that 200 000 houses for middle-class blacks were built over 5 years between 1986 and 1990. This is a rate of 40 000 a year, not exactly the “roaring” rate which Bond ascribes to it, and such houses were inaccessible to most people, so it is hard to see why Bond raises this, unless he wishes to delude his audience into seeing apartheid-era housing as better than it actually was. Bond blithely concludes that the housing production of the first five years of government was only 100 000 houses (wiping away the other 750 000 with a wave of the hand) and justifies this by saying that the houses were small and ill-built, and anyway, according to the neoliberal press, there was corruption in the Housing Ministry.

An RDP house is anything but a palace, yet it is far superior to a shack, or even to most wattle-and-daub housing, which is why people move into them. Seemingly Bond doesn’t want to acknowledge success in this area, so has to lie about it and justify this through appeals to a relatively affluent audience whose baseline for housing is a middle-class suburban house. When Bond talks about what could have been done, he describes what actually was done (200 000 modest-sized houses a year built with small subsidies and loans).

Bond could rightly complain that houses could have been built better, and more of them built and in more appropriate places, if more capital had been available, thus criticising the ANC’s macroeconomic policy. However, Bond prefers to invent a much worse scenario of failure, thus legitimating the sweeping accusations of broad-based neoliberalism which he desires to present to his readers. Where the facts do not support his allegations, so much the worse for the facts. He follows this by waving the World Bank as a scarecrow, pretending, that a vast crisis arose from the ANC’s surrender to this institution — that is, borrowing money from it.

Bond seeks hope in “new social movements” and in a mystified “Left” against which the ANC was allegedly mobilising repression. He also hopes that the SACP and COSATU would break with the ANC — the familiar dream of white capital for so many decades. He makes dire predictions of what an Mbeki government would do (invariably falsified) and ends with a ringing call for South Africans to overthrow their government and cut themselves off from the rest of the world in order to fulfil the deranged plans presented at the end of Commanding Heights.

In short, the book fulfils the fears rather than the hopes aroused by Commanding Heights.

Bond has a modest competence in the undemanding field of Marxist economic analysis. (Marxist economic analysis has great potential to evolve from an imperfect critique of capitalism but can be developed into a valid one — but in the hands of people like Bond this veers off into jargon-laden shibboleths such as “uneven development” and “falling rate of profit”.) Unfortunately Bond is embedded in the academic political fantasies of American Trotskyism. As a result, while some of his criticisms of state policy are valid (and could be useful in the hands of another writer), his overall work is all but worthless in terms of providing a correctional critique or a way forward.


Of Human Bondage.

April 30, 2008

I set myself to examine in a rather desultory fashion those hysterical polemics [by Lenin and Zinoviev], packed tight as shell-cases with high explosive. I found them shocking, repugnant, alien. They pricked and tickled like a hair shirt. They seemed to generate an intolerable heat. They existed in a world of notions with which I had no contact, and, exasperatingly, they dared totally and contemptuously to disregard most of the assumptions to which I had been brought up and educated, or else to treat them brusquely as dangerous delusions peddled by charlatans bent on deceiving the people.

Claud Cockburn, “Cockburn Sums Up”.

That is more or less the way that the Creator felt when first looking into left-wing literature. It’s bracing to be challenged. It’s also exciting to realise that Everything You Believed Is Wrong, but that now you know The Truth. When the Creator first read Dr. Patrick Bond these symptoms emerged. But the Creator is now older and wearier.

To be honest, the Creator would like to respect Bond. Unlike loads of other foreigners who sat around on their arses praising the anti-apartheid struggle from a safe distance and then smeared it the moment it was fashionable to do so, Bond made the trip from John Hopkins all the way to Joburg. Good for him, and a lot better than Dale McKinley, who made the trip solely to prove that his PhD dissertation, on how the ANC was going to betray the People’s Marxist Revolution, was perfectly true.

Having said nice things, it is now obligatory for the Creator to explain how Patrick Bond talks hooey and nobody should listen to a word that he says, so without further ado, here is The Truth About Patrick Bond. Those of you unprepared to accept The Truth are obviously agents of multinational imperialism and should go off and kiss Gordon Brown’s fanny, as Jacob Zuma has been doing to the cheers and applause of South Africa’s radical press. (More on that later.)

Bond says that he does not know where to begin to express his distaste for the Creator’s errors. Begin at the beginning, is the Creator’s always-helpful advice. Therefore we are going to begin with Bond’s first book written in South Africa, and one steeped in the academia which enfolds Bond like a shroud, Commanding Heights and Community Control.

The book — pamphlet, really — was written in obvious haste, apparently while Bond’s books were still in storage for it is without bibliography or references. It acknowledges huge debt to many South African economists, some of whom subsequently became neoliberals campaigning against worker rights, which suggests that one should be careful about one’s allies. However, shallow and confused, it’s not a bad book at all, as a contribution to a broader and ongoing debate.

The book kicks off with a survey of the economic history of South Africa, naming the usual suspects (Standard Bank, Anglo American et al.) but with scanty analysis — merely a series of assertions about why South Africa’s colonial history followed the standard boom-slump-boom pattern. (Since there is no attempt to compare this with any other comparable country like Argentina, the survey is unhelpful.)

Then comes the “crisis of over-accumulation” assertions, where at last Bond draws back the curtain and reveals the theory. Or rather theories, for he seems to want to have his cake, eat it, defecate it and then make a fresh cake out of the contents of the chamber-pot, and thus flings a blizzard of theorists and theories about without pausing to determine their validity. One begins to see one reason why Economic History has vanished from the South African university curriculum.

There are a number of crisis theories. To oversimplify, there is the “crisis of overproduction”, where more stuff is made than anybody wants (if you make a million dishwashers and there are only half a million households, no matter how much money is available, half a million dishwashers must remain unsold). There is the “crisis of overaccumulation”, meaning either that the rich are pocketing so much that the poor don’t have money to buy stuff, or that the rich aren’t investing the money in production which promotes employment and market consumption; this generates a “crisis of underconsumption”, meaning that people aren’t being paid enough to buy all the stuff that is made. (Most Western crises are crises of overproduction). Bond goes for overaccumulation.

The logical way to deal with this would be to nudge South African capitalists into investing in South African manufactures for the domestic market instead of shipping their capital overseas. That would produce the desirable effect of more demand and more supply and thus a redistribution of wealth. But Bond doesn’t really want to sort out capitalism’s problems, so he approvingly cites Stephen Gelb, who claimed that redistribution would lead to supply problems. Instead what must be done is a mammoth state-driven production programme.

But this would be unaffordable if high wages were paid in such a programme. Hence, Gelb hopefully concludes that high wages are a big problem and suggests they should be cut or frozen, making it easier to hire more people. This is a foot on the slippery slope to neoliberalism, though one can see where it is coming from (just as one can see why Bond doesn’t like the regulation of capitalism because it keeps detestable capitalism in place).

Currently a lot of the economists of Bond’s era support “labour market flexibility”, bidding down wages so that capitalists can hire more people — except that the capitalists don’t, so this leads to capitalists getting richer and unemployment rising. This intellectual contradiction has unfortunate political consequences, with leftists becoming apologists for right-wing policies. To be fair, Bond doesn’t adopt these; to avoid them he shies away from the issue.

There is another solution; retaining high wages but adopting a capital-intensive manufacturing system which requires less workers. (This is the current stance of South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry.) This demands expensive imports of productive machinery and a fall in employment. (Mercifully, DTI is so inept and gullible that very little has happened in practice.) At this point Bond reveals that he can’t distinguish between “crisis of overaccumulation” and “crisis of overproduction”, and misses “crisis of underconsumption” altogether, suggesting that he doesn’t really understand what is going on in the first place. (Some American Marxists seem to agree with the Creator on this one.)

The protected South African market in the 1970s was glutted, but for political reasons it could not expanding to include blacks. Because it was small and partly because it was inefficient, it was not in a good position to compete internationally. Therefore apartheid had become an impediment to the development of capitalism, and therefore apartheid had to go. It’s a story, anyway, one which sidelines the whole anti-apartheid struggle in favour of the scratching pens of economic historians. Indeed, Bond claims that the apartheid state was trying to promote this through economic decentralisation (although this policy was quite obviously a political stunt to give the homelands spurious credibility, and had virtually no economic impact).

But in fact Bond is surely mistaken. Capitalism in late apartheid did not want to develop its South African market or invest in efficient machinery, it wanted to get out of South Africa altogether. As a result, the existence of apartheid was not tremendously important for capitalism, although capitalism undoubtedly no longer needed it now that cheap labour was no longer important. The trouble was that capital-intensive production wasn’t so important either. The big money was to be made in finance, and that, increasingly, was where the capital went.

To be successful, the regulation of capital would have to be much tighter than capital was prepared to tolerate. Alternatively, capitalism would have to be junked altogether and replaced by a democratic, state-controlled production and distribution system. Unfortunately for the latter plan, the collapse of apartheid coincided with the collapse of state-controlled production and distribution systems in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which didn’t make this option good. On the other hand, the Gelb-style state-driven programme, which eventually became the RDP, was obviously not going to be in any way adequate. It was a huge political conundrum.

One thing which Bond acknowledges is that the unbanned ANC was quite organisationally weak, as one would have expected. (This is where living in the country is an advantage.) Unlike some, he admits that the far left, such as WOSA, were a dead letter, a realistic approach which he has since abandoned. Assessing Growth through Redistribution, the Gelb-style response, he is rightly gloomy about its prospects.

So Bond argues that “civil society”, the mass non-political organisation of people, could compel capital to democratise itself after the end of apartheid. He also advises a debt default — which he admits would lead to international financial sanctions, but that, he says, would not be a problem if the ANC were “serious” about self-reliance. (It is not clear where capital could come from in the besieged economy which he foresees.) Then he argues, without thinking through the arguments, that once trade unions have more rights they will suddenly become much more politically significant and capable of independently controlling the activities of capital. Meanwhile, he suggests, the Growth through Redistribution strategy could be pursued without importing anything at all. In effect he is suggesting that South Africa decouple economically from the rest of the world.

The decentralised “community control” which Bond offers to counterpose capital is easily co-opted and is thus not a reliable bastion of support for government policies. Destroying South Africa’s international access to credit and its internal banking system (which is what Bond is advising here behind a screen of euphemisms) would undoubtedly antagonise the whole South African bourgeoisie, who would lose vast amounts of money. Because economic growth would stall, this policy would not necessarily appeal to the working class, who would face either swelling unemployment, or , employment at far lower salary levels than those under apartheid.

Bond’s proposed policies resemble those pursued by the USSR in the First Five-Year Plan. Those could not have been pursued without massive repression, but Bond does not acknowledge this because he claims to be endorsing democracy and freedom. Indeed, however, under Bond’s plan the bourgeoisie and elements of the working class would undoubtedly have joined multinational capital and Western imperialism to overthrow the post-apartheid state. Without repression, in the already unstable context of the mid-1990s, a government Bond’s policies would surely have been overthrown within months. Yet with repression, those policies would probably have become the corruption of an oligarchy — which happened to Zimbabwe in the siege economy which developed after 2000.

So Bond first pointed out that South Africa faced terrible constraints because of the development of its capitalist system, then observed that nobody had discovered how to resolve more than a fraction of these constraints, and then developed a desperately unworkable, absurd proposal. Although his economic analysis was partly accurate, his political analysis was preposterous — and in such a context political analysis is more important than economic analysis. Instead of correcting his mistakes, Bond dug himself deeper into them — in some ways, like the other economists who slipped from a leftist critique of ultra-leftism, into full-bore neoliberalism.


Hoping For The Worst.

April 25, 2008

The Creator thinks of John Pilger as a good man. He challenges the establishment. Corrupt politicians and dishonest journalist hacks defame him. In his youth he hopped around the globe from crisis to crisis, like a transcontinental Robert Fisk. In recent years, Pilger was one of the intellectual pillars of the anti-globalisation movement. All right, he is a good man; but even Homer nods, and when a good man turns to bad ends, he does so big time.

Recently the Creator took up a copy of John Pilger’s Freedom Next Time. Anyone who reads a lot of Pilger finds it repetitive, since he recycles, like Chomsky, although he has some good ideas and is a fine journalist. But while Chomsky is always willing to acknowledge a mistake, Pilger cannot do this, especially not in regard to South Africa.

In 1997 Pilger produced a documentary on South Africa called Apartheid Did Not Die, thereafter writing a piece called “The View from Dimbaza”, published in Hidden Agendas. Both the documentary and the written piece were very well constructed. They explained that the South African government, the ANC, had sold out to neoliberalism and had to be overthrown before it destroyed the country.

Ten years later the country had survived the economic crisis affecting it when Pilger made the documentary (but which he did not mention). Far from applying neoliberalism, the ANC had expanded on the Reconstruction and Development Programme (building housing for more than a fifth of the country’s population), had introduced massive social grants and pensions for the country’s rural poor, and an expanded public-works programme, including free access to drinking water and massively increased access to electricity. Meanwhile the budget deficit was down to zero, thus reducing the cost of servicing the national debt from 25% of the budget to under 10%, leaving an extra R22 billion for public spending in the 2007 budget, rather than giving it to banks.

Ignoring this, in Freedom Next Time he insists that he was right, and attempts to prove it, somewhat unconvincingly.

Pilger first complains about how little changed between 1967 when he was last in the country, and October 1997, three and a half years after the first democratic elections. White South Africans were rich, and foreigners were even richer. Perhaps this is a problem, but what is to be done about it?

One thing was to give money to the poor. Pilger complains it is not enough (though he does not point out that six rand a day, while measly for a western European, is a big boost for a single child’s food in South Africa). He cites a claim of an 8% increase in poverty between 1999 and 2002 which seems strangely high, since nothing happened in that period to provoke it. If true, it is a grievous fault, but it is probably not true; Pilger’s statistics are suspect.

Pilger’s friend Cosmas Desmond, the PAC-supporting priest, feels that land should be redistributed. If only the Constitution were changed, the land could be taken from commercial farmers and given to, er, other people. The trouble is that the commercial farmers produce the country’s food. Subsistence farming would not feed the cities where more than half the population lives. Desmond inhabits a fantasy world of happy black peasants close to the soil, a colour-reversed version of the Nazi “Blut und Boden”, and Pilger joins him there in lederhosen, clinking a steinful of lager..

Pilger rightly points to the corruption of figures like Kgalema Motlanthe and Mamphela Ramphele of the World Bank. However, many of his supporting ideas are wrong. Calling New Africa Investments Limited a “creation of apartheid” because some of its elements were once facilitated by the apartheid Industrial Development Corporation is like calling Steve Biko a creation of apartheid because he went to school in South Africa.

Meanwhile, Pilger makes the mistake of listening to Patrick Bond, who claims that “between 1995 and 2000 . . . unemployment almost doubled”, ascribing this to black economic empowerment, as if allowing a handful of black people to get rich plunges the nation into poverty. (This very conveniently covers up for the behaviour of the white people who actually control the economy.) Actually, in this period the massive unemployment in the “independent homelands” began to be counted, whereas under apartheid, it was pretended that this unemployment had nothing to do with South Africa. Bond uses apartheid’s faked statistics to falsely smear the post-apartheid government, and Pilger uses this avoid admitting that his own predictions were false. This is quite odious behaviour.

Later Pilger similarly cites Bond’s false claim about ten million electricity and water cut-offs (as was exposed in 2003, he took figures from the small town of Stutterheim and pretended that they applied to the whole country). Pilger claims that black household income has fallen by 19% (because of the confusing shifts in the value of the rand in US dollar terms, figures can probably be found to justify this).

In addition to these dubious statistics, Pilger loves negative quotes. These mostly come from white people whose agenda is not always that of telling the truth. Pilger depends heavily on the right-wing South African media for his sound-bites. Sometimes he also uses the UN, which supposedly said that 1990s economic policy was no different from 1980s apartheid economic policy (it does seem odd, then, that the results of the policy were the exact opposite of that policy’s effects).

Pilger rubbishes the ANC by any means necessary. He claims that “It was the Black Consciousness Movement that inspired many people in the townships to confront the bullets and tear-gas”. (That was true in 1976-7, but not subsequently; the BCM played hardly any role in the greater struggle of the 1980s which was led by the ANC’s United Democratic Front. But Pilger does not talk to ANC people unless they were in prison at the time.)

He goes still further: “. . . worrying questions for many in the resistance. What exactly was the deal struck between the ANC leadership and the fascist Broederbond?”. Pilger pretends (again) that there was a significant resistance which opposed the ANC, but also that the ANC sold out the people from the beginning. Obedient to white right-wing propaganda (echoing some of Van Zyl Slabbert’s disinformation) Pilger details a mysterious meeting between white racists and the evil Thabo Mbeki to sell out the struggle. In reality, what the ANC was doing was trying to bring about its unbanning; for the same reason that Mandela met with Botha, which Pilger also jeers at. It seems he would rather have seen the apartheid state win than see the ANC get any credit.

This seems, again, a harsh thing to say, but it is not. For instance, when he says that “there was widespread disappointment and dismay” over the negotiations which had been taking place, he does not say from where. In fact it came from the tiny anti-ANC movements, many of which, like the PAC and AZAPO, were covertly (and sometimes openly) helping out apartheid death squads.

Still worse, he quotes Thabo Mbeki on the “historic compromise” of 1993, when democratic elections became possible, saying that without this compromise “there would have been a bloodbath and a great suffering across the land”. This is true; had the agreement not been reached the apartheid military would probably have restored control using its well-established spies and murderers. Pilger, however, talks about the “emptiness of the threat” by pretending that it refers to Afrikaner fascists rather than to the soldiers and police of the apartheid state. (Later Pilger reveals that he is familiar enough with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings to know that the apartheid military were paranoid mass murderers — he twits F W de Klerk for his involvement in terrorism. It’s OK to acknowledge this truth to the white elite, but when Pilger is talking to black people, he derides their struggle for freedom and dismisses all their efforts.

Pilger is actually — there is no point in mincing words — being racist. He says that “the black majority were misled”, as if they were fools to vote for the ANC in 1994. Since they voted for them again in 1999 and in 2004, they must simply be stupid. Pilger, who knows little about South African history, politics and economics and has scant experience of the country, deems himself entitled to judge who black South Africans should vote for. (In this racist attitude he runs parallel to his informant Bond, who has declared that the ANC do not deserve the votes which they receive from blacks.) Ironically, he later quotes Cosmas Desmond claiming that the ANC “have no respect for that which is African and no understanding that we can learn from the African experience” — apparently only white Irish and Australian visiting firemen can understand Africa.

The white affluent corporate-front Freedom of Expression Institute says things are as bad as they were under apartheid, and Pilger quotes this body as gospel truth. South Africa has become a one-party state, Pilger tells us, offering no source (it is a favourite talking point of the Afrikaner far-right). He devotes nine lines to saying that the ANC has done something (he doesn’t say what) but when discussing what the ANC should have done, most of what he mentions is what the ANC actually has done — except that Pilger refuses to admit it.

One runs out of patience in the end and puts the book down. Pilger wants to persuade us that everything has gone wrong in South Africa, even if this means telling lies. He also wants to blame everything going wrong on the ANC. Now, the ANC deserves criticism for many of its policies and even more criticism for misapplying those policies. However, it also deserves praise, which Pilger does not provide. Pilger talks as if he is revealing hidden truth, but what he is doing is copying down the dogmas of the affluent South African establishment, which hates the ANC and seeks to reverse most of its policies. Significantly he makes no mention of the alliance of white and black right wing with the corporate oligarchy — to him there is only the evil ANC and the noble white foreigners, like Dale McKinley, who would lead the struggle against it, if only South African blacks were not so stupid.

Why is he doing this? One reason seems to be that the ANC are in power and they have not always done the right thing. Pilger loathes people in power and insists that the right thing must be done. Compromises are anathema to him. He would much rather lose than win through diplomacy — thus he jeers at Mandela for smoothing the path of negotiations by offering hypocritical praise for Botha and De Klerk. If Mandela had instead insulted them, would that have been worth another few years of apartheid and twenty thousand more dead? Pilger apparently thinks so.

Indeed, Pilger seems to love extremism for its own sake. As a result, he despises incremental improvements. He prefers Mugabe-style radical change, even if it is foolish, perhaps because it is easy to write about. There is also a strong sense that he is happy to see failure and collapse — he writes about the brutality of the occupied territories of Israel and the bloodbaths in post-Taliban Afghanistan with obvious pleasure, as if he is relieved to see a simple division between oppressed and oppressor.

The trouble with this analysis, if you can call it that, is that it erases politics. Struggle is reduced to throwing rocks at armoured vehicles; the moment the struggle ends, Pilger denounces the rock-throwers turned Cabinet Ministers as sell-outs, and demands that someone must start throwing rocks at somebody. Everybody in a picturesque struggle with excellent photo-opportunities will be betrayed, so that Pilger and his friends can lament their defeat — unless they lose, in which case Pilger can lament that. Celebration of success is largely absent. Celebration of partial success is nowhere to be found, for Pilger defines all compromise as treachery. Betrayal and defeat are Pilger’s meat and drink.

Perhaps this explains why Rhodes University, one of South Africa’s most conservative educational institutions, gave Pilger an honorary doctorate. Rhodes’ Journalism Department, while it has good staff, is essentially a machine constructing servants of South Africa’s right-wing disinformation structure. Pilger, for all his other good qualities, is one of those servants.


When Opportunism Knocks, Is It On Your Head?

April 24, 2008

It is very difficult to build up a mass-based popular movement in opposition to the ruling class under modern conditions. It is often a lot easier to join up with smaller movements and thus construct a coalition who are opposed to the ruling class. Trouble is, the positions of these movements usually do not perfectly agree with your own. Therefore, you have to be very careful in choosing your partners. You must also be more or less realistic. A tiny party cannot unite with a large party on equal terms, so for, say, the Zimbabwean Trotskyist movement to join forces with the Movement for Democratic Change, something which actually seems to have happened, is for the Trotskyists to surrender to the MDC without accomplishing anything except to give the neoliberals a feeble gloss of leftism.

The trouble is that one must also be realistic in recognising that some forces are unacceptable in some ways and acceptable in others. The Creator was recently accused of being an apologist for the ANC (not on this weblog, where since nobody reads to the end of a post, nobody even knows that it’s possible to make comments). This is true up to the point that the Creator endorses those elements of the ANC and its policy which are not corrupt or evil. To generically denounce something as despicable when it is not altogether so may be rhetorically reassuring, but it is often strategically unwise when it leads to lost opportunities.

But an opportunity may be opportunism. Sometimes, without even realising it (one may support a party or endorse a strategy not because it is right, but because it is familiar). What to do? The only solution is in ruthless self-criticism which, in turn, must be promoted organisationally through democracy and free debate. No, this is no joke, and it particularly applies to those organisations which are rooted in Marxist theory. The danger there is that the theorists may take complete control by virtue not of their wisdom, but their familiarity with theoretical classics. In a situation like that, theory would easily become the enemy of practice; a party might miss an opportunity because Poulantzas said it was impossible in 1962. (Quote chapter and verse, utter anathemata, and the thing is done. No reference to pragmatic reality needed.)

Hummph. What is all this on about?

Not, oddly enough, about the Zuma affair. There, of course, you had leftists seizing what seemed to be an opportunity to win a victory by getting Mbeki kicked out of the ANC Presidency, cheered on by their leaders. In order to do this they had to line up with big businessmen and their hangers-on. Once the leftists had provided the cannon-fodder, business seems to have co-opted Zuma and virtually all his friends, including most of the leaders of the left, leaving the actual membership of the left either standing open-mouthed at their own imbecility, or frantically scrabbling for reasons why endorsing neoliberalism and plutocracy is really a leftist policy. But that’s not unusual.

Nor, oddly enough, about the RESPECT affair. There you seem to have had a leftist party sternly standing up for their principles and walking out of a coalition which included non-leftists, leaving other leftists behind to flail around. (Of course this principled stand was not so simple; as is often the case, the danger was that the potential success of the coalition endangered the dominance of the leftist party, and perhaps of the broader leftist elements of the coalition — but walking out destroyed almost all hope of this.) Now, therefore, you have two parties, each pretending to uphold the principles of the original coalition, putting up competing candidates in the current British local elections. All that they seem to agree upon is a) that the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, must be denounced and must not be voted for by any adherent, and b) that it is absolutely vital that Ken Livingstone be voted in for the Mayorship in the election. But this is not unusual either.

No, the Creator is talking about Muslims.

In the broadest sense, the struggle for socialism is a world struggle. Capitalism is an internationalist ideology which dominates the globe both through its capture of governments and of multinational corporations. Its adherents are everywhere in charge and on the march to extend their control. As it happens, their control leads to growing immiseration and the danger of planetary catastrophe. It must be reversed. But because our society valorises money and success, and capitalists control most of the money on the planet and are the most successful structure on the planet, capitalists easily co-opt their opponents or divert their activities to innocuous pursuits like making movies and raising points of order at meetings.

In this world struggle there are also people pointing guns at the heart of the Empire. These people are almost invariably Muslims and virtually always Middle Easterners in some sense; al-Qaeda, Hizbollah, Hamas, the Chechen, Iraqi, Afghan and Somali resistances, the Iranian government, and smaller groups elsewhere like the Muslim Brotherhoods and the remnants of the Algerian resistance army formed after the military coup there. It’s astounding how much more resilient Islamic resistance is than resistance elsewhere.

However, the reason for the resistance existing is that these countries are of great strategic importance and that the West wishes to control them — but also, that these countries (with the exception of Algeria) have gone through less social transformation than almost any other part of the world has. Virtually the whole of the Middle East was first ground flat under Turkish colonialism, then ground flat under Franco-Anglo-American colonialism, and finally American neo-colonialism installed corrupt, exploitative traditionalist governments virtually everywhere in the region. A few of them have adopted neoliberalism; most of them haven’t even got that far. It’s no wonder that they feel resentful and unhappy with their lot; those people who think it has something to do with the decline of Islam in the last millennium are probably mistaken. The Middle East would be a powder-keg even if the majority of the population were Scientologists.

But they are followers of Islam, which has advantages and disadvantages for them. An advantage is that Islam provides a highly structured, all-embracing context for resistance, especially against non-Muslims. It is a society which valorises resistance and which nominally promotes ideals which can be used to focus that resistance, and where the community can be more united than in most Western societies.

A disadvantage is that Islam has historically been dominated by quite conservative leaders and values and has thus been used for oppressive purposes — and as a result, present-day Islamic resistance often focuses its attention on a myth of the past which is violently opposed to most of the best ideals of the modern world. Khomeini’s Iran, and still worse the Taliban’s Afghanistan, were oppressive states which bear some comparison with Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Christianised United States in The Handmaid’s Tale. Arguably, that is potentially what you get if you found your political programme on a medievalised fantasy around a false belief in an imaginary supreme being who supposedly provided the answer to all questions in a book written more than a thousand years ago.

Ah, that seems a little harsh, but the Creator has to point out that Islam rejects Ahura Mazda and is thus, regrettably, not based on the Truth.

Anyway, the consequence is that the most powerful resistance against Western imperialism, and thus against capitalist dominance, is a force which does not necessarily endorse the ideals of the Left. Note that this does not mean that it has to reject those ideals. A religion of the book has to be flexible or it could not adapt over time, and thus reinterpretation of the book is necessary. But the book comes first; a leftist cannot challenge the Koran by, er, waving a copy of Capital about. A Muslim who becomes a leftist is still a Muslim, and might be reattracted to reactionary Islamic ways. (Of course backsliding leftists are not unheard of either.)

This doesn’t make it impossible to try to engage Islam and try to persuade its supporters that they should consider adopting some of the developments of the modern world which seem useful. It simply means that it cannot be assumed that such efforts will succeed. Therefore it is possible to argue that leftists shouldn’t align themselves with Islamic movements because they might not in the end support the left. Probably it is more true to say that leftists shouldn’t simply assume that where Islamic movements are powerful and appear to be serving leftist interests, they are therefore going to be easy to convert to leftism. That is a potentially fatal error which seems to have been made by several leftist movements in the Middle East.

In the West, leftists and Muslims feel oppressed and leftists support Muslim rights on the basis of multiculturalism; whether Muslims reciprocate by supporting the left is far from certain. Yet this obviously does not mean that the left should not abandon its ideals and ignore the Western oppressive campaign against Islam (or rather, against those aspects of Islam which it does not control — the West is happy to see those Muslims who endorse its rule, and will buy them Korans and camel saddles).

Internationally, the struggle against oppression by followers of Islam is undeniably something to be supported without hesitation. Any struggle against oppression should be supported. Any such support should also be qualified by the understanding that if it devolves into something undeserving of support, that support will be withdrawn. Leftism should not be monolithic in its support. One might argue, for instance, that support for Hizbollah undermines democracy in the Lebanon. The argument collapses on investigation, for Hizbollah is by no means as undemocratic as its enemies claim, while democracy in the Lebanon is often a facade for power-struggles between factions backed by foreigners who are not sinister Iranians in robes and therefore do not have to face the hostility of the Western media.

But the hostility to support for Islamic-based resistance is also something to struggle against. South Africa, for instance, has faced condemnation for inviting Hamas for political discussions with members of its government, and for refusing to condemn Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme (although the South African government’s position on this weakened over time, partly in the forlorn hope of receiving a UN Security Council bribe). This condemnation, which basically implies that everybody should bow down before the desire of Western capitalist imperialism to rule the world’s resources while trampling on the inhabitants of resource-rich areas, is garbage. People who make such a condemnation are at best tools of imperialism, and at worst, racists or religious zealots (generally of the Christian or Jewish brand-name).

In defense of the Islamic struggle, the left must refuse to be intimidated. This Islamic struggle is resistance to a force which threatens the planet. The fact that many of its participants are struggling in the long term for something which leftists do not endorse, does not mean that their actual fight does not serve good ends — in the same way that leftists could not ignore Gaullists in the struggle against the Nazi occupation of France. There will be time enough to resolve our differences if we ever come near to winning the battle.

(Coming soon: the Creator shamelessly apologises for the ANC by stabbing John Pilger in the back.)


How the World Got Lost.

April 23, 2008

The fact that we are in a terrible situation at the start of the twenty-first century, so that continuing present policies will probably lead to worldwide catastrophe, is not particularly controversial. The people who deny it tend to be people who are in denial about almost everything bad that the power elite have done in the last fifty or a hundred years. This is because the terrible situation has materialised through the agency of this power elite, who were and are short-sightedly greedy for wealth and political power. It was easy to see that putting power and wealth in their hands would be disastrous, and forty years ago the contours of the disaster were already becoming clear.

Therefore, while the actions of the right-wing oligarchy have brought about the present crisis, this would probably not have happened had this oligarchy not gained power; the reason why they gained power was that the left handed it over to them, or rather dropped power and left it lying knowing that the right would pick it up; as a result, one may say that the left is ultimately responsible. If we look over the past fifty years, there are several historical episodes or periods when this process of the left’s surrender to the right displayed itself.

Perhaps, though, it is worth remembering the situation in 1960. The ideas of the left were dominant everywhere and were being revitalised by a new generation of intellectuals. That is, everybody except a few maverick reactionaries agreed that the business of government was to plan the economy. Most agreed that redistributing wealth was good for economic growth and social health. Most believed that human freedom was a noble and desirable goal, and that where possible and convenient, such freedoms ought to be expanded; colonialism was coming to an end, feminism was on the rise again, and homosexual liberation was lurking just below the surface. The actual practice of society was more conservative than its ideals, and many of these were not to be realised for twenty years or more, if at all, but the Creator would say that human liberation, as conceived in the eighteenth century, was more firmly on the agenda in 1960 than ever before, despite the efforts of the right-wing oligarchy to pursue a different agenda.

An important factor which reversed this was the fall of Nikita Krushchev in 1964. This might seem a strange place to start, since even in 1964 the USSR was an unpleasantly repressive place. Nevertheless, in the past decade Krushchev had liberated the country to an unimaginable extent by taking the ideals of Leninism seriously and by abandoning the dishonest paranoid excuse-mongering of Stalinism. He had taken on the right-wing elite head-on, striving to prove that the USSR did not need a gigantic military, but rather needed socio-economic development. He fostered light industry rather than the heavy industry which absorbed so much capital to so much ecological disaster but which created oligarchical factory managers. He permitted more freedom of speech and cultural activity than had existed since the mid-1920s in the USSR, further weakening the position of the secret police whom he had already helped to dethrone by murdering Beria and downgrading the MGB from a Ministry to a mere Committee (the KGB).

Eventually he made so many enemies that the right-wing elite were able to mobilise them to overthrow him, and with him fell the last hope for a degree of Leninist idealism in broad Soviet policy. From the mid-1960s and the rise of Brezhnev and Kosygin to undeserved eminence, the USSR headed downhill swiftly and ceased to provide any kind of alternative challenge to Western corporatism.

Well, maybe that was inevitable, since the USSR was nobody’s Utopia. On the other side of the Berlin Wall, over the next five years, another factor emerged. This was the self-destruction of the promise of the New Left, which was nothing if it was not Utopian.

The New Left arose in the 1950s, in the aftermath of the devastating blow levelled at Western Communist parties by Krushchev’s de-Stalinisation policy — specifically, his admission that Stalin had been a demented mass murderer. Despite the fact that everybody in the world knew this already, this acknowledgement of the truth was considered by some an heroic act (it was fairly heroic to do it at a CPSU Party Congress — it was remarkable that Krushchev himself survived, let alone his career). It was considered by others, particularly Western Stalinists, a tragic blunder for which Krushchev was never forgiven, which is why the Western Stalinists welcomed Krushchev’s fall.

But this freed up space for serious Marxists to return to the origins of Marxism and think about how socialism could build a better world, instead of propping up the Russian oligarchy. Meanwhile, fostered by Krushchev’s policies, a whole new wave of Marxist-oriented states started to appear in the aftermath of decolonisation. Most of these states were really about as Marxist as General Motors, but they had red stars on their coats of arms, their soldiers drove T-54s and carried AK-47s, and their Cabinets toasted the collapse of capitalism (though in Krug rather than Georgian sweet champagne). It seemed that the Left was the wave of the future, and the middle-class youth everywhere began building a better society in communal houses conveniently close to their university campuses, socialistically sharing joints and nationalising their girlfriends.

Actually, virtually all of this was either complete bullshit or self-delusion, driven by the demented and corrupt behaviour of the elite which seemed to legitimate and facilitate any absurd response. It led to a wave of leftist play-acting, in which some of the actors (like Abbie Hoffmann and Danny Cohn-Bendit) had no idea what they were doing, while others (like Noam Chomsky) vainly hoped that perhaps these people who seemed not to know what they were doing, really did know something. As a result, everybody marched in unison until the guns started to go off, whereupon most of the people who had organised the revolution fled in all directions. It didn’t help that this disarray was eagerly seized upon by the Old Stalinist Left, who refused to support any of the new initiatives but, as in Paris in May 1968, was eager to pick up the pieces (though they didn’t know what to do with them).

’68 refuted Marx’s little squib about “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. The collapse of the New Left was a tragicomedy. However, those who had kept their ideals after the fall sat down in the ruins of their organisations, looked about them, and developed a Theory. This Theory was that the inevitable crisis of capitalism was at hand, despite all evidence, but what they had done was to fail to develop a Great Armed Struggle. Therefore they would remedy this deficiency by starting the First Phase of Guerrilla Action, armed propaganda. Therefore, all these potentially productive political subversive writers and leaders went off and started making small bombs or establishing small terrorist cells for the Weather Underground, Angry Brigade, Red Army Faction and Japanese Red Army. Within a few years these people had either been killed, jailed, blown themselves up or driven into perpetual hiding, their efforts utter futility, discredited beyond repair. There’s a sympathetic (to the point of idiocy) portrayal of this in Marge Piercy’s Vida, and a somewhat more realistic portrayal in Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions.

The fact is that the New Left was the best chance the Left has had this century to undermine and challenge the power of the Western elite, and they blew it, and they were not going to be given another chance.

This was made painfully clear in the next decade when the world’s social democrats betrayed their principles for good and all. Social democracy faced a real crisis in the 1970s when conservatism plunged the world into a depression after thirty years of almost continuous growth. It was a crisis which they were fully equipped to meet; for all that time the social democrats had been planning on the basis of what they had learned in the 1930s and 1940s. However, for all that time the social democrats had been failing to build any kind of solid political base. Instead, for a lot of that time social democracy had been propped up by right-wing parties who simply believed that while they had to vilify the left’s ideas to secure support, the left’s ideas were the way to stabilise society. Once the right wing was taken over by people who didn’t want stable societies — who believed that instability was desirable because it legitimised repression and ensured control, a right-wing variant of the “foco” guerrilla principle of forcing the state to expose its repressive character — the social democrats were thrown back on their own devices. They had none. One after the other, social democratic parties went over like a row of dominoes, never to return except in name. This was yet another catastrophic failure, perhaps the last time that the left had a chance to introduce sanity into a Western global hegemony which was growing increasingly demented.

This led to the 1980s, about which nothing good may be said by anyone outside South Africa. (For South Africa the 1980s were the 1960s, a time of ferment and hope, of creativity and resistance, except that unlike the 1960s they ended with a partial victory which took a decade and a half to piss away completely.) However, the 1980s ended with a much greater awareness of how stuffed up the world was becoming. Global warming might be on the back-burner, but everybody knew about the hole in the ozone layer and everybody had seen what had happened at Chernobyl. Meanwhile, the stock market had crashed in 1987, American policies in Central America had generated a bloodbath, Palestine was boiling, Southern Africa approaching holocaust — it was time for decisive action on all fronts. Just at the right moment, then, the USSR announced that it would no longer compete with the United States anywhere in the world, and abandoned its Eastern European puppets to their fate (itself going down in metaphorical flames two years later).

This was an opportunity not to be missed by the United States Government. It was, so to speak, present at the creation of a new world. Furthermore, instead of the senile chauvinist Reagan, the man in charge was the pragmatic aristocrat George Bush. With American power, unprecedented prestige, money and knowledge, all would be possible. The crisis would be resolved.

Well, of course none of that happened. All that Bush could manage was to seize the opportunity to grab some more Middle Eastern oil, and he didn’t even do that very well. Instead of saving Eastern Europe, all that was managed was to plunge the continent into poverty while stoking up war in the Balkans. In Palestine, perpetual war was guaranteed by puppetising the PLO. Nothing essential changed anywhere, and what little changed, changed for the worse.

Yet again disproving Marx’s little dictum, Bush’s son provided a horrible midget repetition of his father’s failure to accomplish anything in the mini-opportunity of 9/11. What little we know about American politics suggests that 9/11 was identified, indeed, as a major opportunity in a time of crisis, with democracy across the world crumbling and a wave of protest against this developing, with global warming now recognised as a major threat to human survival, and with the US economy in perpetual crisis. Unlike Bush I, Bush II had advisors who knew what to do — instinctively they seized the opportunity to make everything worse, destroying what remained of Western democracy, plunging deeper into military quagmires across the world with bullying rhetoric which their military power could not match, and further weakening the West’s economic prowess.

Nothing more can be expected from such people. But where do we go now for our salvation?


The Present Danger.

April 22, 2008

The survival of the present level of human civilisation is in doubt. Present policies could eventually promote a dramatic die-off in the human population which will destroy technological civilisation. For various reasons, chiefly the depletion of accessible resources, it will be hard to develop a new technological civilisation if this happens. There is a remote possibility of destroying humanity altogether. The future is not a pleasant place to look at.

The best-known source of the problem is global warming. Global warming can cause the ice-caps to melt, thus raising sea levels. This sounds like a crisis, but it would merely force the abandonment of coastal areas; the bulk of civilisation would survive this. It is true that a great many cities are on the coast and the bulk of international commerce runs between these cities which would all have to be replaced at enormous difficulty and expense. It is also true that a great deal of agriculture takes place near the coast. But these are difficulties which can in time be overcome. In any event major ice-cap melting will probably take place over fifty years or more, giving us an opportunity to adapt to the change. (In which case we should be beginning now, which is not happening.)

Unfortunately global warming will affect all the crops which humans grow, including trees and animals. Changes in rainfall will provoke desertification in some areas and excessive rainfall in others, both of which ruin crops. Modest changes in temperature make some areas unsuitable for currently-farmed crops. Meanwhile, other areas, previously cool, might warm up enough to be accessible to those crops, but this does not necessarily make those areas usable. If the Hex River in the Cape heats up and becomes unsuitable for fruit-growing, the Karoo plateau might become more temperature-suitable for fruits, but the Karoo is dry and has poor soil conditions, so it would be impossible to shift the crops there. Meanwhile the Hex River Valley might then be too dry to grow crops like maize.

Nobody knows how bad the situation can get, because the weather is driven by complex feedback loops of temperature, water vapour in the atmosphere, and the interactions of air pressure. We do know that the very modest temperature increases over the last few decades have already changed the growing climate in many areas and forthcoming decades will see much more radical, but unforeseeable, changes. We need resources to adapt to these changes.

Unfortunately, resources are running out. The trebling in the price of oil (due to the impending depletion of easily-accessible fields) makes transporting goods expensive, which accounts for part of the spike in all commodity prices. This spike, however, is partly because various important commodities, particularly minerals, are running short. It is difficult to extract them in order to keep pace with demand, much like the situation with oil — but like the situation with oil, the implication of this is that these resources are becoming less accessible, except by spending a lot more money.

In the case of oil, we may have used up as much as half the available resources (and since we are using oil at an ever-increasing rate, if this is the case it will be gone relatively quickly). Natural gas is disappearing much faster. Coal is still available, but only at the cost of hideous environmental damage such as the “mountaintop removal” mining methods in the United States which lay waste to vast areas of the landscape. (This further shows how the best and most accessible coal is gone.) It might be possible to go over to uranium, but even this is being rapidly depleted (and no country is developing the dangerous plutonium cycle which is the only way to make mass-used fission power sustainable for more than a few decades).

Meanwhile, the seas have been mined of their fish, forcing a move towards “fish farming” which is itself extremely environmentally damaging and is possibly unsustainable (since it entails destroying sensitive coastal land in order to build the farms, whose runoff poisons the coastal waters and further depletes ocean life). The forests have been mined of much of their trees, which like the fish schools show little sign of returning (clear-cut a tropical forest and what grows back is grass or scrub).

Some commentators think that we are running out of minerals such as lead, copper and some of the metals used in producing high-grade steel. Possibly this is mistaken, but the mere fact that this is suggested should worry us. Few people are talking about this danger, meaning that we might one day suddenly discover that our steel mills no longer produce steel, or we no longer have batteries or cabling to transmit electricity. Our civilisation might experience technological breakdown without warning, simply because somebody did not want to tell us about the dangers.

Not only are we faced with a future crisis, but we do not now have the capacity to address the crisis; we need to discover how to stabilise our technological society under new and more costly conditions — spending a lot of money to keep ourselves where we are, while at the same time spending a lot of money evolving systems to replace the unsustainable ones we are using at the moment.

Very well then; the money is available, so we should go ahead and do this. But this may not be the case. Either the money does not exist, or it is not available for use for this purpose.

In our contemporary society, the big money is in finance capital; in speculation on stock markets around the way in which certain industries may perform (especially industries which do not produce things, such as banking, insurance and real estate) and the way in which international capital markets perform. Many multinational corporations have shifted their emphasis from making physical goods to promoting financial services of various kinds, because financial services are so profitable. Under these conditions, money does not go into resolving problems or making things or paying people to do things; it reproduces itself. Any physical effect of this money is not visible to the people in charge of the money, whose interest is in numbers and in lines on graphs.

Those multinational corporations, again, are very large and very widespread. They have no particular allegiance to one country (their strong sympathy for the United States is partly nostalgic, and partly because the U.S. government has for many decades done whatever they wanted it to do). Hence a crisis in any particular region is not seen as particularly important. The people in charge of the corporations do not experience the crisis; they do not live near it, and they are in any case so rich that they do not have to be aware of its physical effects; they cannot smell the poisoned landscape, they do not starve, they are not killed in violence.

The coincidence of their allegiance to their corporation, and their allegiance to the belief that finance capital is the best (because most profitable) path for their beloved corporation to pursue, has another unfortunate consequence. Finance capital relies not on reality, but on short-term perception; the most contemptible bucket-shop can make money for its promoters if the public believes, if only for a few months, that it is a going concern. Hence multinational capitalists see real crises as threats to the positive perception of their companies. This is why tobacco companies, to take the most egregious example, were so happy to falsify evidence on lung cancer and emphysema; it wasn’t that they were evil, it was that they thought only in terms of perceived image, and realising that the facts were bad for the perceived image of their companies, they strove vigorously (and in their own terms, quite justly) to conceal or discredit the facts.

Such corporations adopt a “What, me worry?” approach to almost everything which seems to threaten their share prices. This approach spreads elsewhere; food stocks are low worldwide very largely because governments tell themselves that food stocks are a waste; that food could be sold to earn them income. (Of course, when people starve, politicians risk losing their jobs — but like finance capitalists, they think in the short term.) Finance capital, unconcerned with reality but only with the money to be made out of reality, maximises profits even at the cost of future problems.

There have always been predatory capitalists who bought flourishing companies in order to make money out of their destruction, But nowadays, such raiders are not aware of what they are doing. Many of them are traders, sitting at computers, who know nothing of the consequences of their actions. The people who know what the consequences will be defer to the finance capitalists. Multinational capitalism today is a runaway train with no driver. Leadership can only be provided by politicians, who, unlike the leaders of today’s capitalism, face actual personal risk in a crisis. Many politicians have been driven from office and hounded out of their countries if disaster strikes, whereas corporate leaders, even if they are flagrant criminals, are let off lightly..

But politics now is extraordinarily insulated from reality, like the leadership of corporations. This is not an accident, for the politicians are mainly chosen by corporate leaders, who put the money down for expensive political campaigns. Bush, Sarkozy and Berlusconi are virtually the norm which people like Brown and Zuma ape; the Leader as CEO.

These are the leaders of depoliticised political systems, where a small number of parties, all with the same policies, flap each other with comic bladders every five years to the melodious sound of mendacious editorials, and this is called a democratic process. Actual political debate does not just take place elsewhere, in smoke-filled rooms — it seems not to take place at all. It has been replaced by spin-doctoring which is the equivalent of the perception management carried out by delinquent corporations.

Politicians are not altogether at fault in this. In the past, their authority has been so thoroughly undermined by past politicians short-sightedly adopting neoliberal practices and policies, that today politicians can almost honestly claim that they do not have the power to make meaningful changes on socio-economic issues. They can declare war on countries and slaughter millions of foreigners, of course, but that does not enable them to take action against their overmighty subjects, the barons of big business. (Interestingly, one of the weakest of such leaders, Vladimir Putin, turned out to be perfectly capable of taking such action in spite of the supine neoliberalism of his predecessor Yeltsin — but Putin is denounced everywhere as a result of this.)

In addition, the problems of the world are international problems. Politicians are national leaders. The United States borrows money to buy things from China and in consequence is in terrible economic danger, but all that US politicians can see is the need to borrow more money; China, meanwhile, is in horrible ecological danger, but all that Chinese politicians can see is the need to sell more stuff. Hence both sides respond to the results of the crisis by making it worse, because neither is capable of responding to the problem of the entire system.

In the name of nationalism, national leaders have prevented the United Nations or any other international agency from having the capacity to resolve problems of this kind. In the name of transnational capitalism they have provided international financial and trade agencies with the capacity to exaggerate these problems, but not to resolve them. Having done this, the political leaders wash their hands. “What can we do, when the IMF, World Bank and WTO are so powerful? Boo hoo!”. Nowadays this has become such dogma that many people probably even believe it.

The present political system can’t solve the economic crisis, the present economic system can’t solve the resource crisis, the present resource system is provoking the ecological crisis. To change all this will require changing everything, in society, in economy, in politics, in the way we respond to each others’ problems. It seems an impossible task. Unfortunately, the alternative seems to be apocalypse. The most tempting response is to fall into depression and say that nothing can be done.

Which is exactly what the finance capitalists want us to do.