Of Human Bondage.

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.

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One Response to Of Human Bondage.

  1. Patrick Bond says:

    Dearest Shrieker,

    Some of your idiocy is self-evident:

    > 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.

    McKinley is a Johannesburg activist, based there since 1990, who was born and raised in Gweru, Zimbabwe. Do I detect a bit of jealously, Mr Shrieker, that the day you filed this post, a group McKinley leads – the Coalition Against Water Privatisation – won a huge constitutional lawsuit against Johannesburg on behalf of poor people in SA? http://www.capetimes.co.za/index.php?fArticleId=4381546

    > kiss Gordon Brown’s fanny, as Jacob Zuma has been doing to the cheers
    > and applause of South Africa’s radical press.

    What? Are you referring to Amandla? debate-list? Khanya journal? Keep Left newspaper? I read the radical press in SA and haven’t seen anything like applause for Zuma’s subimperialist antics. It seems as accurate a claim as the notions you alleged – and have not backed up – in your last post about me, regarding post-apartheid socio-economic statistics. Accuracy in your smears would allow your readers to return to this site with confidence they are not being snookered, Mr S.

    > Bond says that he does not know where to begin to express his distaste
    > for the Creator’s errors.

    Yeah, that last post about Pilger contained pure errors about me (and no doubt others), and it is revealing you have not tried to back them up.

    > Commanding Heights and Community
    > Control.
    > The book — pamphlet, really — was written in obvious haste

    True, in April-May 1990, for a commission of R2500 paid by Ravan Press.

    > without bibliography or references

    True, just as the publisher insisted, so as to make it comparable to the Clem
    Sunter versions.

    > 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

    in 92 pages I was not given that room; a fuller analysis of SA’s uneven
    accumulation patterns is in the last chapter of Against Global Apartheid

    > One begins to see one reason why Economic History has vanished from
    > the South African university curriculum.

    It certainly thrives at Univ of KwaZulu-Natal.

    > 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.

    I’ve never seen such a mishmash of Marx’s ideas. Stupendous foolishness, that last ‘graf.

    > (Some American Marxists seem to agree with the Creator on this one.)

    Yeah? Who?

    > It’s a story, anyway, one which sidelines the whole anti-apartheid
    > struggle in favour of the scratching pens of economic historians.

    You always need structure *and* agency to tell a story correctly. No one
    can accuse me of ignoring agency in my work, especially in detailing
    those ups and downs of community organising against apartheid, which I
    did with Mzwanele Mayekiso, as well as in Elite Transition.

    > 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).

    When nearly 20% of manufacturing gets relocated to the bantustan
    deconcentration points, yes, there’s an economic input.

    > 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.

    That part of the story I’ve emphasised as much as anyone else, save
    perhaps Ben Fine. See Against Global Apartheid (Zed Books and UCT Press 2003), last two chapters. I’m happy to send them along if desired; write me at pbond@mail.ngo.za

    > The big money was to be made in finance, and that, increasingly, was
    > where the capital went.

    I’ve made that point central to my argument the whole time.

    > he admits that the far left, such as WOSA, were a dead letter, a
    > realistic approach which he has since abandoned.

    If by that you mean joining a small left vanguard party, you’re wrong, I have not.

    If you mean allying with the new mass social movements which have shaken up areas like AIDS treatment, water (witness Joburg Water’s defeat), electricity, land, housing and international relations, then you’re right. Which of these civil society campaigns would you oppose, comrade S?

    > It is not clear where capital could come from in the besieged economy
    > which he foresees.

    Nonsense, capital would come from internal sources, prevented from fleeing by strong exchange controls. In any case, 1990s foreign capital was purely destructive (whether short-term portfolio in/outflows, or FDI like Telkom’s Texas/Malaysia investors). Try Argentina in 2002-05 as an example of a debt default that worked out absolutely fine for all but the creditors, if you want; it had no problem with generating internal capital that was kept inside the country, prevented from fleeing.

    > 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.

    Objection? This was the trajectory of Swedish unions (the Meidner Plan) before they were derailed by a shift of class power in the 1980s.

    > Meanwhile, he suggests, the Growth through Redistribution strategy
    > could be pursued without importing anything at all.

    You’ll have to remind me of the wording; I’m sure I never said that. As Samir Amin put it, the “delinking” strategy does entail autarcky, it is instead about reorientation of priority investments and consumption to that which will improve the domestic economy.

    > In effect he is suggesting that South Africa decouple economically
    > from the rest of the world.

    “Delink” in Samir Amin’s conception (Zed Books 1990); or “deglobalise” in Walden Bello’s (Zed Books 2005). It’s worth your looking at their books.

    > The decentralised “community control” which Bond offers to counterpose
    > capital is easily co-opted

    Depends upon institutions and leadership. The community control of Khutsong, for example, that has been motivated by the border dispute, can certainly not be said to be cooptable.

    > Destroying South Africa’s international access to credit and its
    > internal banking system

    That’s *not* what happened in Argentina from 2002-05; during a period the government took the sort of advice I approve of.

    > Bond’s proposed policies resemble those pursued by the USSR in the
    > First Five-Year Plan.

    Absurd. As is the rest of this attempt to hypothesise the political trajectory of a left turn.

    I’ve not read such a bizarre posting in many years, congrats!

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