Of Plunder, Rapine and Murder.

May 22, 2008

Over the past two weeks there has been a series of violent mass attacks on people allegedly foreigners — “amakwerekwere”, black sojourners in our glorious nation. It has happened mostly in the area of Johannesburg and its southern regions. It has been characterised by robbery, arson, violent beatings and murder. Nobody seems able to anticipate or prevent it — or perhaps, more worryingly, the people in power could do this, but choose not to. (However, our safety and security services are generally so inept that this is not a likely assumption; even if they passionately wish something, it rarely seems to happen.) It is not particularly new — there was a spate of similar brutality in Port Elizabeth last year, and before that in the Cape Town area.

The chief difference seems to be (apart from the fact that it has gone on for longer and has been on a slightly larger scale) that since this is happening in Johannesburg, it is receiving some media coverage. This raises a second question: how effective or meaningful is the response of “civil society”? But first things first. What is going on?

South Africa has been flooded with black foreigners to an extent unheard-of under apartheid. Some of them are legal residents — particularly wealthier ones. Some of them (a few) are undeniably refugees in the sense of fleeing from unbearable persecution or intolerable conditions at home. Some Somalians probably fall into this category — although South Africa was well-populated with Somalians long before the Global War on Terror turned their country into Dachau with a national anthem. However, most of these foreigners are illegal immigrants, in the sense that they have not passed through any of the complex legal formalities for being here, and they don’t have the kind of record which attracts the attention of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Rather, they are here because they thought that life would be better for them here, than at home.

We are talking about a lot of people. Some think they may have increased the population by a twentieth in the last decade. Compared with immigration into North America or Europe, South African immigration is a tsunami. However, South African civil society has not launched any of the propaganda campaigns against immigrants which has led to disgraceful official behaviour in those countries. South African behaviour has been pretty disgraceful on occasions — one thinks of the horrible private prison run by Winnie Mandela when she was Deputy Minister for Home Affairs — but at least it is not consistently disgraceful, and the disgraceful behaviour is not backed by official policy.

On the other hand, the acceptance of foreigners into the country is partly promoted by the fact that it would be difficult to keep them out. It is a default position rather than an active choice. Probably Thabo Mbeki is aware that it is a position consistent with the principles of the African Renaissance, but even if it wasn’t, the government would probably still be doing it. Our borders are long, and these people are energetic. If even the Americans can’t keep the Mexicans out, how can we keep the Mozambicans or Zimbabweans out? But as a result, support for the immigrants is limited to occasional pious platitudes against xenophobia and mystical appeals to imaginary concepts such as ubuntu and the Rainbow Nation.

Now that they are here, however, the foreigners are entitled to the rights of citizens. Short of voting, they can do almost anything anyone born here can. If they are HIV+ they can apply for health-care. If they are homeless they can seek houses. Most importantly, if they are jobless they can seek jobs — it is a little more difficult at official levels, where the question “Where’s your work-permit, then?” arises and where Home Affairs can get sticky about granting such permits. There is a kind of affirmative action benefiting locals which is perfectly understandable, although it is also annoying both to qualified foreigners and to their potential employers who find themselves obliged to hire a less qualified local.

But the local, on the other hand, is understandably annoyed at having to compete with foreigners. Zimbabweans, for instance, are on average much better-educated than South Africans, since they haven’t gone through the horrible mess that is our educational system today. They are also docile, diligent, and can be fired at the drop of a hat, since they aren’t citizens and the Labour Relations Act does not apply to them. Hence employers love hiring foreigners. Hence there’s a sense that foreigners are blacklegs — scabs. Where do these words come from? “Blackleg” comes from the fact that people who sucked up to management and didn’t go on strike when the union called would find themselves getting kicked in the shins by passing union members until their whole legs were swollen and black with bruises. “Scabs” is probably similar, plus what do you do with a scab, if not tear it off and throw it away?

Just to add to the issue, foreigners are prominent in trade. They often own trading stores in townships where wealthier, less desperate people won’t go, but also where poor blacks choose not to take the risk. Foreigners often set up mutual support networks to operate in this foreign land, whereas South Africans, being home, usually operate on an “everyone for themselves” perspective. Like the Jews and the Indians in the nineteenth and twentieth century, these foreigners — Somalians, Congolese, Chinese, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Zimbabweans — see a commercial niche and occupy it and use that to help out their friends and families. Sometimes the niche isn’t a tremendously nice one; some Nigerians do seem to have been active in the cocaine trade, and some Eastern Europeans in importing not necessarily willing whores. (On the other hand, the Eastern Europeans aren’t victims of pogroms on their estates in Constantia and Sandton.)

All this adds up to jealousy and fuels the suspicion that these foreigners, who don’t even speak our language and look funny, are exploiting our generosity and robbing us. This is the same kind of thing which gets said in North America and Western Europe, but in those countries, they can trust the government to clamp down on foreigners, or at least to pretend to, and to ostentatiously ill-treat foreigners and discriminate against them. In South Africa the government pretends (truthfully or not) to be on the foreigners’ side. It’s maybe not surprising that there’s an inclination to get those damned foreigners out of here, so that we can have their houses, cars and cellphone shops. (However, in the pogroms which have taken place, someone usually sets fire to such things, so nobody gets very much except consumer goods and, maybe, the opportunity to rape and/or murder someone.)

That’s explicable, and probably the explanation. One other factor might be mentioned. We have a quite paternalistic government and civil society. Everybody is always telling us what to do. Seldom do we get told why we ought to do it, or what’s in it for us. We just have to switch off our lights when ESCOM screws up (or are they just screwing us?) and always be faithful to our girlfriends and always be nice to strangers and show respect and batho pele and — boge moi! Understandable in the face of this hectoring is a reactive “Fuck you!” mood, an attitude that says “Whatever you say, I’m doing the opposite, just to show that I can and that you can’t stop me.” It’s a three-year-old’s approach, but it seems to be tremendously common. So if we are told to be nice to foreigners, no wonder that some otherwise decent people join in when thugs attack them.

Of course this approach is anti-community, but then again, there are powerful forces in our society which want to destroy the concept of community, believing that it is not profitable.

Plus, another point. In South Africa you might help others when they ask for it. You might help them when they are in trouble from natural causes. You definitely don’t help anyone when they are under attack from a person or from people. This has been dinned into everybody. So it is hardly surprising that in a time of crisis, when people are under attack, nobody helps. Where it counts, there is no such thing as community in South Africa.

An overstatement. No doubt there are communities where there is community. However, community spirit is at quite a low ebb.

You can blame the government for this — it is, probably, the area where the government is most culpable in terms of xenophobia. If the government had done more to promote communal spirit by providing all in South Africa with a clear objective to aim for and a plain means of getting there, and encouraged everybody to help — well, perhaps there would be less or no xenophobia. Perhaps. However, community spirit is not solely the responsibility of the government. It does not get delivered in trucks, packaged with labels specifying the ingredients, and distributed fairly to clamouring crowds. It comes from below as much as from above, if not more so than from above. So far as the Creator can see, there is a shortage. What’s more, where there is a shortage, it’s hard to deliver the stuff.

Now, how effective has “civil society” (which means, the facade of community which the plutocracy generates through its hirelings) been in dealing with the problem? The Creator hasn’t left much space to discuss this, and this is fair, because there is very little to discuss. The press has, as usual, failed. It has balanced uneasily on two stools — and these are the stools which come out of your anus, not the ones on which you would choose to sit — which are, announcing piously that this is a very very terrible thing to be happening, and denouncing piously that it is all Thabo Mbeki’s fault. In other words, a) it is bad for unspecified reasons, and b) it is the fault of someone else and when we get rid of him the problem is all over.

There are also people saying that the Army should be called out, since the best way of dealing with civil unrest is to send in the troops, as P W Botha did. There are also people saying that we should have kept these foreigners out and then the problem would not arise. (These people, who in other countries would be called fascists, are in our country called liberals, sometimes crusading liberals.) Oh, and people saying that this proves that we are a Very Bad Country Who Should Be Punished. These people are probably planning to emigrate shortly.

COSATU, the SACP and the TAC called for marches, which were supposed to be against food prices but then they tacked anti-xenophobia onto it. Nearly nobody showed for these marches. The reason is not clear, but it doesn’t look good. (Even if you want to have the foreigners sent home, you should want a cheaper bag of mealie-meal. Possibly, at rock-bottom, nobody really trusts COSATU or the SACP to provide them with anything in reality, which suggests good judgement.)

The ANC has called on the people to trust the ANC. That may have seemed a bit unsatisfactory, given the ANC’s total failure to prevent the attacks in the first place. So the ANC’s Secretary-General announced that on this one, the ANC would be in alliance with the Inkatha Freedom Party, the reactionary Zulu nationalist organisation, some of whose members may have carried out some of the attacks, but which is also very pleased with Jacob Zuma because he is a Zulu. Zuma himself was indignant because some of the attacks were allegedly carried out by people singing his campaign song, Umshini’ Wam (Bring me my machine-gun), so he felt he had to point out that this was absolutely not his fault. No doubt this is how he plans to govern. The government, meanwhile, called for more police (though mercifully Deputy Minister Shabangu was prevented from calling for wholesale massacre) and plans to set up a commission to investigate. Whew– so that’s all right then. Other organisations have called for more action in support of whatever they are paid to support, such as privatisation of public services and public-private partnerships (the public pays, the private interests profit) in, er, whatever seems right. Oh, and Archbishop Tutu says xenophobia is wrong. Wow, thanks Arch, we’d never have known otherwise.

So if the attacks have done nothing else, they have at least confirmed the Creator’s contention that we don’t actually have a civil society — just a bunch of hired fuckwits with megaphones. They go nicely along with the fuckwits with knives guns boots clubs and petrol-bombs. But it’s a hard way to learn a bad lesson.

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On-line, on-message, out of touch.

May 22, 2008

The Creator was re-alphabetising the CD collection which the Creator and partner have assembled down the years. (Yes, the Creator is obsessive-compulsive. “You de-alphabetised my CD collection? I’m afraid this relationship is over!”) It then occurred to the Creator that this collection is . . . pretty old. Rather retro. Not an awful lot of recent stuff. The Creator is out of touch.

If the Creator mingled more with the minds of contemporary humans there would be more of an opportunity to discover whether there are CDs out there which the Creator would like to listen to. Therefore the problem is surely isolation. Lack of contact. Such problems can best be solved in our modern world through the breathtaking technologies made possible by applied quantum physics. Communication is at the heart of becoming a whole human being (and, from becoming fully human, it is a short step to improving one’s CD collection).

The Internet. Once upon a time the Creator knew a man who owned a computer sales and repair establishment. This man was in many ways impressive, intelligent, attractive and wise. This man was affluent, at least as far as his own personal needs went — and also an extremely handy person, so that he was gradually able to turn the breeze-block hovel in which he was living into an opulent and beautiful residence, convenient for every occasion and astonishingly beautiful. The man had taste. He had respect. He had a wondrous lover. He was politically wise (an anarchist, to be precise, which sat a little better with his corporate identity than Marxian socialism would have done).

And, he once told the Creator that the Internet was the greatest human invention since fire.

This admirable man made a few mistakes (he invested largely in the stock market, against his principles, focusing on Mzi Khumalo’s pyramid-scheme which collapsed in the 1997 crash so that this admirable man lost a bundle). Having compromised his principles, however, he could hardly stop; he began giving away his glorious library of left-wing literature. Eventually, he and the gorgeous lover emigrated to more sympathetic shores. No doubt he still believed in the Internet, but he was not exactly a walking advertisement for it.

To what extent is the Internet really a solution for meeting human beings?

Perhaps the best way of responding to that, or at least one sensible way, is to ask what the political impact of the Internet is. Consider, particularly, the Internet as a political tool. It’s possible to get information out very easily via the Internet. You can put a document on it, together with substantiating evidence, photographs, film, animated diagrams, everything, and people can read it from anywhere in the country or even the world. Hence getting important information out, vital for developing or explaining policy, is perfectly easy. Much easier than it was twenty years ago.

There are two problems, however.

One is that the reader does not know that the information is true. To find out, the reader often has to go back to the source of the information. Sometimes that source is not provided in the original and it is necessary to search. Sometimes that source is not even on the Net. But this seems like a lot of work, and on the Net one is accustomed to instant information. Usually there is a simple summary; usually, in practice, one comes across the information in potted, pulped form on a partisan website, embedded in someone else’s thought-structure which coincides with one’s own. (We do not go on the Web to be challenged; who wants to have the foundations of one’s being under attack from one’s own desk?)

So it is tempting to just believe, and once you start believing, go on, and if a pyramid of argument is built atop that bit of data as a foundation, to accept every part of that argument up to the very pinnacle.

Often, of course, the person in charge of the website does not know that the information is true either. Most politically-minded people sort information according to whether it supports their world-view or not, defining what supports them as good, and what opposes them as bad. Hence if information is convenient it gets promoted. If it is false, who cares, so long as it endorses the larger truth which the website was set up for?

As a result, the Internet is a magnificent device for disseminating misinformation and disinformation. It is disseminated passionately and with verve, often with great talent. It is also disseminated without the disseminator realising that it is misinformation or disinformation. It goes out across the globe, link upon link, and sometimes the misinformation may pop up on politically opposed websites where the misinformation happens to correspond with a tiny section of the operator’s wishes. If somebody misquotes a prominent leftist, that will pop up on a lot of right-wing sites, but also on some left-wing sites where the site operator dislikes that leftist because s/he is too leftie, or not leftie enough, or not the right kind of leftie, or indecently popular.

(Does all this mean that you should not trust the Creator’s word? No, for the Creator is an immortal Deity whose every gnomic utterance must be treasured. However, were the Creator a mere human being, that would be an entirely different case and you should not have too much Faith. Incidentally, if that sad fraud Jehovah really existed, He would probably have a rather dull CD collection, too.)

The other problem is much simpler. Who’s got Internet-connected computers and the energy to use them? The answer is the middle class, and especially the upper middle class. Working-class people do not have desks or offices or cubicles from which they can access the Net so long as they don’t download anything naughty, or at least large (in megabit terms) and naughty. Hence working-class people don’t have as much experience of fooling around with computers as middle-class people do. When they go home, they are tired and want to go to bed. They don’t have energy to fool around on the Net. Besides, most of them are spending their money on other things than computers and broadband connections.

In South Africa, the problem is even clearer. A huge number of people do not have access to electricity. Those who do are often limited and rationed. A huge number of people are paid so little that access to a computer is absolutely inconceivable. These are people who don’t have fridges; they aren’t going to get computers. They haven’t seen a computer up close in their lives. All these factors suggest that although South Africa is one of the most net-connected countries in Africa, this is a little like being the happiest Jew in Auschwitz.

But there are a lot of Internet connections, and they are mostly middle-class people. With middle-class attitudes, and most of those attitudes are those of the white South African community who even today make up the bulk of the middle class and have established the middle-class structures for other race groups to fit into. Therefore anyone making a political statement on the South African Internet is making it to middle-class people, who are mostly fairly conservative folk and who are — surprise, surprise! — mostly out of touch with working-class attitudes, except where those attitudes happen to coincide with their own middle-class interests.

So getting in touch on the Internet means getting in touch with people who are out of touch? Apparently so. What also seems true is that, albeit to a less extreme extent, this is also the case in other more affluent countries. Internet debates often seem clogged with either conservatism, or at least with a narrow and not always brilliantly-informed outlook. This is a product of a debate happening in a fairly narrow class constituency. It’s pretty apparent, when checking out comments on various sites, such as the Guardian’s commentisfree or on Lenin’s Tomb, that the participants are not people who repair cars, mine for minerals or clean offices. They’re the people who drive the cars, use up the minerals and sit in the offices. The fact that some of them hold opinions which challenge their own class positions may be praiseworthy, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that they are often sadly out of touch (directly) with the objective reality lived by most of their fellow-citizens, and also that they don’t know it.

This raises a problem about the “netroots” phenomenon. American political parties raise a lot of their funding via the Internet. Who are they appealing to? Presumably, a comparatively elitist crowd of people, many of them not tremendously well-informed about what’s going on, but extremely well-informed about what their parties want them to believe. There is a vast number of websites devoted to promoting the positions of those parties and inviting people to cough up over the Internet with their credit-cards. In effect, though, this is ensuring that the parties are more concerned with the opinions of middle-class techno-literate people than with the opinions of the majority.

Maybe this is an exaggeration. Maybe illegal Mexican workers stagger home from the car-wash or the fast-food kitchen and get straight on the Net on their computers to give money to Barack Obama. It would be nice to think so. But most probably, it is not so. Most probably the focus on the Net simply encourages the controllers of the sites to forget all about those workers who once formed the backbone of both parties. Instead of acting as a countervailing force to the money-power of corporations, the netroots seem, to the Creator at least, to be a way of obtaining money from the same kind of people through different channels, and to be a way of pretending that you have a mass mandate from the People when in fact you only have the endorsement of a chunk of an affluent class.

So there are objective reasons for doubting that the Internet is in any real way an alternative to pavement-pounding popular politics.

In fact the Internet may be a distraction from this. A website is a nice safe place. There it is on the screen, a nice safe thing in your cubicle or office or study or whatever. It is the mirror reflecting what you wish to believe, much more so than a political party which may contain people who disagree with you or attitudes which you would like to see changed. As such, statements on the Web assume tremendous importance because they get bound up with the psychological health of the person looking at the screen.

So it becomes tremendously important to challenge anything perceptibly wrong on the Web. Post a comment which the operator of the website doesn’t like and run into trouble. On the other hand, some people post comments specifically to cause trouble — to “derail a thread” and thus ensure that a discussion which the person doesn’t like, gets distracted into something more appealing, or stops altogether. People get paranoid about such commentators. People get heated and start swearing and accusing people of being Nazis or Communists or whatever. (There’s a theory that the longer a thread lasts, the more likely it is that someone will get compared with Hitler.) All this shows that people are investing their energy on a screen excited by projected electrons, and this takes their energy away from the real business of changing reality, instead of changing the image in front of you. Mark Slouka’s War of the Worlds talks quite extensively about the problem of confusing reality and virtual reality and ending up incapable in both.

Which has been a long way of saying that maybe the Creator shouldn’t feel too bad about not updating this website as often as possible.


Rolling Back the Right Wing. (III) Rantin’ ‘Bout A Revolution.

May 22, 2008

One of the problems with small leftist political organisations is that they see themselves as Leninist;
most of them don’t admit it, but their structure and forward planning revolves around the possibility of
revolution. Go on the Internet, or talk to lefties when they are slightly unguarded or drunk, and similar
issues come up. “When the Revolution comes they’ll be up against the wall.” “After the Revolution
things will be different.” “The Revolution will not be televised.”
Yes, it would be, if it were going to happen.
A revolution is not the same as a civil war with a revolutionary objective, which is quite important.
If you have circumstances where the people are extremely unhappy with the government for clear and
justifiable reasons, AND there is no prospect of changing the government by more peaceful means,
AND the armed forces have lost their faith in, and support for, the government — bingo. You can then
organise a swift seizure of power by your radical forces and, having done so, start implementing your
agenda (assuming that it’s an agenda that the people approve of — otherwise you have problems).
Much more common, point (3) does not apply. The armed forces support the government and want
to defend it — to defend their salaries or their uniforms or just their doglike love of the bosses in power.
In that case you have to get the armed forces out of the way, which means building up a force of
equivalent power (if more dispersed in space and time). But in order to do that you have to militarize
your revolutionary movement and you can forget about democracy as part of the post-revolutionary
agenda. Also, of course, there’s an excellent chance you will lose. Besides, a civil war is exceedingly
bloody. South Africa’s proto-civil war cost tens of thousands of lives even though it was mercifully
called off in 1994, before it had really got going (though tell that to the inhabitants of Katlehong or
Sweetwater).
A revolutionary civil war is the last thing you want; the last, fatal option if you cannot bring change
by any other means.
When points (1) or (2) do not apply, but point (3) does, the chances are that you will have a military
coup, because a disgruntled military is usually the most powerful force for change in a country. In rare
cases, military coups can be progressive acts. Much more often they are reactionary, and if they don’t
start out reactionary they head that way fast, when Brigadier This of the Third Armoured tells Major
That of the First Parachute that he’s done his duty and now the Brigadier will take over.
When none of the points truly apply, you have a big fat waste of time. Examples of this are the
African Resistance Movement in South Africa, the RAF in Germany, Brigate Rossi in Italy, Angry
Brigade in Britain. Note the militaristic names of these European groupuscules, like the Red Army in
Japan. Even the Weather Underground in America was probably plugging into those TV movies about
the French Resistance in World War II. Note also that a brigade is about 3 000 people, whereas few of
these bodies would have been able to muster enough backing to make up the 200-person complement of
a short company.) Usually these movements strove to provoke repression from the government, in
which they often succeeded brilliantly, and through this repression to mobilise the masses, in which they
totally failed.
In recent years, the best example of a successful revolution where all three points applied is — um.
The Creator can’t really think of one. Perhaps the Iranian revolution comes close, and perhaps there you
have also an example of the problem even with a successful revolution. Is it really likely that those
people marching in the streets of Tehran and getting bowled over like human ninepins by the rifle fire
of the Royal Army — is it really likely that they thought they were dying for the right to have a
totalitarian religious dictatorship staffed by fuckwits who thought that provoking a proxy war with the
whole Arab world was a hell of a good idea? In a revolution you don’t get to choose your leaders. It’s
the purest lottery whether they’re any good or not.
The big illusion of revolutionary activity in the twentieth century was twofold. As it happened, there
had been a successful revolution against the middle class, in Russia. This caused the middle class to
become much more paranoid about working-class-led revolutions than ever before. Because the middle
class was scared of revolution, those who didn’t think that the middle class was up to much decided that
there had to be something to this revolution lark. Besides, a revolution had put Lenin and Trotsky and
Bukharin and Zinoviev and that other guy with the unpronounceable Georgian name in a fabulous
saddle where every leftie would love to sit. So Saul Bellow, who is no friend of the left but had no
particular reason to lie about matters in the late 1940s, talks about pre-war leftists looking for maps of
the Manhattan sewer system, in the hope that it could be useful when the Revolution came.
Which it never did.
The other illusion was caused by the collapse of colonialism. In practice, colonialism collapsed
because the United States wished to control the territories occupied by France and Britain and therefore
put pressure on them to get out; the United States had ideas for ways of controlling those territories
without being ostentatiously present itself. In a number of cases France and Britain and, at first, Holland
and, eventually, Portugal did their best to hang on to the colonies and murdered countless people.
Where they did this, you had a kind of revolutionary civil war. (In all foreign-occupied countries the
chief battle is against the locals who have sold out to the foreigners.) However, because of the foreign
occupation, the long-term goals of the civil war were often confused, reduced to the idea that getting rid
of the white devils who were killing us was a fine and decent thing and anyone willing to help out with
that was a good egg. Very often the end product was to put people in power who were anything but
good guys, as in Algeria when Boumedienne kicked Ben Bella out and added corruption to Ben Bella’s
existing tyranny. (Maybe “tyranny” overstates things, but Ben Bella was nobody’s democrat.)
So people fooled themselves that a wave of revolutionary liberation was spreading across the planet,
led by cool people with sharp-edged cheekbones in dishy berets. In fact the revolutionary nature of
Third World countries was almost invariably an illusion. What these governments, even the ones which
took power following serious struggles, wanted, was to hang on to power and (often) to personally
profit from it. As a result, the 1960s European and American revolutionary fetish of Third World
imagery was, more often than not, based on falsity. It was also a degree of compensation for the
disintegration of the hopes of the 1917 Revolution. Many Westerner lefties adopted what they called
Maoism, usually meaning nothing at all, and thus avoided having to pass through the calvary of
admitting that Stalinism had been a huge blunder and that revolution was not necessarily a good thing.
Today there is no prospect of revolutionary change in most countries. Where revolution, or
revolutionary civil war, is possible or worth contemplating, is mostly in peripheral countries like Nepal.
It’s far from clear how truly revolutionary the civil wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia really are; in
great measure they seem to be intended to restore the situation (or the potential situation) before the
invaders arrived.
But it is simply impossible to imagine a revolution taking place in contemporary South Africa, for
example. None of the conditions apply; the government are not especially unpopular, the armed forces
are loyal to it, and if you really don’t like the government you can vote for something else with a
reasonable prospect of success — if your arguments are solid. As a result an attempted revolution would
misfire. The preparations for it would fail — as we have already seen in the case of the Boeremag. The
Boeremag was a right-wing equivalent of the Brigata Rossi, except that the South African government
had no special reason for preserving it in the way that the right-wing Italian government found the
survival of the Brigata Rossi a convenient excuse for repression and tyranny. Hence the Boeremag was
shut down quite quickly. Note that virtually nobody actually supported the Boeremag. The “Groep van
77” right-wing Afrikaner separatists whose rhetoric was identical with the Boeremag’s and possibly
inspired them, sat on their hands and did nothing to help while their armed comrades were hunted down
and jailed.
Nor is there a revolutionary situation in the townships. Recently John Pilger, in his address receiving
his honorary doctorate at Rhodes, claimed that there had been 5 000 demonstrations in South Africa in
the previous year. Pilger’s South African statistics are usually unreliable, but supposing he is right, his
conclusions are wrong. Demonstrations are legal in South Africa (provided you notify the cops
beforehand you almost invariably get a permit) and the government loves holding demoes to show their
support. The bulk of those demonstrations were probably marches proclaiming the public’s love for the
new shopping-mall. Where they weren’t completely politically innocuous, the commonest kind of
demonstration is the “service delivery” protest, in which you go out on a march calling for the
government to hurry up and tar the roads like they promised last year, and maybe burn the mayor in
effigy because you’re darn sure he’s pocketed the cash earmarked for those roads.
This is not revolutionary, it is reformist, and it takes place within the structures of a social-
democratic government. In fact, most such demonstrations are led by governing-party members. Hand
out AKs to the members of such protests, and most of them would either hand them straight to the cops
for the reward, or write indignant letters to Gun Free South Africa. A small minority would nip off and
rob the local trading store, in the same way that service delivery protests sometimes end in people
ramming their point home by lynching a foreigner. This does not constitute a threat to the state. If it did,
would it represent a desirable change?
What it does indicate is that there may be a groundswell of dissatisfaction with government
performance within governing party structures. However, there’s no sign that anybody is in a position to
take advantage of this on any radical basis. (On the contrary, politicians — unsurprisingly — seem much
more concerned to take advantage of it to further their own careers and feather their own nests.) It might
be possible for left-wing parties to take advantage of this groundswell provided they do so with great
tactical care. It might also be possible for dissidents within the party to increase their lobbying capacity
by building informal — or even formal — structures to make legitimate criticism of party performance.
But that’s boring and does not fit in with most leftist fantasies, especially not ones which involve
spiffy uniforms and brief visits to dungeons to explain to one’s former friends how regrettable it is that
they betrayed the revolution, before they are taken out and shot. Until leftists can get over their
revolutionary hangover, this kind of attitude will remain and will choke planning and sensible
preparation. Unfortunately, these days revolution is not the royal road to power or success. It’s usually a
lot more difficult to arrange than reformism.
When reformism becomes powerful, of course, it becomes a potential threat to the status quo. In that
case, the establishment might seek to repress it. In that case again, the reformist movement would do
well to consider revolutionary activities (in the way that the ANC did not really do until it was much too
late in the 1950s). But that is a story for another day.


Rolling Back the Right Wing. (II) Technique du Coup d’Etat.

May 22, 2008

The Seizure of Power is, obviously, fun. We have to start somewhere, though. Why not Seize Power in a substantial political party, bend it to our will, and compel it to do what we want?

Because it cannot be done.

Political parties are full of political-minded people who think they know what they are doing. Usually they’re wrong, but it is tricky to persuade them so. It can’t be done all at once. Hence, come along and tell them to reverse course and they will tell you where to go, and where to shove it. Very often, many members of a party will actually wait until the party is deader than a doornail before making any changes — changes which often lead to setting up another party just like the first one. (The history of South African politics is littered with such doornails; don’t walk around in it barefoot.)

This kind of seizure of power is termed, by the people against whom it is usually aimed, “entryism”. That is, you go into a party not to serve the party but to serve your own agenda. Well, duh. Everybody goes into a party with their own agenda. Maybe they want to push people around a little, maybe they want to bring liberty to the masses, maybe they want more gold braid on their underwear. Thing about entryism, it’s usually crystal-clear that your agenda is the agenda of another party which you like better than your own party. As a result, unless you can do something to reconcile the two agendas, you are probably not going to get very far.

Consider Dale McKinley as an example of extraordinarily inept entryism. He came to South Africa hating the ANC and with the passionate desire to destroy it because it had betrayed the people. Looking around, he decided the best thing to do was join the SACP and agitate for it to split from the ANC. (Like a proud fighter against British Toryism deciding to join the League of Empire Loyalists.)

He stayed around a while in the SACP, but the trouble was that people had joined the SACP because they supported the ANC’s struggle, so to say that the ANC were the Great Satan who had to be denounced did not play well. Also, the leaders of the Party knew that their best route to high office was to hang on to the ANC’s coat-tails. (In this sense the SACP is also an entryist organisation, though a fairly smart one.) They tolerated McKinley much longer than almost any other party would have — partly because they didn’t always disagree with his analysis even though they hated his tactics — and then booted him out. McKinley failed to move the SACP a single centimetre to the left; on the contrary, the SACP poses a constant temptation for people in McKinley’s camp, like Ebrahim Harvey, to move to the right along with the SACP.

Compare and contrast Tony Ehrenreich of COSATU. Ehrenreich’s politics are very similar to McKinley’s. However, for one thing, COSATU is a less centralised organisation than the SACP and therefore more tolerant of people stepping off the beaten path. For another thing, Ehrenreich embedded his attacks on the ANC in the kind of language and policy which the leadership of COSATU were using — so that he might have been more extreme, but he could always claim, if called on the carpet, that he was saying no more than his President or Secretary-General had said. As a result, Ehrenreich stayed on in COSATU and eventually became Western Cape Regional Secretary. That seems like pretty triumphant entryism.

Yet if entryism is aimed at changing the party you belong to, then Ehrenreich is as much of a dud as McKinley. COSATU is now more right-wing than ever (insofar as it is anything; in the age of Zuma it is also very confused). It is committed to supporting a much more right-wing ANC agenda than the one which Ehrenreich railed against, and as a result Ehrenreich is going to have much less room to denounce the right-wing in the Tripartite Alliance. Ironically, after the victory of what the right called the “left”, Ehrenreich probably runs more risk of being bounced out if he offers the same kind of criticism — which is likely to be more justified than before. Bothersome stuff, for it suggests that if you have no clear agenda and no solid support base, entryism doesn’t really go anywhere — especially not if it leads you to a leadership position in an increasingly conservative organisation.

But if entryism doesn’t really work (and historically it is hard to find an example of it succeeding) then isn’t it better not to have anything to do with big parties? Shouldn’t small parties concentrate on honing their skills and waiting for the exact right moment? No, because their skills are largely useless and the moment never comes. Instead a different kind of engagement with big parties is in order.

Big is a relative term. In South Africa the logical party to engage with is the ANC, which holds 70% of the votes (although it is probably past its peak now). But there are smaller parties, too — although the tendency across the world is towards a few hegemonic parties dominating the political scene. In general, perhaps it might be easier to engage with the Revolutionary Marxist Workers Environmentalist Party, which holds 1,3% of the votes for the Boliguayan Assembly, than with the Socialist People’s Party of Radical Action, which holds 39% and is actually a front-organisation for Octopus Cobalt.

Point is that you have to consider the nature of the party. The Creator is extremely unlikely to be ever nominated for leadership of the Democratic Alliance, but if nominated the Creator would not stand, and not just because it might entail wearing some of Helen Zille’s hideous scarves and horrid hairstyles. The point is that the majority of members of the Democratic Alliance are opposed to more or less everything the Creator supports. Hence, lining up with the DA is bad news. More importantly, even quietly doing deals with them is bad news, because they will only help you if they think that in the long run, helping you will hurt you more. (Thus the DA coalition in Cape Town was bad news for those smaller parties who weren’t completely right-wing and who thought they’d get an opportunistic lift out of it.) If there are leftists in the DA, they must be extremely disturbed, or why else would they be there?

But in every party which pretends to be left-wing (even the DA pretends to be liberal) there are a lot of disgruntled members. This is because the leadership of the party is way to the right of the membership and therefore lies a lot about its actual agenda. One of the errors of entryism is the belief that these members want to go off somewhere and be something else. In truth, they are usually loyal to their party — sometimes fanatically so — and it is hard to persuade them otherwise; rather, what they believe is that they are really the party and they want to reconstruct it in their image. However, they don’t know how to do so, and so they sit around in house-meetings, or in pubs after house meetings, mumbling “One day we’ll . . .” like the Nazi Sturmabteilung after the Night of the Long Knives.

As a result, such people are at least potentially willing to listen to more left-wing viewpoints than their own. These are the people who went on the massive anti-Iraq-War marches in 2003. Notice, however, that the left did not gain from these marches. It’s as if the left had no idea what to do with them, just as the left had no real idea of what to do with the anti-globalisation movement which preceded them.

So what is the problem with responses to such people? The key problem is the contempt which most left-wingers feel for any left-winger who is less left-wing than they are. Leftism is a phenomenally “macho” cultural standpoint, and this applies across virtually the whole of the Left. (If you look at the history of Western feminism, a great deal of it amounts to brandishing imaginary phalluses at one another; “I am more radical than you are! Great Mother, lookit me, lookit what I can do!) As a result there is ridiculous competition, and there is equally ridiculous hostility, between people who have very little objectively to quarrel about. (See the “People’s Front of Judea” episode in the movie The Life of Brian for an unbeatable satire of this.)

This approach of contempt and hostility needs to be curbed. The leadership of the big party probably includes a large number of people who are absolutely incorrigible right-wingers and who should not be endorsed at any price. (This is why a formal alliance between a tiny party and a big party invariably means the tiny party gets shafted; a formal alliance has to get the support of the leaders.) However, that’s not the rank and file’s fault and the rank and file shouldn’t be blamed for this. Also, truth to tell, those leaders usually didn’t start out that way. They got seduced or co-opted or otherwise persuaded that their former radicalism was an obstacle to their personal rise in the party, or even to the party’s success at the polls. Boo to them, indeed, but that doesn’t make them intrinsically evil, meaning that people who support them are likely to be wrong-headed rather than demonic.

This crucial difference is often forgotten about. Some leaders can be brought on side some of the time (but never trust them completely). Many members of Britain’s New Labour, for example, were once quite radical. Some of them have faint embers of radicalism glowing where nobody can see. Could they be talked around to the cause of righteousness? Surely not; but at the same time some of them might sometimes privately be willing to talk to people to their left and perhaps provide welcome information and even cold encouragement.

It’s more or less the same with the ANC, although there, because radical babbling is at a premium, the big problem is identifying people who are really left-wing, despite the fact that they espouse right-wing causes which they cover up with left-wing jargon. Leftists who want to sell out will emphasise that they are selling out to people who use left-wing jargon. Leftists who disagree with the sellouts will respond that those people using left-wing jargon are supporting right-wing policies. Meanwhile, few people actually try to see whether the policy rightists, who publicly use leftist jargon with their fellow sellouts, go home and then secretly sing The Internationale in the shower . . .

The point is, therefore, not to denounce either the party or the leaders. That applies to people outside the party who want to win over members, and to people inside the party who want to band together and press for transformation. There is no need to boisterously attack anybody or make up stories about how they murdered Martin Luther King. Instead, simply go back to basics: do you support the redistribution of wealth? Do you support the democratisation of authority? Do you oppose neoliberalism and Western imperialism? Then you are one of us, bra, and by the way, we are also one of you. Can we come as observers to your next branch meeting, making no commitments? Would you like to send an unmandated delegate to our next street committee meeting? Pass word on to Phil Blank, if you see him, that we liked that bit in his last speech about increasing social grants — why the hell didn’t he say something like that during the Budget debate?

And so on. This doesn’t require abandoning your principles, because tactics are not principles and rubbing shoulders does not mean surrendering to the enemy. Disaffected members of large parties and the members of small, marginalised parties or groups do have a lot in common.

The danger is of purges. There are two kinds of purges here; the first being the leaders of the small parties who panic, thinking that this is going to lead to an expansion of their party which could threaten their control. Hence they denounce the bigger party and then provoke conflict, or if there is some sort of agreement between the parties, a split. This was one of the factors (not the only one) which led to the collapse of the fake-left coalition in Italy, and the return of Berlusconi, which almost everyone except the little leftie party agreed was a bad result.

The other, of course, is that the leaders of the big party suddenly recognise that some of their members are growing too close to the other party, and perhaps are getting ideas above their station. So the big party spins rapidly around and kicks the troublemakers out. Very often, this happens because the disgruntled members have been actively drawing attention to themselves and violently, publicly challenging the leadership. (See, for instance, Militant in Labour in the 1980s, or the Marxist Workers’ Tendency in the ANC.) This isn’t to say that it wouldn’t have happened anyway — Labour certainly needed a scapegoat for its dismal performance — but a lot of the time that macho leftist attitude leads people to thump their chests and shout “We are real lefties, unlike the Chair and the President and the Secretary and those arseholes!” and then wonder why the outside door-handle hits them in the bum. The point is that if you are careful (and a little quiet) you can usually steer a course through the party’s constitution and make a purge more difficult.

Of course, if the party is very right-wing indeed and the membership has been docilely persuaded that right is the way to go, even quiet support for the left is cause for a purge. In early-1990s South Africa the (then) Democratic Party purged members just for being married to ANC supporters. If that happens, then you’ve picked the wrong party to try to win over the membership of. But there was no harm in trying.


Your Beloved Government In Action.

May 14, 2008

On December 28 1908, the city of Messina in Sicily (not to be confused with Messina in South Africa, now drastically transformed to Mosina in a truly empowering move for everybody) suffered an earthquake which seems to have been a humdinger. Messina was Sicily’s second city, a venerable pile of the stone buildings of which the Italians were then fond. Unfortunately, there were Berlusconis in those days too, and so most of those buildings were held together with substandard mortar, and so they fell down into picturesque piles of heavy stone blocks intermittently stained with blood and entrails. The earthquake happened at night, so most people felt safe under stone coverings. Most of the population, some 100 000 people, were killed.

Well, the Italian government swept into action as well you may imagine. The first thing they did concerned the man who trudged out of the ruins to find a working telegraph and report that the city had fallen down. They fired him for spreading alarm and despondency. But then unfortunately the Russian Navy Mediterranean Squadron came in to Messina for a spot of fun and fornication, and instead found a big heap of stinking broken stone. So the word got out, and the government could no longer cover up.

Their first act in the crisis was to declare an illegal state of siege enabling the Italian Army to shoot looters, or anyone looking at them funny, on sight. The Italian press, who had no correspondents in Messina and no intention of sending any, supported this with stories about looters murdering survivors to steal their jewelry. (As usual, looters only attack rich people, at least in the press.) Just what the survivors of Messina needed — a bunch of trigger-happy squaddies sauntering about the streets gunning down people trying to clear the ruins. Luckily for the people of Messina there were virtually no soldiers, who had been crushed when their splendid stone barracks fell on them, but this was duly remedied.

Then, of course, came aid. Not. Within mere weeks, the plans for the distribution of aid were drawn up. These insisted that no aid should go to poor people. Such aid might encourage them to stay poor. Perhaps the Italian Government was afraid that other Italian towns might demand their own earthquakes if any destitute survivors of the Messina quake were assisted. Unless you could prove that you had somethin’, you wasn’t gonna get nuttin’.

OK, that’s Liberalism in action. By 1922 — fourteen years after the city was levelled — the rate of housing replacement was under 200 houses a year. But then the gung-ho, can-do Fascists took over. Fifteen years later, Mussolini visited the city and discovered that bugger-all had been done and the inhabitants were mostly living in crappy wooden shacks. Well, he issued orders to himself to do something about it, but then he forgot. Eight years after that he was hanging upside down from a garage roof, one of the very rare occasions when a politician gets exactly what he deserves.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, the US Army had been nervous about invading Sicily for fear that the Italians might shoot back, so cut a deal with Lucky Luciano, boss of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, to get the gangsters on their side. In return for this the Yanks handed Sicilian administration over to these fine allies. Unsurprisingly, by 1958, on the fiftieth anniversary of the earthquake, 10 000 inhabitants of Messina were still living in those same wooden shacks. (Most of the above is lifted from R J B Bosworth’s Mussolini’s Italy, although readers must not doubt the Creator’s omniscience.)

Governments often do very little for their people. However, in case of a major natural disaster, it’s usually sensible for governments to do at least something even if not enough. The trouble is, like the Italian Liberals, governments fear that doing something will encourage the people to ask for even more. So sometimes it seems better to do bugger-all than to do anything, especially if those people are not going to vote for you anyway — and especially not if they’re dead.

Recently they had a little cyclone out in the Indian Ocean. But it didn’t stay in the ocean, the darn thing whooshed up northwards and hit the Burmese coast. The winds blew down the buildings, the low-pressure pocket raised the ocean so it surged up and flooded the river delta, the rain soaked down the people trapped in the open. Tens of thousands of people drowned immediately. They were the poor, living in flimsy accommodation on low-lying unfashionable land, the kind of people who used to get drowned every year in Alexandra when the Jukskei overflowed. (Then the bad, bad government moved people off the Jukskei river floodplain, a crime worse than any committed by apartheid if you believe the newspapers.)

OK, the Burmese government are not angels. They’re called the State Law and Order Restoration Council, which is every bit as bad as it sounds and maybe a trifle worse. They’re basically the same military junta who’ve been in power since General Ne Win seized control in the 1940s. They’re into detention without trial, forced labour and persecuting minorities. Oh, and they’re in cahoots with multinational oil, logging and hospitality companies. So that makes everything all right.

Anyway, it would not surprise the Creator if the Burmese government has not been busting its arse to help the suffering victims of the cyclone. However, the West, which forever claims to be Father Christmas, has not exactly been breaking records either. One remembers that when the tsunami hit Indonesia in 2005, the pictures were in all the papers. Admittedly, most of the pictures were of “miraculously-saved” Western tourists wearing bikinis, but at least hanging below the pictures were stories about how Indonesia needed help. Indonesia was even given a bit of help, although not nearly as much as people promised.

Burma, however, is not the Right Kind Of Country. Because they’re a nasty dictatorship, the West could be sure that few people were going to march for Burma Aid. (Anyway, nobody can decide whether to call the place Burma or Myanmar.) So there was no pressure. So the first thing the West did was to explain that they couldn’t give Burma any aid because the Burmese were too oppressive to allow it in. Then a few planes landed at Rangoon (or is it Yangon?) airport and offloaded supplies. Strange to say, no Burmese police arrived to beat up the pilots, offloaders or whatever.

There does seem to have been a problem because the Burmese government suspect the intentions of those Western non-governmental organisations which work closely with Western governments and secret services to bring about “regime change”. How very nasty of the Burmese. Why not open your heart to people who may be spooks or friends of spooks? Why not, indeed. But, basically, the Burmese suspicion, itself well-justified, was used as a pretext for doing incredibly little. (Oddly enough the Chinese government sent oodles of aid and had no difficulty getting it in. Maybe this is because, again oddly, the Chinese don’t devote much energy to using human misery as an excuse for political gain.)

Oh — the West did come up with a few more good ideas. The Burmese were having a constitutional referendum at the time. The West suggested that the referendum be stopped before they sent aid. Way to go, Westerners, to persuade the Burmese that you aren’t interested in meddling in their internal affairs. Later, the UN suggested that before any loads of aid were sent the Burmese should establish “air and land corridors” through their territory. It isn’t clear if the UN was proposing that these “corridors” should be patrolled by NATO troops or declared “no-fly zones”, but in any case this is the language of military imperialism which we can remember from the Iraq debacle.

So the West’s performance in Burma, whatever the Burmese have been doing (and like the inhabitants of Messina, the Burmese are not considered interesting enough to feature in media reports) has been really, really shitty.

And so downhill to history repeating itself, the Szechuan earthquake. Like Messina, the earth shakes, the houses fall down, people are squashed. Szechuan is nice and hilly and damp, so the earth shakes and the mud slides down and buries the villages. Back where we started, with deaths up there approaching 100 000. Except that instead of waking up, shouting “Fuck off!” at the complainant and turning over and going back to sleep, as the Italian government did in 1908, the Chinese government in 2008 mobilises every medical and rescue team it can find, together with the People’s Liberation Army, and sends them flying, driving or just marching off to Szechuan under orders to help everybody.

Again, the Chinese government is not especially beloved of the Creator. It’s an oligarchy which has helped turn China into a well-run state with the fastest-growing economy in the world, also known as a totalitarian ecological cesspool. It has sold out many of the principles of the Chinese Communist Party which were so admired by leftists who had never been to China, and which brought us such triumphs as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But, OK, many of those principles, such as egalitarianism (if you weren’t Mao or one of his oligarchy, in which case you got a truckload of watermelons and all the bimboes you could fondle) are worth preserving. In fact, this is probably why the West constantly tells us (especially us in Africa) that the Chinese are evil thieving little yellow bastards governed by a bunch of murdering scum. (Who are, however, good for business.)

One thing, though, about the Chinese government: it believes in its own accomplishments and wants to preserve them. So when things go bad, the government takes action. First because if you don’t take action nothing much will get done and the problem will fester. Second because if you don’t take action people lose faith in you and therefore won’t support you when you need the support. Doing nothing is bad for business, bad for social cohesion, bad for your image. But it is an amazingly easy thing to do, nothing. So we are impressed when the Chinese government does what the Italians didn’t do in 1908, or what the Soviets didn’t do in 1988 when Armenia fell to the ground.

We are particularly impressed, perhaps, because of New Orleans. We remember the hurricane which hit that city. Much like the way the cyclone hit the Burmese coast, it was anticipated. Much like that cyclone, Hurricane Katrina’s victims were predominantly poor people. This was because the US government did not arrange an evacuation of New Orleans although they could have; they chose simply to tell people to get out if they could. Many could not.

Now, the New Orleans city government stuffed up. The Louisiana state government dropped the ball. This is not flabbergasting, because the Southern U.S. local government system is among the poorest, crummiest, most incompetently corrupt ones in the whole country — which is saying something. So calamity struck, the levees broke, the town drowned, the people staggered through the rising waters to safety on high ground under the watching TV cameras. That was the big difference between New Orleans and Messina; nobody could deny what was happening.

But the same lies were made up about looters.

The same line was pursued about giving the place money would only encourage the poor.

The same total absence of aid was pursued. (The excuse was that the military couldn’t help because all their equipment was in Iraq. Supposedly the richest, most powerful country in the world doesn’t have emergency services worth a potfull of piss. Anybody really believe that? The Creator doesn’t.)

The same concern, however, to ensure that rich people made a bundle of money out of the disaster. (Check out Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine for details, although she doesn’t mention Messina.)

What we have here is a simple difference between a government which is concerned that if it doesn’t help its people it will end up in trouble, and a government which doesn’t care about its people and hence has no desire to waste money on them. This isn’t necessarily the difference between socialism and capitalism. Socialist states have often been every bit as callous and unconcerned as the Italians or the Americans (or as the West in its response to Burma, refuting all that garbage about humanitarian intervention in one effortless sweep).

But the neoliberal brand of capitalism leads to vicious, brutal, uncaring and incompetent government, which is what we should all be afraid of, and we have to get rid of it, somehow.


Rolling Back the Right Wing. (I)

May 13, 2008

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” — almost the only bit of Gramsci which anyone remembers.

“Positional warfare” — remembering this bit of Gramsci marks you as a potential activist.

This is a necessary thing if civilisation is to survive, let alone remain comfortable. There are some people who think it would be an improvement if we went back to hunter-gatherer conditions. Perhaps they are right. If they are wrong, however, then we have to check the growth of a reactionary movement which seems unstoppable, and which also seems to grow only more powerful and more right-wing with every passing year.

How can we do this?

There are certain solutions which seem not to work at all well. One is to hope that a party which pretends to be left-wing will save us once we bring it to power. The trouble is that the pretense is very often quite extreme at first, so that such parties claim leftist opinions, and incorporate leftist people, but actually are not led by leftists. Hence there is a big disjuncture between what the party’s membership wants, and what the party’s intellectuals say ought to be done, and what the party actually does.

The most obvious example would be the British Labour Party in the 1940s and the 1960s and 1970s. Another obvious party would be the French Socialist Party in the 1970s and early 1980s. Less crassly obvious, but still, perhaps, an example of this, is the African National Congress in South Africa. Such parties, led by conservatives who employ rhetoric to conceal their actual political positions, but who also are often interested in shifting rightwards, are not likely to bring any kind of millennium. On the contrary, they tend to discredit their most principled supporters as well as themselves.

Another doomed solution is to rely on tiny parties which claim to be principled although their leaders are not. Supposedly, because these parties are tiny they can afford to be principled, although because they are out of power, this theory is not likely to be tested in any way. Of course, the further theory is that by supporting these parties one will gradually grow them into behemoths which will be able to challenge the major parties at the elections. The trouble is that the more these parties grow, the more likely they are to become fissiparous and split. Sometimes they split even without growing. If they successfully grow, they usually betray their principles. Big surprise.

Alternatively, the parties choose not to grow because to grow entails compromising principles. In extreme cases, as with the Anti-Privatisation Forum in South Africa, this generates reluctance to take part in elections at all (historically also true of many Cape Trotskyists, such as the New Unity Movement). Tiny parties which have an extremely narrow membership base and a narrow, restrictive political perspective are problematic. (On the other hand, almost every party was a tiny party once.)

What this means is that simple trust in a powerful party gets us nowhere. Touching faith in a principled party also gets us nowhere. We need a party which is powerful enough to do something, and principled enough for what it does to be remotely socialist. This is not at all utopian. In history, there have been many social democratic parties and even socialist parties which have fulfilled these criteria to a greater or lesser extent. The trouble is only that the right is so powerful, and the forces of corruption and co-option so ubiquitous, and the left so crushed by its long tradition of perennial defeat, that conditions are worse for the left than they have been since large-scale electoral politics began in the early nineteenth century.

The temptation — the practice — is to simply withdraw. You tell yourself that you don’t need to be a member of a party, and soon you are telling yourself that you don’t need to vote. Then you tell yourself that there is no need to feel guilty about this because voting is a sham and all politicians are corrupt. “Don’t vote — the government will get in” sums up this approach, but this approach is often made a lot more attractive by the fact that someone who does not vote because he recognises that none of the existing parties are up to his exacting standards is someone who is effectively saying that he is better than anyone in those parties, and also, better than anyone who foolishly votes.

That way lies complete surrender to the right.

We need to take a liberal, radical or social democratic party, or rather a party which purports to be these things but is not, and press it to move leftwards instead of rightwards. We also need to persuade a large number of people to support a party which is well to the left of the other, more powerful party, so as to have the alternative that if the large but less committedly leftist party wobbles or backslides, there is someone who can take them on from the left and threaten them with serious electoral problems. Without both of these two things (no doubt other factors are also important, but surely these two things are very important) it will be very difficult to succeed.

Of course, sometimes circumstances get so bad that the electorate decides that they need a change. Sometimes the Right ends up behaving so badly, as in Britain in the early 1960s or the mid-1990s, or the United States today, that the electorate wakes up to realise that things are pretty tough and decides to go elsewhere. Alternatively, sometimes the Left gets a charismatic leader who sweeps them to the polls, as happened at, at, at — well, anyway, perhaps it might happen. The point is that you cannot wait for these things, and also, if you wait for these things, you are not changing your party and hence you are waiting for someone you don’t particularly like, to get in. As for the charismatic leader, apart from possibly Tony Benn, it’s hard to think of one who could be trusted. (In South Africa, Chris Hani would probably not have been as left-wing as the spin-doctors who exploit his name pretend.)

So what’s needed are parties which can be relied on to do the right thing. How to manage that? There’s a fine line, obviously, between saying that you have to be principled, and becoming so enamoured of your party’s policies that you fail to notice that the public don’t support them, and consequently you lose the next election. Another huge problem is that if the Left, or what passes for it, takes over a faux-Left party to the extent of imposing a vaguely Leftist agenda on it, that is liable to alienate a big chunk of the party’s organisation.

McGovern, the last liberal to run for President of the USA, would probably have lost anyway, but it didn’t help that his party’s national machinery were working against him. Most of the powerful figures in the British Labour Party were opposed to the party’s expressed policy in 1983 and were therefore glad to ensure that the party lost the election. In both cases, party members engineered calamitous defeat so as to regain control. (Greg Palast has discovered some similar points about the American Democratic Party in the 2004 election, where local Democratic wheeler-dealers often preferred Republicans to win so that unsympathetic politicians could be unseated.)

Perhaps it’s worth considering the different levels of party organisation. At the top you have a substantial handful of leaders (in small parties they can be counted on the fingers of one hand), most of whom got there because they wanted to be there. These are professional politicians, often from a kind of caste from which such politicians emerge, with a great deal in common, therefore, with the professional politicians of the other side. In the case of large parties, such people need to be Superglued to the party’s constitution and manifesto, and permitted to speak only when elected representatives of the party’s National Conference are watching. In practice, these days, such people run the party, rewrite constitution and manifesto whenever they choose, and orchestrate National Conference to ensure that their friends and relations are the representatives.

Below them are the party bureaucrats and elected officials. Again, in theory, such people are supposed to serve the party’s interests; they manage membership, they help flesh out policy in consultation with elected bodies, they organise events and manage things like funding drives and polling campaigns. Therefore they are supposed to be responsible to the party, which in practice should mean, the party’s mass membership if not its broader support base. In practice, however, since the mass membership has allowed the leadership to take charge of the running of the party, party bureaucrats and elected officials tend to be obedient to the will of those leaders. (In some of the more advanced parties, the terrible burden of deciding on who will be the party’s candidate is taken out of the hands of constituency party organisation or conferences, and handled directly by the leadership — except in the United States, where it is handled by neither, but is organised more or less directly by corporations.)

Below them, and actually treated as the lowest of the low, are the party’s volunteer workers. In a tiny party these make up the overwhelming majority. In a large party they are still the majority, but are caught between a sizeable bureaucracy and a large passive membership. (In small parties there are usually few passive members; membership and volunteer work are more or less synonymous. Obviously this cuts down on membership.) No left-wing party can survive long without a mass of volunteer workers. If a party outsources things like envelope-stuffing and phone-calling and membership drives to private companies, which parties often do these days, then it obviously needs a hell of a lot of money.

Membership usually has more time than money to donate, so you can more easily acquire envelope-stuffers than cash with which to hire envelope-stuffers. Hence, a party which pays people to do such things is a party which is getting money from other sources than its membership, which usually means a party in bed with big business. Volunteer workers are also usually ignored except when they are working — so they are tremendously experienced and motivated and the business of the party is to make as little use of that experience, and to discourage that motivation, as much as possible. (This is even the case with small parties, because the leadership of such parties is invariably paranoid about their positions, not being really competent to hold them, and thus terrified that activists will overthrow them.)

Then there’s the membership. In a big party they are supposed to give without receiving. Seldom is anybody interested in asking them why they joined the party, what they expect from it, or what the party can do for them. Sometimes they are allowed to join in a raffle with a large cheap cup with a picture of the Leader emblazoned on it as the prize. Sometimes they are allowed to discuss policy so long as it is absolutely certain that they have no power to change it. They are also allowed to vote, at branch or constituency level, for the policies and representatives that the leaders have chosen. They may sometimes vote against, but if they do, their votes are ignored. It is immensely frustrating to be an active member of a big left-wing party; it is tempting to become a volunteer worker and then fall back into active membership out of embitterment, then fall into passive membership and then leave the party. Bad experiences in parties sometimes lead people to change parties, and sometimes even to move rightwards. Bad experiences, sadly, are standard practice.

Being a member, though, is in some ways better than being a voter. You hold your nose and vote for a party you despise, with a leader you detest, because the alternative seems to be worse. A few weeks later you turn on the TV and discover the detestable leader in earnest consultation with the worse alternative, after which the worse alternative proves to have become party policy. You can’t be arsed to go to Party conference, because they’re a gang of sick shitheads, but you write a cross letter to Party headquarters, which goes straight into the circular file. You go to a party (not a political party) and someone asks you why the hell you vote for such a bunch of obvious hypocritical losers who are only out for number one, and what can you answer? “Because it is there”, is probably the best answer. Alternatively you kick him in the shins and get banned for life by the hostess.

The Creator is starting to become slightly miserable. This was supposed to be an optimistic piece. Instead, even the will is getting pessimistic. However, there will be room to discuss remedies later.


Is This House Falling?

May 12, 2008

We are betrayed by what is false within. (George Meredith, bless his little cotton socks.)

 

So the Creator was sitting next to a tremendously clever chap, intellectual, something of a leftie, long-standing ANC hanger-on, and this chap just back from the UK where he now abides mentioned Boris Johnson.

Boris who? said the Creator innocently, and the Creator’s guts were nearly garters.

Boris Johnson, the new Mayor of London.

It seems that you just neglect the planet in favour of more celestial duties for a week or so, and there goes the neighbourhood. The Creator had no idea that Satan had ensnared the people of the Wen, although when you look at their grey sick onanistic faces in the Tube you can guess they would probably vote Tory if they had a chance. How the hell did nuLabour manage to lose? That means they’re going to lose the next General Election, no doubt about it.

Well, said the clever chap, Boris Johnson is a very brilliant man, an astute politician. He used to edit the Spectator, the most influential and, frankly, the most intelligent political magazine in the United Kingdom.

All right, perhaps this is true. The Creator knows the Spectator as the sick-bucket into which wannabe fascists like R W Johnson (no relative of Boris except in ideology), Mark Steyn and Rian Malan spew their bile-curdled poison. But that, alas, doesn’t mean that it isn’t more intelligent than other political magazines. For they are really, really, really dumb.

And, said the clever chap, you know the Tories are much better than Labour. Labour are so far right they’re practically fascist. No, the Tories are a much better choice than Labour. Not that I vote for them. I vote Liberal Democrat. They aren’t going to get in, of course. Ha, ha.

Well, at least by this small sample we know what British lefties think. No, actually if you look in John Pilger’s Freedom Next Time and glance carefully at the bit on Afghanistan you can get a similar perspective. Pilger went into the Pentagon and spoke to the psychopathic Israeli agent, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, only to discover that Feith had a Pentagon minder to make sure that Feith didn’t (as he always does) run off at the mouth and give away any dangerous truth. This minder broke up the meeting and wanted to know if Pilger was a dangerous radical. Was he now, or had he ever been, a member of the British Labour Party?

No, said Pilger, Labour are the conservative party now.

OK, let’s leave aside the Creator’s dinner companion and the movie-maker from kangaroo-land. Let’s ask what a nuLabour defeat means. France is under the Sarkomic thumb of big business. Italy has been franchised to Berlusconi’s monopoly without a squeak of protest. Germania has her own little corporate angel, the Merkel who is Thatchering the newly-privatised roof of the state. When Britain becomes a Cameron low-land, that means that the only remotely leftie or even historically once-leftie power in Western Europe is Spain, and that’s not exactly a big or stable prospect. In the last three years the Right has swept across Neue Europa like the Nazis, only more destructively.

Of course you can look across the Atlantic and see signs of hope, indeed HOPE, shout it from the rooftops, comrades, we’re free at last, unless that bitch Hillary spoils everything. Don’t believe da hype, dudes. You have a choice between a reactionary business-besotted Republican primed for repression at home and aggression abroad, but who says you should vote for her because she has a vulva, and then you have John McCain, who’s essentially the same but also batshit crazy, and then you have Barack Obama, who is a slightly more conservative and considerably less sexy variant of William Jefferson Clinton. In short, the best that Americans have to hope for, the big left-wing promise of the planet at the moment, is a sharp lurch to the right from the 1990s, which might possibly be a baby step to the left from Dubya’s Greater North American Reich.

The Creator speaks for the overwhelming majority of sane people of the planet in saying, in response to this, “oh, shit”.

What the hell happened?

Both Pilger and the clever munching chap have a point. You look at nuLabour and you instantly feel gorge at the back of your throat. Almost everything they stand for seems to fling down and dance on almost everything that even Harold Wilson held sacred — and until Blair took over it was assumed that Wilson held nothing at all sacred, but now we know that compared with Blair, Wilson was the reincarnation of Keir Hardie. Throw the bastards out!

Er, but then you have to throw somebody in, don’t you? So you look around, and obviously the teeny-tiny leftie parties aren’t going to win (and since you know they’ve never held power you can’t tell how they would respond to getting it — probably they’d sell out, that’s what politicians do, not so?). So you vote for the Tories, because at least they’re a safe pair of hands. And then, Homer Simpson sits back in his armchair munching a Tory-flavoured doughnut, going “Mmmmm — Tories.”

Much the same seems to have happened elsewhere in Western Europe. The Left were tremendously cross with the Social Democrats in Germany because they were, er, too chummy with the Americans and too nice to big business. So instead everybody voted for the Christian Democrats. You know where you stand with the Christian Democrats — they are in the pockets of the Americans and of big business. Mmmm — Christian Democrats. And the Sarcoma came in, in France, because the Socialists were no longer socialist, they were just really a bunch of capitalists who were bound to sell out, weren’t they? Sarkozy’s a corporate CEO, so he represents a real alternative to the socialists. Besides, he’s pledged to revitalising France by cutting wages, lengthening hours and cutting back on social services. Mmmm — neoliberalism. Berlusconi, well, we know about him, don’t we? He isn’t in jail because he passed laws saying retrospectively that his brand of fraud wasn’t a crime. He’s no longer directly aligned with the Fascists, just with the Liga Nord, who aren’t Fascists, they just want to put subhumans in camps and give the Master Race its just rights while keeping all the money for themselves. Mmmm — il Duce ha sempre ragio.

What this means is something more than just a change of party leadership. It’s part of a general political trend; the social-democratic parties turn to milktoast, then turn to the right, and this so pisses off the voters that they stay home, while the right-wing parties turn ultra-right, but since the same people who own them also own the media, voters don’t mind this so much, so when the votes are counted, the ultra-right gets in. And then the right-wing, formerly social-democratic, parties sit down and think, and say “Guess what! The parties to the right of us won the election! Know something — I bet if we moved even further right, we would pick up some votes!”. And so the cycle begins again. It’s been happening quite steadily, though with increasing velocity and momentum, since the 1970s.

And, of course, the same thing has happened in South Africa. “Boy, that Mbeki, he’s a crook, I read it in the papers! And he’s a neoliberal! I know — why don’t we kick him out and put a crooked neoliberal in his place! Rah, rah, rah!” At least in South Africa the neoliberals masked themselves as Communists and trade unionists, so the voters have a bit of an excuse. South African voters, it would appear, are more sophisticated than Western Europeans or North Americans, and you have to work a bit harder to fool them. But, given enough money and willingness to tell big fat lies, the effect is the same.

But is there any alternative to this? TINA, the Lady’s not for Turnering? (¬©Thatchbumf 1981).

Yes, there is. What can you do when the principal left-wing or nominally left-wing or liberal party abandons its principles and embraces conservatism? The smart thing to do would be not to permit it to happen in the first place. These things have happened very largely because the overwhelming majority of members of these parties, who did not want their parties to move rightward, failed to act against small minorities who saw profit in the right. The majority were bamboozled, were outmanoeuvred, and were too ashamed, lazy or foolish to acknowledge this or to respond to it. As a result, instead of trying to take their parties back, they decided instead to back the party in its new right-wing guise in the hope that it would win at the next election, after which, of course, they could take it back.

But they never did, and so the party stayed right, and indeed moved further right using the customary excuses of a party in power, and then came the next election and the rightists in the saddle announced that, regrettably, in order to win the next election they would have to move further to the right, and so they did, and the majority who didn’t want this shrugged their shoulders and said, in effect, “Anything, so long as we won the election”, postponing the Great Uprising for another year, and then forever.

And the process was repeated until the party lost the election.

Firstly, those in the party can take it back. They have the numbers. They have the right ideas. All they lack is the will. Oh, and the money. Despite his obvious weakness, and the rigging of some of the provincial elections, Mbeki got two-fifths of the votes at Polokwane; a tenth more and the neoliberals would not have taken over the ANC. A bit more organising, a bit more suss, and someone other than Mbeki willing to stand in his place as the counter-Zuma, and it would have been all right. In most of the left-wing parties of Western Europe, the left just huddle like sick puppies watching the right run the show.

The right’s might, in social-democratic parties, is based on cardboard tanks and broomstick rifles; whenever they’re seriously challenged they collapse. This is why their leadership of social-democratic parties is always disastrous; they never have the guts, or the support, to take on anyone who has the slightest authority or power. Look at the Great Labour Battle Against Militant in the 1980s as an example; the full might of the Party coming down on the heads of a few score people who were, or had once been, supporters of a literal interpretation of the fourth clause printed on the back of their Labour membership cards. This Battle was supposed to reverse the disastrous defeat in 1983, hooray! Strangely, expelling a few dozen principled leftists failed to win them the 1987 election, so they cast about and, with immense difficulty, found a handful more principled leftists to expel.

And then, of course, they went in with confidence to the 1992 election, and lost.

Of course, the fallback option is to found another party. The Creator is not completely averse to this. At the moment it may be the only realistic option for South African politics. But, on the other hand, note that small left-wing parties did remarkably badly in the recent Italian elections. Small left-wing parties have proved depressingly easy to co-opt in Germany and thus go down with the losing side. As for small left-wing parties in Britain, they are truly microscopic animalcules which have the surprising ability to divide by binary fission without being able to grow.

Maybe, instead, someone ought to try campaigning to turn the left-wing parties to the left. It might be amusing. At least, it would make a change.