Where Have All Poppa’s Heroes Gone?

June 19, 2008

Propaganda is flooding the media at the moment, exploiting the violence which has been troubling large areas of South Africa. This propaganda takes two important forms. One is to denounce the present government as evil and incompetent for not preventing the violence, and arguing that therefore the present government must be removed and replaced by Jacob Zuma, who has, with his team, done nothing positive in the crisis. Another is to denounce South Africa as evil and corrupt, following the lead of the foreign media who hang their own anti-African xenophobia and racism on the violence. Because the “rainbow nation”/”ubuntu” propaganda construct which the media engendered has been shown to be a lie, the media declares that this proves that every positive aspect of South African life is a lie. Hence we should all emigrate (the media naturally speaks only to the rich and largely to the whites).

This is disgusting, but that is unsurprising. Disgust is the proper emotion with which to respond to most journalists across the world. However, it is also unusually irresponsible. These journalists live such sheltered lives that when they see a bloody conflict which endangers the fabric of our society, their responses are to try to weaken the authority of the state, and to attack the self-respect and communal confidence which hold our society stable. They do not really believe that they live in the same country where horrible things happen. Perhaps, emotionally and financially, they do not.

What holds a society together is shared values. Certain behaviour is held to be improper. Certain acts are considered to be the right thing to do. If nobody respected any codes, society would disintegrate; not all the police in the world could patch together a nation determined to fall apart (and how could the police hold themselves together without a code of conduct on which to base their self-respect?). Often these values make up a collective value-system which is usually mythological in structure. Symbols related to that mythology are respected and often their empty form is more important than their substance — but the act of respecting symbols identifies one as a person who shares the values and follows the codes.

Does South Africa really possess this? The violence does not necessarily prove that we don’t. When thugs are on the rampage people understandably fear to stop them. When unpopular people are attacked even sensible people sometimes get sucked into behaviour which they would normally regret. Rioting of this kind is not unique to South Africa, although understandably the media likes to pretend that it is, for political purposes. But it is worth asking why the cultural bonds holding our society together appear to be so weak.

On Ntaba ka Ndoda (the Mountain of the Elders), a hill between Keiskammahoek and Dimbaza, anyone can see the problem of imposing codes and values by fiat. On top of the mountain is a spectacularly ugly concrete structure supposedly meant to represent the horns of a bull. Here the Ciskeian National Day was supposed to be celebrated, with schoolchildren brought from all over the Ciskei to worship at the national shrine under the auspices of the divine President-for-Life Lennox Sebe. Here is the War Memorial of the Ciskeian Nation, and apparently there were once other monuments, too. But the War Memorial lies in fragments, the other monuments are empty plinths stripped of their pathetic tiling, the shatterproof glass which fenced the concrete off from the onlookers is shattered, and the building has been systematically looted and defiled.

In truth people did not want the Ciskei to be a nation. It had no meaning for Xhosas as a nation. Instead, to them it signified repression, corruption, dishonesty, violence, thieving and a false oligarchy who were really the puppets of racists outside its borders. No wonder they trashed its monument.

Recently, a monument was put up to commemorate the Duncan Village massacre in 1985, a massacre too easily forgotten. It seemed appropriate; a statue of a Xhosa warrior, symbolising the indomitable spirit of Eastern Cape people who were not defeated by the guns and clubs of the police. However, someone almost immediately broke off the warrior’s spear, presumably to sell to a scrap-metal dealer. Then locals provided the excuse that this was done because the warrior was a Zulu. (Of course the warrior was not a Zulu — he wore a characteristic Xhosa headdress — but the locals don’t like Zulus and so they declared that the statue was an affront to them.) People were trotted out to declare that they had not been consulted. (It turned out that not a lot of people had attended the public meetings.) In the end, the whole notion of a monument to a half-forgotten but terrible crime against the poor people of the Eastern Cape was flung down and pissed upon by people who saw nothing better to do than to attack other people’s efforts without doing anything themselves.

Does this mean that the anti-apartheid struggle enjoys no more legitimacy, any more, than the Ciskeian pseudo-state? It would be tempting to think so. If so, of course, then the government also enjoys little legitimacy for the same reason. If this is the case, also, it is not going to solve the problem, to replace an urbane sophisticate with a goatee, with a shaven-headed bumptious charlatan, however much the press (who are predominantly owned by the same people who own Zuma) say it is so.

“Patriotism” may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but something like it is essential. The trouble is that it cannot be imposed, as the Ciskei shows. Nor can it simply be urged on without any meaningful justification. The AIDS pandemic, for instance, shows clearly how it is almost impossible to change sexual practices even though people are perfectly aware that certain sexual behaviour leads to a vast danger of transmitting the disease. People know it’s wrong, but it’s more convenient (and supposedly more fun) to be wrong. Likewise, South Africans’ behaviour on the roads; people routinely speed, drink and drive, wander along the middle of the road with their backs to oncoming cars on blind rises — how can they be so foolish? Because they know better, but they do not really care; they do not truly think that the laws, or even the rules of sane behaviour, apply to them.

How can this be changed? We are told that we have a wonderful Constitution. However, the Constitution applies only to rich people, who can go to the Constitutional Court and claim their Constitutional rights. We have a marvellous system of traditional communal living which supposedly lies behind a set of codes which prevent people from misbehaving towards each other — but nobody takes this seriously, and the system of initiation of children is simply a way for crooks who call themselves initiators to pick the pockets of the rural poor; no wonder it leads to no real change of heart. We have the Western democratic values and social codes, but these have been disintegrated and undermined by the revelation that in large measure they don’t work, and indeed never did. We have the Afrikaner tribal tradition, which still exists, but now seems to be used as a deliberate tool by corporate neoliberals to foster a convenient racist attitude, an anti-black paranoia, and thus encourage Afrikaners to tear down the state which they helped to create. None of these is going to help us in the years ahead.

In contrast, what is coming is an atomised capitalist anti-community where divisions grow rather than shrinking. The love of emigration among the rich is paralleled by the violence against foreigners among the poor; both are signs of a general refusal to accept that we live in a society where such behaviour is not helpful. Corporate and bureaucratic corruption among the rich and powerful matches the crime wave among the poor and downtrodden. It is a low-intensity war of all against all. Kurt Vonnegut oversimplified when he said “The winners are at war with the losers”, for he forgot that the winners are also at war with the winners, and the losers with the losers. We cannot actually afford to live in a society like this, and yet this is what we are having built around us.

But it is impossible to go “back to basics” in a conservative sense. Conservatism will not save us from radical plutocratic capitalism, and this is only partly true because most radical plutocratic capitalists are nominally conservatives. More importantly, conservatism is based upon traditions which are no longer believed in because social structures no longer sustain them and hence these traditions no longer benefit anybody. They depend almost entirely upon social pressure which arouses precisely the kind of nihilistic resistance to authority which neoliberalism feeds upon. Not for nothing is it called neoliberalism; it has at its heart a determination to be free from responsibility for others — effectively, to have as much freedom as one can buy for oneself.

So, what is needed is to reconstruct social bonds on more meaningful bases. And this — you saw this coming, the Creator is sure — means, on a social level, socialism. It means developing the notion that mutual aid is more desirable than greed, and that (at bottom) being nice is more productive in the longer term than being nasty, however much nasty enables you to swagger around with a .357 under your jacket and a necklace bearing your first name outlined in tiny diamonds. It means showing respect for each other on every score, even showing respect for people you disagree with or don’t like or think is a danger to humanity. It means, however, providing channels through which that disagreement can be meaningfully expressed. It means democracy, and sharing the wealth, and refusing to accept the divisions of society on a basis of race, class, gender or any other basis which is irrelevant to collective need and individual capacity.

Could something like this be offered? Perhaps it would be difficult. After all, a great deal of support for socialism relies not on these positive issues, but rather on the negative issue that socialists hate and despise the rich — especially those who have become rich without effort. Socialists hate and despise the authority which the rich exploit and distort. Hence it is easy for a socialist to be glad when authority breaks down, even if the socialist is incapable of making productive use of the breakdown. That, surely, is the key to making socialism successful; generating a productive ideological structure, a way in which we can build up a truly socialist morality in terms of which we would behave towards each other as individuals, and as part of a collective greater than ourselves but which we would serve because the collective also served us as individuals.

This is not impossible. It seems to have existed in much of Russia in the 1930s, if Platonov’s Chevengur is anything more than a fantasy. It was vaguely babbled about even in South Africa with the Masakhane campaign, which was, however, dishonest at bottom, and failed. Elements of it were hinted at in some of Mbeki’s rhetoric and in a submerged part of the propaganda around Polokwane. It could be brought together.

But it would require one almost supernaturally difficult task. It requires that politicians reconstruct public trust in them by being faithful to their promises. It requires democracy and humility and willingness to listen from its participants. I see little or no sign of that in today’s South Africa. Maybe it is too much to ask.

But if it is, very possibly our society will not survive the terrible crises which are surely coming within the next couple of decades.

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Rolling Back the Right Wing (IV). But what are we supposed to do?

June 19, 2008

Let’s say you are a caring sharing democratic socialist, social democrat, or someone who thinks that destroying the biosphere is a bad thing and that more public transport would be nice. You have joined together with others in harmonious collectivity to challenge the bad people who want to cut down the rainforests and privatise traffic-lights. Now what?

A small party has a National Executive the people entitled to talk to the press and lay down the line which others must follow. To show that they are not special, however, these people go out and hand out leaflets just like everyone else. Sometimes. The National Conference which happens annually, or maybe every five years, or every-whenever-the-Chair-pleases, is where the National Executive gets re-elected. Usually. Oh, sometimes (when the Secretary is actually running things and the Chair is a front) the Chair shifts, like on the promenade deck on the Titanic, that is. But usually the rank and file don’t get to decide anything. The National Executive and their mates do the deciding. How could the rank and file decide? Firstly they are ignorant, and secondly, for them to decide they would have to breach the line.

There’s an obvious lack of democracy in most small parties which encourages an atmosphere of fraudulent purism. The leadership of the party, under these conditions, has no real interest in growth. Its chief interest is in presenting itself as in the right. No matter how Trotskyite you might be in theory, in practice these conditions are Stalinist; glory to the leader, death to the anti-Party group for the Party is always right. And, by coincidence, what’s good for the Leader is good for the Party.

Anybody outside the charmed circle of the Party neither knows nor cares what is going on; it isn’t important.

The purpose of having a left-wing party is to build socialism in the nation, as a contribution to building socialism throughout the world. Such a small party cannot do this building in any effectual way. Thus the party has to expand its position or else it is not going to accomplish anything. A small party which remains a small party is generally worthless.

Therefore the party cannot afford to exclude anyone who genuinely shares its broad objectives. Jargon and “democratic centralism” are powerful discouraging forces. Inexperienced newcomers may accept that these people are very clever, and that the actual issues are obscure, and therefore that s/he cannot make much of a contribution, so departs. Experienced newcomers probably burned their fingers in other parties and thus knows that undemocratic organisations devoted to the recitation of slogans without critical thought are unhelpful, so departs. What is left is a small nucleus who genuinely believe in the slogans, or who feel heart-warmed by the idea that they, unlike the rest of the population, are caring sharing people who want to save the planet. Around this nucleus is a constantly shifting group of confused or unhappy people whose performance is erratic. It’s unhealthy. What is needed is not merely democracy but also a clear objective which is shared by all.

Much of this has been said by Susan George, the economist who became involved in anti-corporatist activities via ATTAC, the French-based anti-corporate organisation. She points out that many organisations act as if they don’t really want new members (which is probably true); for instance, don’t set up recruiting tables or even put contact numbers on their fliers. Her book Another World Is Possible If . . . is a kind of manual for how to get wiggling in this regard. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of people who seem to have read the book, which is one reason why the anti-corporate movement, sometimes misnamed the anti-globalist movement, went so badly off message and off the boil.

Of course there’s another side to the issue. You do not want people who disagree profoundly with your goals in the organisation, especially if they don’t fully realise this. Such people might take over the organisation and turn it into something entirely different. Any organisation has to have a constitution, which entails a disciplinary procedure. Sadly, this procedure can often be abused to exclude people who are desirable, but whom the leadership perceive as a threat. This is why democracy is so important; if there is to be a purge, it has to be for a good reason, not simply in order to get rid of anyone who hasn’t read the right books or doesn’t obey orders unquestioningly.

What you have to do is avoid all personality cultism, manage all internally-based conflict with the goal of reducing its impact, and focus on the object. Which is to get the message out to as many people as possible in a form which they can accept. Not to ostentatiously display yourself as a leftist so that the organisation funding you will keep on shovelling in the dosh. That is the way to alienate a potential support base who, for decades, have been warned about leftism, or about ultra-leftism, and who are therefore suspicious of anyone to the left of themselves. To appeal to them it is necessary to make it clear that the party is really just like them; it simply has a clearer idea of what needs to be done.

What this necessarily leads to is the establishment of the party as an organisation which is continually in the public eye, but which also cannot depend on propaganda. It must depend heavily on membership for its publicity, because propaganda requires money or access to establishment structures such as the media which the party will not possess unless it compromises its principles. (Significantly, many leftist parties which are loath to permit sympathetic but untutored members in, are happy to let their leadership write for newspapers or appear on TV programmes which are utterly hostile to their goals, on the false assumption that all publicity is good publicity.)

Thus, during the long periods between elections, the party must try to keep itself in the public eye as cheaply as possible. It must, obviously, focus acutely on potential supporters. Within the middle class, students, the unemployed and some disaffected professionals represent a good nucleus, but the nucleus has to expand. If your party depends on such people for its survival then it does not deserve to survive. Somehow your message must be designed to appeal not only to them, but also to the more thoughtful junior managers and administrators, the kind of people who reluctantly join white-collar trade unions. (Such people cannot be trusted as activists, but they are potentially important voting-fodder and also they can help spread the party’s message by word of mouth.)

Within the working class the situation is more complex. Most of the effort in politics of the last fifty years has gone into co-opting and demobilizing the working class, and this has been extremely efficient. Many working-class people are deeply conservative; others are totally sceptical of all politicians, with good reason, and have abandoned hope of a better life. Those who are politically active on the left, have usually been seduced by the false promises of parties pretending to be left-wing. (As a result, such people will be extremely hostile to anyone promoting an alternative, for the obvious reason that to propose an alternative is effectively to tell such people that they have been fooled.) But if the party does not win over the working class it is not going to have any real success, since only a fraction of the middle class will ever support socialism in a capitalist system. (Bourgeois attitudes, on the other hand, function perfectly well under authoritarian state socialism; in fact, this is the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in a nutshell.)

However, by sticking to simple language, clear imagery and a solid focus on the needs of the community, and by refusing to base your movement within the bourgeoisie but remaining open to working-class leadership, it should be possible to gradually build up a nucleus of membership in the working-class. (One additional point is that action in the working class requires absolute honesty and integrity. The middle class is prepared to forgive you much so long as you flatter them. The working class seldom forgives and rarely forgets, except where it perceives its interests are at stake; thus it is prepared to forgive and forget people who sincerely hate foreigners, or people of a different skin colour or religious grouping, where the working class perceives such things as a threat to its interest. The only solution here is to show that hatred of such people and things is less valuable, in the end, than hating the oppressive class in your own society — a difficult task, but absolutely necessary for success.

The essence of this is that you should live in a “free” country, meaning that while you can be harassed by the police and the secret police, they are not permitted to close your organisation down and it is difficult for them to seize your property or detain your membership for long periods, and thus it is possible to show public support for your organisation without too much fear — and, on the contrary, because there is mild harassment, showing such public support creates an illusion of courage which is very reassuring and empowering. Be grateful for such freedom; it makes democracy possible. Where these freedoms are removed, secret organisation can take place, but to succeed it has to be heirarchical and thus essentially authoritarian.

Be grateful, too, that elections are held which you can participate in. Elections are not a sham even though they are not a force which determines how the country is really ruled. Elections are an indication that the ruling class desires to rule through persuasion and co-option rather than force. In this case, your party can perform the judo act of threatening the system from within a structure created by the ruling class to escape being threatened. That is, you can say “You have established an electoral democracy within which you fool the public into thinking they can choose their leaders; we are creating an alternative to you within that democracy — destroy us if you dare!”. Surprisingly often, the ruling-class state allows left-wing parties to function on these terms. Horribly often, the ruling-class state is right; the left-wing parties blow it and become either tiny safety-valves for bourgeois discontent, or large tools of big business occasionally mouthing vaguely egalitarian slogans without meaning.

So a small socialist party has to participate in elections. Those who claim that this is selling out to the system, and who put their faith in revolutionary action, are at best ignorant fools, although more probably they are hirelings of big business trying to distract their parties from productive work. However, it is important not to waste time and energy attempting more than can be accomplished. If a party can only win a couple of seats in a municipal election, struggle for those seats. The danger is that party leaders love the prominence and perquisites which even the most trivial political position can bring. Therefore, parties often attempt more than they can accomplish, on the false assumption that electoral activity is useful in itself even if you don’t win.

Electoral activity is only truly useful if it generates seats in the assembly; otherwise, electoral activity is only the climax of what should be a continuous process of pursuing support all year round. If you are not in a position to do this in a constituency or ward, and you are not confident you will win, then you shouldn’t even attempt that ward. It distracts the effort and attention of your workers and losing is demoralizing.

Your party must be in touch with what the public wants. There is no point in adopting an abstract position and then trying to impose it on the electorate. (Steve Bell brilliantly parodied this in 1992, showing the British Liberal Democrats campaigning on the slogan “Independent Central Bank Now!”, wearing leather and bellowing from helicopters.) Instead, any abstract position has to be concretised. What does your ward, your municipality, your state require? How can your party’s position facilitate meeting those requirements better than another party? If your party cannot resolve the problem, there is something wrong with your party’s position. Elections are a reality check. (This is probably why many small parties refuse to participate; they would prefer to stay as far from reality as possible. But participating without engaging with reality is also possible — and invariably disastrous.)

Of course if the system is some form of proportional representation, then take part in national and provincial elections even if your party is weak. There is no real harm in this. But remember, tiny parties are considered something of a joke by big parties; do not assume that a small representation will get your party anywhere. The main purpose of having someone in any assembly is to establish the superiority of your message and bring it across. However, who is listening? It is important to use a councillor, or a member of a provincial or state or national body, in public meetings to promote the idea that a political leader can actually be a force for meaningful change. What they say at meetings may be much more important than what they say in the assemblies (although it is vitally important that what they say there be clear, confident, challenging and well-presented).

The goal, remember, is to take power. The goal is to slowly expand your support until you rule the town, the province and the country. It is a slow process but there is no reason not to undertake it. What is more, if you are ready to take power, sometimes it drops into your hands unexpectedly. At any moment your party must have a plan to take advantage of this.