On On Bullshit. (Or, “Ich bin ein Frankfurter!”)

July 31, 2008

Harry Frankfurt is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Princeton. “Emeritus” in this case means “too old to be a threat to younger members of faculty”, although “Philosophy” in this case means “a subject nobody in the United States takes seriously anyway”. Princeton is one of the most prestigious of the so-called Ivy League “liberal arts” colleges, and also one of the most nominally liberal. Thus it is not a full-blown establishment institution like Harvard or Yale — which gave the conspicuously unacademic George W Bush the degree with which he did nothing of consequence before becoming (thanks to his Daddy the President) Governor of Texas and eventually, President in his turn. Nor is it a conservative technocratic institution like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where Noam Chomsky works) although Princeton does host the Institute for Advanced Studies (where Albert Einstein worked, although he produced no workable theories while he was there).

All that this means is that maybe Frankfurt works for an institution which can be taken seriously, though Frankfurt himself might be a pea-brained blowhard. Is he? It takes a certain amount of guts for an American and an academic to produce a book — actually, a short essay printed up in a small well-bound volume — called On Bullshit. After all, no country in the last two centuries has contributed more to bullshit than the United States, and few professions — outside law and public relations — contribute much more to bullshit than those of academia.

Frankfurt modestly does not try to claim to understand all of bullshit. He argues that it is a decidedly neglected field and that he wishes only to try to establish first principles in it — provide guidance towards the development of a theory of bullshit. That’s a worthy goal, to be sure. It’s also a goal which suggests that Frankfurt is not trying to bullshit his audience.

As a philosopher should, he starts out with the basics. Is bullshit equivalent to other better-understood terms, such as humbug? Is it simply another name for lies? No, he says; humbug seems to be related to bullshit, but definitions of humbug seem narrower than that of bullshit. On the other hand, it seems to be possible to bullshit without necessarily telling lies. (Towards the end of the volume he quotes Eric Ambler, “Never, never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through”.)

The Creator suspects that sometimes Frankfurt’s etymology lets him down. Frankfurt equates “bull sessions” with “bullshit sessions”, but the Creator doubts that this is legitimate. Most probably these sessions, originally undertaken by such figures as advertising executives, are intended to identify these people as the lead bulls in the herd, and the fact that they extrude gigantically more shit than other bulls, far from being a defining feature, is artistically neglected in such contexts.

Frankfurt goes off on what seems like a tangent about Wittgenstein — almost certainly this is, in part, meant to show us that Frankfurt takes his philosophy seriously. Wittgenstein, who constructed a Tower of Babel of precise philosophical structures, only to acknowledge that it was a load of crap and tear it down with a theory of language-games and the impossibility of attaining such precision in the last portion of his life, is a big, serious bloke who at the same time is a hoot. Sometimes he is inadvertently a hoot, as in the example quoted in the book, an example which takes the call for precision in language beyond the call of philosophical duty. Even Frankfurt admits that in this instance Wittgenstein was a bloody odious idiot, but when he deconstructs his statement, Frankfurt points out that his chief criterion was seriousness; that one should genuinely pursue the truth rather than making statements the truth of which could not be verified.

Aha. If Wittgenstein were President, we should probably be engaged in a War on Bullshit. But what would we be making war on? Is bullshit simply imprecision and vagueness?

No, says Frankfurt, finally getting down to brass tacks. Imprecision and vagueness is a tactic for bullshit, just as lying is, just as misrepresentation is. (Frankfurt even quotes St Augustine, who felt that lying was all right as long as you got something out of it — since St Augustine’s religion is based on a bookload of big fat lies and he served the Lords of the Lie all his life, this is startling but not surprising.) But bullshit is not a neutral thing.

Bullshit is where you have something which you want someone else to do, or refrain from doing. You want this because their doing, or not doing, something will act to your advantage. For some reason, you are not in a position to persuade that person, or those persons, by logical argument or any other legitimate means. Therefore you proceed by constructing an artificial construct of lies, misrepresentations, imprecise statements and various truths cherry-picked to sustain arguments in favour of the action or inaction you desire. Bullshit is the simulation of an argument rather than the thing itself; it always has huge holes in it which the object of bullshit is expected not to notice — and indeed much of the bullshit is designed to cover up those holes.

One interesting thing which Frankfurt also says about bullshit, and which may be true, is that it is not necessarily resented as much as lies. As in the Eric Ambler quote, if you tell a lie, you will probably get into trouble if caught. If you stand up in court and say “I was nowhere near that ATM machine on the 15th” and then the courtroom watches the CCTV video of you packing gelignite against the ATM machine and running the det cable away from it, you will not only go down for the crime, you face the possibility of a perjury charge on top of it. On the other hand, if you explain that when you were little your mother almost smothered you with a twenty rand note and you can find psychiatrists to testify that you have always hated money (improper toilet training) plus you bring a raft of Trotskyites into the courtroom to give evidence that property is theft and money ought to be abolished, maybe you will get some years knocked off your sentence. Bullshit baffles brains; lies, when exposed, alert them.

But why should this be? A lie is intended to fool you. But bullshit is a whole structure intended to fool you. It is a generalised fraud rather than a specific one, and it sucks you in much more than a lie does — accepting the bullshit, you become complicit, whereas if a person is lied to and does not know the truth, nobody can be blamed for being taken in. So the Creator would have thought that bullshit would arouse more resentment, and garner more punishment, than lies. Why should it be the other way around?

A puzzler. Frankfurt, instead of responding directly to this, devotes the last part of his thesis to another issue, the question of whether there is more bullshit now than there used to be. He sidesteps this, partly because he has no objective information (indeed, has not looked for any). Instead, he points out that bullshit will be generated whenever people are obliged to talk about things they don’t understand. (Reversing Wittgenstein’s “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one remain silent”, many many people insist on talking in the absence of information on the topic or any capability of generating reasoned relevant arguments or even appropriate questions. This makes the Creator very cross, and Frankfurt somewhat grumpy.) The question whether this is happening more than it used to, and if so, why, Frankfurt leaves open — which is disappointing.

More substantively (in theory, anyway), Frankfurt blames contemporary philosophical discourse. He says that anti-realism, the refusal to accept that an objective reality can ever be attained and therefore that the pursuit of such a reality is not worth attempting, is the problem. As a result, he says, what he calls the ideal of correctness has been replaced by what he calls the ideal of sincerity. This is a very moot point indeed, since in many cases “correctness” has been a cloak for bullshit and hence what was called devotion to this ideal was actually nothing of the kind; however, he has a point with regard to sincerity. The fact that one genuinely believes in something does not necessarily make it true; no doubt many people in Zimbabwe today genuinely believe in the righteousness of their causes, but this does not mean that they are not deluded people willingly manipulated by corrupt puppet-masters inside or outside the country.

Frankfurt also makes the point that by making sincerity their objective, people are valorising something which cannot be tested. If an economist says that poor people should have their salaries cut so that the money can be spent on hiring more people, is that a sincerely held viewpoint? There is simply no way of telling. Sincerity, indeed, can be artificially generated; if it is in your interest to hold a viewpoint (as in the case of an economist who knows that corporate consultancies are more likely to arrive if views are expressed which happen to benefit those corporations) then eventually you will probably come to believe that viewpoint. People do not usually persistently express opinions at variance with their principles; however, instead of the principles determining the opinions, the opinions often determine the principles. In other words, in the world of sincerity, bullshit trumps the truth — people bullshit themselves. Sometimes they do this in order to bullshit other people, sometimes they do it because they are bullshitting other people. Hence, says Frankfurt, sincerity is actually bullshit. (Or, perhaps to be more precise, you cannot bullshit anyone unless you can display sincerity, and the most effective way to display sincerity is to be sincere.)

This rather relates to the SACP now — but also, probably, to the ANC members who first hailed the development of the RDP Office in 1994 and then hailed its abolition in 1996. Bullshit seems to be an important way of avoiding or concealing the contradictions of politics even from oneself.

And that seems to be why bullshit is a more acceptable thing than lying. Officially, we are all supposed to oppose lies. Most of us get through life without telling more than a couple of lies an hour (unless we are in professions depending on telling lies, such as hairstylists). Most of us would prefer not to be lied to most of the time. But we are all bullshitters and we are quite happy to be bullshitted when it benefits us. If we live in a mansion, we desperately need the bullshit which protects us from thinking too deeply about people living in corrugated-iron shacks.

Of course we recognise bullshit when it does not benefit us, and particularly when it challenges us. There are no flies on us! (Except where we smear ourselves with bullshit — but we redefine those flies as winged arthropods of the species musca domestica, which makes it all right.) We cannot escape bullshit all the time.

Frankfurt does not explicitly express a solution, but it seems obvious that he would like people to return to the notion of the pursuit of truth and correctness. Thus, instead of filling the air with bullshit conspiracy theories, bullshit allegations of racism, bullshit claims of unfairness and bullshit claims of the revolution being in danger, we should simply ask ourselves questions of truth. Thus: are the charges against Jacob Zuma serious charges and are they backed by testable evidence? Can we find out whether he is guilty? Should we find this out? These questions have simple answers. The beauty of the bullshit which Zuma’s cabal generate is that there is no real answer to them — in many cases it is probably impossible to produce an answer and in others there is no hard sustaining evidence — but many people sincerely believe what Zuma’s cabal are saying. Thus bullshit is used to discourage people from pursuing the truth, and to encourage them to sincerely adopt bullshit positions.

It’s definitely a book worth glancing over. Frankfurt is — inevitably — not without his own bullshit. However, in that sense the book is self-deconstructing, because applying Frankfurt’s notions to his own book will help to clear the bullshit away. Certainly there is a valuable skeleton there. Plus, it is nice and short and handy to carry around. At least one academic from one country is working on a field for which he is well qualified and which potentially provides social value. Throw the man a few bucks.

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How Does It Feel To Be Such A Freak? (II)

July 31, 2008

Journalists and pundits and suchlike can exist outside the context of human reality. They are thus free to say whatever their paymasters desire them to say. Indeed, often they have to do this or they will lose their jobs. But besides, they are seldom troubled with consciences; there are few Robert Fisks in this world.

Political activists are a little different. Granted, political activism is often hard to distinguish from masturbation, especially if your political groupuscule is small and groupustular, which is very frequently the case. However, if you have been a political activist involved in the real world and not in the back-stabbing poisoned atmosphere of tiny “civil society” bullshitters (more about bullshit soon), you very probably have more notion of what is going on, more idea of what is to be done, than any pundit or academic or supposedly concerned intellectual.

The Creator has had the opportunity to hear from a few SACP members lately. These are, of course, the elite of the elite. That isn’t a joke. Granted a lot of members of the SACP in the early twenty-first century are sleazebags deluxe. However, in the days before the 1990s it took real ability and guts and determination to get into the SACP, and even then, as Harold Strachan discovered, it was painfully easy to get kicked out again. Also, if you were white, the chances were that joining the SACP was going to do but nothing for your overall career. So, all respect for such people.

And now that that’s over, consider Ben Turok.

Turok is a good man; a long-standing Party member and ANC MP and member of an impeccably leftist Cape Town Jewish family whose autobiography is amazingly polite to almost everybody. Like all Party members he doesn’t like Mbeki’s policies. However, his editorship of New Agenda magazine shows him to be a man without any radical rhetoric and sympathetic to, albeit critical of, many of the ANC’s initiatives under Mbeki.

Recently, however, he wrote a letter to the Cape Times in praise of the Zuma clique’s removal of Ebrahim Rasool as ANC Premier of the Western Cape. In this letter he made two remarkable allegations against Rasool; one that Rasool was violating the ANC’s non-racial policy by concentrating on coloured and african voters and neglecting whites — implicitly accusing him of racism — and the other that Rasool was responsible for the conflict in the Western Cape, and particularly for the breakup of Turok’s own ANC branch.

The first of these allegations is obvious hogwash. White voters in the Western Cape, like white voters everywhere in South Africa, violently oppose the ANC, as their newspapers tell them to. Nothing that Rasool could do would change that. African voters predominantly support the ANC, but there is a tradition of PAC sympathy which needs to be addressed, and there is a lot of suspicion of the coloureds who supported the UDF, so they need to be consoled and courted. Coloureds are divided in class terms, some supporting the ANC and some the DA out of past sympathies, and so they particularly need to be won over. Rasool’s skill in courting coloureds without alienating africans was what won the ANC the Western Cape in 2004, and many fear that Rasool’s successor, a colourless hack named Lynne Brown who was defeated by the ludicrous Peter Marais in the 2000 Cape Town Mayoral race, lacks that skill.

The second allegation is more complexly false. Although Rasool is Premier, he was defeated in the race for provincial leadership by Mcebisi Skwatsha, a man widely associated not only with Zuma, but with anti-coloured racism (which may have helped lose the 2006 Cape Town election). Thus Rasool is not the ultimate man to go to if you have problems in your branch. In addition, however, if you have problems in your branch, a competent branch executive should be able to resolve them without running whimpering to the provincial executive. Turok’s letter actually indicts his own executive — and indeed Turok himself for not recognising this.

The reason for Turok’s letter was simple: the Zuma clique’s ostensible reason for firing Rasool was the disunity in the province (which had been fostered by the Zuma clique to undermine Rasool, who was loyal to Mbeki). By accusing him of favouring race groups (the implicit anti-white slur was prudent if absurd, since he was writing to a white-read newspaper, even though Rasool is quite popular among whites who would never dream of voting for him), and of promoting disaffection (“unruliness”, as Turok put it), Turok was providing a paper-trail for the purge which would be much needed if Rasool chose to try to defend himself (in the end, he left with more dignity than Zuma or any of Zuma’s allies). On the other hand, if Turok couldn’t think up any reasons for purging Rasool better than these ones, it seems pretty obvious that there aren’t any such reasons.

But why was Turok doing this? Almost certainly out of loyalty. Turok may like the ANC, but his true love is the SACP. The SACP had already been engaged in a big Zuma-backed purge in the Western Cape, crushing the leadership of the Boland region and installing loyal Communists in charge there. The SACP backs Zuma to the hilt. It had decided that now was the time for the SACP to take charge of the whole Province, at least in theory, by getting Rasool out and Brown in. Obviously there was no reason, in terms of policy or organisational need, for doing this. It was also being done in alliance with some fairly disgusting people, and would certainly benefit the DA whose principles and policies Turok undoubtedly hates. But Turok apparently believes that whatever is good for the SACP is right, in the same way that a dedicated Zionist believes that whatever is good for Israel is right. Ultimately this simply blinds him to reality.

Is this a widespread problem? It would appear so. The Creator knows a couple of Commies personally, people who risked life and limb in the struggle to further the interests of the underground. It wasn’t their fault that the underground was riddled with police spies and led by incompetent clowns. Conversations with them was rather interesting. The Creator necessarily assumes that they weren’t saying everything that they thought, for of course they knew that the Creator had ceased to be a Commie a long time ago and was notoriously Mbeki-sympathetic. It was probably as much as their Party careers were worth to be seen with the Creator in public.

Well, both of them agreed that Rasool had to go; it was intolerable that someone so sympathetic to Mbeki could be permitted to rule. The first one mentioned the sale of the Waterfront to a Dubai consortium as the final straw. This seemed like an odd thing for a Commie to raise. The Waterfront is a luxury capitalist consumerist development which serves no purpose at all for 90% of the people of Cape Town and little enough purpose for most of the remainder — who have plenty of places to shop. The profits from the Waterfront, had they gone to rich South Africans, would surely have gone abroad anyway, so the sale to Dubai was hardly a real calamity.

Then the first one reassured the Creator that there was no question of supporting Zuma. That seemed odd, since this good Commie was obviously backing Zuma and all his friends to the hilt. What struck the Creator was that by saying “I don’t support Zuma” this Commie was escaping responsibility for the fact that the Party supports Zuma; was effectively arranging a divorce from the consequences of the Party’s actions, which have ensured the political supremacy of unproductive corporate capital of the kind which seemed so bad when Rasool was playing footsie with it. In short, it wasn’t just that this Commie had to be loyal to the Party, it was also that this Commie had to don blinkers whenever a fact arose which contradicted the Party world-view.

This is George Orwell’s doublethink, of course, combined with Orwell’s crimestop, which prevents you from completing a thought which would lead to unorthodoxy. Thanks to these simple techniques, the Party is always right. It has to be; a person who has spent twenty or thirty years working for the victory of the Party is not going to change horses in midstream.

The second Commie was a bit more passionate, calling for Mbeki to be tried for crimes against humanity on the grounds of his AIDS policy and his Zimbabwe policy (both of which, of course, Zuma supported; also, of course, the Party had no practical alternative to either policy). This was a helpful technique; if you hate Mbeki enough, you can justify almost anything as a replacement for him — although it’s usually a technique adopted by people outside the ANC, such as DA supporters or TAC members. This Commie also wanted to see Rasool out, because he was bad and corrupt and above all incompetent. Of course, his whole Cabinet would have to be got rid of, too. (Fat chance.) Then this Commie pondered; of course, there were a couple of good people in the Cabinet who perhaps deserved to be preserved. (Of course they were both Mbeki supporters; by the time the Creator left town, both were in line for the chop, while the ones who the second Commie had been denouncing with such vim, deservedly or not, were all staying on. Perhaps they really were incompetent, in which case it seemed that they were excellent Zuma material.)

Another thing which this person wanted was a second revolution, to clear away everything bad that had happened since 1994. This is not going to happen, of course — but it is a familiar echo of Trotskyite fantasising. How was a Party member sounding off like a Trotskyite? Perhaps because the Party now gets on very well with various Trotskyites, such as Achmat and Desai. But perhaps it was also because of intense frustration; the Revolution was won, but the Party was not in charge, and even now that the Party was in charge, this Party member knew perfectly well that most other Party members were a bunch of shitheads, that the ANC in the Western Cape was organisationally in tatters, and probably had an unspoken but shrewd suspicion that nothing was likely to weave it back together (there aren’t enough garment workers left any more).

What this person was doing was trying to avoid the issue through mental clutter. Having vast amounts of lumber in the mind made it impossible to tell exactly what was there. Thus problems could be hidden. Meanwhile this person was doing sterling work trying to straighten out a miserable district of Cape Town slumland — no doubt hoping to benefit the Party at the same time, but why not, if only the Party was trying to do such things?

The tragedy is, however, that all three people are admirable. All three are diligent, skilled assets to the nation. And all three are obliged to bullshit themselves into justifying what the Party is doing because the alternative is to have to face unbearable facts. Naturally none of them justified anything in terms of Marxism-Leninism, let alone basic socialism (though one is a great fan of Hugo Chavez — not that the Creator thinks that the Bolivarian Circles are themselves socialist). Perhaps the Party is not really socialist anymore. Perhaps, too, it is easy to see how the ANC has become so devastated when a the best and brightest members of a much smaller and more single-minded organisation have themselves so completely lost their ideological ways.


A Confession.

July 31, 2008

The Creator has a confession to make. The Creator has made a mistake. This is the trouble with knowing everything; sometimes you know it wrong.
The mistake was in misunderstanding the South African press. The Creator stupidly thought that there was an important difference between the propaganda put out by the Avusa Group on the one hand, and by the Independent Group and the Mail and Guardian on the other. This was wrong, and this was based on a formidable misunderstanding of the nature of South African capitalism and power-politics. The Creator’s current incarnation grovels with embarrassment.
Over the past decade the goal of all newspapers in South Africa has been to undermine the ANC and the Mbeki group within it. This is understandable. So long as the ANC saw its primary allegiance as being to voters rather than to big business, it posed a threat to big business’s interests. So long as Mbeki and his faction supported a pale variant of pan-Africanism, there was a possibility that the faction might cleave to pan-Africanism (which is consistent with social democracy) in preference to neoliberalism (which is the enemy of social democracy, and indeed of all democracy of every type).
But, of course, a lot of the issue was that the newspapers were mostly owned, run and staffed by whites who had been brought up under apartheid and often had strongly reactionary political opinions, and therefore they would have been anti-ANC and anti-Mbeki simply because the ANC had done away with apartheid and because Mbeki was black. Corporate direction was handy, but was not necessary. A side effect of this, however, was that in the beginning the press’s anti-ANC and anti-Mbeki propaganda was not tremendously effective; some of it was quite clever (and since it was the only source of information it was difficult to dismiss it altogether) but a great deal of it was so obviously reactionary and contemptible that it was hard for a sane person to swallow.
The newspapers, defeated, withdrew; big business bided its time. Meanwhile, a number of newspapers increased the number of black people on their staffs, and many even got black editors. This, according to Mbeki’s pan-Africanist theories, should have turned those newspapers into the voice of South Africa’s people. Instead, in a decisive refutation of pan-Africanist ideology, it turned those newspapers into a far more successful propaganda structure for neoliberalism and white corporate privilege.
Well, this was obvious to anyone who actually reads the papers with a critical eye instead of pouring the editorial page directly into a hole in her or his forehead. (Where would we be without the pineal gland?) Therefore, when all the newspapers began hymning the glories of our Zuma future while attacking the SACP and decrying COSATU, it was apparent that something was going on; the chorus seemed to be saying that Zuma’s corporate connections were welcome, whereas Zuma’s support among the supposed left-wing was not — if a choice was to be made. (Since the leadership of the South African Left mostly consists of bootlickers for the plutocracy, this choice is often unnecessary.)
However, it was possible that this process could be driven from two directions. The argument which floated through the Creator’s awesome mind was that the two directions were, respectively, South African foreign-oriented capitalists (who would obviously work through the foreign-owned Independent and Mail and Guardian) and South African domestic-oriented BEE capitalists (who had a big stake in Avusa). The former would want to destroy the ANC altogether and were thus supporting Zuma in order to bring the party down (a very sensible position). The latter might want to bend the ANC to their will and were thus supporting Zuma because he could be trusted to do whatever he was told to do (another very sensible position). As it appeared, therefore, in the run-up to Polokwane both groups might say the same thing, but after Polokwane it was entirely possible that differences would emerge.
What the Creator expected was that Zuma’s clique would receive the uncritical awestruck adulation of Avusa, whereas it would face increasing criticism from all other newspapers. Woe unto the Creator, this has not happened. Avusa (basically the Sunday Times, Business Day and a few hangers-on) has taken an even more right-wing stance than the rest. The Mail and Guardian, for instance, recently ran a laughable puff-piece pretending that the ANC Youth League, that fraudulent facade of prematurely senile hucksters, was the legitimate voice of black youth. In contrast, the Sunday Times recently ran a laughable puff-piece pretending that the ANC was going to lose the Western Cape, Gauteng and the Northern Cape in the 2009 elections. This piece came straight from the numbskulled strategists of the Democratic Alliance, who have fantasised about such things without any success since 1994.
What’s going on? The first thing which the Creator forgot is that Avusa may be heavily influenced by Mvelephanda, Tokyo Sexwale’s investment company, but Mvelephanda is itself not exactly an independent organisation. Ultimately it derives from Anglo American, just as does Avusa itself, and as does Cyril Ramaphosa’s investment company. All the shuffling-around of corporate names and nominal ownerships, stock-market corporate tap-dancing, fooled the Creator into thinking that something real was happening. But it was not; no real money was changing hands, just a restructuring process to accommodate the arrival of a number of black public figures to sit by the glass door and pretend to be empowered, and show up at occasional meetings to absorb the wrath of the self-righteously indignant stockholder.
The point which Thabo Mbeki discovered much too late is that the skin colour of a capitalist does not determine that capitalist’s politics. Capitalists are there to make money, and are motivated by greed. Capitalism requires avarice far more than it requires brains or personality. As a result capitalists will tend to support politics that they think will benefit their bank accounts. What is more, because the requirement for being a capitalist is not to be bright, but is rather to have a lot of money and to want even more, the chances are fairly good that a lot of capitalists will be thicker than pigshit. In consequence they will tend to be not only greedy, but stupidly greedy.
And therefore, South African black capitalists tend to look overseas; after all, white capitalists look overseas and the black capitalists are entirely dependent on the white capitalists. Perhaps people like Ramaphosa or Sexwale or any of the few who still support Mbeki could have persuaded white capitalists to risk some of their money on domestic investments, but they chose not to do so. But what this therefore means is that the black capitalists are not, actually, interested in the ANC, except insofar as they can influence the ANC to give them public money. The DA would do so just as well — and, after all, the DA is the party which their masters support. So the new black elite are not just fickle; the chances are that, whatever party they actually belong to, their allegiances are objectively to the kind of party which the DA represents, simply because the DA has become the quintessence of subjection to corporate capitalism.
What this also means is that the press has no need to cultivate the Zuma clique, whereas the Zuma clique desperately needs to suck up to the press. Hence the active criticism of Zuma’s ANC is also a warning sign. As Rupert Murdoch famously asked a suppliant politician, “What’ll it be, then — a headline a day, or a bucket of shit a day?”. The Sunday Times article showed the bucketloads of shit which could come down on Zuma’s head if he stepped out of line. Gwede Mantashe was on his knees before big business, a tube of KY in hand, within a week of that headline; perhaps it was just coincidence, but probably not.
Of course this does not mean that any newspaper will support Mbeki’s side. The recent suicidal and undemocratic purge of provincial premiers was hailed by the press which had done what it could to fabricate evidence against them. But this was because they were Mbeki allies more than because they were Zuma enemies; undoubtedly the hope is that the new Premiers will be less capable than the old (partly intrinsically and partly because they will have less freedom of action than existed in Mbeki’s more open-minded ANC). Likewise, the Zuma campaign to seize control of the SABC has been endorsed by the press, but this is partly because the SABC is the last medium to give any voice to Mbeki and his allies; in addition, the weaker and more discredited the SABC is, the more completely big business will control all the media. So in this case, too, Zuma is being supported for reasons not his own.
One would almost feel sorry for Zuma and his allies if they were not so despicable; they are in a desperate plight. Mbeki and his allies had to cope with the hostility of the press throughout their careers; Mbeki attempted unsuccessfully to reach out to white big business after he became national President, was viciously rebuffed and retired into his shell. None of this stopped him from increasing his personal support-base and the vote-share of the ANC continuously for ten years. Zuma, on the other hand, was the darling of the press the moment he came out against Mbeki. He knows quite well that he is desperately vulnerable to press attacks — they need only tell the truth about him and his career. As a result, he is almost as dependent on press support as he is on corporate cash, and he surely knows it quite well. The accelerating decline in ANC membership (which he obviously has no notion how to reverse, while his SACP and COSATU allies have no intention of helping him out) can only make this situation worse for him. Like Blair, he will be a prisoner of a press over which he will have no influence.
The Creator thinks that this is a very bad thing for the country, which, of course, is why the Creator was so deluded about the actual nature of the supposedly black-owned press. Perhaps part of the confusion arose out of the existence of the “Black Journalists’ Forum”, a gathering of black-skinned semi-literate people who all work for newspapers ultimately owned by, and run for the benefit of, rich white people. The Forum was established (on the ashes of an earlier organisation of the same name) to work for Zuma, and clearly poses no threat to corporate control of the press. But it might have done, and in the wilderness of mirrors which is South African political opinion, the Creator stared into a funhouse reflection of reality. Apologies. Will try to better next time.


Dissing Cape Town’s Topia.

July 25, 2008

The Creator feels obliged to buy The Big Issue. Vendors are fairly persistent and probably have keys in their pockets. Telling them to go away and boil their bums is socially unsympathetic, furthermore raises the possibility of bodily harm. Therefore one buys a large amount of glossy paper which cannot be used for any productive purpose other than sorting the stems and seeds from a quantity of poor-quality dagga; one buys this horrid magazine simply so as to be able to wave it defiantly at the next vendor. How we all suffer in our small ways.

It might be different if there were anything in the magazine at all worth reading, but there isn’t. Notwithstanding, Lauren Beukes provides a near-pastiche of something worth reading in her column, to which the Creator invariably turns with a degree of glumness, flipping past the celebrity and corporate propaganda. Beukes does not much like celebrity and corporate propaganda. Of course, challenging celebrity and corporate propaganda in a text devoted to celebrity and corporate propaganda might be seen as futile, or even as collaboration. Then again, this celebrity and corporate propaganda is being used to allegedly serve the interests of the people socially marginalised by the system which feeds on celebrity and corporate propaganda. Perhaps this confuses Beukes almost as much as it confuses the Creator.

Hence, having heard that Beukes had written a book called Moxyland, the Creator waddled off and bought it and gradually, over the ensuing ten days, attempted to read it. It could be assumed from the cover and the blurbs, not to mention the avowed position of the author, that the book would be opposed to celebrity and corporate propaganda. Therefore it would be worth reading. Or would it?

A few days later the Creator found a remaindered copy of James Hawes’ Speak For England (significant that it was remaindered), a book written by a disaffected Briton opposed to celebrity and corporate propaganda. Like far too many allegedly funny books these days, it criticises “reality TV” (Moxyland‘s comparable target appears to be the weblog) but it does find a few interesting things to say about the contemporary world. Speak For England has, as its hero, a confused, self-loathing schlemihl nostalgic for the good old days of the Flying Scotsman and a time when you could kid yourself that anything in the press was worth taking seriously, a man disappointed by everything in his universe, especially himself.

However, by circuitous means he comes upon some people who genuinely believe in everything which he has lost — survivors of a Comet IV air crash living out a bizarre Anglophilic cargo-cult existence in the New Guinean jungle — who might, just possibly, serve as a contrast to the lost souls of Blair’s Britain. Among these lost souls are Blair himself, Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, who appear as their unnamed selves (respectively geekish idiot, preening moffie and Glaswegian hardman). But there are more — the youth (who are awful), the central character’s schoolmates now in media and public relations (who are awful), the press lords (who are awful) — what has happened is that Everybody has Lost Touch with the Values of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.

Well, fair enough. Of course, Hawes is internally ironic about the whole thing. Who could take Dan Dare seriously, other than one of the Argentinean Air Force heroes of the Malvinas conflict and his gorgeous and clueless daughter? Notwithstanding, though Hawes may not believe in the ideals the book sets forward, though his hero is a Pooter among Pooters, Hawes delights in depicting the decadence into which Merrie England’s inhabitants have fallen — people who do nothing (because there is nothing to do), care about nothing (there’s nothing to care about) and yet are scared of everything except a cocktail or a line of cocaine or an engorged phallus. Things Can Only Get Better, sang New Labour in 1997, and Hawes is peeved that they lied. Perhaps he voted for them, or something.

Beukes is seemingly trying to do something vaguely similar to Hawes, but her method is remarkably different, because unlike Hawes she employs not one character who is remotely likeable on any scale of values which the Creator can comprehend. Possibly the characters are pretty, or entertaining if one is sufficiently drunk or stoned. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine waking up next to any of them with any pleasure, because they would all talk about the things which interest them, and the things which interest them are absolutely uninteresting.

How can this be? It is because not one of these characters is in any way a productive human being. All of them are absolutely alienated from other people; none is in a sexual or emotional relationship. The political activist despises and manipulates the people in his clique because he is secretly taking orders from someone he met in cyberspace. The corporate publicist holds her corporation in contempt. Admittedly the videoblogger believes in what he is doing (if there is such a thing as a positive character in the text, it must be him) but what he is doing is plainly garbage and his entire life is a cardboard monument to self-centredness. As for the professional medical guinea-pig, she surfs through life without ever understanding anything around her. All these people are convinced that they are the centre of the universe. All of them are clearly a hideous waste of valuable oxygen.

It’s hard to believe that this is accidental. It is true that the Creator has known plenty of people who have some of these characteristics, and if Beukes works in the field of media, propaganda and spurious arts she probably knows even more. However, most people have at least some redeeming features; Beukes’ characters seem to have been carefully chosen to have none. Is there a message here?

Perhaps it is intentional, perhaps unintentional, but there is certainly a message. In the future, corporations rule. Well, there’s a novel proposition for you; have we ever heard it before? Oh, yes, in 1952, in The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth. William Gibson’s Neuromancer was written way back in 1983, when Beukes was just a teeny tot (Moxyland is pretty ostentatiously cyberpunk, though without much in the way of cybernetics and a definite dearth of punkishness — the elements of both are a sort of veneer beneath which is the same old South Africa.

What South Africa? There is no South Africa, just Cape Town. As is common in Cape Town, nobody goes anywhere outside of town. Rural areas are spoken of with a shudder; apparently they are just too awful for words. In any case, somehow the government won’t let you go there (nobody says why). Government? What government? In South Africa now, everybody talks politics incessantly, but in Beukes’ Cape Town there is no Mayor, no President — a brief mention of a Minister of Safety and Security is all there is, and nobody cares about him (or possibly her). The only evidence of the existence of a government is the occasional appearance of police suppressing demonstrations. (There is no crime, or to be precise there is no foregrounded crime although it is vaguely talked about.) Again, however, the demonstrations are small, diffuse and lack support. Hardly anybody cares.

But on the other hand, nobody cares about the corporations. They are the air everybody breathes. Everybody has a logo on everything and everything fixed has a billboard stuck on it. This is accepted by everybody except the political activist who wishes to protest against falsity, although he has no idea of what reality might be, having no personal experience thereof.

Everybody is efficiently controlled by their cellphones. You can do anything with a cellphone, and anything can be done to you. If you misbehave your cellphone turns into a stungun and knocks you over. It’s monitoring you, and it can easily demonstrate your misconduct — which justifies your cellphone being cut off. Without a cellphone you cannot access the Web (a fate worse than death) and you cannot access your bank, so you cannot buy anything. It is clever of Beukes to make an icon of hideous consumerism into an icon of authoritarianism.

However, of course, most people don’t have those cellphones. Most people don’t have jobs. Such people exist in the background of the book; they are the suffering masses on behalf of whom the activist acts (never, of course, communicating with them in any way, except to demand that they show up at rallies — Beukes seems to have had some experience of such activists in the real world). The money to build the affluent enclaves in which the entirely bourgeois cast of characters live must have come from somewhere — but where? Nobody seems to make anything or do anything, nobody has power over their lives. It’s a society existing in a void.

By this time it seems that Beukes has been reading a lot of Naomi Klein; the hostility to advertising reflecting No Logo and the vague notion that big business wants to reduce government to the level of a police force reflecting The Shock Doctrine. If so, all credit to Beukes again for making the concepts so accessible. But within this, there is a problem.

Fredric Jameson (all rise and uncover, please) once remarked that every dystopia contains a utopia. Zamyatin’s We has its enclaves of freedom which the Benefactor must suppress. Huxley’s Brave New World has its Savage; Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has the inside of Winston’s and Julia’s heads and the inside of Julia’s thighs. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is located in a future where Gilead has already been destroyed. The whole point about a dystopia is to propose an alternative to the horror in the foreground.

Unfortunately, Moxyland seems to have no alternative. Are these odious, childlike people living in a city-wide padded cell really the future? The critique of radical resistance which Beukes presents is powerful, as is her presentation of the omnipotence and omniscience of corporate culture. But if the bad guys are inescapably in charge, there are no actual good guys and the people who think they are good guys are deluded, gullible clowns, then the book itself becomes nothing more than corporate propaganda with an illusory dose of attitude.

In other words, the book appears to be a substantial expansion of Beukes’ column in The Big Issue. Does this mean that she does not know what she is doing? Or is she the most sophisticated corporate propagandist around, doing knowingly what the characters in Moxyland are doing unconsciously?

Alternatively, is the book a cunning satire on the political defeatism of the South African middle class, whites, coconuts and all? Is it a brilliant jest against our false liberators? The Creator is perhaps dumb — a stunning acknowledgement to make — but it seems impossible to tell. Only Beukes knows for sure, and if Moxyland is any guide, she isn’t going to tell us.


How Does It Feel To Be Such A Freak? (I)

July 25, 2008

It appears that disaster happens whenever the Creator is asleep at the switch. Only a few months ago the Creator arrived in Cape Town, turned on the wireless talking-type radio, and bejeezus but that Zuma bhoyo was the new President of the ANC. Took a lot of Glenmorangie to wash that one down. Now the Creator arrives in Cape Town, purchases a sheaf of printed corporate propaganda, and heilige scheiss, that Zuma kêrel, bless his little cotton socks, has fired the Premiers of the Eastern and Western Cape. Maybe the Creator should just stay home. Maybe the Creator should just never get out of bed.

However, the interesting thing about this stuff is not the corrupt and criminal activities of the Zuma gang. You do not get very far by demonstrating that a bunch of corrupt crooks will act like a bunch of corrupt crooks. Nor is it odd that there are a lot of corrupt crooks out there. Nor is it surprising when, say, the good Mr. Malema of the ANC Youth League talks and acts like a brain-damaged psychopath. After all, he undertook to do that when he was installed in his post. That is what such people are expected to do, and what they are paid to do. It does not mean that Mr. Malema is indeed a brain-damaged psychopath; nor does it mean that even if he is a brain-damaged psychopath, he will be permitted to do anything psychopathic with his brain-damage.

Instead, what he is doing is playing a role absolutely vital if the ANC is to be discredited and corporate-controlled neoliberalism is to take charge of the country — that of a person unfit to hold his position but nevertheless secure in it. It is vital that South Africans be persuaded to despise the government and hate and fear the political process. After all, the political process is the only thing which can endanger corporate-controlled neoliberalism. (More on Lauren Beukes much later.)

No, none of this is particularly interesting once you understand that this is a puppet-show. It is mildly interesting to trace some of the strings. The puppets, however, are not intrinsically interesting. Nor is the plot of the show either good or original; we have seen it before in many other countries; Russia under Yeltsin, Argentina under Menem, and so on. Populist front-men for big business, backed by media lies and Western imperialism — nu?

What interests the Creator instead is the people who can watch the show and somehow manage to persuade themselves that it is not a puppet-show, that it is revolutionary, radical, people’s power, and that they must support it to the best of their ability without actually spending money or (in extreme cases) getting out of their recliner-chairs.

The Creator is not talking about “pundits” and “journalists” and “independent political commentators”. This category of people, like Sipho Seepe or Richard Calland or Anthony Butler, is not at all interesting. They do it for the money and always have. No doubt this is in part because of their reactionary ideological positions. However, broadly speaking, attending to such people is about as interesting as listening to a sound-track of the noises a whore makes while striving to bring her customer to orgasm. However, there are other people who are, or might conceivably be, capable of doing other things. These people are intelligent enough to perceive arrant bullshit, and independent enough to mention the fact. How do they brainwash themselves into redefining shit as sugar and then stirring tablespoonfuls of said ordure into their steaming cuppas?

Comrades and colleagues, meet — or rather don’t — Mr. William Saunderson-Meyer. He used to write a column called “Jaundiced Eye” in which he was cynical about the political system. Hoorah for such things, because while perpetual cynicism is utterly powerless, at least it is not necessarily co-opted. However, sadly,

 

Brother Billy has both guns drawn,

He ain’t been right since Vietnam,

 

as Warren Zevon carolled on “Play It All Night Long”, and sadly, while Brother Billy S-M indeed now has both guns drawn, he ain’t been right — in the sense of accurately reflecting the nature of the physical, psychological or spiritual universe — since he partially recovered from a nasty car accident. Fortunately he has full capacity as a South African journalist. Do not ask what that says about South African journalists.

The Creator’s eye fell on Brother Billy while paging through a courtesy copy of the Argus last week, wishing it were something else. (Hence no direct quotes — sorry, but then again, why be sorry?) Brother Billy’s putative jaundice was being applied to Jacob Zuma, and it was as yellow as anyone could expect. The gist of the article was to begin by saying that Zuma was behaving awfully by allowing his supporters to threaten the judiciary and the Democratic Alliance, two issues which frequently cause white reactionaries to change their trousers. So far, utterly banal and crapulous. Yet the article wafted out of this and into the realms of cerebral paresis with amazing vim and speed.

Brother Billy’s ensuing line was to cry ¡Hola! Zuma is not really a criminal at all! He is a victim! He is a victim of an evil conspiracy! Of an evil conspiracy by the spiteful and conspiratorial Thabo Mbeki! (At this point, Brother Billy apparently had to reach out and wipe himself with a handful of Baby-Soft. Then, pulling up his fresh brown trousers, proceed.) This conspiracy is evil! How do we know that it is evil? Because of all the people who are just as bad as Zuma or — come to think of it — much worse, but have not ever been tried, but have been cossetted, protected, defended, indemnified by the evil Mbeki! Look at Jackie Selebi! Ooo, isn’t it ‘orrible? That Mbeki is so bad! At least Zuma is a good guy! By comparison with the real bad guys out there who are all Mbeki supporters! Hats off to Jacob Zuma, donchaloveim? Whoop! Hooraw!

At this point the article stopped, possibly because the attendants came in with a Thorazine injection and some stout leather straps. The Creator may not be giving quite the flavour of the article, but the above paragraph is a faithful presentation of Brother Billy’s factual content and argumentation. Except for the bit about the Baby-Soft, which is purely conceptual.

Let us nevertheless consider and analyse this. Jacob Zuma’s bank account revealed that millions of rands had been paid into it by the French arms company Thint (formerly Thomson-CSF, formerly Thales — these people change their names as often as if they were thieves) and by Zuma’s “financial advisor”, multi-millionaire Schabir Shaik. It is not clear what this money was paid for, although Zuma subsequently performed services of a financially advantageous nature for both parties in his capacity as Deputy President and supremo of the arms deal involving Thint and Shaik’s brother. Jacob Zuma’s tax records reveal that he paid no tax on any of this money. Case to answer, not so? Heavy stuff, not so?

All right. Is it credible that this was all constructed by Mbeki? No, it appears not; it’s inconceivable that he could have fabricated so much material without Zuma’s knowledge.

Is there any actual evidence that Mbeki had any grudge of any kind against Zuma which might lead to such fabrication? Mbeki supported Zuma in his run for the Deputy Presidency of the ANC in 2002. In return, Zuma supported Mbeki as President. The two seemed eminently cordial, up until the evidence of Zuma’s criminal corruption began to leak out, and Mbeki defended Zuma’s right to remain as Deputy President of the country up until Zuma’s financial adviser was put away for bribery and corruption involving Zuma. So the answer to the question must be no.

Okay. But at least Mbeki’s Cabinet is full of crooks who have accepted huge sums of money in exchange for favours, not so? No, indeed, not so. Mbeki’s Cabinet is certainly full of people who have been accused of such behaviour by their (and Mbeki’s) political enemies, and such accusations have been extensively hyped by newspapers owned by their (and Mbeki’s) political enemies. However, not a single such accusation has contained enough information to warrant legal action. There is no hard evidence of bribery and corruption in Mbeki’s Cabinet, despite plenty of investigation, and despite the obvious fact that the press, the Democratic Alliance, and a large number of non-governmental organisations will pay vast amounts of money if any such information were provided. It isn’t possible for Mbeki to prevent such information from getting out, or to stop action from being taken on it. He doesn’t have that kind of power. Nobody does.

Oh, and Jackie Selebi, Commissioner of Police, was dismissed from his post although there was no hard evidence against him, because the Scorpions found a criminal who was prepared to testify (without hard evidence) against Selebi. It remains to be discovered whether the criminal is telling the truth. (The criminal was threatened with life in jail if he refused to testify.) Brother Billy was not aware of this.

So — Brother Billy’s argument is obvious hogwash. Nothing that he said was true; there is a vast amount of evidence suggesting that Zuma is guilty, there is no evidence that Zuma is a victim of a conspiracy (other than some indications that Mbeki tried in vain to protect Zuma, or at least protect his party from the horrible consequences of Zuma’s indictment) and there is no evidence that Zuma has been singled out while others have escaped scot-free. This is so bad, it is actually good, for poor Brother Billy surely must believe the lies he is telling. In order to bullshit us, he has surely bullshitted himself first. How has he done this?

The answer seems to be a form of cognitive dissonance. Brother Billy knows — because he has been told frequently — that Mbeki is evil. He would be incapable of accepting that Mbeki is anything else, because that would entail questioning what he is told. Evil must be counterbalanced by good; he has also been told that. Therefore, if Zuma is evil, the whole structure of Brother Billy’s world is in danger of coming unglued. How can there be two evils, both opposed to each other? And yet the same people who tell Brother Billy that Zuma is evil are telling him that Mbeki is evil. Somehow the facade of reality must be saved, but how?

Solution — Mbeki double, double evil! So evil he evilled Zuma into evil! Zuma’s evil is all the fault of Mbeki’s evil! And, therefore, not only by comparison, but also by the law that shows that when evil is evilled it turns into good, Zuma’s evil becomes good and all that evil evils off onto Mbeki’s double-evil, so Mbeki becomes treble-evil! Aaaah! That feels so much better, just like an enema, although having the opposite effect because it fills one up with even more shit than before!

In other words, the ideology which Saunderson-Meyer serves is both invulnerably bullet-proof and indefinitely protean. The secret is to define the enemy as demonic. Once one has done that, anyone becomes good by comparison. Then, the person one sees in the mirror in the morning becomes a paragon of rectitude because that person supports the good, the true and the beautiful. What is more, a demon is not just bad, but omnipotent — and therefore, the person in the mirror (and anyone that person likes) becomes enormously brave by being prepared to take on the devil incarnate.

A meaningful ideology should be testable against reality. But this one is not, because any failure in the ideology can be explained through the invincible evil of Mbeki and his allies. Whatever Mbeki does or says can then be explained in terms of evil — does he oppose something in Zimbabwe? Why, that shows his devilish cunning in trying to lure people into the trap which is surely intended to serve the evil Mugabe (another demonic figure). Does he stand up for foreigners against xenophobia? Why, the language he uses can be parsed into proving that secretly he hates foreigners — he did not say enough, and that means that he actually desires to see all foreigners killed! If he denies it, that means it must be true! If he doesn’t deny it, that means it must be true — or else he would deny it!

Mbeki-hatred is much like campaigning against witchcraft. Jab her with a pin — if she flinches, it is a sign of a guilty conscience! If she doesn’t flinch, it is a sign of the lack of sensitivity which all witches have! Throw her in the water! If she floats, she’s a witch! (No, that particular test wasn’t invented by Monty Python.) If she sinks — well, better safe than sorry.

Meanwhile, is Mbeki good or bad in the real world? The wondrous impact of the Saunderson-Meyer ideology is that it’s impossible to tell. Viewed through such a lens it is tempting to say that Mbeki, or Balindlela, or Rasool, are parfit gentille knights. Most likely, in fact, they aren’t. In the real world they are, however, probably better options than the alternatives put forward by the obvious crooks of the ANC’s National Executive Committee or the Central Committee of the SACP.

A probability which the ideology is clearly designed to prevent anyone from seeing.

 


Zimbabwe in Crisis, Pope Still Catholic, Bear Crap Found in Woods.

July 25, 2008

Yes, Virginia, Zimbabwe is in a crisis as a result of Morgan Tsvangirai’s decision to withdraw from the Presidential elections. It was in a crisis before that, it will be in a crisis after that. The Creator is starting to suspect that Zimbabwe will be in crisis when the sun goes nova and the last star falls from the sky.

The Creator has been hanging out with some MDC supporters, insofar as it is possible to “hang out” with paranoid-psychopathic xenophobes. It was not a pleasant experience. MDC people believe bizarre things. (This no doubt applies to the leading lights in the party, the dimmer bulbs and the trusting masses simply hanging on their lips like fake-surgical-steel implants.) They believe that all the problems of Zimbabwe arise from Robert Mugabe. They believe that everywhere in Africa outside Zimbabwe is equally evil and corrupt, but that South Africa is more equally evil and corrupt than anywhere else. They also believe that Robert Mugabe is channelling the Great Satan, Thabo Mbeki.

They indeed believe that some non-African foreigners, such as France and China, are definitely evil, and they are not keen on the Americans (they do not quite say that the Yanks let good old Smithy down, but it’s in the background), yet they do dearly love Britain who will save them and solve all their problems. (Much like someone at a ventriloquist show saying “I don’t think much of the guy sitting on the stage, but that little wooden chap on his knee has a lot of talent!”) What is more, they won’t shut up about any of this garbage.

This helps to explain why Zimbabwean politics is a load of poisonous nonsense and why the press is even more poisonously nonsensical on Zimbabwe than on any other issue. (The Weekly Mail recently ran a story trumpeting an “exclusive” that Thabo Mbeki has secretly criticised the Zimbabwean government. What is he trying to hide, they ask; why has this been hidden from us? Perhaps, you hideous dolts, because you shut your eyes, stuck your fingers in your ears, and then stuffed your heads up your arseholes, which at least improved your appearance slightly. Mbeki’s criticism of Zimbabwe has been a regular feature of unreported news for the last nine years.)

Tsvangirai says that he has abandoned the Presidential elections because of the violence which was going on. In the past he never abandoned any elections because of violence which was as bad, or worse, though slightly less hyped in the media. Things do seem to be a little worse now than they were in 2000, but it is impossible to be sure because of the misleading coverage. Anyway, Paris is well worth a Mass, and Harare is well worth a small pile of corpses which amount to a day’s, or a weekend’s, South African road carnage.

Right-wingers who supported apartheid are fond of comparing the Zimbabwean situation with the South African anti-apartheid struggle (naturally, to South Africa’s detriment), but in the run-up to the South African 1994 elections dozens of people were being killed by the white right and Inkatha, with the approval of the apartheid government, every day. Nobody thought it would be a good idea to pull out of the elections. It is hard to see that Tsvangirai’s protestation of humanitarian concerns carries any weight at all.

In that case, why has he dropped out? There seem to be two possibilities. One is that he, or his handlers, feared victory. Victory could lead to two obvious problems; one is that ZANU (PF) or its military allies would simply seize power, annul the election and defy the planet to do its worst. (This is what the Southern African Development Community has been afraid of; it would simplify the situation, since then SADC would no longer be obliged to support the Zimbabwean government, but it would also make it impossible to resolve by the diplomatic methods which have hitherto been pursued.)

Also, possibly, the MDC’s handlers were not altogether ready for victory. No doubt they assumed that ZANU (PF) would simply steal the Parliamentary election, as Westerners would try to do under similar circumstances. However, like the Americans in the last Iraqi elections, the ZANU-ites were too optimistic and so ended up with the worst possible situation. They managed to finagle the Presidential side of the election, but who could say whether they would be able to rig the current one properly? Meanwhile, however, were the handlers prepared to grab all that they wanted from Zimbabwe? What if someone called Britain out on its billion-pound bribe offer to Zimbabweans if they voted for Tsvangirai? Were the troops ready to intervene if things went astray after Tsvangirai’s inauguration? Most likely not. Much better wait until one does not have to depend on unreliable elections.

Of course, there was also the strong probability that Tsvangirai might lose. This is not because of intimidation (intimidation is not very good at winning elections) but because Tsvangirai is not a very solid Presidential candidate, being politically inept. Lots of people who are keen to get rid of Mugabe for all kinds of reasons, are much less keen to replace King Senile Stork with King Rotting Log. And if Tsvangirai loses, then what? On one hand, ZANU (PF) could justify holding power for a few more years, perhaps until they could replace Mugabe with someone less doddery and more flexible, which would pose problems for the MDC’s handlers. Also, defeat might lead to internal rebellion against Tsvangirai from the lower levels of the MDC who might be impatient with Tsvangirai’s conduct and seek someone remotely competent — but also, who might be less submissive to foreign instructions. That would also be a big problem for the MDC’s handlers.

Much safer, therefore, to denounce the whole election and hand everything over to the big drum of Western propagandists. The US has now come over to Britain’s side (whereas previously it saw Zimbabwe as too trivial to bother with, now that the US is in serious recession it needs a small country to plunder — conceivably the British, having done all the work, will now be shouldered aside by big brother porker dipping his snout into the Zimbabwean trough). Maybe they will be able to bully the UN into fabricating excuses for sanctions (in violation of the UN’s Charter, but that has never been a problem in the past) — not that sanctions are likely to do much harm to an economy which has already free-fallen from 20 000 metres onto the tarmac. Sooner or later the MDC will start sounding like Bush apologists instead of Blair acolytes. Or, perhaps, they will be able to climb on board the Obamarama.

Meanwhile, there is also Zimbabwe. Still no sign of any actual solutions to the country’s problems. The political problem could possibly be eased by a “government of national unity”, or what P J O’Rourke once rightly called “Cats and Canaries United”; at least if everybody was stealing together, there would be less conflict over who gets to steal what. But what about the actual problems? What about the lack of foreign exchange, the collapsing infrastructure, the desperate unemployment rate only concealed by the diaspora, the disintegrating social system concealed by mutual propaganda?

Zimbabweans love to pretend that their country is a paradise, or would be but for whatever invented demon they happen to endorse. Taking responsibility for their own plight, and acknowledging the catastrophe which has befallen them, is unheard of. In fact, black Zimbabweans are replicating white Rhodesians so closely, it’s as if they took them for a model. Given that white Rhodesians were so prominent in setting up the MDC — and, for that matter, played a leading role in turning ZANU (PF) into a permanent government thanks to the operations of the CIO and the Special Branch in the early 1980s — perhaps that isn’t surprising.

ZANU (PF) is keen to negotiate. To be precise, is keen to hand over all the responsibility for the problems which they have created (or at least helped to create) to the MDC. The MDC doesn’t want to take responsibility, which is one reason why the MDC hasn’t come forward with any plans for resolving Zimbabwe’s problems; if they had a policy, someone might expect them to implement it. (Recently the Mail and Guardian had an article on “How to Fix Zimbabwe” — of course nothing in the article explained any such thing. To be fair, Time also had an article on how Tsvangirai was going to sort out Zimbabwe’s problems — any fool who turned eagerly to the article to learn the answer to such questions was, of course, disappointed; Time is not stupid enough to expose Emperor Tsvangirai’s nudity.)

So negotiation should be happening, but it isn’t — or if it is, it’s at glacial pace when it should be happening in a hurry. Everybody is immensely concerned about who is going to win. Obviously Tsvangirai is going to win in the end — if you can call it winning. Obviously ZANU (PF) is going to lose in the end — if you can call it losing. But will Zimbabwe ever be able to get up off its knees again? Million percent inflation can no doubt be curbed somehow, even if it is a structural product of the economy rather than an artifact of global finance. But then what? Who’s going to invest the money the country needs? Will the skilled Zimbabweans now making big salaries abroad go back and take huge pay cuts? What happens if they don’t?

Don’t watch this space for the answers. The Creator is growing weary of Zimbabwe. Granted, it is a sad situation. Whether it is a tragedy, however, is a very moot point indeed. Maybe it is just a nation-sized farce in which the cream of the joke is supposed to be that the people slipping on banana-skins are actually breaking their necks.


The Rich Are Eating Us.

July 22, 2008

 

Cannibalism is a glory and a wonder. In Brazil in the last century it was used as a metaphor for postcoloniality; the Brazilian was supposed to eat up the Europeans and thus absorb everything good about them without being dominated by them. (This metaphor was handy for the Americans, who ate up Brazil like a sugar-sprinkled doughnut while Brazilian intellectuals were bragging about how free they were from foreign influence.) In Lesotho during the crises of the early nineteenth century rumours of cannibalism flooded the country, rumours which endure even today. Evidently bad times breed cannibalism (and cannibals also bring bad times, especially for the people they eat).

But now there is a worldwide food crisis. The cost of food has shot up and the force of gravity has been repealed. Luckily, good restaurant prices are little higher than they were (you don’t pay for food, you pay for status, and the kind of person who goes to such restaurants has the moolah to pay twice as much with no crisis). The rich are getting a lot more money without spending proportionately more. They are devouring our bank accounts through our food budgets. This puts a more realistic spin on the anarchic early-1980s British movie, Eat The Rich, or on the conclusion of Godard’s Le Weekend; the rich are actually eating us. As per usual.

Outside movieland, the truth is — well, similar to that, only of course, more complicated. It’s a problem which can be solved, but with a lot of difficulty. So therefore few people are calling for any solutions. Fuhgeddaboudit! COSATU, for instance, demands action against food companies which are allegedly colluding to keep prices high. Doubtless when COSATU’s leaders find that their houses are on fire, they go straight out and picket the nearest match factory. (The Creator realises that COSATU needs to keep its membership dynamised without any actual political education; this is a process which understandably requires a lot of bullshitting.) More influential people call for privatisation of something, or deregulation of something else, and blame the government, because they want more money and power, and blaming the government is cost-free.

Given how much the Great and Good in our society have royally stuffed things up, their opinions are never reliable, but the Great and Good own the newspapers and most of the media. (How they constantly shriek about the horrid existence of the SABC! However, they will change their tune once they control it.) The Great and Good are not criticised in the media. Therefore it has to happen here.

The food crisis is caused by the convergence of the effects of a series of bad decisions, all of which were taken because some corrupt rich person somewhere stood to make a profit out of it.

(The Creator apologises for shocking everybody.)

The biggest bad decision was a combination of a reluctance by Western investors to invest in Africa and other impoverished parts of the world, and a determination by the leaders of African and other impoverished nations to rob their people in order to enrich themselves. Both are products of identical Western capitalist greed. One result is that African agriculture is unproductive — even where it is highly capitalised it is unsustainable. Across much of the world, agriculture is in crisis because of under-investment or mis-investment. Agriculture is seemingly (officially) not profitable except when performed on a massive monocultural industrial scale, and it is easiest to do this in developed nations. When the people of impoverished countries are upset, it is the city people who count, since they can march on State House; the people on the land usually do not matter. Hence poor countries tend not to invest in the countryside, preferring to bribe the inhabitants of the cities.

All this is a product of greed, to which capitalism is the biggest contributor.

Then we come to the specific problems which afflict us now that we already have this horrible discrepancy between rich and poor nations. Why is the system not working?

The obvious problem is the world commodity market. There shouldn’t be one. There should, actually, be national commodity markets, some of which sell their surplus produce on a wider market. Instead, as Thomas Friedman said, the world is flat — meaning that the capitalist imperialist steamroller has run over it and squashed it into a bloody pulp some of which can be scraped up and put to use by the owners of said steamroller.

O dear, the Creator is driving under the influence of metaphors again. But, not really. Once upon a time in South Africa, agricultural produce was all sold to the government which then sold it to the companies who sold it to the consumer. Hence the government could decide if spare food should be stored or sold. The producers got a guaranteed price which could be subsidised in bad times or used to subsidise the government in good times. Overproduction did not lead to bankruptcy any more than droughts. So it was supposed to work, and while it was often corrupt and dysfunctional, it at least had the potential of being efficient in preserving people working the land in order to feed the nation.

But that went out of the window in the 1980s (no, it wasn’t the evil ANC, despite what you hear). Even before the World Trade Organisation was founded, farmers were expected to sell their goods directly to massive bureaucratic organisations — but because these massive bureaucratic organisations were privately owned, none of the media (themselves privately owned by massive bureaucratic organisations) complained. Instead, people like Friedman were paid lavishly to celebrate and to explain that it was good for the consumer. So it was, while the farmers were ground under the bureaucratic heel without redress — since the companies buying their goods were in other countries. Smaller companies, sensibly, refused to pay more than the bigger companies — why should they? So commodity prices were pushed down, and the consumers benefited — or thought they did.

But now that conditions have changed, the cost of producing and transporting food has increased and there is nobody to subsidise the costs. Nor is it possible for the corporations to grind the farmers further without running the risk of driving them off the land. Small farmers have already been crushed and the bulk of the farms are themselves corporatised. So the price skyrockets with nothing to hold it down, and the consumers whine and wail and the corporate media explain that there is nothing that they can do (to be precise, nothing short of reducing either the profits of the company, or the perquisites of corporate bosses and their immediate lackeys, the capitalist fat of the land).

They promised that everything would be better once the system was changed to benefit the owners of the system rather than the producers of goods. This was a lie, of course. It seemed better for a while, just as a pension scheme based on the stock exchange seems better than a normal one based on company input, when the stock exchange prices are rising. But when stock exchange prices are falling (as they are with painful speed at the moment) then such a pension scheme is revealed as a fraud, although the trouble is that it is much too late to do anything about it. Similarly, it will be very difficult to restructure the food marketing system so as to bring prices down to where they would have been had we not allowed it to be handed over to crooked businesspeople.

It might be possible to do something; for instance, to forbid the export of food, as has been done in Brazil. The problem is, however, that crops are sold many months ahead. Another problem is that there are not necessarily other marketing structures which can replace the foreign buyers. Therefore, such a decision will not solve the problem at once, nor will it solve the problem by itself. We will still have to restructure our marketing arrangements.

But this would be controversial, wouldn’t it? Specifically, if food is going to be brought under control, why shouldn’t other goods also be brought under control? People are already wondering why it isn’t possible to subsidise petrol, diesel and paraffin. (That, again, is because the fuel price, although not deregulated, has in recent decades been allowed to drift up to whatever the market would bear. The state could subsidise fuel, just as it used to subsidise food.) But in that case, the deluge. Why not regulate everything? Why allow businesspeople to rob everybody as a result of factors which the businesspeople do not control, but which the system is rigged to enable them to exploit? Therefore, big business doesn’t want the government to do anything effective.

Besides, it would create the impression that the public can turn to the government for help, and that’s the last thing that big business wants the public to think. At the moment the chief objective of big business is to discredit government as much as possible. (Hence their promotion of Jacob Zuma.) Neither of the edges of this particular sword appeals to big business. Government knows this. Government is always afraid of big business, and particularly now when big business can pick whichever faction in the ANC it chooses to wield as a club over the other factions, using money as the lead in the clubhead. So, once again, government chooses to do nothing.

The unusual thing is that this time the left chooses to do nothing as well.

In the background, of course, are two related problems to the food crisis which are making things worse. These are the growth of fuel-from-food and the growth of bourgeois eating practices within the global proletariat.

One of the biggest and most profitable industries in the world is, of course, the oil industry. The oil industry has hooked us all on liquid-fuelled transport systems. To keep those systems alive as long as possible, the oil industry needs to promote liquid fuels. Hence the promotion of alcohol fuels which can be mixed with petrol, or with vegetable oils which can be mixed with diesel. Thus people can be conned into continuing to use oil-fuelled transport systems. The fact that this means taking vast amounts of food and turning it into fuel, or taking farms which could be used for growing food and putting them under fuel-oriented seed crops, does not bother the people making the profit. As a result, the food problem becomes just a little bigger (while, of course, global warming grows just a tiny bit worse).

Probably a bigger problem, though, are the cows and pigs in the factory-farms beside the roads used by those liquid-fuelled transport systems. These animals have to be fed on something. Apart from being fed on each other, they are mostly fed on food which is relatively easy to transport, meaning that it has to be food of high nutritional value. In other words, food which could go to humans; however, it is more profitable to feed that food to animals whose meat can be sold at a higher price than the price of the food the animals ate.

One of the minor causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the premium on meat dishes. The USSR’s elite decided to provide more meat to the public, thus proving that life was better, against all other evidence. But it couldn’t provide more grain, because its agricultural industry was so inefficient. So the USSR started importing grain, paying for it by exporting oil. Then the oil price fell and it had no means of paying for the grain.

The world is in a similar position; people want meat, partly to compensate for the unlovely life we live, and people want to sell meat, because of all the money it provides. So we dump food that humans could eat into the throats of meat animals. Fast food. Tasteless junk food that makes us fat. Toxic food stuffed with bizarre organic chemicals which gets into our metabolism and does who-knows-what to us. Luckily, meat is slowly becoming too expensive to afford.

Maybe we should start eating each other, starting, preferably, with the privatisers, the oil industry and the owners of the meat factories . . .