The “Normalization” of South African Politics.

November 20, 2008

“Normalization”, or “Renormalization”, is a mathematical term used especially by physicists who are trying to get to grips with reality through mathematics. Very often in the mathematics of physical theories, mathematical terms and concepts are introduced which have no conceivable counterpart in the real world. When you have what looks like a useful equation which is rendered unworkable by the presence of these terms or concepts, you “normalize” the equation by getting rid of those terms or concepts, or by transforming the whole equation into terms more comprehensible, applicable, or commercially viable.

In other words you change the situation from one which you cannot control into one which you can.

For many years South African big business and its front-people has been calling for the “normalization” of South African politics. The reason for this is that big business is unquestionably in control of politics in every other developed country in the world (with a few doubtful Bolivarian exceptions). Therefore, South Africa should be utterly under the jackboot of big business, for this is “normal”, and this has led directly to all the triumphs of corporate neoliberalism which we see around us daily. (The Creator is about to listen to the news to hear the latest stock-exchange dead-cat-bounce puffed as the end of the “[

recession]”. Oh, it failed to bounce. Poor pussy.)Poor South African big business had it tough, for between 1910 and 1994 South African politics was dominated by Afrikaner nationalism of one brand or another, and Afrikaner nationalism was driven by Afrikaans-speaking workers and farmers who had no love for big business. Only once the racist brand of Afrikaner nationalism had failed in its mission of repression, had alienated the more stupidly racist of its followers and had thus been forced to bring English-speaking big business into the equation to sustain power, did big business have much influence, and that was only after the middle of the 1980s, when big business had to uneasily share power with the South African Defense Force.

But the logic of the collapse of Afrikaner nationalist politics was the collapse of the racist state on which it depended, and that meant the introduction of democracy. Which meant that big business was once again on the periphery of politics. “Normalization” for them now meant somehow breaking up the ANC, or alternatively, transforming it into a party of big business (for a one-party state is perfectly “normal” for big business, as has been seen in Latin America and the Far East). Ideally, though, what big business wanted was two parties of big business so that the public could pretend to have a choice of leadership every few years — the situation which prevails in most developed countries.

Well, isn’t that what we appear to have now? We have the Democratic Alliance, which has a new logo apparently modelled on a South African flag spilling out of a sewer pipe, which is entirely in the hands of big business. (They have recently announced plans to rent out the Cape Town police force which they control to big businessmen at very reasonable rates; in the most crime-ridden city in the country, it makes perfect sense to take police officers off the streets.) We have the Congress of the People, which has yet to announce any policy but which the Creator fears the worst for. And we have the African National Congress.

The media, which is controlled by big business, yipped continually about the ANC’s leftward shift while Mbeki was in power, but the moment that Mbeki was booted out, the yipping ceased. Instead, we have been told that everything is all right because there has after all been no leftward shift. It is difficult to believe that big business would tell us that the party in power had not moved left, if it had moved left. Big business is well aware of its immediate interests (though not of its long-term interests) but it is also well aware of what the people want. In consequence, big business wished to sell the Zuma faction of the ANC as leftists when in opposition, and now wishes to promote them as rightists while in power. In other words, appeal to the people when in opposition, appeal to the plutocracy when in power. This is the way the ruling class rules.

Recently there was a Communist Party rally in Mpumalanga. Theoretically, this could have been a great opportunity to press for socialist direction of the state; swingeing increases in taxes, massive infrastructure spending, tight regulation of capitalists. None of this was done, although the heads of COSATU and of the SACP were on the podium. Instead, the actual purpose of the rally was to promote Jacob Zuma, who talked about how the ANC was going to win the election with a big majority.

Duh. Mbeki did not talk about big majorities because he assumed they were going to happen. Before September 2008 the victory of the ANC was a done deal and the big question was how the ANC was going to use its victory; whether it would truly seek a better life for all (a phrase echoed in Zuma’s speech) or whether it would allow itself to be hijacked by greedy, selfish criminals. What Mbeki did, and you may say it was shameful, was to try to strike a balance between the crooks and the people, giving each a small slice. But now the people have been taken off the scales and the whole pie is in the hands of the crooks.

If Zuma were really worried about winning the election, and he ought to be, then he would develop a set of policies which appeals to the people. Unfortunately, it seems that he can’t. As the Creator has pointed out, he’s had four years to do this in, and he’s had the benefit of the SACP and COSATU which have been challenging established policies for twelve years. Yet, somehow, this is not possible. The most radical actual proposals coming out of government since Motlanthe began warming Zuma’s Presidential throne have been presented by Trevor Manuel: modest boosts in the social grant and a slight budget deficit. Diddley-squat, in short.

So instead of presenting a draft manifesto which the people could warm to and which could be discussed and refined and ultimately fought for, Zuma’s cabal are inviting the public to write their own manifesto for the ANC. We may be absolutely certain that whatever goes into the manifesto will have no necessary connection with what the public calls for. It is also extremely probable that the “public” whose opinions are supposedly sampled will actually be Zuma’s nominees. All the same, the real problem is that Zuma and company are not so much showing democratic tendencies as they are ostentatiously taking their hands off the wheel. If anything goes wrong with their rule after 2009 they will simply be able to blame the people for the bad manifesto. (And, as Brecht suggested, Zuma and company may well seek to dissolve the people and elect a new one.)

But in practice what this means is that the ANC is officially abandoning control of policy. This also means that the SACP and COSATU, which hitherto were the drivers of calls for left-wing policy, have abandoned their claims to make such calls. (Oh, they continue to make such calls, but these are purely rhetorical nonsense for the consumption of fools; they have nothing to do with reality. They are not “normalized”. If the actual policies of the SACP and COSATU were “normalized” by translating the rhetoric into meaningful action, those policies would be inescapably neoliberal and violently anti-democratic.)

So, if the centre which is in control of things refuses to make policy, and the left has withered away completely, the only remaining element is the right, to be precise, the corporate right of big business. In other words, the ANC, in pursuit of electoral success, is moving sharply towards the right and away from popular control. “Populism” in Zuma’s terms, means fooling the public, like the “revolutionary” language of ideologically dead organisations such as the SACP and the ANCYL. This is particularly ironic because under Mbeki the ANC built up a gigantic war-chest which was supposed to make the party forever financially independent of outside forces. That was what Chancellor House, Kgalema Motlanthe’s darling, was supposed to be about. But now Zuma is sucking up to big business in exchange for cash. What does this mean? Has Motlanthe stolen all that money already? Or is Zuma just pocketing the donations supposedly made for the ANC? The Creator will not anticipate that any journalist will look into the matter.

So broadly speaking the DA is a big-business front, and the ANC has handed itself over to big business. There is as yet no sign that CoPe has any real concern with left-wing values; its concern for constitutionalism and democracy is extremely wishy-washy and leaves plenty of room for pseudo-liberal big business to endorse it. Nothing has been said about wealth redistribution, not even by Philip Dexter. So if the CoPe is in any way left of the ANC it is keeping very quiet about it — which is a bad sign indeed, since if it wanted to, it would. As a result of this, the most plausible anticipation is that the CoPe will not win massive public support outside disgruntled ANC activists and members appalled at Zuma’s dishonesty and criminality.

Hence we now have three big-business parties; one backed by white big-business, one backed by black big-business, and one apparently aspiring to be backed by black big-business. It looks as if these three parties will be the three biggest parties after the coming election. Yes, things have been “normalized”. Not so completely “normalized” as white big business (the dominant part of the ruling class) wants — ideally they would wish to see the DA in charge altogether. But for the moment at least, until the public can be persuaded to utterly lose faith in all political activity, go away and shut up, this process has reached its apex.

Which, no doubt, explains why nothing is being done to shore up the nation against economic collapse. The three main political parties’ constituencies are the millionaire ruling class. The millionaire ruling class is not worried about economic collapse because it intends to go to Dubai in its yacht. As for the rest of us, the fifty million inhabitants of South Africa as it really is, we can bugger off and read Polokwane resolutions for recreation. Or watch the way the three parties swell and shrink. But it will have no more meaning for the real world than it would if we were watching it happen on a video game.


Back to the Future Election.

November 20, 2008
The last time the Creator contemplated the coming election it seemed that the ANC was going to grit its teeth and buckle down. Since then, the Zuma gang have smashed the whole china shop. However, the fact that they are standing knee-deep in shards, mooing loudly, does not necessarily mean that nobody is going to vote for their bull. Come, let us reason together.

And, to reason properly, let us have a Table, for who can reason without a Table?

Party Percentage of vote in 2004 Constituency
ANC 69% Africans of all classes, middle-class urban coloureds and indians, working-class rural coloureds and indians.
DA 10% Whites, working-class urban coloureds and indians, everyone who hates the ANC, most rich people.
IFP 6% Zulu nationalists
UDM 2% Africans who miss the homeland system.
FF+ 1% White afrikaners who miss apartheid.

It’s immediately obvious that this is a stable situation. The ANC has a broad base and the other parties have narrow bases. The ANC has some capacity to make inroads into the other parties’ constituencies whereas the other parties have very limited capacity to do the same. This is, basically, why the ANC has grown by 9% since 1994.

But hold! Policies do count. In other countries policies don’t count because all parties have essentially the same policies. In South Africa there are a few differences. Let us see what they are:

Party Percentage of vote in 2004 Professed ideology
ANC 69% 60% social democracy, 30% neoliberalism, 10% black consciousness.
DA 10% 60% neoliberalism, 40% white supremacy
IFP 6% 50% neoliberalism, 40% Zulu supremacy, 10% black consciousness.
UDM 2% 100% humbug
FF+ 1% 90% white supremacy, 10% social democracy.

This table, subjective as it is, suggests some important issues. The FF+ has no prospect of growing and will probably gradually fold into the DA. The UDM and IFP have no prospect of growing and will probably gradually fold into the ANC. This means that, even more than appeared to be the case in the previous table, the ANC looks like a winner; it has the potential to win over 8% of the voters while the DA has only 1% to win over. (Actually this is not quite true because there are a number of tiny parties like the ID and the ACDP which the DA will eventually take over when they have served their purpose.)

The big issue is that very, very few ANC voters will go over to any of the other parties. They simply have no reason to. The fact is that while the ANC has neoliberal elements to it, very few will vote for it because of this. If you are a neoliberal, chances are you will support the DA. And, if you are a social democrat, you have no reason to vote for any other party. Hence this keeps electoral support stable.

Of course, people may distrust the ANC’s leadership — in other words, may doubt that their professed ideology is real. But it would take a very big degree of distrust to drive people into other parties. This is why the ANC’s support went up between 1999 and 2004 — admittedly, after 2002 the ANC softpedalled neoliberalism. There is also, often, a big disjunct between what people say and the way they vote, simply because the press and various political leaders attack the ANC for its neoliberalism and many people will heartily agree with this and then go off and vote for the ANC again. Most people can recognise the difference between partly neoliberal and wholly neoliberal parties and policies, even if from a Trotskyite point of view there is no difference — except that Trotskyites usually prefer the wholly neoliberals, on the basis of “the worse, the better”. But the rest of us don’t spend all our time on campus and living in the real world is a powerful antidote to Trotskyism.

But what happens when you don’t know, or trust, the leaders of the ANC? Let’s have another table and see:

Party Percentage of vote in 2009

(with plausible leaders)

Percentage of vote in 2009

(with Zuma leadership)

ANC 71% 65%
DA 11% 13%
IFP 5% 5%
UDM 1% 2%
FF+ 1% 1%

The assumption here is that the ANC’s share would go up with plausible leadership, but would go down with dubious leadership — but only to a limited extent. After all, Zuma could be a fluke, or his promises might come true after all. Because people would stay away from the polls the DA’s share would go up (and also with bad ANC leadership the DA would have good grounds for getting the vote out). The IFP would not benefit (Zuma is a Zulu nationalist who has good relations with many of their leaders) but might stay the same because of low turnouts. The UDM would probably benefit from low turnouts and a degree of protest voting. The FF+ is hopeless.

Note that this is not a big change, and this is roughly what the Creator predicted. But now the ANC has been driven into a split. The question is, how far will it split? The new party, the Congress of the People, is often called a “splinter” party, which suggests that it is pretty insignificant, like the UDM. However, the CoPe has a lot more leaders than the UDM, and is represented in a lot more provinces, and has a surprisingly large amount of money coming from somewhere — also, despite being rather inept in some ways, it has fairly dynamic and high-profile leaders. Hence it is automatically several times as significant as the UDM. Three times would put it at 6%. Five times would put it at 10%. The party is talking about winning the Eastern Cape, Free State, North-West and Limpopo, which constitutes about half the ANC’s support-base and this puts it at 30%. Which of these seem most plausible?

The probable answer is in between the extremes. CoPe is essentially identical to the ANC in its professed ideology and its target constituency. Perhaps the CoPe hopes to make inroads into the DA’s support base, or at least to hijack some of the supporters from other parties who might otherwise have moved into the DA — CoPe is less unattractively reactionary than the DA. On the other hand, with the exception of Phillip Dexter, CoPe has no visceral leftists in its ranks (Shilowa is no longer an obvious leftist, despite his trade union background). It could thus be hampered by its lack of social-democratic credentials — though it is very probable that the Zuma faction have already overplayed their hand in propaganda terms around this issue; nobody can see any of Zuma’s acolytes as left-wing anti-capitalists.

How disgruntled is the ANC membership? We know that Mbeki had a 40% support-base at Polokwane, but election-rigging and sheer confusion means that this probably underestimates the actual anti-Zuma base. If this 40% were the CoPe’s resource, then that would translate to at least 27% of the total vote, putting the ANC itself down to 42%. However, conference delegates are not the same as voters; it is likely that the average voter was less upset about Polokwane than the delegates were.

On the other hand, the average voter is undeniably peeved with the ANC. If it is true, as some claim, that virtually all the provincial elections this year have been rigged to install Zuma supporters, then this would build an even stronger potential base for CoPe. It is certainly true that since Polokwane the ANC has done nearly nothing to win the public’s trust — and their passivity, incoherence and lack of direction since Zuma and Motlanthe seized power has not helped either. The bullying, bluster and occasional thuggery which we have seen will undoubtedly upset those voters who are not blind Zuma supporters (and there are much fewer of those than there are blind Zuma supporters among the political elite, simply because the political elite is easily bribed).

A guess: if the ANC continues to blunder along with its present incompetence, and if the CoPe are able to present a manifesto with a reasonable amount of left-wing content (a simple Keynesian platform of doubling spending on housing and public works, and setting up a state development corporation to channel that money into labour-intensive activity, would probably be enough and would present the CoPe as more concerned about the economic crisis than the ANC is) — then the CoPe might be able to push 30%. The Creator cannot imagine that they would do better than that. If the ANC gets its act together, outflanks the CoPe from the left and stops bullshitting so much, it might be able to hold the CoPe below 10%. Hence, maybe, a plausible figure would be 15% for the CoPe. Let’s put that in tabular form again (leaving out the decided possibility that the CoPe will fail altogether and get under 5%) and see what happens:

Party Smart ANC, dumb CoPe Average ANC, average CoPe Dumb ANC, smart CoPe
ANC 58% 53% 39%
CoPe 9% 15% 30%
DA 12% 11% 11%
IFP 4% 4% 3%
UDM 2% 1% 1%
FF+ 1% 1% 1%

(This assumes that the IFP might be vulnerable to a serious CoPe campaign, but omits the possibility that the ID’s voters might defect to the CoPe en masse.)

It might well be an interesting election.


The Obamanable Truth.

November 20, 2008

So — Americans can be proud to know that a Democrat will be held responsible for the catastrophes of the last eight years. Americans can also be relieved that henceforth the predominantly brown-skinned victims of their nation’s aggression will be killed, mutilated or imprisoned without trial on the orders of a brown-skinned person. A day for celebration, to be sure.

Certain obvious things can be said. Obama is less stupid than George W Bush and has probably a less dysfunctional personality. It is thus possible that he will administer American plutocratic imperialism more efficiently than George W Bush did. As a consequence of this it is possible that Obama will make things worse, but it is also possible that he might make things better; it is a toss-up. Obviously nobody can be sure, because Obama’s real nature is much more hidden from the public than Bush’s real nature was before his election.

The Democratic Party is supposedly to the left of the Republican Party. Notwithstanding, it is probable that Obama is the most right-wing successful Democratic candidate at least since James K Polk. Those people who anticipate any serious improvements in the horrible socio-economic state of the Union or its foreign policy are almost bound to be disappointed. In truth, it is likely that matters will get worse.

CNN last night warned that Obama was taking over two wars, but as usual, CNN was lying. The United States is at present involved in a number of wars, all of which are civil wars. It is directly involved, through occupation by combat troops, in two of these: Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama tepidly opposed the American imperialist aggression against Iraq, but has since heartily endorsed the American campaign of state terror and ethnic cleansing in that country known as the “surge”. He has pretended to support the withdrawal of troops from that country which an overwhelming majority of Americans desire, but there is no evidence that he will ever do anything about that.

Obama is a great enthusiast for America’s imperialist aggression against Afghanistan. His goal is to deploy more troops there; apparently he wants to win the war, although virtually nobody thinks it can be won. He has also expressed excitement about the possibility of invading Pakistan, even before the U.S. military did so last month. It is difficult to see any comfort in this aspect of his foreign policy. As for the notion of withdrawing from America’s proxy wars in Colombia and Somalia, there has been no sign of this. On the contrary, there is a distinct possibility that America will expand this level of aggression to elsewhere in Africa, in the Sudan (where America has already been arming-up the southerners) and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (where Rwandan aggression continues to rage with America’s tacit support).

As for other foreign policy, Obama claims to desire to rebuild America’s alliances. This is an ambiguous claim at best. It is exceedingly unlikely that an Obama government will be able to reconstruct the old crony relationship which Clinton had with the Yeltsin junta in Russia. Nor is it likely that an Obama government will build better relations with China. The Obama government may be less crass about its American imperialism in Latin America, but so long as the Americans are backing the terrorist state in Colombia they are unlikely to build better relations with the loose coalition of “Bolivarist” states in Latin America. What is quite possible is that an Obama government will attempt to restore the old pro-American ruling class in power in these countries, in which case it will alienate Latin America as much as it did in the days of Ronald Reagan — but under a more democratic climate which would make any Reagan-style meddling much more of a disaster for Obama.

In Europe, Obama will doubtless ditch the xenophobic nonsense of the Bush administration, but the trouble is that the EU is, in the end, a competitor for the United States. Under Clinton and even Bush it was possible for America and the EU to work together because they shared common hostility to the rest of the world. However, now that the global economy is in recession, economics will drive America and the EU apart. No doubt Obama will persist in America’s attempts to economically penetrate Eastern Europe, and as such spark further competition both with Europe and with Russia (which holds all the trumps in any serious competition).

As for the rest of the world, Obama may well try harder to plunder Africa than Bush did, entailing a return to the Clinton policies. This will be more difficult because even much of the African ruling class has gradually come to recognise that America’s word cannot be trusted and that American policies are junk. The collapse of the American banking system casts a cold light on the lies and misrepresentations of the IMF, World Bank and WTO over the past couple of decades, which impoverished much of Africa’s elite. As a result, the de facto anti-American coalitions such as the SA-Brazil-India alliance (which David Frum might term the “axis of mild disgruntlement”) will probably endure and possibly strengthen under Obama. Indeed, the present trend towards, so far as possible, economically and politically decoupling from the United States, will persist unless Obama can provide a much better reason for doing otherwise than he has provided thus far.

It is, of course, possible that the wave of corporate-fuelled euphoria over Obama’s election will continue. The Creator would bet, however, that this will not happen. The Creator seriously wonders whether it genuinely existed in the first place. Meanwhile, the objective problem is that the United States in world affairs is in the grip of political and economic forces which it has in part greated but which it is too weak to influence swiftly. If it is not prepared to be diplomatic — and diplomacy requires give and take, whereas the United States has historically been unwilling ever to give — then it will not be able to influence these forces at all.

Very well, but what about the United States internally? The United States faces crises which are predominantly economic; the rich, bluntly, are too rich. The rich, also, are rich because of financial transactions rather than because of activities which actually employ large numbers of people outside the service sector. This is why the United States lacks a proper system of nationally sponsored health-care; the rich are not prepared to save the lives of the poor if they can possibly avoid having to do so. In addition, while other countries are also in the hands of their rich minorities, the United States virtually wrote the handbook on plutocratic governance.

There are other problems, such as race relations, gender relations and so on (homophobia is apparently alive and well to judge by the hostility to gay marriage). There is also, perhaps more importantly, a massive and almost entirely invented divide between the Republicans and the Democrats which seems more acute than ever. (Note that Obama won by anything but a landslide, and he actually took a minority of whites.) The fact that this divide is imaginary, being based on a false construct of American rural and small-town populism which ignores the reality of those environments, does not mean that it is insignificant, any more than the fact that Germany actually was militarily defeated in World War I and was not betrayed by the Jews made it difficult for the Nazis to promote the dolchstosslegende and the notion of the Jewish peril.

It will be difficult for Obama to overcome these divides, so perhaps he would be better placed to sort out the economic problems, starting with the current crisis in the financial system and the gigantic budget deficit. Unfortunately, the former problem is probably not soluble. What is desirable is for the banks to be reduced to manageable size, by allowing them to fail, or preferably to disintegrate into a less overconcentrated form. But the American ruling class will not tolerate this, so there must be bailouts to give the highest executives of the banks the opportunity to safely enrich themselves before the banks crumble. In other words, instead of at least some of the money being returned to the depositors, the bankers are looting it for themselves, increasing the economic divide.

What is also desirable is the introduction of rigorous financial constraints to prevent the corrupt practices which brought the disintegration of America’s investment banks; limits on what can be done with the money, and on what can be done when one doesn’t have enough money. This would, however, put the brakes on financialisation, which is the only area in which America is seriously growing, economically. Hence the ruling class doesn’t want this.

Consider the savage cuts in the interest rates across the planet, which are supposedly intended to encourage the corporations which have not invested in industrial plant for two or three decades to suddenly begin to do so (they are doing nothing of the kind — in fact, the easy credit will almost certainly make it even easier to promote unsound loans). These cuts are actually making it almost impossible for banks to turn a profit on interest alone. Hence they are almost being forced to pursue more lucrative financial instruments. If Obama were to restore legislation like the Glass-Steagall Act, which restricted speculation after the Great Crash of 1929, banks would have a lot of trouble making ends meet. So they will make sure that he does nothing of the kind. Besides, his Vice-President is Joe Biden, heavily beholden to the financial sector.

He could, of course, redistribute wealth through increasing taxes on the rich and reducing those on the poor. He talks about doing such things, but it would require an enormous amount of effort to increase taxes on the rich significantly, unless the whole tax code were reformed (which would alienate the powerful tax lawyer lobby). Pretending to increase taxes on the rich might be a political solution, but would not serve to redistribute wealth. On the other hand, cutting middle-class taxes, which Obama is committed to doing, will reduce American government revenue quite substantially, precisely at a time when the government is plunging deep into deficit. It will make it very difficult for any real redistributionist activities; the American government just does not have enough money and cannot borrow more in the near future.

So it appears that all Obama can really do, out of all his plans, is to introduce a national health-care system. This is a desirable outcome, of course. Unfortunately, the powerful medical-industrial-legal complex will probably prevent a simple single-payer health-care system of the kind which works. What will instead be produced will be an excessively complicated system of managed health care not very different from what American businesses offer, which will make huge profits for a few and will not help Americans terribly much.

One other thing which Obama has promised has been a move towards renewable energy. This is again desirable and a lot of money could be spent on it for pleasing returns. Perhaps. We shall have to wait and see whether this actually happens. Unfortunately it is possible that this will be sidelined by the move towards more domestic oil drilling and the greater application of nuclear power. Also, the agribusiness lobby, which is strong among the Democrats, will want to pursue the vegetable-fuel programmes which George W Bush introduced, and this will be good neither for the environment, nor ultimately for the United States.

In short, it seems likely that “Yes, We Can” will soon be replaced by “Sorry, We Can’t”. We must wait and see whether Obama can salvage anything from the wreckage or whether his term leads to unprecedented disappointment, disillusion, and the implosion of his party.


Welcome to the Desert called Utopia.

November 6, 2008

“They create a desert, and call it peace!”. One of the enemies of the Roman empire said that — the Creator thinks it was Cassivellaunas, but if it was Vercingetorix it doesn’t matter. The point is that it is an apt introduction to the desert of the contemporary. A desert is at least a peaceful place — no nasty hopping animals or rustling leaves disturbing the passers-by and cluttering the landscape. So the Romans had a point.

But the idealised desert of the modern world is a desert which is called not only peace but prosperity, freedom, justice, spiritual harmony — an absolute utopia; the necessary condition for this statement being that there can be no passers-by with sensory organs. So they must be hooded or blinded in order to preserve this absolute utopia. Once upon a time the Emperor had no clothes; now everybody is expected to ignore the fact that the Emperor had clothes (stolen from us all) but rather we must focus our attention on the wonderful Empire which does not actually exist but which we must pretend exists.

Virtual reality failed as a technology but succeeded as a universal metaphor.

What is the Creator talking about? Not little things like the collapse of the world economy or the imminent destruction of the global ecosystem. Such things might well have happened anyway. These are things, however, which have been enabled, facilitated, empowered and accomplished by the thing which the Creator is trying to communicate.

OK. Dubai. In the desert they build pleasure-domes. Fair enough — why not build pleasure-domes for the rich? Well, firstly, because every pleasure-dome means less for everybody else. Those pleasure-domes serve to create poverty. Nothing new there, of course — every empire has done the same for its ruling class.

However, in the past, nobody pretended that the Golden House of Nero, or Blenheim Palace of Marlborough, was a service to the public. Those buildings were edifices of personal pride (Marlborough built a statue to himself, on the tallest column in Britain, on his front lawn). They were, supposedly, also signs of national greatness. “Look at us — we can afford to do this shit!”. Childish but comprehensible, if psychotic.

Dubai, on the other hand, is a monument to worthlessness. Shoddiness, shabbiness, impermanence — it will all disappear in the Depression, and it would all have disappeared — even if there had been no Depression — when the oil ran out and the justification for having a palace in the desert evaporated. In effect, the current global empire is saying “Look at us — this is the best we can do!”. Despicable.

And yet Dubai is supposedly the state which we are meant to admire. They have made a success of themselves. Sort of like Lindsey Lohan, in a way. But a Lindsey Lohan worshipped in the corporate pages; not for what it has really done, but how it epitomises the human spirit of neoliberal capitalism. Not even truly despicable; it arouses too little emotion for that.

So what has happened to us is that we are invited to admire that which is not admirable. It is no longer necessary, apparently, to warn us not to object to that which is contemptible. The public no longer protests against being crassly exploited. Also, it no longer protests against rich people plundering us and devastating the planet for their own selfishness. (Nero at least felt obliged to spend his own money rebuilding Rome; the Duke of Marlborough was immensely unpopular. Their childishness was tempered by a public which, despite having infinitely poorer communications than we have, was at least able to recognise that these people were not on their side and which posed enough of a threat to their rulers so that they could compel the rulers to do something for them.)

We are inside a box. We can vote for the people who built the box. Different people built the box, so we can vote for different people. But we are voting for the box. We can buy things from people who built the box. We can even listen to the propaganda put out by the people who built the box, and in both cases we can buy from, or listen to, different people, and tell ourselves that what we are experiencing is unrivalled choice and variety. However, we are still inside the same box, and we can do nothing to change the box (except now and then, perhaps, alter the colour or the texture of the material from which it is made). And we are stifling.

This is a metaphor but it is also a real experience.

You might say, well, the ruling class has always done this sort of thing and things are only a little worse than they used to be. But this does not really seem to be the case. There is more of this sort of thing than there was; more plundering, more incompetence, more lying about the plundering and the incompetence, and less hope.

Let us consider American presidential elections. The Presidents have been a sorry lot at least since Carter. Carter was a competent conservative; he did his best to fight against the Russians, provoking the Afghan war (so he shares with George H W Bush, a somewhat less competent conservative, the honour of destroying the World Trade Centre; Carter created al-Qaeda, Bush antagonised it). Of course, Carter pretended to be a liberal, and he also lied, pretending to tell the truth. “I will never lie to you”, he lied to the American people. And before Carter was Nixon (let us ignore Ford, as indeed does everybody) who also lied and obfuscated (“Let me make one thing perfectly clear”, he waffled) but who at least took decisions. Arguably Nixon was the last real liberal President, as Carter was the last competent conservative.

Since then — well, look at them. Reagan. George H W Bush. Clinton. George W Bush. Notice any similarities apart from their all emerging from the same corrupt elite and telling essentially the same lies to the same audiences? None of them pursued policies which benefited the nation as a whole. All of them pursued policies which benefited a minority; respectively, in Reagan’s and George W Bush’s cases a very small minority, in George H W Bush’s case a slightly larger minority, in Clinton’s case a quite large minority (indeed, on occasions during his government even the majority benefited slightly — but this was a by-product of policies aimed at benefiting minorities, not an end in itself). All of them knew that pursuing these policies would damage the rest of the country. All of them damaged the US Constitution to a greater or lesser extent and paved the way for the contemporary fiasco which is probably irreversible. All of them led up to the situation of today, where one can vote for the Wall Street warmongering authoritarian, or one can vote for John McCain who has the same qualities but a slightly more psychopathic personality.

But much more importantly, what are their monuments? What, in the last twenty-eight years, has the United States, the richest, most powerful, most free-to-act nation and government on the planet, created to be the envy of the rest of the world? In seven years they haven’t even been able to build a monument to the victims of the World Trade Centre atrocity. Their administrative accomplishments — the WTO, the World Court, the Global War on Terror — have been utter fiascos. No laws have been passed which have liberated Americans or other people. No evil, tyrannical states have been overthrown to the sound of cheering crowds of victims; instead, where evil and tyrannical states have been overthrown, the people look back on those states with nostalgia when they compare and contrast these states with the calamities which the United States has vested upon them. Foreign and domestic alike, the policies of the United States since Carter’s failure have been horrendous calamities, constant retreats from anything remotely admirable.

This is astounding because there has been so much money sloshing around. The last time there was so much money was the “Gilded Age” of the late nineteenth century — significantly, also a time of economic crisis which the rich managed to their own benefit until the whole thing fell apart in 1929. At that time, the “Gilded” signifies meretriciousness; it is not gold but only gold-plated or gold-painted. What Carlyle called “universal shoddy and devil’s dust cunningly varnished over” (shoddy here referring to the false material which gave its name to shoddiness) might have been horrific, and no doubt was — but compared with now, the late nineteenth century at least gave us some great accomplishments and public buildings. Even the horrors of the Scramble for Africa and the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion had a certain sick grandeur to them. By comparison, modern neocolonialism does not even have a spurious patina of majesty. If one compares the Boer War with the Iraq War, the advantage is unquestionably with Kitchener over Petraeus.

Similarly, capitalists have always been insulated from their reality, alienated from ordinary human experience, by money and the pursuit of money. No doubt many have simply been hollowed out by their wealth, as various novelists such as Pynchon and Doctorow have described. Life shrinks into the possession of money and the pursuit of more money which becomes the only reason for living, as if any such thing were a sufficient reason if you have enough to feed and clothe and shelter you for the rest of your life and a thousand lifetimes after that.

But the visions of emptiness and shallowness and the shrinking of human existence into nothingness, which were originally manifested in writers like Dickens, never took hold as they have now. Today the worthless possessions of the super-rich, the cigars and golf and uncomfortable clothes and ugly houses and clumsy cars, are blazoned in half the advertisements and editorials you come across. So we are all urged to leap on a staircase which for most of us is a down escalator on which we feebly struggle to make our way against the moving steps. Meanwhile there are security guards around the other escalator; the rich do not seek competition as they whizz skyward.

But ironically the escalator which the rich rise upon does not take them up to paradise. It takes them deeper into the desert. Or, perhaps, now, flings them off a cliff. What is more, they get onto the escalator because they are told to do it, just as we are.

There must be more to life than this.


Analysing Raymond Suttner.

November 6, 2008

Prof. Raymond Suttner, UNISA law academic, ex-revolutionary, ex-political prisoner and author of The ANC Underground in South Africa to 1976, now describes himself as a “political therapist”; people come to him saying how depressed they feel about the situation, and he heals them. Admittedly not by telling them that the situation is all right, or by finding the causes of their depression (“Now, tell me, what might have been the source of your hostility-aggression towards your first commissar?”). No, he just tells them that things are bound to get better someday. It is the political equivalent of Prozac, generating fake contentment with one’s bitter lot in this fallen world.

Ooo, that does sound ‘arsh, don’t it?

Suttner began his talk by plugging his book, which seems to be a good one. The purpose of the book, he explained, was good whether or not the book itself was good (which is a good observation in itself). The purpose was to remind us that there was a time when ANC political activity was determined by two vital purposes; to take action despite the fact that it brought no immediate direct benefit to the person taking the action, and to take action which would eventually bring direct benefit to other people as well as oneself. Altruism and solidarity, in short.

The book deals with the sixteen years between the banning of the ANC and the start of the Soweto uprising. During this period, Suttner observes, many commentators — such as reactionary and Afrikaner nationalist historian Hermann Giliomee — have claimed that the ANC had ceased to exist. (In the 1960s many books were produced by the South African propaganda organisation claiming precisely this.) Suttner was too nice to remind his audience that this is because virtually all of these commentators would like to see the ANC destroyed and are empowered by the notion that someone one actually managed to do it.

Suttner’s key point was to do with popular mobilisation and how important this is. If the people are not involved in politics, if they do not feel themselves to be participating in a democratic struggle, then there is a problem with that politics and that struggle no matter how noble the cause might be. The Creator would not disagree with this. It was refreshing to hear the notion of participatory rather than representative democracy rearing its head; the Creator has not heard such terms spoken out loud for twenty years. On the other hand, it is blindingly obvious that an underground organisation is not an agency for popular mobilisation, nor is it democratic. In the book, Suttner raises unanswered questions about whether the ANC before 1960 was really as democratic as it claimed; in his talk he wondered out loud whether even the UDF was as participatory as it pretended. It is good to raise such issues although it might have been better to have raised them earlier, even if not at the time they were relevant.

So: altruism, solidarity, and genuine participatory democracy. He did not mention socialism once, but perhaps he felt that as a long-standing communist (though no longer a Communist, his membership having lapsed making him one of the 35 000 lapsed members fraudulently kept on the SACP’s records) he did not need to. Perhaps, too, he felt that speaking to a bunch of bourgeois types at Rhodes, it was necessary to tone down one’s analysis to the intellectual level at which Democratic Alliance politicians routinely operate. (There, this proves that the words “intellectual” and “Democratic Alliance” can be put in the same sentence without the world coming to an end.) So much of what he said thereafter should be judiciously criticised because it may have been couched in dubious terms for purposes of agitprop.

But on the other hand, it may not.

The second two-thirds of Suttner’s talk, which was staggeringly well-timed to last exactly an hour (and not a sentence was wasted) was devoted to contemporary politics. Very properly, Suttner observed that there is much that we do not and cannot know about what is going on. Hence all observations must be provisional and many observations should probably be held over until clarity emerges.

Having established these qualifications Suttner went off on a splendid rant, the gist of which follows.

The ANC is staggeringly defective. (Suttner focussed on the ANC because he felt that the SACP was beyond redemption and therefore not worth criticising.) Its leadership is both corrupt and incompetent. They are without meaningful policies and have seized power largely for personal gain; a significant minority of them are criminals or at least justifiably suspected of criminal activities. This leadership is also intolerant and incompetent; it can alienate people with its intolerance, but it lacks the competence to persuade those people to stay in the organisation. Hence the organisation is also extremely fragile — membership and leadership have parted company and structures have largely disintegrated or ceased to function meaningfully — and as a result the current leadership is unprecedentedly insecure.

Suttner identifies problems arising from this. One was violence. An ex-MK operative obviously cannot speak out against violence per se, but he observed that the threats of violence explicit in many statements made by the ANC Youth League and the Young Communists League were threats against constitutional order. Likewise Suttner spoke out against calling judges “counter-revolutionary”, echoing the point earlier made by — of all people for Suttner to be echoing — Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni. His major point, however, was that if a judge is “counter-revolutionary” when opposing one’s political agenda, and is endorsed only when supporting one’s political agenda, then the concept of the judiciary is absent (and, one might add, that political agenda is confused with revolutionary activity — something which a real revolutionary like Suttner probably found distasteful in the mouths of Malema and Mbalula, whose revolutionary credentials do not exist).

In speaking out against using violence to break up meetings organised by the “Shikota” party, Suttner emphasised that he was not supporting the ANC’s dissidents. His chief complaint against them was that they had put forward no programme for anyone to follow. A national convention such as they sought to call, he pointed out, was just a big public meeting; there had been no attempt to make it representative and any decisions taken there would be arbitrary top-down issues. Hence he could not support them.

On the other hand, he could not endorse the ANC’s criticisms of them. Lekota, he observed, was a brave and honest man, albeit impetuous and sometimes undisciplined. Anyone thinking that Lekota had left the ANC out of bitterness — he cited Pallo Jordan’s “sour grapes” remarks with surprise that an intelligent man could say something so stupid — obviously did not know Lekota. (Once again Suttner elided the probability that the people saying these things were saying them not because they were true, but because they were convenient.) Meanwhile, why had there been no effort to keep the disgruntled people within the fold? How far were their criticisms of ANC internal democracy valid? Would the new party have better internal democracy? Impossible to say.

Suttner, a Freedom Charter scholar, was somewhat scornful of the “Shikota” claims that the ANC had deviated from the Freedom Charter. It was far too soon to say such things about the Zuma clique. Besides, the Freedom Charter was such a flexible document that it was perfectly possible to argue that Shilowa and Lekota and others had themselves deviated from the Freedom Charter in their support for Mbeki. Hence such claims were two-edged — even if time might prove them more true than they currently seemed.

In response to a question regarding the way that Shilowa had failed to take Gauteng with him, Suttner was wry. He recalled how the Gauteng Provincial Executive Committee had initially shunned people who were rumoured to support Zuma. Then, rather suddenly, as Zuma’s power-base appeared strong in the run-up to Polokwane, the PEC had unanimously changed sides and become Zuma supporters. This was the only point in the speech in which Suttner genuinely sounded bitter, not so much because of the political choice which the PEC had made as because it was so obviously opportunistic and dishonourable — the latter being a term which one almost never hears in these great times, except in the mouths of people incapable of pronouncing the word without messing their pants from pure guilt.

Suttner concluded by identifying the obvious consequences of taking control of the ANC without any principles or programme. He observed the apparent difference between business right and communist left in the Zuma cabal (although he probably exaggerated this difference because he still wanted to believe that the communist left exists). He noted, much more plausibly, the divide between the careerist union and SACP leadership and the trusting workers who make their monthly donations to keep Nzimande and Vavi in cigars and — well, as Suttner observed, whisky has been declared counter-revolutionary, so presumably other ardent spirits are what the true leaders drink. But he noted, scornfully, how Nzimande had been flown around the country at the workers’ expense so as to sit on the platform next to Zuma and drink in the applause.

It is probable that Suttner exaggerated the popular support for Zuma amongst the rank and file. (However, his original split with the SACP had come when the Party supported Zuma’s traditionalist defense during the rape trial, and he argued that it was entirely possible that, had the prosecutor in that trial not been so inept, Zuma might well have been found guilty on the basis of the evidence.) On the other hand, he pointed to the very strong, yet secretive, influence of the military (such as Siphiwe Nyanda) and the spy services (such as the Shaiks) on Zuma’s crowd, and said that he did not want to raise any further points about this for fear of being sued. He obviously thinks there is something very dangerous going on there. Or, perhaps, he just thinks that bourgeois Grahamstonians are most vulnerable to be scared on such issues.

Oddly enough, on the other hand, he said relatively little about the corporate issue. When questions were asked about whether the ruling class had not deliberately fomented a split in the ANC, or whether the SACP leadership had not used its Party authority as a tool to enrich itself — making Communism essentially a front for capitalism — he changed the subject hastily. Perhaps this is the kind of thing he just does not want to think about. Perhaps he fears that he would not be able to apply his tools of political therapy to himself.

Instead, he did say one thing about the source of the problem which was interesting. He observed that under Mandela and Mbeki there had been a decline in the participation of the people in politics. This he emphatically blamed on Mbeki’s centralisation of power. Indeed, although he did not speak about him much, he blamed Mbeki for a great deal — for instance, that Mbeki’s harsh treatment of those who disagreed with him had promoted the Zuma faction.

As he observed, the press has been incompetent in its analysis, due both to retaining the same stale reactionary white hacks of yesteryear, and bringing in stale reactionary black hacks to back them up. (He named no names.) He did point out that a large number of intellectuals within the ANC and the Party — again, no names — were clearly aware of what was wrong, but were saying nothing. This, he said, was a problem — and one which clearly one could not accuse Raymond Suttner of.

Yes. And yet . . .

Suttner’s analysis boils down to the simple idea that before 1990 things were politically all right; that between 1990 and 1994 things somehow went wrong; that after 1994 things went very wrong because Mbeki took over (would the public have had more opportunity to participate if the corporate wheeler-dealer Ramaphosa had got in?) and then after 2007 really really bad when Zuma took over. So now the Party is bad, the ANC is bad, the ANC dissidents are bad, and the people whom the ANC leaders replaced, they were also bad. Everybody is bad except, apparently, Raymond Suttner, floating above the flames and wreckage like a helium balloon made of asbestos, impervious and unaffected.

But this is not actually an accurate analysis. It is a self-serving representation of reality, even if it is the best representation of political reality that the Creator has heard. It leaves out the towering fact that Suttner was in the SACP when that party became corrupt, that he was in the ANC when it became separated from the public. These are not affairs where he can say that he and the other intellectuals are above criticism. He and the others failed.

More to the point, issues like the collapse of public political dynamism were not simply imposed on the ANC by Mandela and Mbeki. They may have been a side-effect of the need for economic retrenchment. But the fact that the case against GEAR was made purely by abuse and personal dogma, that neither the SACP nor COSATU nor any Trotskyite organisation made any effort at political education of the public in order to either understand or meaningfully challenge government policies — this is something for which intellectuals like Suttner are responsible. Suttner was the head of Political Education in the ANC. Where is political education today? In the toilet with the rest of the Polokwane promises.

No. Cde Suttner has made a fine speech and written a good book which we should all read. But there are a couple of words which he failed to pronounce in his speech. Perhaps because he could not.

Those words are “mea culpa”.