In Praise of Theocratic Tyranny.

June 29, 2009

“Although today many proponents of racism condemn racial discrimination in their words and their slogans, a number of powerful countries have been authorized to decide for other nations based on their own interests and at their own discretion and they can easily violate all laws and humanitarian values as they have done so.”
(The Great Satan of Tehran, speaking at the Durban Review Conference Against Racism, Geneva, 20th April 2009).

There has been a lot of coverage, all of it (naturally) superficial and manipulative, about the Iranian crisis. The Creator would not be disturbed about this except that a few leftists appear to be wavering on the matter, and some leftists (in particular the British Socialist Workers’ Party, which now appears to be entering one of its periodic ultra-right phases which are even more embarrassing than its customary ultra-left stance) are clamouring against the Iranian government. Perhaps, therefore, a crude analysis of the situation, suitable for framing or gift-wrapping electronic fish of the screen-saver breed, is needed.
Iran is, of course, not a democracy. There are periodic elections during which rival candidates backed by powerful factions sling absurd accusations at each other. Meanwhile, all actual decisions are taken by still more powerful forces behind the scenes. In short, Iran is superficially just like Britain or the United States or any other Western power.
The difference is that the power behind the scenes is not, as in the latter countries, multinational corporate interests seeking to maintain the hegemony of neoliberal practice and discourse. Instead, it is a cabal of priests and theologians headed by an Ayatollah, seeking to maintain the hegemony of Islamic practice and discourse. This, therefore is a little like the situation in Europe before the centralisation of state power, where kings, princes and dukes were ultimately dependent on the papacy for sanctioning their authority and where it was unthinkable to take a decision which would alienate the papacy unless you were in a militarily very strong position indeed (like the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II). The Presidents of Iran are free to take any decision which the Ayatollah permits them to take.
Therefore, in real terms, Iran is a theocratic tyranny. However, as in so many tyrannies, it is not totalitarian. (Even the Nazis were not totalitarian before 1942, although Stalin’s regime probably approached totalitarianism; Mussolini and Mao were amateurs in comparison, toys in the hands of greater forces.) The reason for this is that the Ayatollah and the mullahs and moulanas draw their authority ultimately from their false religion — that is, from the existence of a mythical supreme being supposedly controlling individual destiny in an imaginary afterlife. It is sad that Persia, the land of the revelation of Zoroaster, has fallen into the Kingdom of the Lie, but what can you do?
Islam is not as hierarchical a system as Catholicism was; Catholicism was structured along the lines of the Roman Empire, with a Supreme Pontiff and with Archbishops instead of provincial governors. Until the decline of the temporal power of the Papacy, the Bible was only printed in languages which the congregations — and, indeed, their priests — could not read. Thus all authority was centralised, while responsibility was devolved (as late as the eighteenth century the murders of the Inquisition were carried out, nominally, by the “secular power”). Meanwhile, Islam depends on everyone having access to the Quran. The essence of Islam is also debate about the meaning of the Word of Allah, although it is also about submission to the general will, which should be familiar to any socialist. (That is, under Islam there must be practice as well as theory, and the practice should inform the theory as much as the theory the practice; obviously Marx did not invent the dialectic, which has served Islam well except where it is corrupted as it usually is.)
What this long digression means is that the rule of the Ayatollah depends heavily upon the approval of the mosque. This is, again, not very surprising. Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs, while a more superficial work than his works on Angola and Ethiopia, points out that Iran is a rather weird state. It is, after all, a Shi’ite state, and the Shi’ites are an oppressed Islamic minority who stand in opposition to the Sunni majority, hankering after dead and defeated rulers and mythical saints who hide eternally underground like King Arthur or the Seven Sleepers. (Tariq Ali called them the Maoists of Islam.) Kapuscinski argues that this is a creed which appeals to the anti-authoritarian Iranian personality; we are in opposition! No doubt he is wrong to psychoanalyse an entire nation, but it is an interesting oversimplification and helps to explain why the rule of the Shahs never got very far in Iran; authoritarianism challenged libertarianism and won only so long as nobody else had their finger in the scales, which happened in 1941 (when the pro-Nazi Shah was overthrown without a fight, in sharp contrast to Iraq where the pro-Nazis put up quite a fight) and in 1953 (when the authoritarian Shah was installed after a foreign-backed coup) and in 1979 (when after the overthrow of the Shah a new authoritarianism systematically stamped out libertarianism).
The history of 1979 and the slaughter of the Tudeh, the Iranian Left, certainly turned the Left against the Iranian theocracy. However, it is interesting that the Left has not managed to establish much of a presence in Iran, even though Iran is a deeply political society with a huge conspiratorial tradition. One reason is that, while passionately hostile to the secular nature of the Left, the Iranian theocracy is not nearly so hostile to the political goals of the Left in terms of the challenge to capitalism. The Ayatollah does not particularly wish you to get rich, and he especially does not wish you to be poor. This is in stark contrast to the theocracies of the Arabian Peninsula, where the feudal lords have made common cause with the priests and businessmen against everybody else — as if the Shah and the Ayatollah were waltzing with the oil companies.
So far, so bland. Now, what has this to do with the Great Uprising Against Badness in Tehran?
As has been pointed out by others, the recent Iranian election was not about who would run the country. It was, however, about how that running would be carried out. The incumbent candidate was a mildly populist nationalist figure who was prone to criticising Israel and had kept up friendly relations with both the Shi’ite government in Iraq and the Shi’ite liberation movement in southern Lebanon, while offering assistance and sympathy to the Sunni administration in the Gaza Strip. The opposition candidate was a business-friendly figure who had played a minor role in the installation of the original Ayatollah in supreme power in Iran after the Shah was overthrown. It’s difficult to believe that he would, if elected, abandon the Shi’ites in Iraq or the Lebanon, although he might be persuaded to abandon the Sunnis in Gaza. As for the great paper tiger of Western cartoon diplomacy, Iran’s nuclear programme, both candidates were rock-solid in support of it, as are virtually all sane Iranians (both energy requirements and strategic needs call for a nuclear programme with the option of developing a weapon).
The first interesting question is, given that it is not obvious that any major change would arise out of the election from professed Western perspectives, why did the West unanimously and clamorously support the opposition candidate? The most obvious reason is that the incumbent had been thoroughly demonised by the West’s propaganda machine. Hence, from this authoritarian-corporate perspective, any change was good change. This is of course not a reason, since it contains no facts nor meaningful argument; it is equivalent to not liking Robert Mugabe because he’s black. No leftist should pay any attention to this, but unfortunately this is the core of the Western media stance and so many leftists are too cowardly or intellectually servile to challenge it.
The second interesting reason is, does the West have any objective reason for supporting the opposition candidate? Surely, a core issue is the fact that the opposition man was business-friendly. This is the chink in Iran’s theocratic armour; Iran is an oil-rich state and many people are filthy rich and would like to be richer. If greed can be used to override the Quran, then the theocracy becomes as hollow as it is in Saudi Arabia. Thus it is possible that with a businessman in power, Iran would invent the usual “development” policy under which Western corporations are kowtowed to in return for trivial investments, whereupon the government is threatened that these investments will be withdrawn unless there are political concessions to Western interests. Thus, stealthily, Iranian independence could be undermined with the consent of the political and corporate leadership — and since the Ayatollah would have given a mandate to the front-man for that leadership, he would have the painful choice of admitting making a mistake (in which case he cannot be speaking for Allah, who never makes mistakes) or going along with the tide and ultimately retiring from effective political leadership.
So that is what the stake is. What the uprising in Tehran reveals is that, unsurprisingly, a large number of people are quite prepared to see this happen. After all, the theocracy is painfully repressive on a cultural level — not quite so bad as Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, but pretty bad all the same. Plenty of people are prepared to go into the streets in order to get access to hip-hop CDs and exciting lingerie. As to whether they are struggling for democracy — well, they say they are, but then they would, wouldn’t they? Also, of course, many of them want to be richer. The leadership of the uprising are almost all middle-class people. It is striking how much of them commune with each other via the Internet rather than via the mosque. Of course the discussions in the mosque are better-informed and more open than those on the Internet, but that’s not important if you believe that you will get something out of the struggle in the end.
Westerners, of course, side with the Internet against the mosque. We are supposed to believe that the Internet is free from the restraints of Islamic theology. Actually, the Internet is dominated by atomized approaches; a million people in the street all there as individuals (which is the difference between the million people in the street in 1979). In consequence, the Iranian uprising is not a truly collective uprising, nor an anarchic uprising; it is an uprising for the individualised, “choice-based” values of consumer capitalism. Now, the Creator has been in shopping malls and survived, so will not waste time declaring consumer capitalism the Great Satan. However, there are vast differences between this and socialism, which is a collective concept intended to serve the individual.
The simplest fact is that the people in the streets in Tehran, probably without realising it in most cases, are working not merely to destroy the theocracy, but to destroy the possibility of a collective project in Iran. As such, they are as wrong as “fifty million Frenchmen” were in 1940, or “five hundred thousand rebels” were in 1862. Tragically, in the absence of socialism or any valid Left alternative, an Islamic dictatorship is preferable to a neoliberal plutocracy dictated to by multinational corporations speaking through Washington’s throat.
We have only to think about the consequences of a collapse of the Iranian theocracy for American foreign policy — everything evil about American foreign policy since 1979 would be enormously empowered and legitimised to see that the Left should swallow its pride and its history and offer active support to the odious Ahmadinejad.

Prisoners of the Truth (III): The Desert of Reality.

June 15, 2009

Surrounded by conventional wisdom masquerading as the Truth, how can we challenge it? We are told that this is so difficult that only specialists in the deconstruction of conventional wisdom can accomplish that. Hence we need clever guardians to mediate between us and reality. This convenient and conventional notion, which justifies the existence of punditry and promotes the validity of editorial columns (and web-logs like this one). Such notions need to be ruthlessly criticised, condemned and then burned and buried in unmarked graves.
Let us instead consider actual reality. At the moment the Zuma government is promoting the notion that South Africa needs to reconstruct its relationship with the United States. The newly renamed Department of International Relations and Cooperation (so much more euphonious than Department of Foreign Affairs) is devoted to this task. Apparently, in the past, the evil Mbeki government alienated the United States and now the good Zuma government must entice, seduce and arouse the United States into generously having good relations with us again.
Who would question the desirability of such a policy? Not a single pundit has criticised this presentation of policy. That’s interesting, because many pundits condemned South Africa for having too close a relationship with the United States. Patrick Bond slapped a photograph of President Bush standing next to Thabo Mbeki on the cover of one of his books, thus proving that South Africa was a tool of U.S. imperialism. President Bush declared Mbeki to be “my point man on Zimbabwe”, which suggests that in foreign policy South Africa and the United States were reasonably close.
It does not take a pundit to observe this serious disconnection between what is being said now about South Africa’s foreign policy and what was said a few years ago. People appear now to be misrepresenting South Africa’s former policy — unless South Africa’s former policy was itself misrepresented. Other people seem to have in the past condemned policies which they now allow to go unchallenged. This needs further study. What was wrong with South Africa’s past foreign policy which needs to be changed?
To listen to the pundits, quite a lot. South Africa’s foreign policy was anti-Western. South Africa supported dictators all over the world, especially in Africa, particularly in Zimbabwe, and thus opposed democracy. South Africa antagonised the United States by challenging its foreign policy in the Middle East. These destructive elements of South African foreign policy are traceable to President Mbeki’s hatred for the West and his racist preference for Africans over other people. South African foreign policy also overreached itself, attempting more than could have been achieved even had it been worth the effort, as a result of President Mbeki’s megalomania. Now that President Mbeki is gone, and his former Minister for Foreign Affairs has been kicked downstairs to Home Affairs, we must reconstruct a ruined foreign policy. (Who’s “we”? Don’t ask.)
It is difficult to assess such claims without the facts, but the facts are easily obtainable.
South Africa spent three years on the United Nations Security Council, chairing it for a period. During this period, South Africa frequently voted against Western calls for the Security Council to act against various countries, such as the Sudan, Myanmar and Zimbabwe, all countries lacking substantial democracy. This is all the evidence that South Africa supports dictatorships. However, the Security Council was established under the United Nations Charter to prevent international conflict. In the instances where South Africa voted against the West, the issues at hand were not international conflicts, they were internal conflicts or episodes of bad government. Therefore, the West was calling for the violation of the UN Charter.
What is more, it was calling for actions which went against the policy of the African Union (which opposes foreign intervention in domestic national affairs, because of the hideous history of Western destabilisation of African politics). It seems clear that the West was doing this because it hoped to gain political benefit from having Security Council approval of any aggressive action which it might take — as it has taken in many countries in the past. In these instances virtually all non-Western countries voted with South Africa, so clearly South Africa was clearly expressing a widely-held feeling. This accusation is the reverse of the truth.
The issue of support for dictators in Africa does not deserve much attention. South Africa called for a negotiated settlement in the 1997 Rwandan invasion of Zaire, and again in the 1998 Rwandan and Ugandan invasion of what was then the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in both cases to avoid bloodshed. (South Africa then helped to broker the peace deal in the DRC and to promote the first democratic election in that country for forty-five years.) South Africa successfully called for Western sanctions against Libya to be lifted, which might seem like support for a dictator, this being one of only two occasions (the other being South Africa’s sabotage of the British-backed coup in Equatorial Guinea) where such support could be identified. However, the sanctions were imposed on fraudulent grounds and were absurdly counterproductive, and furthermore the call was made by Nelson Mandela, not directly by Thabo Mbeki, so this has been quietly forgotten about.
The South African role in ending the Burundian civil war is sometimes mentioned because President Zuma played a modest part in the relevant diplomacy. South Africa’s role in ending the war in southern Sudan (which restrained the authority of the Sudanese junta) has been deleted from history by the pundits. The pundits have done the same regarding South Africa’s role in bringing peacekeeping forces to curb the violence of the civil war in Darfur, which has been much more successful than anyone publicly seems to mention and which again restrained the authority of the junta.
The South African role in Zimbabwe was ignoble but pragmatic; South Africa consistently urged the Zimbabwean government to change its policies because these would lead to disaster. (These calls, made publicly and privately, have been erased from history by the pundits.) When the policies indeed led to disaster, South Africa called for a government of national unity to resolve the crisis, since the Zimbabwean government was unwilling to simply hand over power to the opposition party, claiming that it was backed by foreign powers. This backing by foreign powers has been obvious ever since the opposition’s foundation, and is why not only South Africa, but most African countries with the partial exception of Botswana, looked on that opposition with suspicion. The whole of Africa opposed the West’s desire to interfere in Zimbabwe’s political affairs, which is consistent with AU as well as SADC policy. In the end, the problem was solved on the lines which South Africa had demanded all along, despite Western attempts to sabotage it; although no pundit termed this a vindication.
It was also said that South Africa had wrongly approved of Zimbabwe’s elections, although these elections have been characterised by intimidation and perhaps by rigging. This must be granted; however in many African countries there have been no elections at all. Recently, the brutal Gabonese dictator Omar Bongo, who never permitted elections, departed this vale of tears to spend eternity in a red-hot iron coffin in Dis — his passing lamented by President Obama of the United States, who called this tyrannical thug a true friend of reform in Africa. By comparison with such friends of the United States, enemies of the United States like Mr. Mugabe appear notably democratic, and thus South Africa’s behaviour was promoting democracy more honestly than the United States does.
Clearly, the facts contradict the claims made about South African foreign policy. These facts are not disputed, nor even part of the debate. Instead, pundits simply say, repeatedly, that South Africa under Mbeki supported dictators (unnamed, other than President Mugabe) and was anti-Western for no reason other than racism and prejudice.
This, it seems to the Creator, is how conventional wisdom is created. One first appeals to prejudices. Many South Africans disliked Mbeki and were therefore willing to endorse accusations against him regardless of any factual evidence. A very large number of these South Africans (judging by electoral statistics) were not africans. Such people were more sympathetic than africans to the notion that an african person was a) anti-Western (the West constantly assures us that African countries are anti-Western), b) irrational (darkies can’t think straight) and c) anti-democratic and a friend of authoritarianism (look at Dingane, look at Mau Mau — or rather, look at white representations of these people and events). While the Creator detests President Zuma on solid grounds, it is notable that white pundits and black pundits hired by whites gleefully condemn Zuma for what they call a “Big Man” approach which allegedly appeals to undemocratic africans. Thus crude language is intended to show that primitive black people are naturally subservient to masters, and was promoted by the racist Nobel Prizewinner V S Naipaul in his fabrication of Congolese conditions in A Bend in the River.)
Obviously, not every aspect of South African foreign policy could have been perfect. However, if people (instead of criticising real episodes) insist on telling lies about something and suppressing the truth, there must be a reason. What can it be? Surely, whatever it is, it must be of importance. Foreign policy is traditionally seen as unimportant for South Africa, and hence Mbeki is routinely mocked for taking it seriously. But is it so trivial — and was Mbeki so very wrong?
In this instance the reason is partly to pander to racial prejudice. Under apartheid South Africa enjoyed excellent relations with the West (although the West sometimes struggled to conceal this, and these historical facts must be now suppressed and the myth that the West ever opposed apartheid has been erected like a sumptuous billboard concealing a view of a toxic waste dump). After apartheid we enjoy less good relations with the West. This cannot be (so think the pundits) because there was anything racist about South Africa’s good relations with the West, particularly not because there was anything wrong with the West, so it must be South Africa at fault. This fulfils the ideological need not only of those who oppose the 1994 settlement, but also of those who put the West’s interests ahead of South Africa’s — probably, to judge by emigration statistics, a substantial body of South Africa’s ruling class.
This raises the possibility that the issue is not so insignificant as it seemed. Precisely because most people are not very concerned about South Africa’s foreign policy and therefore do not examine it very closely, it provides a useful vehicle for conveying racist, neo-colonialist and authoritarian attitudes. These are conveyed ideologically through the propaganda which the pundits promote, but practically through the apparent change in attitude towards the West which South Africa is undergoing at the moment. This may be seen as a sympathetic but practical approach (acknowledging that the West dominates the world, and also that the West embodies or claims to embody some ideals which are worth pursuing, but nevertheless standing up for ideals and principles where the West fails to do so) versus an obsequious subservience under which, because the West has money and influence, we must simply do what they tell us to and never ask whether it is good or not, or whether we have an alternative.
(Of course, it is quite likely that South Africa could have been more confrontational with the West and got away with it. To judge by the dismal failure of Thabo Mbeki when he dashed to Washington to beg George Bush not to attack Somalia in December 2006, our courtesy and timidity have not gained us much. On the other hand, greater confrontational behaviour, as with Chavez or Ahmadinejad, has not conspicuously gained anything much either.)
So this change of attitude promotes the very worst elements in our society. By this the Creator means the greedy, unpatriotic plutocrats who seek to ravish South Africa and stash the proceeds in the Cayman Islands or wherever. These are the people who benefit the most from this neo-colonialist approach — for it entails not only subjection to the West and to Western attitudes, but also subjection itself; the abandonment of the practical of critical engagement which became second nature for South Africans in the last two decades of apartheid. It is an ideological counterpart to the practical, effectual rolling-back of democracy which we see in Zuma’s plutocratic Cabinet and in the general collapse of free speech and freedom of thought in South Africa of late.
But even that is not all. In assessing the criticisms of South Africa’s foreign policy, the Creator only addressed the one relating to Africa. The other criticism was that South Africa had antagonised the United States with regard to “Iraq and Iran” as one commentator put it. That is, South Africa has opposed the imposition of cruel sanctions on spurious grounds which killed hundreds of thousands, the unprovoked armed invasion of a sovereign state (Iraq), the immediate killing of tens of thousands of people, the subsequent death of over a million, the generation of millions of homeless refugees, the destruction of a national economy, the promotion of religious sectarianism and fanaticism (religious fanaticism follows Old Glory as closely as neoliberalism, and for the same reason; both are undemocratic) and so on — and this is something which South Africa is supposed to be ashamed of? South Africa has opposed the attempt by the worlds premier nuclear power to use the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency to legitimate attacks on another sovereign state (Iran) on the grounds that this state was trying to develop nuclear energy (which nobody avowedly opposes) and even serious threats to launch nuclear attacks on that state? We are now told that we should be ashamed of standing up for good against evil.
The pundits who promote this are plainly agents of criminals seeking support for their crimes. The criminals are the rulers of the world. We do not have to do what they tell us. However, now that we have a pliantly bribeable President, a corrupt Cabinet and a supine civil society, it seems we cannot expect to be consulted. The surrender will take place in our absence.
And this, alas, is the truth, which you should not have needed the Creator to tell you about.

Prisoners of the Truth (1I): The Conventional Menace.

June 15, 2009

The truth; the truth we need to hear; the truth upon which our actions must be based.
This truth is an arranged and established thing. It is presented to us as something easily absorbed because it is consistent with our existing beliefs and value-systems. It is also presented to us to account for what we know about the world. Usually, it is presented to us through the very media through which we know what we know.
Let’s consider an obvious matter. If you read William Shirer’s Berlin Diary, you will find that the Germans were convinced, in August 1939, that Poland posed a threat to Germany, and indeed to the peace of the world, which deserved to be taken seriously. Poland was mobilising its army and had fortified its borders — including the “free city” of Danzig, the only substantial port in the East Prussian region, jointly ruled by Germany and Poland. Poland was ruled by a military dictatorship which respected only force.
Furthermore, Poland had refused to negotiate with Germany in order to discuss Germany’s grievances against Poland; particularly, the large number of ethnic Germans living in the areas of Germany which had been handed over to Poland by the Treaty of Versailles, which virtually everyone felt had been a one-sided treaty intended to harm Germany. The German grievance was being ignored. As it were, the Poles were humiliating the Germans by their contempt for diplomacy.
Meanwhile, Poland had signed military agreements with Britain and France suggesting an attempt to encircle Germany along exactly the same lines as those made under the Entente Cordiale between Britain, France and Russia, a military alliance which led directly to the First World War. Hence, Poland might not be significant in herself, but she was a major part of an attempt by the West to undermine Germany’s legitimate pursuit of self-determination, and perhaps even an attempt by the West to plot a massive war against Germany. (There were many voices in Britain and France, in and out of government, who were calling for regime change in Germany, and both countries were frantically building up their armed forces on a pattern obviously aimed against Germany.) In the background, Britain and France were also negotiating with the Soviet Union, which they had once fought undeclared war against — an act which, in terms of the official ideology of the German government, amounted virtually to a betrayal of everything which Western civilisation stood for.
Against such a pattern of events, it was natural that German newspapers should be broadcasting reports of massacres of Germans by Poles (even though this did not actually happen until after the war broke out, it was a plausible lie) and warnings of a Polish invasion of Germany (the Polish army was deployed along the German border in an offensive pattern). Germans believed this, naturally. Why should they not have done? They wanted to believe that Germany would be in the right in anything she did. Ultimately, they wanted the former German bits of Poland back, and they would have been quite happy to see Poland become a satellite of Germany into the bargain.
Berlin Diary treats things differently, of course. Shirer, who hated the Nazis, saw the lies perfectly clearly. He also saw that all these conventional notions boiled down to one thing: that the Germans had been conditioned into accepting aggression against Poland. It had been done, if anything, more effectively than it had been done the previous year against Czechoslovakia. The Germans also felt a continual resentment against losing World War I, which they felt they had deserved to win. As a result, they had developed the notion that, just as the Versailles Treaty had unfairly deprived them of territory, so something had unfairly deprived them of victory. (Some felt it was the Jews, some felt it was the Communists, some felt it was the liberals, some felt it was the capitalists — the Durchstosslegende, the story of the stab in the back, was so splendid a concept that it could be applied to any enemy you might wish to focus upon at a given time.) They actually wanted a re-match. What they did not want, of course, was to lose, which is why when war actually broke out the Germans were never very enthusiastic about it.
Now the point about all this is that Shirer was not coming from out of a German background, and could clearly see that the conventional wisdom which the Nazis were exploiting was a cobbled-together mass of half-truths and outright lies intended to promote a world-view which stroked the German collective egotism while simultaneously directing Germans to support the Nazi Party as the force which would further that world-view. Therefore he was horrified. He was right to be horrified, because the underlying passion which the most senior Nazis actually felt was for the creation of a world more hideous than almost any Germans, even Nazis, imagined; its climax being the actual experience of Nazi rule in Poland and the occupied parts of the USSR, and the “SS state” which developed in Germany itself from 1943 onward, in which human life literally counted for nothing and in which abstract concepts — often concepts with no counterpart in reality — overrode all other experiences. Yet this was the climax, not merely of Nazi ideology, but of conventional wisdom.
Yet Shirer could not see his own commitment to conventional wisdom; Berlin Diary is riddled with patriotic American nonsense which un-Americans can plainly see but Shirer couldn’t. (Often he is annoyed to find that the Nazis could see through him perfectly well on this count.) We should not ever imagine for an instant that we are free from conventional wisdom. What is more, conventional wisdom is a completely slippery slope which, once embarked upon, can take you slithering down to destruction.
Consider the United States in the early twenty-first century. The US believed itself to be the best nation in the world. Therefore, it had a moral duty to impose its superior culture on all other nations. (This is precisely the legitimating structure pursued by the Second Reich in 1914, and very similar to the narrative which Hitler used in Mein Kampf.) It also had developed the notion that the worst possible crime in the world was terrorism, which, as Noam Chomsky incessantly observes, actually means “violent, life-threatening acts committed by people of whom we do not approve”.
It had further developed the notion that there was one especially inferior culture in the world; not an ethnic group or a religious community, but a socio-political culture, namely the socio-political culture associated with Islam. This culture had shown its inferiority by repeatedly launching unprovoked attacks on the tiny nation of Israel, out of a racist desire to repeat the Nazi Holocaust by exterminating all the Jews in that country. While not all Islamic countries had directly participated in this aggression, all were implicated by virtue of the fact that in every Islamic country, people had spoken out in support of Palestinians, who were Islamic Arabs particularly concerned with the desire to repeat the Holocaust. Hence, in a sense, not only were Arabic and Islamic people natural terrorists, but they also potentially posed a threat to the world as great as Hitler did.
What was more, Islamic people were oppressive. They had authoritarian governments. They compelled their women to cover their hair, and sometimes their faces. They spoke in unfamiliar languages with strange wriggly script in their books. They worshipped the wrong God. What was worse, Islamic people were associated with the appalling culture of suicide bombing. No other culture encouraged people to sacrifice their lives for the greater good, which is an atrocious notion. As a result, it was clear that Islam could be deemed a cult of death (although it was also possible to argue, and many Americans did, that, properly organised, Islam could be as satisfactory a religion as any other). All this meant that Islamic people were potentially a direct opposition to the American civilising mission all over the world.
The United States had fought several wars to civilise Islam, and had also launched several campaigns to improve Islamic government in places such as Iran (the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossedegh) and Indonesia (the overthrow of President Soekarno and the subsequent massacre of the Communists). Of course, there were various good Islamic countries, such as Morocco and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; the former two might have indulged in wars with their neighbours or in imperialist enterprises which some might deem shameful, but they had served the greater interests of the United States and so they were good.
And then one fine day in September, the Islamists blew up a couple of buildings in the United States and killed nearly three thousand people. In consequence, the United States subsequently invaded Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan, overthrowing the governments of the first three of those countries and putting the government of the fourth under severe (probably terminal) strain. None of these invasions could possibly have happened had it not been for conventional wisdom, which declared that the United States was so splendid that hostility to it was illegitimate, that hostility to the United States posed a threat which the United States was entitled to meet with force, and that the greatest of this hostility came from the Islamic world. It goes without saying that none of these four countries posed any real threat to the United States, and nobody has ever shown that even the Afghan government supported the attack on the United States (the other three governments had nothing whatsoever to do with any such attack).
Conventional wisdom allowed the United States to behave almost exactly like the Nazis, invading countries and setting up brutal, remote-controlled puppet states through which to impose their will, adopting the Nacht und Nebel system under which enemies of the state (whom both George Bush and Heinrich Himmler referred to as “terrorists”) could disappear into secret concentration camps for torture and murder, wiping out whole villages and cities in reprisal for the killing of members of the master race by the untermenschen, and legitimating the whole sequence of crimes with a formidable but transparently dishonest structure of propaganda.
Conventional wisdom allowed it in the sense that it was not opposed. There was protest against Bush’s policies (at least in the case of Iraq) but it was mild by comparison with what it should have been. The Americans re-elected Bush the following year. In 2008, both of the candidates for the forthcoming election pledged themselves to continue Bush’s policies in a way which would win the global war which had been entirely created by the manic consequences of America’s own propaganda. The election provided a solid support for conventional wisdom and President Obama duly expanded the war to Pakistan, just as he had pledged in his campaign.
This is all, in a sense, a more horrible victory for conventional wisdom than the Nazi victory. Adolf Hitler, after all, did not go to the polls in 1939 on a promise of invading Poland; he just went ahead and did it. Nor did the Nazis permit the freedom of speech and assembly which the Americans permit. There is a wealth of factual evidence and intellectual debate criticising the conventional wisdom which underpins Bush’s and Obama’s global bloodbath.
Yet conventional wisdom triumphs — triumphs so completely that the Truther down the corridor from the Creator unshrinkingly supported Obama and all his ways in the 2008 election, and stands shoulder to shoulder with him in the grand campaign to eradicate evil in the world (in spite of firmly believing, on the basis of service in Vietnam, that the War on Terror is unwinnable, and the war in Afghanistan which is Obama’s special pet is a disastrous blunder).
What can we do about conventional wisdom, other than shrieking abuse at it?

Prisoners of the Truth (1): Truthers and Truthiness.

June 9, 2009


The truth is what you believe, and what you believe is mostly what you receive, what the conventions tell you, what everybody says.

Of course, not all of us are content with conventional received wisdom. Down the corridor from the Creator there is a Truther. He is one of the nicest of Truthers, eager to share the Truth with anybody and not in the least abusive if you refuse to accept the Truth. Many Truthers become either abusive if you reject the Truth, or begin to suspect that you are part of the Great Conspiracy to deny the Truth. In consequence they not only break off all relations with you but often begin to denounce you to the authorities as a serial killer, paedophile or whatever (for every little helps when you are battling the global network of anti-Truth).

Now, what is the Truth? Why, it is very simple. The United States government secretly hired a number of Saudi gentlefolk to pretend to be Islamist terrorists and hijack a number of airliners and crash them into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and either the Capitol or the White House (most bets are on the latter, but nobody knows for sure). Those airliners could not, however, actually do much in the way of damage, and in any case the Saudi gentlefolk could not possibly have flown them into buildings, which requires skills and reflexes beyond the capability of foreign brown-skinned males. Therefore the United States government cunningly planted explosives and thermite all over the World Trade Centre to ensure that it would catch fire and then collapse, even though no airliners crashed into these (or else they did, but having an airliner crash into you is hardly likely to make a building collapse and the buildings had to collapse, apparently). They also, apparently, either planted explosives in the Pentagon or fired missiles at the Pentagon to make a big bang and thus conceal the fact that no airliner had crashed into the Pentagon (or else it did). Meanwhile, since the other airliner which was supposed to crash in Washington actually crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, and neither the Capitol nor the White House exploded unexpectedly despite no airliner crashing into either, we are at liberty to wonder whether the passengers who mobbed the cabin of that airliner and caused it to crash were not, themselves, dupes or agents of the United States government.

This is a rather large Truth, as Truths ought to be. One might ask why the United States government should have wished to do all this. The answer is, of course, that the United States government desired to invade Afghanistan and conquer Iraq, and it could not possibly do these things without a titanic pretext. Pretending that the innocent al-Qaeda organisation had done this horrendous deed provided the United States government with an excuse to go ahead and invade Afghanistan, Iraq, pass the Patriot Act and discourage the passage of gay marriage acts in several states.

The United States government, indeed, has quite a history of such Truths.

For example, in 1898 the obsolete U.S. battleship Maine happened to be in Havana harbour at a time when, coincidentally, the U.S. government wished to go to war with Spain in order to seize Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Unexpectedly, the Maine blew up. The United States government (facilitated by the Hearst press) spread the story that the Maine was a victim of a sinister bombing plot by the Spanish government, and before you knew where you were there were Rough Riders riding roughly up San Juan Hill while Gridley fired when ready at anything targetable in Manila Bay. Soon the Pacific and the Caribbean had been saved for — beg your pardon, from — ruthless, murderous racist exploitation. And it wasn’t long before people noticed the extreme convenience of everything, not to mention the fact that neither Spain nor its Cuban colony had either the desire or the capacity to blow up the Maine, and wondered whether possibly Washington had blown up its own battleship to excuse the seizure of a global empire.

But during the First World War several battleships (such as the Italian Leonardo da Vinci)exploded of their own accord, so maybe it was just the seizure of a darned fine opportunity.

For example, in 1941 the United States government had broken the Japanese military and diplomatic codes, unbeknownst to the Japanese, who with extraordinary stupidity proceeded to transmit their coded messages over the radio. (Alle Funkverkehr ist Hochsverrad.) So the Americans knew that the Japanese were up to something in late November 1941. They even broadcast a war warning to their armed forces in early December (which somehow did not stop the U.S. Army Air Force from lining their combat aircraft in Manila and Honolulu up neatly on the concrete apron in review order so that one strafing pass from a Type 0 fighter would take out the lot if they had been fuelled — which they weren’t).

Admittedly, the Advanced Air Striking Force under Admiral Nagumo was sailing under sealed orders and radio silence, and the instructions to attack were “East Wind Rain”, which unless you were extra good at guessing games was not something which the codebreakers could make much of. So they whizzed off to Pearl Harbour and took out three old battleships and crippled two more. But, as it happens, the U.S. once again did not much need those battleships because they were cranking out a brand-new class of much better ones. Meanwhile, the aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet just happened to be off on one of their rare exercises and thus were not attacked. (Had they been attacked they would certainly have been sunk — American aircraft carriers at that time were unarmoured hulks packed with explosives and petrol — and there could have been no Coral Sea stalemate or Midway victory.) So it wasn’t long (well, thirty years or so) before some (well, Gore Vidal) began wondering whether the sinister President Rosenveldt had not deliberately allowed the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbour so that he could go to war with Germany (although if the Germans hadn’t boldly declared war with America it’s hard to see how that could have come to pass).

Well, maybe. It’s a story, anyway.

In fact, both stories have a certain plausibility. One only has to assume that the American military does not ever badly stow its munitions nor that American servicemen ever sneak a smoke in the magazine, and one only has to assume perfect competence among American codebreakers and complete knowledge of the future on the part of the Presidency, and it is easy to accept those assumptions, not so?

In contrast, the third example of Truth is easily shown to be preposterous. This is that John F Kennedy was murdered by the U.S. military at Dealey Plaza because he was scheming and plotting not to start the Vietnam War. A brief glance at Schlesinger’s memoirs of Kennedy shows that, as one would expect, Kennedy approached the Vietnam war with the same heartless, irresponsible recklessness which he had earlier shown in his Cuban policy. If there was a conspiracy against Kennedy, which is not improbable, it surely had nothing of substance to do with Vietnam.

A less obvious example of Truth, one neglected by most Truthers, is the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces in August 1990. Was this encouraged by the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie? Did Glaspie, by saying that the U.S. would have no objection to Iraqi border rectifications with Kuwait, effectively give a green light to the invasion of that country, which had always been claimed by Iraq (ever since British imperialism created it as an easily-controlled, oil-rich autocracy) and which was simultaneously trying to bleed Iraq of its limited funds in the aftermath of the war with Iran, while it bled Iraq’s oilfields by drilling slanted wells into Iraqi territory? Nobody knows. All anybody really knows is that the U.S. was able, very effectively, to exploit the situation by destroying Iraq’s military power and providing itself an excuse for a permanent base in the Middle East to balance its proxy bases in Israel and Turkey.

But all that all this shows is that the United States government is an extremely ruthless global force which has no hesitation about committing terrible crimes when it can fool its public into allowing it to do so — which is not new; think of the War of 1812 or the Seminole War or the Mexican War. None of the pretexts for these incidents can be shown to have been executed by the U.S. government itself. Many, in fact, describe the destruction of the World Trade Centre as a “Reichstag fire” scenario; however, most historians now believe that the burning of the Reichstag fire was set not by Hitler but by Van Der Lubbe, and that Hitler merely brilliantly exploited the situation for his own purposes, as he did subsequently throughout his career until he ran out of options. Why should Bush, universally reviled by American dissidents as an imbecile, be on this occasion so much smarter than Hitler?

It is interesting that Noam Chomsky is a sceptic about the Truth about the 11th of September 2001, as he is also sceptical about the Truth about August 1990 and Dealey Plaza 1963. His scepticism is simple: he does not choose to believe in conspiracies. In part, of course, this is probably a version of elitism, of wishing to feel above such suspicions which verge on paranoia. But, on the other hand, consider: the Truth, as yet, cannot be proved by anything admissible in court. Therefore, the Truth is worthless except as an article of faith.

Meanwhile, whoever was responsible for the crime of destroying the Twin Towers and damaging the Pentagon, this crime is insignificant compared with the crimes which followed on from it, and which are directly attributable to the government of the United States and its allies. Hundreds of times more people were killed in response to the 11th of September attack than were killed in that attack itself, and also crimes of a more terrible and egregious and widespread nature. Those crimes were committed by the United States with the knowledge and approval of its people — or at least its people did not bother to examine those crimes sufficiently closely to condemn them, though most Americans would probably condemn them if they understood it.

So, this is the argument against the Truth — that even if it is true, it pales beside the crimes which everyone acknowledges as true and does not care about, or if they care about such crimes, cannot persuade others to follow them. Today, on the one hand Obama is stealing trillions from the American people and pouring all that cash borrowed from future decades into the immediate pockets of his friends in the American financial and corporate community. On the other hand, he is taking billions from the American people to finance the slaughter of wedding-parties in Afghanistan and the flattening of cities in Pakistan. And he is doing this with the uncritical approval of three-fifths of the American public, the other two-fifths being critical of him because they feel he is slaughtering too few wedding parties and not flattening sufficient cities.

The Truth may be True. But it will not make anyone free. Not until we can get to grips with the conventional, received Truth which has everyone else in their grips — and that will not be done by obsessively scrutinizing slow-motion videos of skyscrapers falling down.

Our Unhealthy Condition.

June 2, 2009

So the doctors are on strike for more pay. Who can criticise people for wanting more pay? Especially when we aren’t the ones forking out the extra cash. (Well, we are, but indirectly, which is as good as not having to pay — or seems to be, when you’re hypnotised.)

But wait — what is the source of the problem? The might of the South African punditocracy was mobilised, and in a minute their giant brains found the solution. It seems that it is all Thabo Mbeki’s fault. He, and maNtombazana Tshabala-Msimang, destroyed the South African health care system which previously was working so brilliantly. Having established someone to blame, the punditocracy has fulfilled its function and need not ask any further questions. All that is necessary is to pay up.

All right, then. But . . . since Mbeki took over the management of health care in South Africa in 1996, which is well before any of the changes made by the ANC took effect, that means that this solution to the problem is actually a praise-poem to apartheid. Things were better back then, says the punditocracy. What we need to do is to go back there.

Of course, we cannot. Also, we should not, for things were not really better back then for most people (although they may have been better for the people whom the punditocracy care about). But all that this shows is that the issues are not being seriously looked at in the customary rush to justify Zuma’s accession and promote white-dominated reactionary politics. What are the doctors’ grievances, and what is the real source of the problem?

If you remember, in 1994 the ANC inherited a health-care system which was in a very dire state. In South Africa itself, the urban public health-care hospitals were steadily running down because of fiscal mismanagement. Rural clinics in South Africa barely existed — certainly not to serve black interests. Ironically, some homelands, such as KwaZulu, were better administered in terms of healthcare, but even there, the situation was gradually disintegrating.

The goal of the ANC under the RDP was to prop up the existing system while introducing a national network of small-scale healthcare clinics. Primary care was supposed to be the goal, and this was pursued by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. However, this took money away from the big hospitals, and it also undermined big pharmaceutical corporations, so Dlamini-Zuma was smeared and undermined by everyone with a stake in the destruction of the country, including the whole of the press (familiar, isn’t it)? Eventually, when Mbeki took over, he shifted her to Foreign Affairs where she would be less vulnerable and could do work which particularly interested him while she was groomed for the Presidency.

But meanwhile, the economic condition of the country turned out to be more dire than the ANC had realised, and it also appeared that the global political situation did not favour any kind of radical redistributive agenda. (In any case, the South African Left were actually more concerned with feathering their own nests than with real redistribution — their calls for redistribution were almost entirely rhetorical.) So there was a big financial cutback, which stalled the clinic-building programme without doing anything to improve the situation of hospitals.

What was to be done? Politically it was impossible to sack lots of workers — and, besides, that would have calamitous consequences for healthcare, and a massive loss of doctors and nurses would be hard to replace (especially since the higher education system was under attack at the same time). Therefore, what was done was to cut back on infrastructure spending. Don’t maintain equipment or replace broken equipment, don’t repair the buildings or ask for new ones, and freeze new posts. A penny-pinching culture overwhelmed the provincial systems — and the provincial governments responsible for healthcare, and the municipal governments in the rural areas, were new, inept and potentially corrupt. It was a recipe for bad management.

Which was what we got. And, of course, in the background there was HIV/AIDS, the half-hidden horror for every health-care administrator:


          Like one, that on a lonesome road

          Doth walk in fear and dread,

          And having once turned round walks on,

          And turns no more his head;

          Because he knows, a frightful fiend

          Doth close behind him tread.


Anyone who wonders why the South African government did so little about HIV/AIDS during this period need only notice the budgetary problems (along, of course, with the undermining of ministerial authority).

There is another problem which wasn’t thought about too much at the time. The fact that the government had consciously decided not to cut staffing or slash salaries was a good thing and contradicts the claims that its policies were neoliberal. However, this fact also meant that the health-care workers, who were better paid than most workers, were cushioned against economic crisis. But they didn’t feel cushioned, because they were operating under deteriorating conditions with inadequate resources. They wanted better treatment, regardless of the fact that the treatment they were getting was better than economic conditions warranted. They became resentful.

Fast-forward a bit. Around 2003 it was obvious that the government’s economic policies had succeeded insofar as the budget deficit had been eliminated and economic growth sustained. Now there would be more money available. Of course, not all of it could be ploughed into healthcare, because so many other areas of government had been starved of funding for half a decade, but some could. What was to be done?

Unfortunately for the fiscal stability of health-care, there was a simple answer. Two years earlier, Glaxo-Wellcome had slashed the price of AZT for Africa in order to sidestep the growing tendency to pursue generic antiretrovirals. The previous year, the TAC had used the legal system to force the government to provide nevirapine for the prevention of mother-child HIV transmission (artfully concealing both the fact that nevirapine was dangerously toxic, and that the tests supposedly showing that nevirapine was useful for this purpose were all fake). It was obvious that the provision of AZT to people with AIDS was both financially practical and politically necessary. Hence the gigantic project was put in motion.

But it was indeed gigantic; AZT was “affordable”, but it wasn’t cheap. The cost of antiretroviral provision (even disregarding the absurd nevirapine programme) rapidly ballooned; within five years it was absorbing a tenth of the healthcare budget (while actually serving half of one percent of the population). As a result, the Ministry found that — unlike the situation at Safety and Security or Education — there was virtually no windfall from the end of GEAR. Hospitals continued to deteriorate, clinics remained absent or understaffed. What was to be done?

Well, the answer was obvious for any true South Africa — gimme, gimme, gimme! The public service went on strike demanding more money. Eventually they got their huge increases — NEHAWU, representing hospital workers here, was particularly benefited. As a result of this, enthusiastically supported by everybody who hated the government and loved to see them in trouble, the disproportion between personnel spending and infrastructure spending increased rather than decreasing. In short, the antiretroviral programme and strike action dealt the actual provision of adequate health care a double blow.

But this didn’t apply to everybody. A long, long time ago, a forgotten man named Thabo Mbeki said that South Africa was two nations, one rich and one poor. Well, he was roundly denounced for that by everybody who was rich and did not care about the poor, because nobody likes having the ugly truth about them revealed. (As it turned out, virtually nobody cared about the poor.) In fact, of course he was right. The rich have private health care. The middle class have medical aids, which are corporate scams pumping money out of middle-class bank accounts and into the pockets of the rich, but which the middle class tolerate because this means they can access the private hospitals of the rich. This all means that health care goes swimmingly for the 5% of the population who can afford it, and who spend about half as much on their health care as is spent on the other 95%. (A better ratio than it used to be — but since so much of the increased state spending goes on paying increasingly whopping salaries for personnel, it’s doubtful that this spending does much for health care.)

The trouble is that doctors and nurses in the private sector naturally get stratospheric salaries as compared with those in the public sector. However, there just aren’t enough jobs in the private sector for them. So they have to either emigrate or take employment in the public sector (invariably the worst performers go to the public sector, which exascerbates the problem). But they’re resentful; why do I get so little while they get so much? If only I could get more pay! If only I had high status! If only I had better working conditions!

Another problem is that nobody is there to tell them that more pay will almost certainly translate, over time, to worse working conditions. The media’s treatment of the health-care crisis is quite bizarre by practical assessment (but perfectly sensible if you assume that their goal is to gradually destroy the public health-care system, which is probably true). There is much justified criticism of public health care (although the only newspaper to actually investigate issues is the Eastern Cape Daily Dispatch).

So, for instance, it was found that at Frere Hospital in East London the management had been covering up for a disturbingly high death rate in the paediatric ward. Obviously management were at fault for covering this up — but also obviously, the doctors and nurses in the paediatric ward were not doing their jobs properly. The provincial health authorities should also have scrutinised the hospital more thoroughly. All these points are quite obvious, and all of them were concealed by the press, which blamed the President and the national Minister of Health, because this suited their political agenda. Nobody criticised the people actually responsible. In the same way, when babies in Sterkspruit were dying because the local municipality had stopped treating the water supply and the local clinics were failing to give rehydration therapy for diarrhoea, nobody blamed the municipality or the personnel at the clinics — instead they blamed the provincial Premier, because this suited their political agenda.

Hence there is no force seeking to improve the management of the health care system or to restore discipline and responsibility among health care practitioners. Instead, the recommendation is that dump-trucks full of money be shovelled out in their general direction. Meanwhile, the crisis remains unresolved, the divide between rich and poor grows daily greater, and the failure of our national health-care system grows ever more likely, even as the Zuma administration play silly games pretending that a national health insurance system (another massive scam, probably) is practically possible.

Conceivably the condition may be terminal.

Challenge and Response. (V) Onward to — What?

June 2, 2009

Let us suppose, then, that a party set up very soon can, within the space of two years, win some success at municipal level in one or two provinces. Without much funding, but with considerable diligence and a clear plan of action, it can take control of half a dozen middle-sized towns and become a major part of the opposition in a couple of cities. Then what?
Well, there is such a thing as municipal socialism. The purpose of such a party would be to show that socialism could be put into practice. It is absolutely vital, given the history of South African socialism which is one of almost uninterrupted and unbridgeable gap between theory and practice, to demonstrate that this is possible. It would be almost easier to do such a thing on a small scale than on a large one, because on a smaller scale disastrous, irreversible calamity would not actually cost lives.
Municipal socialism entails the redistribution of wealth within the municipality in order to promote a better life for the poor. However, it also entails using the municipality to uplift the poor psychologically and ideologically — it is, conceptually, the idea that, simply using the basic tools of service delivery on the most primitive level, but coupling this with democracy and consultation, it is possible to promote the idea of socialism among the people involved. Show people that it is possible to connect their houses to electricity, or to provide them with the tools and skills needed to expand their houses and grow food in their municipal allotments (collectively organised, even if individually worked) and then point out that this is only possible through the cooperation of the people. Take the rich people who provided the funding to these places and show them what their money has made possible. Build support for the idea that collective work and investment can lead, ultimately, to collective benefit. Then promote wider collective activities. Challenge the notion that everything must be rooted in individual greed. Something of the kind has been promoted in the Venezuelan cooperative movement — whether or not it works well in Venezuela, there are places where such things have worked — and why not South Africa?
However, while the immediate goal is to improve the lives of the people in the municipality, the long-term one is to show that it is practical to pursue socialism within such a context, and therefore, to show people in other municipalities that municipal socialism, collective work within a rule-bound and financially constrained environment, is better than either outsourcing everything to big business, or imposing everything from a centralised municipal office. We need collectivity, we need sharing, we need democracy, and we need it now.
This can then be used as a tool with which to annoy the capitalist structures in larger municipalities where the party has no power, and ultimately, to discredit the other parties ruling those municipalities; even though the press may ignore it and the neoliberal parties may deny it, if you take people out to municipalities where things are working and show them what can be done, they will believe their own eyes.
This depends, ultimately, on proper management. The party must continually monitor its own performance within municipalities which it controls, and within municipalities where it is the opposition — to ensure that what it does works as well as possible, that money is not wasted, that time is not wasted, and that every possible opportunity to promote the party and discredit the opposing parties is taken. There have to be disciplinary procedures, there has to be internal supervision. This is most easily done when there is democracy, and when there is a lot of enthusiasm for the principles of the party. In a sense, a socialist party has to be a fanatical party — which is a problem, since too much fanaticism and principles get jettisoned. Curiously, there has to be a degree of competition between the municipalities which the party controls, and there has to be a degree of subservience to authority — but not too much. It would require a nice balancing act on the part of the leadership, who would have to be powerful enough to order the elements of the party around, but not arrogant enough to order them around unnecessarily.
There need, therefore, to be excellent open channels of communication along with democracy — which is not surprising. In short, the party has to be everything which today’s South Africa is not, simply in order to succeed, as a preparation for the 2014 national elections.
Socialism is not a theoretical issue. It is a pragmatic concern. This is forgotten by many people who commit themselves to socialism as an abstract issue. Socialism has to be concerned with sharing the wealth — but the purpose of sharing the wealth is to ensure that there is wealth to share. It is, therefore, about knowing what is going on now and knowing what you wish to do next. The purpose of socialist planning is to ensure that you can distribute a continually growing source of wealth more equally than can be done without planning, and this is a difficult task. It is easy to distribute wealth randomly. It is also easy to help the rich do what they already want to do — to make themselves even richer at the expense of the poor.
Very well. Suppose that these problems could be overcome and a disciplined, theoretically sound and enthusiastic democratic socialist-oriented party created. Let us imagine a party which has won a modest victory in municipal elections in one province, and a less substantial success in another province. How could that, in three years, be turned into anything more substantial?
The political problems of administration — of coordinating different centres of power and preventing them from fragmenting the organisation, the bane of the Left’s existence — would be enormous but not insuperable. If everyone had their eye on the long-term goal, namely, that of introducing democratic socialism to South Africa, and devoted their short-term attention to actions which facilitated (or did not obstruct) that long-term goal, this could be resolved. In that case, what would be happening would be that in the municipalities where this party was in charge, structures would be ostentatiously set up to transform the lives of the poor. With the support of the municipality itself, there would be street committees and ward organisations along the lines of the M-plan, the purpose for which would be twofold: to eliminate unemployment by expanding very cheap, basic service delivery and in parallel to greatly reduce the crime rate by establishing vigilante groups under the auspices of the municipal structures, but along with this, to promote the ideals of the collective good.
It’s easy to see, in any municipality, that a small amount of work could make a huge difference to the lives of the people. Fill in the holes in the roads. Plant trees. Help people build small additions to their ramshackle homes — even as little as providing sandbags to shield tin shanties from the worst heat of the sun. Dig drainage ditches. And, above all, whatever is provided, maintain it, and set up monitoring committees to see where the problems lie. Decentralise information-gathering and even planning, but retain central authority over decision-making. You don’t need to pay big corporations to get any of this stuff done.
In the end you would have an example for much of the country to follow. Evangelise that example. Wherever you have a councillor in a ward, however hostile the rest of the Council might be, that councillor could try to do something similar. Build cooperative organisations along the lines of what is going on in Venezuela — it may not be socialism in itself, but it is certainly a potential challenge to the kind of passive public subservience which neoliberal capitalism requires.
But there is also the political side. Once the public in a substantial area decided that the socialist party was more on their side than any other, this would provide a bountiful opportunity for recruitment. This in turn could lead to more political activity in local rural areas, but it might also lead to opportunities in further-flung regions. The street committees and municipal organisation might provide delegates to confer with like-minded people elsewhere and show them how it was happening.
As a result, the ossified municipal structures of South Africa might become almost irrelevant as a new life began to flourish within the dried, dead skeleton of what was once municipal democracy. (This was, in part, what happened in the early 1980s, but it never succeeded as properly as it should have, partly because the struggle was driven by people who did not properly know what they were doing, partly because of gangsterism and opportunism, and partly because of state repression. If this kind of activity is better planned, it could happen more quickly, more effectively and more completely the second time.) Most importantly, if a councillor were repudiated by his or her ward (if necessary, driven out by non-violent force) then, unlike the situation in provincial or national government, the requirement is that there must be a by-election. CoPe failed to take proper advantage of this and therefore lost momentum; in contrast, a steady stream of municipal election victories by a socialist party could create the impression (true or false) of an unstoppable force.
As a result, the membership of the party could quickly rise into six figures. With 100 000 active members or more, and with municipal structures subsidising some of the party’s activities (albeit never corruptly — we are talking about senior party officials hired to do real work, and legitimate municipal activities the success of which would be attributed to the party), and with a solid grassroots support base among the non-members in three or four provinces — people aware of the existence of the party, prepared to speculate on whether it was a good idea, and hence potentially willing to come to rallies or read literature — it would be possible to take the struggle to a higher level than the municipal.
As a result, in the 2014 election it would be possible to set sights on control of provinces. Advance planning would be essential. The objective would be to take at least one, possibly two, provinces — the obvious candidates would be the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, with an outside possibility of the North-West. These are provinces where villages and small towns dominate, as opposed to the urban centres where the ANC and DA would play Punch and Judy before the spotlights of the media. Of course the party would be on the national ballot, and should be present, nominally, in other provinces — yet the organisational focus should be on winning provincial power. Above all, the party should deliberately scorn Parliamentary representation, not because it despised the institution of Parliament, but because Parliament in its present form could not possibly provide any real focus for the party’s activities; it would seek representation there purely for propaganda purposes.
It might not do brilliantly; it might merely replicate CoPe’s success (though with much better long-term prospects). However, given better organisation, a real popular basis and genuine accomplishments, something far more would seem likely. If it instead gained control of two provinces and won 20% of the national vote (not altogether impossible) then the party would have dramatically changed the political situation. This would certainly push the ANC below 60% and raise the spectre of actual defeat in its leadership’s eyes. It might even precipitate a further split in the ANC, for there would be some who would want collaboration with more overtly neoliberal organisations and others who would want to radicalise the party in order to compete with the socialists. Such a split, if judiciously handled, might actually lead to socialists taking power — although the danger of becoming the junior partner of a dubious centre-left coalition is obvious.
The point is simply that there is potential for a socialist party beginning now and working hard to put itself into the situation of a real opposition — one eventually capable of becoming a ruling party — and to challenge the institutions of capitalism in South Africa. If it can be done, it should be done. The fact that it is not being done does not show the weakness of socialism. Instead, it displays the utter bankruptcy of our current purportedly leftist leaders.