The paid propagandists of the ruling class who masquerade as journalists and pundits in South Africa have a problem. Lacking any actual knowledge or intellect, and lacking curiosity or energy, and lacking will, they have very little to talk about. This is why they repeat themselves incessantly, and one of the things which they repeat is that we must all gird ourselves against the dreadful menace from China. They read this in the New York Times online and copy it out laboriously, making many mistakes because they also lack skill and natural ability.
What, precisely, is this menace?
China, historically, was an Empire without imperialism. It didn’t start out that way; it started out as a number of small kingdoms which gradually merged due to conquest and diplomacy, which was what Europe didn’t do. Eventually it bumped up against the sea in the east, the jungle in the south, the tundra and desert in the north and the mountains in the west. It seemed to have reached the limits of sane habitability when it reached the limits of where millet would grow, and so it declared itself the Middle Kingdom.
In addition, it combined extreme political conservatism with extreme political stability; every couple of centuries a new gang of crooks would seize power, declare themselves the last word in sacred ruling classes, and then settle down to plunder the country until they eventually aroused such ire that the public supported a fresh gang of crooks. You could only get away with this kind of thing because you were sitting behind secure borders, with no meaningful external threat. The Chinese Empire didn’t want to be imperialist because imperialism would generate external threats which might shorten the life of the latest criminal dynasty.
Unfortunately the Chinese invented a lot of clever things, such as gunpowder, compasses and printing, which managed to spread a bit although each gang of crooks did their best to suppress these things. Eventually they reached Europe. One fine day a crowd of foreign devils, educated in schools and informed about global activities thanks to printing, equipped with firearms stuffed with gunpowder, and having found their way to the Pacific thanks to compasses, arrived on the Chinese coast. After that happened, China would never be the same. The crooks did their best to pretend that it wasn’t happening, but by the 1840s China was no longer an independent state; the Opium Wars made them a satrap of the British East India Company. In the 1860s there was a real threat of a new gang of crooks seizing power (a particularly psychopathic crowd called the Taipings) which foreign troops helped the old crooks suppress. By 1895 China wasn’t even strong enough to defeat the little monkeys from the islands off their coastline. This peeved the public so much that they formed the Society of the Harmonious and Righteous Fist to kick out the crooks again, and the foreign devils stepped in and crushed the Boxers with Maxim guns and Krupp artillery (this was the occasion when one of the leaders of the foreign devils, who styled himself the Emperor of Germany, ordered his troops to model themselves on the Huns, a phrase which rather rebounded on the Germans although the original Huns — Hsiung-nu — were refugees from the Chinese empire).
Then Sun Jatsen kicked out the Manchus and everything to hell, with the Guomindang running the country into the ground and everybody who could find a gun or make a flag setting up an independent state, and in the middle of all this chaos the little yellow monkeys from the islands arrived with slightly more advanced Maxims and modified Krupp artillery and began telling everybody that by the command of the Emperor of Japan they should get hooked on heroin and buy only Japanese goods and accept pay cuts in return. It was like every previous foreign devil invasion rolled into one, on speed and crack (but not, alas, heroin, which might have been soothing). Luckily that only lasted fourteen years, until the yellow monkeys had peeved the other foreign devils enough to make the foreign devils drop atomic bombs on them.
Jiang Gaisheq (or however the hell you spell it) then asked the Americans if he could have all the weaponry in the Pacific theatre to sort out the China problem, and the Americans obliged. Gaisheq handed this weaponry to his soldiers, who eagerly sold it on the open market (some of it going to the Communists, who didn’t really need it) and then Gaisheq wondered why his troops went wee-wee-wee all the way to the coastline, where American ships were ready to take them to Taiwan which had been under yellow-monkey occupation and was now under the Americans, who installed Jiang as leader of China. A bit as if the Governor of the Falkland Islands declared himself President of Argentina.
Now, what all this shows is that the Chinese have not only not been imperialist, they’ve never been imperialist. They have no imperialist tradition in the sense that we today understand an empire, as something which basically expands until it drops to bits, like a cancer. When the Communists took over, Mao, like Lenin, had the primary goal of trying to put everything back together. Hence they made sure that neither the Uighurs nor the Tibetans would step out of line, they crushed all dissidents and every source of power except the central state — and there they stopped. (They wanted to take back Taiwan, but they couldn’t — then. They had a long list of unfinished business, of places where the Imperial flag had once flown and where the red flag was going to fly. Sixty years on, Taiwan is now the last of these.)
Mao was not Jesus. He had his faults, the biggest of which was the totally-unrealistic Great Leap Forward, which happened at the same time as the big crushing of official dissidence (the Hundred Flowers Campaign) and, unfortunately, as a huge famine which the Great Leap Forward exascerbated (since everyone was off building unworkable infrastructure instead of harvesting the millet). Millions died, partly because everybody in office was too terrified by the anti-dissident campaign to talk about it. By comparison, the Cultural Revolution, which everybody talks about today because it represents the horror of every Western ruling class, that they might someday be held personally responsible for their crimes, was a minor blip. But the whole goal of China under Mao was to try to build the country up into a state which could protect itself against foreign attack and ultimately regain the independence which it lost in the 1840s. Towards this end, Mao was perfectly willing to put his country under the suzerainty of America, which he did in 1972, despite the stinking history of America’s treatment of China and even though the Americans had half a million troops within easy striking distance. Mao had decided that China had to choose between Russia and America, and Russia had a land border with China so posed a more serious threat — hence the big sell-out.
But China was stronger than it looked. The Communist Party, basically, Prussianised China — but it was a Prussia driven by the Party instead of by the Generalkriegskommissariat. The disciplined state was focussed on education and production and reconstruction and development. In thirty years Mao had turned a shattered basket-case into a functioning, impoverished state which was capable of sustaining rapid economic development on a scale ten times greater than that of Japan and thirty times greater than that of the “Asian Tigers”. Hence the sudden startling rise to global significance of China over the last thirty years; in 1971 the Americans generously allowed the UN to recognise China, which was seen as a huge favour; today nobody can leave China out of any debate (and probably today the Americans would be a little nervous about flattening a Chinese embassy as they did in 1999).
China is not a military threat to anybody, it has to be pointed out, despite its immense conscript army. The frontiers which protect China also protect their enemies; a march into Siberia still goes nowhere, and a march into India would still be an impossible project given the mountainous terrain of the supply lines. China is luckier than the Soviet Union in having plenty of ice-free open-ocean ports, but the Chinese navy is weak. China has a modest nuclear capacity, probably able to destroy every major city on the U.S. West Coast, bring Russia or India to their knees or exterminate the population of Japan. That’s all they need to ensure that none of those countries are going to launch a nuclear attack on them, and therefore that’s all they want. China is not building up a huge aggressive force on a modest economic base, as the Soviet Union, crazily, did.
Perhaps because of this, the Americans are a little afraid of China. They have good reason to be, since today the American economy runs on Chinese imports and, to a large extent, Chinese funding. If the Chinese stopped buying Treasury bonds the dollar would drop like a paralyzed falcon, as the Creator has pointed out. Meanwhile, if the Americans stopped buying Chinese goods there would certainly be hardship in China, but it would be more easily overcome than the hardship which that would cause in America. In short, there is an asymmetrical relationship between the two which is in China’s favour, and the Americans don’t like that but are not willing to do anything about it. The Chinese are also not rhetorically hostile to America (although the American government is extremely unpopular with the Chinese people, apart from some members of the right-wing corporate class and the subaltern mentally colonised Taiwanese elite) but they are not ever willing to do what America says unless it is in their interests; from time to time the American government has issued commands to China which China has always ignored, making America look very silly wherever there is a free press (and the Chinese press is freer than the American).
So, as a result, the Americans do their best to demonise China wherever they can. This works very well in white racist societies where the traditional “yellow peril” propaganda can be dusted off and rehashed, just as anti-Semitism has been dusted off and redeployed against Muslims. (Sinister people, don’t mix with Gentiles, think of nothing but money, out to control our women, practice bizarre and outrageous religious rituals — the rhetoric of European anti-Muslim propagandists like Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jack Straw is indistinguishable from the wit and wisdom of Julius Streicher.) But how well does this work in a country like South Africa?
Well, the elite buy into it. The Creator has heard a perfectly intelligent Ghanaian, who is despised by South Africans who suspect him of being Nigerian, denouncing the idea of setting up Mandarin classes because this would encourage Chinese imperialism. The notion that it might be sensible to understand what the inscrutable Orientals are saying while they sign on the dotted line (or, indeed, to read what is written above or below that dotted line) was beyond him. There are, certainly, some Chinese coming to South Africa. They have not, interestingly, been subject to serious xenophobic attacks, as the Somalians have, although the Chinese are just as involved in organised crime as the Somalians are (and just as inclined to trade more effectively than South Africans, which is one of the primary reasons for xenophobic attacks, so often promoted by sleazy businesspeople).
However, in reality China is not interested in political control. China wants to be left to go about its business, which is largely business. Were it true that China was behind South Africa’s denial of a visa to the Dalai Lama (this was probably a stunt pulled by the Zuma administration off its own bat) that would simply mean that the Chinese don’t enjoy being destabilised. China knows that Africa wants to sell it minerals. China is happy to buy, and does not need or desire to control Africa. (Are we really so desirable a date, let alone a marriage partner?) There is no Chinese AFRICOM. Indeed, part of the American representation of China as an imperialist power is probably a distraction from America’s bungling and futile efforts to expand their empire (which is already too large for them to control, but the imperialist way is always to expand until you collapse).
The Chinese are coming, but not in great numbers. Little yellow people will not overwhelm us, nor do we need to pass laws against them as the Americans did, or expel them as white South Africa did. Rather we should be polite and respectful to them. Partly because it is always best to be polite and respectful to anybody who has done you no harm. Partly, also, because if we aren’t, we may not want to be on China’s shit-list in twenty years’ time, when they may well be the sole surviving superpower on the planet.
The paid propagandists of the ruling class who masquerade as journalists and pundits in South Africa have a problem. Lacking any actual knowledge or intellect, and lacking curiosity or energy, and lacking will, they have very little to talk about. This is why they repeat themselves incessantly, and one of the things which they repeat is that we must all gird ourselves against the dreadful menace from China. They read this in the New York Times online and copy it out laboriously, making many mistakes because they also lack skill and natural ability.
(The South Gautrain High Quart is packed with representatives of the ruling class. The GUILTY GUY is carried in, dressed in an orange jump-suit, manacled and shackled, gagged, hooded and fitted with black-painted goggles, and propped up in the Accused bench.)
PROSTICUTOR: The matter of The Ruling Class Versus The Guilty Guy is now in session, so will the bludge kindly look up from that crossword-puzzle?
BLUDGE: Ja, orrait. (Putting black handkerchief on head.) For the crime of irritating the ruling class and being offensively black in high office there is alas no punishment too severe. It is therefore my duty to declare that you shall be taken from this place unto another place, and from that place to yet another place, and from there into all sorts of different places, and the bits be chopped up, and set fire to, and danced upon by duly accredited representatives of the ruling class, and may the Mail and Guardian have mercy on your —
PROSTICUTOR: Sorry, your stupidiousness. Verdict first — sentence afterward. It’s a white-guy kinda thing.
BLUDGE: Well, why didn’t somebody tell me? (Drinks from a bottle of drain-cleaner.)
PROSTICUTOR: Call the first pretext! (UGLI OGGI enters, wearing an oversized two-lapel chalkstripe suit, a very loud tie and matching handkerchief, a Borcelino hat and a bulge under the armpit. PROSTICUTOR hands him a cello-case which he tucks under his arm as the band plays the theme from “The Godfather”.) Do you confess to having an Italian-sounding surname?
UGLI OGGI: Signor, it is just this cosa that nostra happen to have.
PROSTICUTOR: And do you confess to being a member of an international syndicate of Italian-sounding supporters of Silvio Berlusconi?
UGLI OGGI: Signor, if I happened to be such a member then it would be against our code of silence to speak out. So I’m not tellink nuffin.
PROSTICUTOR: Do you know this unspeakable wretch who now prepares for inevitable doom in this court?
UGLI OGGI: Sure, sure I know him. Him and me, we’re just like this. (Stuffs fist up arse.) We go back together, we go forward together, we go sideways together.
PROSTICUTOR: But you won’t go to jail together.
UGLI OGGI: Well, that’s what the Scorpions promised.
PROSTICUTOR: Never mention that name in vain. When did you find yourself becoming corrupted by the criminal and evil practices of the Guilty Guy?
UGLI OGGI: Um, it’s like this. Now and then him and me used to do stuff together. And one thing led to another, know what I mean? Nudge, nudge? Wink, wink? Say no more!
PROSTICUTOR: At what point did you begin paying bribes to the Guilty Guy so as to prevent your miserable carcass from being dragged to durance vile as you richly deserved and he now deserves?
UGLI OGGI: You know, I can’t quite recall.
PROSTICUTOR: Didn’t they give you a script?
UGLI OGGI: It’s in one of the pockets of my other suit. But I remember they said I bought him shoes once. (Panic breaks out in courtroom, chants of “If the shoe don’t fit you can’t acquit.”)
PROSTICUTOR: Are you nevertheless prepared to testify that the Guilty Guy is guilty?
UGLI OGGI: He’s bad, he’s bad. (Moonwalks.)
BLUDGE: This is getting really insignificant. Can’t you liven things up a little?
PROSTICUTOR: I am done and the Guilty Guy is done for. Do your worst, DEFENESTRATOR.
DEFENESTRATOR: Mr. Ugly, tell us your impressions of the Guilty Guy in your own words.
UGLI OGGI: Smashin’ bloke! Bought flowers for his Mum on a totally regular basis! Won’t hear a word against him!
DEFENESTRATOR: Did you ever see him doing anything illegal?
UGLI OGGI: Well, not as such, no.
DEFENESTRATOR: Then what the fuck are you doing as a witness against him?
UGLI OGGI: Well, it’s like this. They was going to frame me for murdering Brett Kebble, when I can find witnesses to say I was somewhere else at the time, except they aren’t prepared to say so ’cause it’s against their code of silence.
DEFENESTRATOR: Can I have a big-screen TV, please? (A big-screen TV is duly brought; the screen displays a poorly-edited video of UGLY OGGI moaning “I wuz framed, I shudda stood in bed!” after which a Scorpion chitters incomprehensibly, a number of Prawns dance about stealing our women and selling drugs and guns to Nigerians, and eventually the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir chants “H – A – S – H; Hash!)
UGLI OGGI: Yes, folks. There’s nothing like the sweet scent of pure Moroccan hash, fresh from the Atlas mountains, prepared and packaged by the finest preparers and packagers in Lagos to sell to you here in Sandton. Just one whack and you won’t go back! (Produces hookah, takes tremendous hit, passes to DEFENESTRATOR who takes tremendous hit and passes to PROSTICUTOR who takes tremendous hit and passes to BLUDGE, who takes tremendous hit and briefly passes out. Hookah remains on BLUDGE’s podium.)
DEFENESTRATOR: So, basically, you have no reason to be here except you would be sent to jail if you didn’t?
UGLI OGGI: Dat’s-a-right! (Representatives of the ruling class shoo UGLI OGGI out of the courtroom.)
PROSTICUTOR: Call the usual suspect! (Enter the MOLL, wearing several kilogrammes of makeup, fishnet stockings and a lurex, sequinned mini-skirt.) For the sake of convenience we will not ask questions. You are free to give your testimony without any preparation of any kind. (A large TelePrompt system is set up in front of MOLL.)
BLUDGE (to usher, sot voce): Go rent me “Anal DPs On Parade III”. (Puts spout of hookah in mouth where it remains. Smoke gradually emerges from ears.)
MOLL (reading haltingly): He was my man, but he done me wrong. (Courtroom groans with sympathy.) I was there when he paid the Guilty Man bribes. He paid him the bribes in envelopes. He paid them in checks from my Dad’s check account. He paid them in rolls of banknotes. He paid them in chests of gold encrusted with precious stones. I saw every one and noted them down on a piece of paper what I have since lost.
PROSTICUTOR: MOLL is all the more credible because she was not in any way aware of what was happening nor is she in any way culpable for concealing the bribing of the Chief of Police of the Republic for five years and nobody has hinted that she is in any way a criminal.
MOLL: (reading haltingly) Also, the Guilty Man shot the Kennedys, shot down Samora Machel’s plane and supplied the gun with which Thabo Mbeki shot Chris Hani.
PROSTICUTOR: Yes, that’s enough —
MOLL: (reading haltingly) And he invented the AIDS virus, dynamited the Twin Towers, shaved Britney Spears’ head —
PROSTICUTOR: Can the DEFENESTRATOR try to shut her up?
DEFENESTRATOR: Certainly. MOLL, I put it to you that you are a witless blonde slut.
MOLL: Bullshit, this is dyed.
DEFENESTRATOR: A palpable hit! But at the same time, I can provide evidence that the only golden chest ever possessed by my client had not a single precious stone on it anywhere.
MOLL: Did, too! Did, did, did! (Representatives of ruling class burst into applause. Some begin laying out article headlined IRREFUTABLE ARGUMENTS OF WISEST WOMAN IN WORLD.)
DEFENESTRATOR: Also, your Dad says you’re talking bullshit.
MOLL: My dad is a stupid old fart. (More storms of applause.)
DEFENESTRATOR: Also, what about all this money paid into your bank account by UGLI OTTI after you stopped being his Moll?
MOLL: Go take a flying fuck at a rolling donut. (The BLUDGE is meanwhile watching the porno DVD on the big-screen TV. Trickles of sperm flow down the BLUDGE’s podium.)
PROSTICUTOR: For no apparent reason — call the MOLL’s DAD! (Three nurses from the frailcare centre wheel a stretcher into the witness-box. The DAD’s face is not seen, but he wheezes faintly.) DAD, can you please confirm what your daughter, that estimable and fuckable fragment of womanflesh has told us?
DAD: It’s all a load of bullshit. I don’t know anything about anything.
PROSTICUTOR: What’s your name?
DAD: I’m not tellink.
DEFENESTRATOR: In that case, can you tell us your opinion of your slut daughter’s testimony?
DAD: My daughter would say anything to anybody for a suck on a crackpipe or a pink piccolo.
DEFENESTRATOR: Thank you very much, most reliable witness for the prosticution yet seen.
(At this point there is a brief interruption. A member of the ruling class has brought the BLUDGE a copy of a weekly newspaper.)
BLUDGE (bursting out into hysterical giggles): Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty! Ha ha, hee hee, hoo hoo hoo!
DEFENESTRATOR: M’Lord, with all due respect and the utmost regret, I must ask you to recuse yourself from your estimable duties due to you being a psycho fuckwit.
BLUDGE (holding up dildo borrowed from MOLL): Sit on this and swivel, suckah! I’m here for the duration!
DEFENESTRATOR: It was worth a try. You got anything more?
PROSTICUTOR: Well — call Extremely Boring Person! (EXTREMELY BORING PERSON appears in witness-box. Nobody can remember what he looks or sounds like.) How guilty is the Guilty Guy?
EXTREMELY BORING PERSON: Very guilty.
PROSTICUTOR: How do you know?
EXTREMELY BORING PERSON: I have conducted a forensic audit of the Guilty Guy’s checking, savings, thirty-day, hundred-and-eighty day, special and credit-card accounts. In order to do this I had to get a lot of pieces of paper and read the numbers on them. Then I had to copy them out in my own handwriting. Then I had to get people to type them into computers and put them on screens. Then I had to look at the screens and pretend to be thinking. For this I get paid five hundred rand a minute.
PROSTICUTOR: And your conclusions?
EXTREMELY BORING PERSON: Don’t rush me, I’m still getting paid five hundred rand a minute. Well, after studying everything very carefully for an extraordinarily long time I came to the conclusion that it was very suspicious and he was guilty of everything. (Pause.)
DEFENESTRATOR: This is extremely damning evidence.
EXTREMELY BORING PERSON: Oh, yes. (Very long pause.)
DEFENESTRATOR: Look, sorry to cut back on your income, but what was this thing which was suspicious?
EXTREMELY BORING PERSON: Well, if I must — all of the Guilty Guy’s money was invested in ordinary banking and insurance companies. Whereas, if he had invested his money in the financial services provider for which I happen to work, Madoff and Tannenbaum Enterprises (Melbourne) plc, he could have obtained immense amounts more money except that it’s all disappeared somehow but that does not affect my credibility as a financial service provider because when money disappears that’s a service too. So that was tremendously suspicious.
DEFENESTRATOR: Do you have any actual evidence of any wrongdoing?
EXTREMELY BORING PERSON: I am a financial service provider’s agent. What is this thing called wrongdoing?
DEFENESTRATOR: I’m getting kinda bored with tearing apart the prosecution witnesses. Can we have a few witnesses to prove the Guilty Guy is innocent?
DEFENESTRATOR: Call the Guilty Guy himself!
PROSTICUTOR: We decline to allow him to give testimony, on the grounds that the evidence which he would give might tend to exonerate him.
DEFENESTRATOR: It was worth a try. All right, call RONALD SURESH MBEKI! (RONALD SURESH MBEKI enters, wearing a Billionaires for Bush and Gore T-shirt.) Right — is this all your fault?
RONALD SURESH MBEKI: Not entirely, as is manifest for all who have read any of my books.
DEFENESTRATOR: Who else was involved?
RONALD SURESH MBEKI: It was the illiberals. And the unconservatives. And the nonmoderates. Especially them, the whiteskinned scum.
DEFENESTRATOR: Is there anyone in this courtroom who is culpable apart from yourself and the Guilty Guy?
RONALD SURESH MBEKI: Yes! (Rising to his full shrimplike stature.) You! You so-called judge! I have been studying contralegal activities and you are Tony Leon and I claim my R5000 bounty!
BLUDGE: Nice try, but no cigar. (Throws off his robes and reveals himself to be HELEN ZILLE. Sensation in court — sensation chiefly of ennui mixed with anticipation of the apocalypse, which duly arrives.)
GUILTY GUY: Mmmmmphhh! (Spits out ball-gag. Uses picklock supplied by RONALD SURESH MBEKI to undo chains. Wrenches off hood and strips off jumpsuit.) Not so fast, everybody! Under the new regulations of the Ministry of Repressive State Apparatus I was a Marshal of Police! And according to the German Criminal Code, a Marshal cannot be dismissed or denied and ranks above the Chancellor, although below the Emperor! (He dons a glittering black uniform with a skull on his peaked cap and twin lightning-bolts on his lapel patches. The band plays the “Horst Malema Lied”.) This trial is null, void and voided nullity! I am in charge here!
REPRESSIVE STATE APPARATUS: Yes, master.
SUSAN SHABANGU and BHEKI CELE (swinging from chandelier): Shoot the bastards!
GUILTY GUY: You heard them. Take these representatives of the ruling class outside and . . . (He shrugs. The repressive state apparatus do his bidding. A continual roar of musketry is heard. Soon all the windows of the courtroom have been shot out and the pavements are crowded with the writhing forms of dying toddlers.)
PRESIDENT ZUMA (to CHIEF JUSTICE NGCOBO): Well, everything seems to be going ahead according to the Polokwane Resolutions.
CHIEF JUSTICE NGCOBO (placing hand on copy of FinWeek): I pledge myself to maintain the finest judicial system money can buy.
Emmanuel Wallerstein is one of the longest-running shows on the global left-wing stage. He all but invented the notion of seeing the world economy as a system, and was one of the brightest stars of “dependency theory” which argued the obvious fact that the goal of the rich world was to make the poor world dependent upon it. So he is no dullard, though admittedly he is getting on a bit..
However, he recently came to South Africa to deliver a Harold Wolpe lecture. Very well; no bad thing to have a little encouragement for the left. Even better, he got onto the After Eight Debate; unusual to have anyone with an IQ in three figures speaking to Tim Modise, that tongue unrolled for the ruling class to wipe their boots and arses on. And what did he say?
Basically, that we face a crisis of capitalism. A crisis, he observed, which has been going on since the early 1970s. A structural crisis of capitalism which capitalism cannot resolve. It must therefore be replaced by something else. The struggles of the next few decades will determine what this will be. Let us hope, according to Wallerstein, that these struggles, which are surely to be dominated by the left wing, will lead to a relatively left wing successor to capitalism.
Amen, one might say. But hang on. Just what is this crisis of capitalism? Why is it that capitalism seems to be doing so nicely today, with the biggest American banks proposing record bonuses for their underperforming CEOs, using the money kindly given them by the U.S. taxpayer? (Or Lloyds Bank demanding a fresh £20 billion bailout simultaneously with a comparable-sized new issue of shares.) Why, in short, are they saying “Crisis? What crisis?”
A crisis of capitalism is a situation where a significant number of the most important capitalists lose their capacity to dominate society through the use of their capital — where they lose their political power. It happened in the great financial crash in France towards the end of the Directory which brought in Napoleon. It happened to some of the American “robber barons” (not all, of course) in the 1873 crash. It happened, not so completely but quite significantly, in the early 1930s, when American capitalism was forced to turn to state sponsorship in order to survive (although because they refused to allow the state its head, they did little more than survive — but at least they survived, which is better than happened in Germany and Austria at much the same time).
This sort of crisis has not happened since then. Of course there have been serious crises and there have been failures of capitalist enterprises. There have been bubbles bursting. Notwithstanding, the trend of capitalism has been towards continuous success for the capitalists. The structural crisis which Wallerstein was talking about was not actually a crisis of capitalism — between 1973 and 2008 capitalists made, if anything, more money than they had made between 1945 and 1972. What, however, was significant was that in the advanced capitalist countries, while the capitalists were getting more money, the workers and the petit-bourgeoisie were not getting more money. This seemed to be a problem, although it was not perceived as a problem, not even by the workers and the petit-bourgeoisie, who blamed themselves when they did not blame the Communists, the blacks, the unions, the Mexicans and the Arabs.
What’s interesting about this is that Marx predicted that there would be continuously-intensifying crises of capitalism. These would derive largely from a falling rate of profit, which would require more and more intense exploitation of the workers, who would gradually become more and more radicalised, until at last there would be the supreme crisis of capitalism which would create a revolutionary situation where the workers’ radicalism could boil over into a seizure of power, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and all that jazz. It’s a reasonable assessment of the situation, and many thought in the 1930s that it had come, but it hadn’t. It must be emphasised that Marx wasn’t an idiot and that the idea of intensifying crises of capitalism are plausible, and that the idea that such crises might lead to a revolutionary situation cannot be ruled out as ridiculous, neither in 1870 nor in 1968 nor in 1985.
However, Wallerstein’s thesis appears to be that this final crisis has arrived — or why else should he be talking about what is to come after capitalism? In other words, there is to be a revolution, although Wallerstein did not use such words (perhaps not wishing to shock the shell-like ears of his audience). But is this really that sort of crisis, and is this revolution really going to arrive?
The answer to both questions seems to be “No, definitely not”, and the reason for this is that conditions have changed. Not economic conditions — political conditions. The chief alteration in political conditions since the death of Karl Marx has been a tremendous enhancement in the power of the state. The state commands subservient obedience in Western societies in a way that it has not done in the past. It is also much more completely under the control of large corporations than ever — and this change has occurred substantially since 1973. In the 1960s, although the British and French and German governments were biassed towards the interests of their ruling classes, none of them ignored the interests of the working classes. Even their most conservative political parties were obliged to listen when the trade unions spoke up, and although the trade unions were mostly anything but radical leftists, they certainly represented a different voice from that of the corporate ruling class. (Incidentally, in those days not all of the ruling class was completely corporatised.)
Today, the government and the state pay absolutely no attention to the interests of anyone but the ruling class. Trade unions might just as well not exist, except as glove puppets performing to the whim of the government. Left-wing parties no longer exist; even left-wing rhetoric no longer exists. But this has happened, not simply through repression, but through indifference, co-option, and the decision of the left to abandon principle, policies and structures in favour of corporatism.
This is why it has been possible to organise a very different response to this capitalist crisis as compared to previous ones. The current response has been extraordinarily confident in its willingness to compel the general public to finance the consequences of incompetence and corruption on the part of bankers and big businessmen. It has been exceptionally timid in its reluctance to compel bankers and big businessmen to refrain from being incompetent and corrupt. In short, it has turned the state from a facilitator of an appropriate economic climate for neoliberal capitalism, into the unlimited provider of funds for neoliberal capitalism (not a banker, for a banker would expect a return and in 2008-9 the sole return on “bailouts” is a demand for more).
In other words, the capitalists are not in crisis. They are doing very nicely. They have been able to impose their crisis on the rest of us, quite openly and with the full support of the state and its armed forces.
Now, it is true that imposing their crisis on us is expensive. It means that there will, in the long run, be much less money for the rest of us. However, by borrowing immense sums this problem is being deferred. Meanwhile the rest of us are being mobilised in the great struggle against somebody else way over there, and therefore distracted from the fact that all our pockets are being picked.
What did Wallerstein say about this? Virtually nothing. There was almost nothing which he could say, for the above does not simply mean that the workers and petit-bourgeois are gullible. The above is also an indication that there is no left to compel the newspapers and electronic media to cover the facts, no left to expose the facts, no left to picket or riot or even disseminate leaflets with the facts. There is only a universal right blanketing the West like a suffocating fire-retardant. In other words, the problem is not that Marx was wrong about his analysis of capitalism. The problem is not even that Marx was wrong about revolutionary conditions arising. The problem is that the Left has systematically abandoned its capacity to exploit a revolutionary condition when it arises.
This is not new. In Argentina when the economy collapsed, the mass-based political organisations did nothing. It was left to organisations of housewives and random street blockaders much like the South African service delivery protesters — the “piqueteros” — to do something. These disorganised, politically immature and numerically weak groupings nevertheless brought down three governments in a single week. Had there been a real Left in Argentina in 2000, Argentina would now be a Marxist-Leninist state. But there was not, and so Argentina was handed back to the soft right.
The grim fact, therefore, is that Wallerstein’s understanding of the capitalist situation is much too apocalyptic, and fails to acknowledge that capitalism has adapted sufficiently to make it unlikely that it will crumble under the present crisis. Nor, indeed, is the ecological crisis likely to make capitalism go away. (What do the capitalists really care if nine-tenths of the population of the world die off? They have plenty of mercenaries to guard their perimeters and they are not related to anyone in those nine-tenths. At most they might feel a little guilty as they watch TV. If they bother) Nor, unfortunately, is there any sign that anyone is trying to develop anything to make capitalism go away, or to promote anything to supplant it. Wallerstein seems to think that this will happen as if predetermined, forgetting that while men do not make history as they choose, they bloody well won’t make it at all if they don’t choose anything. On the contrary, all the signs are that the Left is patiently waiting for capitalism to stabilise itself so that the Left can go on complaining and remaining in the same powerless rut it has been in for thirty years.
In some ways the global Left is a little like a gaggle of movie actors. They know how to do it, all right. They know how to talk about it, most certainly. They can show you what it looks like when they do it. But in the real world, they will never do it. They are not paid to do it. They are paid to pretend and to put it all on. It seems that even good old lefties like Wallerstein have been infected by the virus of virtual left-wing reality. Possibly nothing can be done about this. However, at the least we should be careful about taking these good old lefties too seriously. They seem to be, well, intellectually and morally lazy, lacking the vigour and even the corrupt opportunism of their predecessors which sometimes enabled them to actually do things.
Or perhaps they have just lost hope?
The problems facing the world are individually extremely damaging, although only some of them
will lead to catastrophe. (Collectively, they all will.) All of them can be solved, and could have been
solved easily had they been addressed some time ago. They may be summed up, in order of actual
importance and very nearly in reverse order of how seriously they are taken, as the Economic Crisis, the
Political Crisis, the Resource Crisis and the Ecological Crisis.
The Economic Crisis is familiar. It is a crisis brought about by a shortage of capital and an excess of
goods. As a result, in areas where investment is needed there is no capital to invest, while there is
growing unemployment as a result of falling prices because of goods being dumped onto markets by
manufacturers. The official unemployment in the United States is about 10% at the moment, meaning
that the real unemployment is upwards of 20%. Of course this is not quite Depression-era conditions
yet, because there are so many more employed people, as a proportion of the population, since women
are now encouraged to work. However, high unemployment plus a shortage of money, compounded by
the deliberate decision by all Western governments to bail out the ruling class rather than the working
class, is potentially a highway to hell.
What would be needed would be Keynesianism, which is not what is being had, except in China.
However, not even China can afford to bail its own economy out sufficiently to increase domestic
demand enough to compensate for the collapse of the United States. Therefore, China cannot afford to
see the United States collapse, and yet the United States is bankrupt and when the United States runs
out of borrowed money it will not be able to sustain its own economy — that is, a U.S. collapse, when it
happens, will probably happen quickly, within a few weeks. Meanwhile, Brazil and India are well aware
that if the United States goes, they will go with it. Western Europe has its own problems (though not to
serious as those of the United States) and, of course, Russia is dependent on primary exports which will
disappear if the major powers suffer gross depression. It seems that everybody will run up unsustainable
debts as long as possible and then try to default, crashing the global banking system, leading to a
collapse of demand which will put many times as many people out of work as before. In other words,
the future looks much, much worse than 1929; possibly the worst financial crisis in capitalism’s history,
and one for which the Marxists, who have been waiting for it, are utterly unprepared.
Well, so much for the good news. What about the real problems?
The Political Crisis is not much talked about. It is hidden under the Global War on Terror, the War
On Drugs, and the Humanitarian War On Bad People Generally. Basically, the public has completely
lost faith in political leadership, which is natural since political leadership long ago stopped even
pretending to serve the public. (The fact that Tony Blair and Barack Obama took the trouble to make
such a pretense — or rather, their spin-doctors did — was something considered quite extraordinary, a
sign of the desperation of the times. Naturally, this had nothing to do with Blair or Obama’s actual
practices.) With democracy discredited, and human solidarity destroyed by decades of atomising
neoliberalism, the danger is not merely revolution, but the complete disappearance of society due to
everybody losing interest in it. The public are no longer responsive to ideological mobilisation (and all
governments are afraid of this because it represents a danger to the status quo which they represent).
Therefore they must be frightened into compliance by the manufacture of threats, preferably external.
In addition, this political crisis is driven by the United States’ fear of losing the authority over the
world which it gained in the 1980s. It lacks the military or financial power to enforce its dominion, so it
must seek assistance, and once again this means manufacturing threats through which governments can
be bullied into compliance. Hence a whole series of wars which everyone is invited to join, and if one
does not join one might easily become defined as the enemy instead.
These wars have been getting bigger and bigger and the public has been panicked more and more.
Various commentators have wondered why the British public was so frightened by four bombs going
off in London in 2005 when ten thousand times as many bombs delivered by Mr. Hitler sixty-five years
earlier aroused far less comparable panic. The reason is simple; the bombs were a pretext for whipping
up panic, as 9/11 had been. Xenophobia is on the rise, as is internal repression. These are not solutions
to the political crisis, because there is no solution to the political crisis; it is a self-sustaining
consequence of the depoliticisation and disdemocratisation of global political systems. The only answer
lies in politicisation and democratisation, and nobody in power wants this because it might detract from
their power. But therefore there must be more and more, and bigger and bigger, wars, and with more
wars comes more vigorous responses. We now have the world’s first civil war within a nuclear power.
The Pakistani civil war straddles the Middle East conflict zone and the East Asian conflict zones. We
have been brought to a situation where global nuclear conflict is once again a serious possibility, as it
was during the Cold War, except that now the decisions for the conflict are to be made in Islamabad,
New Delhi, Kandahar, Tehran and Tel-Aviv. This is anything but reassuring.
But at least these wars could be cooled down if only our political leaders were not sociopaths. The
trouble ahead is the probability of wars which will be fought, not over imaginary hobgoblins or the
desire to brandish a conceptual big stick to conceal syphilitic impotence, but over the very real
Resource Crisis. The world’s supplies of water are running out as the population increases. The world’s
access to cheap, easily-transportable energy sources are running out. The world’s supplies of food are
running out as land and sea is depleted of nutritive value (water shortages, of course, contribute to this).
The world’s supplies of key minerals are running out. All this is happening at once, and for the moment
a lot of people are very happy because the prices of these minerals are soaring; it’s a good time to be in
food stocks; a good time to be in construction stocks; a good time to be in the greenwash business. But
for how long can real problems be held at bay by trying to make money out of them?
Probably not long. Food and thirst will cause wars over rivers, lakes and aquifers. Wars over control
of oil and access to nuclear technology have already started. Many of these will be wars between the
countryside and the city — and the city’s access to food and water and power is vulnerable. It is perfectly
possible that in civil wars and in international wars, productive capacity will be destroyed beyond the
capacity of individual countries to reconstruct it. It is one thing to destroy the electrical generating
capacity, water purification plants and communications systems of Iraq or Serbia, but what happens
when an entire region’s capacities go? What happens, too, when different regions are trying to make use
of limited quantities of expensive minerals, such as the rare-earths needed for modern electronics,
which China is carefully monopolising?
The trouble with these crises is that they are happening at a time when there is a tremendous
shortage of capital and a colossal lack of public support for large-scale projects. Meanwhile, a lot of
what capital there is, is going into weaponry, much of it ineffectual and hugely expensive. This is the
worst possible occasion for trying to develop our abandoned coal mines, build coal gasification plants,
nuclear breeder reactors and find ways to exploit shale oil and heavy tars economically. Unfortunately,
this is the time when these things have got to be done, and meanwhile we have to build more dams and
expand our production of herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizers which put a further drain on our
resources of hydrocarbons. We are running out of spare energy to accomplish these projects and our
oversupply of weaponry makes it tempting to steal the projects of others — or force people to donate
their energy at gunpoint, or missile-point, or atomic-bomb point.
And we are all getting these guns, missiles and atomic bombs at once, while the Leader of the Free
World is awarded his Nobel Peace Prize for helping make this global holocaust possible. Can a world-
wide nuclear war be staved off?
If it can, we may all still face catastrophe from the Ecological Crisis. Heavy weather and changing
climates will unpredictably affect our capacity to grow crops in forthcoming decades. The rain may
come at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Droughts will undoubtedly become more severe and
floods more serious. Everything is becoming more extreme. As a result, precisely at the time when we
need more of everything, our access to food and water is going to become less certain. It is already too
late to stop this from happening — we planned to stop it twenty years ago, when global warming first hit
the headlines (it had been predicted twenty years before that) but we didn’t. Too bad. Now we must face
the consequences and nobody knows whether they will be merely horrendous or actually catastrophic.
(The catastrophes could come if the peat-sinks of the Northern permafrosts turn out to give off as much
methane as most experts think they will when they warm up, and if the methane clathrates frozen under
the oceans give up their methane when the ice matrix of the clathrate starts to melt; that could raise
global temperatures so high that food yields will shrink everywhere and the planet will cease to be able
to support seven or eight billion people at all — meaning massive population dieback even without any
The trouble with all this is that most people don’t know how to feed themselves. But if the climate
changes drastically, nobody will know how to feed themselves. The plants which used to grow in
certain areas will no longer grow there, and because of the collapse of technological civilisation it will
be impossible to move to places where those plants can be grown. Other plants might grow in those
places, but the people living there will not know how to cultivate them, nor have access to the seeds or
the cooking techniques. What could happen is a worldwide equivalent of the Irish potato famine, when
the Irish couldn’t grow potatoes, didn’t know how to grow anything else, didn’t have the technology or
resources to grow anything else if they knew how, and couldn’t cook the free food supplies with which
they were provided (because they were given flint maize which had to be milled, and rural Ireland in
1848 had no flour mills). In other words, if there is a simultaneous collapse of food supplies and of
technological civilisation, it will not throw us back to the land, it will throw us back to the first eras of
agriculture, when crop-growing was an experimental luxury. Unfortunately it will also be a necessity,
because hunter-gathering will not be any more practical, since most of the traditional hunter-gatherer
techniques have been lost and global climate change will destroy the environments in which hunter-
gathering functioned. Besides, hunter-gathering cannot possibly support billions of people.
It looks as if we have a tough millennium ahead; anyone selling reliable suspended animation
equipment will probably find a lot of people keen to doze through the next thousand years until
Meanwhile, in South Africa, everything is all right. We have plans, and structures, and there are people doing inventories to determine how well the municipalities are functioning, and issuing resolute statements about making sure that they function, and the same for the national departments — and so on.
And then there is the real world.
In the real world, South Africa’s economic condition, and the capacity for the government to improve the lives of its people, are both restrained by avoidable factors.
The economy is restrained by our very large trade deficit; we import more than we export and so we need money to pay for this. Therefore we have to attract funds from outside by keeping our interest rates relatively high so that people ship money here. Logically, we could cut back on imports by import substitution and tariffs, and by improving our manufacturing industry, but we are not doing this. High interest rates mean that the government cannot afford to borrow a lot of money because of the cost of servicing debt. What is more, our currency is floating, which means that to support its value relative to other currencies (if it falls, our trade deficit becomes even larger in rand terms, since we buy from other countries in their currency) we need to attract the money of foreigners, and once again this means keeping interest rates high. We could control our currency through exchange control, as indeed we used to, and as China does, but we are not doing this.
What is often called service delivery is restrained by the fact that our civil service is very often incompetent and corrupt. As a result, money supplied to them at all levels is very often stolen or wasted. In addition, money is often not spent on important things, such as infrastructure maintenance, due to bad planning. (This is not a capacity problem; nobody is so ignorant as to think that buildings or machines do not need maintenance. It is incompetence, a failure to perform duties which those responsible could perform if they wished to do so.)
What is to be done about this incompetence and corruption? South Africa is not nineteenth-century Russia. It is not impossible for the central government to act against misbehaviour. The central government has the power, and it has, or ought to have, the desire. There are thus two major issues: to promote the desire for civil servants at all levels to take pride and responsibility in a job done to the best of one’s ability, and the fear of civil servants at all levels that if the job is done demonstrably less well than it could have been done, they will be punished in some way appropriate to their malfeasance.
On the face of it, this is what is being done. Municipalities are being asked to report on their performance of their duties. Ministers are denouncing the ineptitude of the officials in their ministries. There is now a special Ministry for evaluating performance. Surely, this means that all these problems will soon be things of the past.
Unfortunately, one cannot, should not and must not be “sure” about such things. There is no sign that the Ministry for evaluating performance is actually doing anything at all. This Ministry has been separated from the Ministry for deciding what should be performed, so there is no reason for the two to cooperate (and the SACP and COSATU are encouraging them to fight each other). As a result, the evaluation of performance, which is of course central to any effort to restrain incompetence and corruption and promote corruption and honesty, is not happening and probably will not happen.
The municipalities are being asked to report on themselves. This means that the people responsible for mismanagement and corruption, and best-informed as to how to cover it up, have been tasked with reporting on this mismanagement and corruption. Some of them have been exposed by the Auditor-General, the boss bean-counter in the government, and so they know exactly what needs to be excused and covered for.
Of course there will have to be sacrifices and scapegoats, for sometimes things cannot be covered up. Sometimes the people sacrificed and scapegoated may even be people responsible for misbehaviour. Often, however, this will not be the case. This is because ambitious people within the municipalities want to turn this crusade to their advantage; to gain jobs, they can accuse the people whose jobs they want of incompetence and corruption. The central government will be only too happy to dismiss those people in order to be seen to be acting. If, later, the evidence is wanting, and if the successor to the dismissed person is equally — or more — incompetent and corrupt, this is unlikely to get into the media.
As a result, the process currently under way is almost guaranteed to make matters worse. The reason for this is that the people at the top are corrupt and are interested only in images rather than substance. It is always easier to pretend to act, by accusing individuals, than to genuinely act by trying to change the way the system functions — to bring provincial and municipal cabals and warlords under the authority of the central state. What’s more, the biggest of these cabals, the SACP/COSATU axis, enjoys the support of the press, and the people at the top are terrified of the press. Thus the ruling class’s divide-and-rule policies are paying off in terms of corruption — which benefits a lot of the ruling class, since they are the ones paying the bribes in exchange for special treatment, and obtaining the contracts for inferior work performed, and constantly demanding that more and more of the public service be transformed into corporate cash-cows. Ultimately, therefore, the people at the top are afraid of people potentially more powerful than they are — the real ruling class.
This is also the reason why the government has no intention of turning our ramshackle fiscal policy structure into something which makes South Africa’s and its currency relatively impervious to foreign domination; the ruling class makes a lot of money out of that foreign domination.
So it appears that we are muddling along, under the cloak, provided by the press, of magnificent, if ultimately vain, heroic combat against the evil forces of corruption (who are all in the government, of course — in the press there is no such thing as private corruption, unless some rich person complains about being ripped off by some less rich person).
But in the real world we are not muddling along. The problem is twofold; these rich people do not want to pay for the services which the government provides them, and they want as much as they can get out of the government. Meanwhile, the SACP/COSATU axis, since it no longer commands any ideological allegiance, needs to bribe people into supporting them, and the government naturally goes along with this. As a result, tax revenues are falling much faster than the economic crisis justifies, suggesting that the government’s capacity to collect taxes is declining. But meanwhile, the plan is to spend more. This year the government intends to borrow somewhere between 7 and 8% of gross domestic product in order to fund its operations — that’s up from 2% last year, and a surplus before that. What’s more, this rate of borrowing is expected to increase in the next few years.
Well, isn’t that what Keynes ordered in order to spend our way out of a recession? That would be true if the money were going to the poor, but by and large it is going on conventional expenditure. In other words, there is no plan to improve the economy — it is simply that we are not earning enough to pay for what we are doing. Under such conditions, a sensible move would be to increase income and corporate taxes, especially upon the highest earners, but that isn’t going to happen.
So, with our relatively high interest rates, borrowing all this money means that in the following year the high budget deficit has left us with a need to service additional debt; if the interest rate is 14%, a deficit of 7% of GDP one year would entail paying 1% of GDP servicing that debt the next year. Actually it’s worse than that, because this year the economy is contracting. Next year, if we wanted to do the same, our deficit might be 7,5% of a reduced GDP, plus the extra 1% for debt servicing, pushing the deficit up to 8,5%. Which could entail paying 1,2% of debt servicing the next year, and even if the economy grows next year at, say, 3%, that would only increase revenue enough to push the deficit down to 8,2% — but the extra debt servicing would push that up to 9,4%.
It’s a spiral of growing expenditure and rapidly-expanding debt, without any clear way to improve economic performance. It almost exactly reverses the trend which the ANC undertook between 1994 and 2002, where the policy was to reduce the debt by restraining expenditure until the deficit no longer posed a problem and more money became available. At that time, many argued that this policy would lead to economic collapse due to slow growth, but that did not happen. Now, in contrast, a policy of unrestrained expenditure is not generating rapid growth. One reason for this is that (much as in the United States) too much of our consumer spending goes on imports, so increasing the affluence of the bourgeoisie does not generate a “multiplier effect” through their buying stuff which South Africans make. Another probable reason is that much of this spending is going into the pockets of the corrupt.
This sort of situation almost inevitably ends in collapse (as in Argentina) unless drastic economic measures are taken. One drastic solution is to take the policy decisions outlined above which would enable us to cut our interest rates — thus reducing the impact of government borrowing. Obviously that isn’t going to happen, for the reasons also outlined above. Another drastic solution will be to, once again, restrain expenditure. The last time we did this was under GEAR, when the ANC was having to sort out the mess created in the last decade of apartheid. GEAR was workable, but it wasn’t pretty; it left a huge backlog of infrastructural needs which were not altogether sorted out in the boom years of 2003-7. Do we really want to go through that again?
Maybe. There’s a lot of excited talk about abolishing social grants. We know that the Minister of Public Enterprises is a privatisation fetishist. It’s at least possible that this much-touted “left” move, jacking up the deficit with no clear idea of what can be done with it, is actually a Trojan Horse to introduce serious right-wing, neoliberal policies. That would be consistent with the general behaviour of our beloved government, covered up endlessly with manure from the media.
Unless, of course, most likely of all, they simply haven’t a clue what to do next apart from shovelling other people’s money in all directions and hoping nobody asks questions . . .
“The captain is in his bunk, drinking bottled ditch-water; and the crew is gambling in the forecastle. She will strike and sink and split. Do you think the laws of God will be suspended in favour of England because you were born in it?”
That’s one of the Creator’s favourite quotations, Captain Shotover’s voice from Shaw’s Heartbreak House, and one of that old vegetarian hoopla artiste’s few true prophecies. When you are in big trouble, run and hide. Delay, deny and deceive. And, above all, do your best to cover it up and hope nobody notices.
Is it, then, big trouble now for the United States? One hopes so. The great laid low make for good television. Lefties the world over have been panting for something bad to happen, partly because they hope to profit by it (though they are not now, and never have been, prepared to lift a finger to earn such profits) and partly because they hope such a collapse would make up for all their failures of nerve, thought and (much more rarely) action.
Take a quick look at Central Asia. The Americans are in occupation of an immense country of thirty million people, most of whom loathe and despise foreigners in general, most particularly Christian foreigners, especially Americans. They are being killed like flies as they scatter across the mountainous redoubts, and make up for this by sending in the gunships and the drones to slaughter wedding parties and gatherings of goatherds. What’s to be done?
President Obama appears to have the answer: foment civil war in Pakistan. Once the Pakistani government is sufficiently unpopular with its people, it will have to control them by terrorism. The soft people of the plains are invading the mountains to butcher the hard people of the hills. Do that often enough, and the war will become so serious that the plain people of Pakistan, hopes Obama, will have to take charge of the war in Afghanistan, too. That’s why they’re massacring civilians from Swat to Waziristan — all those places which we remember from nineteenth-century British imperial history.
Oh — massacring civilians in Pakistan, like doing the same in Afghanistan, is of course a very good way to encourage the survivors to join the resistance. There are a hundred and forty million people in Pakistan, most of whom are gradually growing pissed off with their government. Suicide bombs are exploding in the cities of the plain, matching the roadside bombs going off in the mountains.
All this is very politically convenient for Obama.
Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In a forest. Where does a wise man hide a book? In a library. Where does a wise man hide a war?
In a bigger war. And so Obama hopes that in the catastrophic bloodbath engulfing the region, everybody in the United States will gradually lose focus on Afghanistan and thus he will be able to escape political destruction at the hands of his commitment there. It could get rather big, of course — the vast shipments of arms now going to Pakistan are provided on the understanding that they won’t be used on India, although how that is going to be guaranteed, nobody knows. Meanwhile, the Americans are quietly running a terrorist campaign in south-east Iran through an organisation called the Jundallah, which operates out of Pakistan. Yea, verily Pakistan is making itself popular in the region, as is the United States. Maybe they will need their nukes yet.
But all that serves to pull only one of Obama’s chestnuts out of the electric blast furnace. There is, unfortunately, another one. This is the much bigger war between classes in the United States, and especially the war between the American ruling class and reality.
What happened in 2008 was that very large corporations and financial institutions had been surviving for a decade on deceit, incompetence and luck. The luck ran out, the deceit was exposed, the incompetence was there for all to see. These corporations and institutions should therefore, according to the rules of economics, have collapsed, and in fact a few did so.
There were, however, problems. There was pious concern about these institutions being “too big to fail” — of course they had already failed, so this was nonsense. However, there was much media hype around the collapse of the banking system in the early 1930s, when the buckets and benches were being kicked over from coast to coast and millions lost their life savings. At that time, something had to be done (what was done was the introduction of a system of banking regulation, which the banks spent the next few decades circumventing and dismantling). Today, however, Americans don’t have savings, for they are mostly heavily in debt. They owe big money to the banks — this was part of the problem, for Americans no longer had the cash to service their debts to the banks. Hence, if the banks failed, average Americans would become much richer. But the people who owned the banks would lose their incomes, and the people who owned the banks also owned the U.S. government, most particularly two tools of the financial service industry, Governor George Bush and Senator Barack Obama.
What was done was to borrow immense amounts of money — many trillions of dollars — and give virtually all of it to the banks and the failing companies (a few billions were earmarked for other projects as window-dressing, though it is not clear how much was paid). A trillion dollars is three thousand dollars for every American. The kind of money Bush and Obama were splashing around would have rescued every working-class and lower-middle-class American’s savings account. But instead it was going to a tiny minority who proceeded to use the money to further their private interests — protecting banks and corporations from the consequences of their mismanagement and greed. As a result the banks and corporations went ahead and did what one might expect them to do — pay their top managers huge bonuses and shut down their least profitable enterprises, which were usually to do with manufacturing and services to the general public.
So the “bailout” accelerated the rise in unemployment, which is now at levels not seen since the slump of the 1940s. Officially it’s around 11%, but unemployment figures have been fudged for decades and probably the real figure is something like 15%. Not up at Great Depression or South African levels yet, but still, the trend is in that direction.
An obvious consequence of the bailout which nobody mentioned was that the U.S. government was creating money without creating extra production. This means that they were creating inflation. This didn’t show up at first, because the money was going to such a narrow group of people, but gradually the cost of living in America has started to rise and the international value of the dollar has started falling.
Bonehead economics would tell you that this should be good for America, since now it can sell its goods cheaply. Unfortunately, America doesn’t manufacture much that the world wants. Also, the rest of the world is also in recession and therefore isn’t buying much. Even more unfortunately, big American companies used the crisis as an excuse to shut down some manufacturing industry which they considered unprofitable. So, as the dollar falls, the result is that the dollar cost of imports — the trade deficit — gets bigger. Prices go up for American consumers, so possibly they will eventually buy less (especially since they can no longer borrow as they used to) but that means they have to get used to a lower standard of living (those who have jobs at all). Hence they have less money for services which have been America’s biggest job-creators. Obama and Bush have saved the stock exchange for the moment, but it looks as if they have ruined everything else.
This is because of international confidence. America has operated the world’s reserve currency, the dollar, meaning the currency which other countries fell back on for security when their own currencies became unstable. But the American currency is not stable; it has been free-floating since 1971. That only worked because America had the power to rig the world’s money-markets in the dollar’s favour. What now seems to be happening is that this power is dwindling fast.
In the last decade there has been much talk about many countries moving away from dependence on the dollar, but this was mostly nationalist hype due to the well-founded detestation which most people felt for the American government. It wasn’t supported by global banks. But now it is starting to look as if the dollar is no longer a particularly sound investment. It is blindingly clear that the American financial industry, their biggest foreign earner, has absolutely no idea what it is doing and cannot be trusted to deliver the goods. International banks are heavily invested in that industry, so they cannot pull out overnight, but increasingly, they probably would want to. Hence new talk about moving towards the euro or the yen or the renmenbi makes economic sense as well as political sense.
But if America loses control of the world’s financial markets and the dollar falls, there is no sign that it can recover its lost manufacturing industry. The financial system in America has been exposed as a bunch of incompetent crooks, but partly thanks to Bush and Obama it is powerful enough to continue running the show. Obama happily and repeatedly supported financial aid to the American insurance industry which has prevented him from introducing a sane health-care policy (his current plan reproduces most of the flaws of the present system, except that the medical-legal-insurance complex will soon be more able to bleed the American taxpayer as well as the sick and injured). Basically, the American elite does not want to be a competitive country; they want to make money and would be happy doing this anywhere else in the world.
Unfortunately, without financial muscle, and with their military muscle increasingly inept, demoralised, under-equipped and dispersed across half a dozen worthless little wars, it does not look as if being an uncompetitive country is going to be a winning strategy for the United States. These are the little facts which President Obama has to cover up with his rhetoric of hope and his live webcam footage of his kids playing with their new puppy. Maybe he can get away with it for the three years he has left — so long as there are no more economic shocks in store. History, however, suggests that there are such shocks, and that he won’t get away with it.
This week Jackie Selebi went on trial for corruption and defeating the ends of justice. Selebi was the Commissioner of the South African Police Service until the beginning of 2008, when he was sent on special leave after being charged. The allegation is that the businessman (who turns out to have certainly been a drug smuggler and probably a murderer) Glenn Agliotti, who was certainly Selebi’s friend, bribed Selebi in order to protect him from police investigations. (There may be other allegations, but Agliotti was the principal witness in the trial.)
It’s bad enough, isn’t it? The top cop in the country is chummy with a man who turned out to be a crook. He publicly declared that he didn’t accept that Agliotti was a crook and stood by the man until he was arrested. He refused to resign even though he was linked with someone who turned out to be, effectively, a gangster. Ouchie. On the other hand, of course, it’s not criminal to be friends with a crook. Lots of other ANC people were friends with Agliotti, although not a lot has been made of this.
Then again, lots and lots of ANC people were friends with Brett Kebble, who was another friend of Agliotti’s. (Agliotti allegedly murdered Kebble, or ordered Kebble’s murder. The Scorpions, before they were disbanded, blackmailed Agliotti into testifying against Selebi in exchange for his not being charged with Kebble’s murder.) Indeed, the Deputy Minister of Police, Fikile Mbalula, was previously the President of the ANC Youth League, at the time when it was sponsored by Kebble. And it transpires that Kebble was a crook; not only did he plunder the pension fund, but apparently he knew that Agliotti was a crook, and worked with him, setting up a secret bank account from which bribes could be paid to Selebi. But nobody is saying that the Deputy Minister of Police, having taken money from a known criminal, is therefore unfit to be Deputy Minister of Police. It would seem that there is a double standard operating.
Of course that doesn’t mean that Selebi should be left alone. Better to try someone than nobody, one might say; the others might be tried later. On the other hand, why was Selebi singled out for investigation? Is there a political agenda operating here, or is it just coincidence? Obviously, Selebi’s defense will try to make much of this. But are there grounds?
Well, firstly, we know that someone was out to get Selebi from the moment he was appointed. There was a big fuss about nothing when he got the job, supposed claims that he was unfit, or that he had foolishly said things which the white press didn’t like. He was the first black man to hold the job, which maybe had something to do with it.
Secondly, there was a lot of odd behaviour around his investigation and eventual charging. Selebi was threatened with being charged for more than a year before he was charged. The force investigating him — the Directorate of Special Operations of the Public Prosecutor’s Office — eventually obtained arrest warrants and search warrants in a manner which suggested a publicity stunt. That led to the dismissal of the Public Prosecutor, whose successor then charged Selebi in January 2008. He came to trial in October 2009 — a delay of 21 months. This delay is remarkable, especially considering that Selebi was all in favour of being tried. It was the state which delayed matters, claiming that it was not ready yet — in which case, why did it charge him? What if there had happened to be a vacant court the day after Selebi was arrested — the DSO would have been terribly humiliated if it had taken this huge step for nothing.
As a result, there are grounds for wondering what is going on, and yet there are also grounds for suspecting that Selebi might be guilty. It’s not impossible (of course, the former Commissioner Fivaz may well have been corrupt, too, to judge by his private detective agency’s habit of hiring organised criminals to do their dirty work, but nobody investigated him, possibly because he was white and had powerful connections in the white oligarchy) but how can we be sure?
Undeniably, Agliotti in the witness-box painted a grim picture for Selebi, initially. He claimed that he had bribed Selebi, in exchange for which Selebi had protected him against police investigation over his crimes, particularly his drug smuggling. The bribes sounded substantial; at first he claimed to have paid a million rand, but subsequently it transpired that there was more; according to Agliotti he had been paid a million US dollars, or something like eight or nine million rand at the time, by Brett Kebble to provide access to Selebi. Billy Rautenbach, road haulage entrepreneur and mysterious fugitive from justice (as well as friend to the Zimbabwean government) supposedly paid a fifth as much for similar access. There was reference to a bank account which Agliotti helped to set up and partly controlled which had twenty-eight million rand in it, to be disbursed at Selebi’s request.
All this sounds painfully like the trial of Schabir Shaik, where similar information about bribes and access were revealed relating to the Deputy President and the Minister of Transport and sleazy businessmen around the Shaik family. In other words, it sounds as if Selebi is a terrific crook like Shaik and Zuma and Maharaj (and let’s not forget that Zuma and Maharaj were appointed by Mbeki, who also appointed Selebi — either Mbeki is a really lousy judge of people, a crook himself, or else he had a rather limited pool of honest talent available).
But of course there is the problem that Agliotti is himself a crook, which means that he might not be telling the truth. Also, Agliotti is confessedly under tremendous pressure, having been given the alternative of putting Selebi in jail or spending the rest of his natural life behind bars (in theory — the example of Schabir Shaik shows what cash and connections can do given the corruption in Correctional Services).
Plus, there is also the striking absence of hard evidence. Actual evidence of Agliotti giving Selebi money, and Selebi doing actual favours for Agliotti, seems lacking here. Perhaps it will come later, but it seems odd that the star witness doesn’t make reference to such things. Indeed, the evidence which Agliotti provides suggests that many people wanted to bribe Selebi, but didn’t actually show that people had done so, or that Selebi had done much in return — certainly, if Rautenbach had bribed Selebi, Selebi did signally little in return for the cash. What, precisely, was Kebble bribing Selebi to do for him? Was Selebi investigating Kebble, and if so, what about? Fraudulent prospectuses? Insider trading? Income tax evasion? Or something smellier? (And all these things were precisely what the Scorpions were set up to investigate, of course, but seem not to have done much in respect of until Kebble was shot dead in his car — not that the police investigation was competent, of course.)
The only truly damning indication was that Agliotti said that Selebi had shown him secret documentation about the British government’s monitoring of Agliotti and about the National Intelligence Agency’s espionage on Selebi. That was definitely illegal, and would probably justify the charge of defeating the ends of justice.
And then there came Agliotti’s performance under cross-examination. Rather suddenly he acted as if a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome. Having been a captive of the Scorpions he was abruptly captivated by Selebi’s lawyers. No, he said, Selebi had, as far as he knew, never known that he was a criminal and had always believed that he was an honest businessman, guv’nor. But then in that case where was the corruption? If Selebi didn’t know that Agliotti was a crook then Selebi couldn’t have been corrupted by him. Agliotti abruptly retracted all claims of having actually paid bribes to Selebi (which had been insinuated and hinted at earlier). Then what had he set up that account for? If bribes have been paid to Selebi and there is hard evidence of it (like what the Scorpions had against Zuma) then how could Agliotti possibly withdraw his evidence like that — won’t he later be charged with perjury when the facts come out? Or doesn’t he know?
We shall have to see. Apparently Selebi’s lawyers are going to say that Selebi did not show Agliotti that secret documentation because Selebi did not have the documentation at the time Agliotti claims he was shown it. If Selebi’s lawyers can prove that, it looks very bad for Agliotti; maybe the Public Prosecutor will end up charging him with Kebble’s murder after all. (Although if Agliotti did what he was told, can he be charged? How do plea-bargains work — is the bargain null and void if the case collapses through no direct fault of the bargainer’s?) But also, if Agliotti was lying about that, who told him to lie? Surely it wouldn’t have been his own idea. It must have been something which he was primed to say.
We shall have to wait and see. It is tremendously unpleasant stuff. If Selebi is guilty then it means our boss policeman was a bad guy. But if Selebi is innocent, then it means that the Scorpions have framed him. Why did they do that? Who told them to do that? Certainly not Mbeki, who seems to have done his best to protect Selebi. We shall probably never know; if the case against Selebi collapses there will almost certainly be a huge cover-up and an out-of-court settlement to conceal the people who trumped up the charges. Zuma and his merry men will declare that the fact that charges are trumped up somewhere proves that the charges against them were trumped up, whereas if Selebi turns out to be a crook they will say that this proves that the criminal justice system which tried to charge them could not be trusted; they can’t lose.
Unfortunately, it also seems that we can’t win.