For two years, the global economic system has been systematically plundered and asset-stripped in order to conceal the catastrophic state of the global economic system.
This may seem bizarre, but it makes perfect sense. In essence, for thirty-five years Western capitalism demanded the right to commit theft and fraud, and over that period Western governments increasingly granted that right. Meanwhile, the West, since it dominated the world, was free to steal and cheat everywhere, with the backing of its governments.
There were two problems with this. One was that, since theft and fraud were increasingly profitable, Western capitalism naturally increasingly devoted itself to these pursuits (known colloquially as “finance capital”) and stopped making stuff, or investing money in any actually productive activity of any kind. Another was that since theft and fraud were so rampant, the biggest thieves and hoopla artists became the richest, and this set off a cycle promoting the system and steadily increasing social inequality within Western societies.
As a result of the death of productive activity and the dramatic fall in consumer incomes, the Western economies should have come to a complete standstill. They did not, because part of the fraud entailed pretending that the West had enormous amounts of money to pay to poor countries. Therefore poor countries happily set up manufacturing industries (and all the ancillary support services) on their territories, exporting goods and services to the West in exchange for paper which was supposedly worth something. The problem was that when these goods and services arrived in the West, someone had to buy them, despite the fall in working-class and middle-class incomes. Since the rich were not prepared to share their money with anyone else, the solution was, once again, to pretend that the West had enormous money to pay to its own citizens, and the banks were encouraged to lend at preposterous rates and levels of risk, so that the poor could pretend to be rich.
In short, the whole system depended on lies and cheating, which existed to legitimate ruling-class theft.
Obviously this couldn’t last forever. The first place where it blew apart was in the Western banking system, which suddenly revealed that it couldn’t honour its pledges to the poor. Unfortunately, the poor now had no money, including money to pay the interest on its debts, and so every bank in the Western world was now bankrupt, a situation last seen in 1932. To solve the problem, Western governments had to give the banks vast amounts of money — but unfortunately there was not enough money in the world to pay off the banks’ real debts. Therefore, the immense amounts of money the West gave to its banks were not enough to make the banks solvent, and thus the banks were unable to lend more money.
Meanwhile, of course the ruling class was not prepared to contribute to solving the financial mess which it had caused. It demanded that the middle class and working class pay the bills, but every government in the West knew that if they tried to do this, they would lose the next election on their ears; what was also obviously the case was that the middle class and working class did not have the money. Furthermore, if the middle class and working class were driven into ruin (as happened in 1932) then there would be catastrophic depression of demand, and this would expose the West’s inability to fund its imports, which in turn would cause the collapse of the only economically productive region in the world, namely Asia. So they borrowed the money they gave to the banks.
This staved off the banking collapse for a while and covered up part of the economic crisis. What couldn’t be covered up was the collapse of employment, for every rich person responded to the economic crisis by firing employees. The surge in unemployment meant that the economy wound down; even successful countries have 10% unemployment, and in the Mediterranean it’s more like 20%. Nothing like this has been seen since the 1930s. The problem is that under such conditions a recovery is almost impossible, for with such high unemployment it’s impossible to create the demand to kick-start the economy. Obviously a Keynesian solution would be to borrow vast sums and put the unemployed to work, but unfortunately those vast sums have already been borrowed and given to the rich. Besides, the rich would be very unhappy to see vast sums borrowed and given to anyone but themselves, and since Western governments are completely controlled by the rich, there is no prospect of a New Deal, or of the kind of redistributive project undertaken by China to prevent depression there.
Now, the problem is that governments are running out of money to fund the facade of economic stability created by the “bailouts”, and sustained by the well-trained cheats and confidence tricksters known as government and corporate economists. Most governments are deep in deficit, and while this does not seem to be a short-term problem, it is a long-term problem particularly because it is so universal. The United States could run up absurdly high deficits so long as its trading partners did not do the same, but now everybody is in deficit, and the economic consequences of borrowing immense amounts and using them unproductively are rapid inflation and collapse of confidence in the banking system. Why we aren’t having inflation is uncertain, but is probably a product of the fact that the money is disappearing as fast as it is borrowed. The global ruling class are a gang of Scrooges; they don’t even blow their dosh on drugs and whores, let alone on anything useful.
The money to sustain current policy has to come from the poor. However, taking money from the poor will slow down the economy further. There will be less cash floating around to pay for goods and services, and the global economy will fall further into depression and overproduction; more people will go out of work and be unable to buy stuff, and a vicious cycle of collapse will begin. One of the side effects of this will be that the money being pumped into global stock exchanges to keep them artificially high will vanish, and global stock exchanges will crash harder than they did in 2008, eradicating global pension funds and destroying supplementary middle-class income. If this happens, 2012 will make 1932 look like the Summer Of Love. (Maybe the Mayan prophecies were actually drafted by economists?)
But they wouldn’t do anything so dumb, would they? Our global leaders are surely not suicidal sociopathic imbeciles . . . may the Creator present you with your wake-up coffee? Sorry it’s laced with cyanide.
Yes, they are doing that. What’s worse, they are all doing it at once. You will have noticed the so-called Greek crisis, which is really a European crisis, which is why it became an Italian, Spanish, Hungarian and Irish crisis, but definitely not a British or French crisis because that can’t be mentioned. All these crises had the same factor in common: the government could not meet its debts. The promise was that Greece would be bailed out (on the understanding that everyone would pretend that Greece was the only country facing crisis). The “bail out” meant giving tens of billions of Euroes to the Greek ruling class in exchange for the Greek working and middle class being reduced to poverty. However, when this happened, understandably the ruling classes all across Europe decided to expose the real calamitous state of their economies so that they, too, could trouser away tens of billions.
Of course, there wasn’t enough money in Europe to perform such a “bail out”, so the whole system failed. Immediately, the European countries who had pledged money they didn’t have to save the Greek ruling class from itself, reneged on the pledges and left Germany holding the bag. Everybody bailed out of the bail out. No surprise there, it has happened everywhere else that Europe has pledged vast sums to help somebody.
But the Germans got grumpy. Germany is the country with the lowest budget deficit in Europe. Suddenly they realised that if they behaved towards Europe the way Europe has behaved towards them, and stopped splashing cash about but instead pulled in their horns, they could slash their deficit to manageable levels in a few years. Then they could be the only financially stable country in Europe and could dictate terms to everybody else. Angela Merkel stuck on her pickelhaube and her toothbrush moustache (both of which suit her admirably) and all but proclaimed the Fourth Reich.
Of course, that will only work if everybody else is not in deep recession, but continues staggering along in perennial crisis, like now. The risk was that Germany cutting back on spending would throw the rest of Europe into crisis. Unfortunately, the British had just elected a government pledged to cut back on spending (on the poor, naturally; the rich will still be getting the usual bungs). Recently it turned out that they would have to cut spending much more savagely than they thought if they wanted to reduce the budget deficit. (Unfortunately the budget deficit is due to low tax revenue, which is due to the depression, and slashing spending will exascerbate the depression, thus reducing tax revenue, so this kind of behaviour is chasing after your own shadow in the hope that it is carrying a pot of gold.)
Meanwhile, not to be left out, the cretinous Sarkozy government has announced plans to cut back on French pensions. In other words, all three major European economies which pretend not to be in depression (unlike the Mediterranean and Eastern European countries which are undeniably basket cases) have developed plans to undermine their economies. What this means is a race to see whose economy will collapse first, last person standing wins, until they collapse, which would probably happen a second after the victory ceremony.
Meanwhile in Japan, as is well known, those inscrutable Orientals are feverish imitators of our Western ways. Sometimes it pays dividends. In this case, however, the Japanese invented the crisis we are in; their economy hit the buffers in 1989 (by which is meant, concertinaed in a bloody wreck and burned to ashes) and they have been running on credit ever since. Now they have decided to stop running on credit. Unfortunately they are spending so much of their income on servicing debts that they can’t afford to stop running on credit. Guess what — they are going to cut back on spending on the poor. Phew — just in time! Who knows, perhaps the Japanese economy and the British economy will collapse simultaneously, and perhaps their Prime Ministers will commit seppuku in unison after a mutual tea ceremony.
Just to make everything absolutely certain, the Chinese have run out of money for their Keynesian stimulus package. Not wanting to get into the same difficulties as everyone else is in by borrowing vast sums of money, China is stopping redistribution of wealth. That would be fine assuming that the global economy were on the mend. If it isn’t, however, China will be in a little difficulty if its exports collapse when Europe and Japan stop buying manufactured goods. It would have to turn to the United States, but the United States is tied closely to Europe and Japan. China is economically healthy almost entirely because the United States owes it vast amounts of money. Unfortunately, the United States cannot afford to pay that money. If China ever calls in its debts, it will discover that the banker is as broke as bankers everywhere else are.
So what we face is both an exascerbation of the global depression, and the collapse of the international financial system, which will exascerbate the global depression. The whole world faces what happened to Europe when the Credit-Anstalt and Ivar Krueger collapsed, except that in 2010 it looks as if the collapse of financial institutions is going to be far more severe. And meanwhile governments are much more completely under the control of rich people than they were in 1932 (which is saying something) and will therefore enforce the asset-stripping of society at gunpoint, if necessary. (The Australian Prime Minister has just been deposed in an internal coup which probably relates to his floundering attempts to gain revenue by taxing multinational mining companies; the Labour government is about to fall and be replaced by a Liberal government which will do the right thing, namely, save money by cutting back on spending on the poor. And, meanwhile, in South Africa, our economy is soaring like a stuffed eagle, so beautifully that we lost a hundred thousand jobs in the first quarter of 2010.)
But don’t worry. Everything is going to be all right. The press and pundits paid by the plutocrats say so. What could possibly go wrong?
For two years, the global economic system has been systematically plundered and asset-stripped in order to conceal the catastrophic state of the global economic system.
The management of the Tripartite Alliance has always been a difficult issue which has been best resolved by strong, principled leadership, something which has always been absent from most members of the Alliance. It is therefore not particularly surprising that, at the moment, the Alliance is under massive pressure. Of course, invertebrates can handle any amount of pressure, and we should not expect the wobbling jellyfish and wriggling worms which squirm and flop around in the ANC National Executive Committee to be much troubled by any of this.
Originally, of course, there were two separate double alliances. The ANC and the SACP were joined like Siamese twins, and COSATU and the UDF were joined like cellmates. When the ANC and SACP were unbanned, it was natural for the four to get together — three, once the UDF and ANC were collapsed into one. Not only natural, but necessary; without the alliance, the apartheid state would never have been overthrown. However, it was a very strange alliance right from the start.
The SACP was nominally incorporated into the ANC. Until 1994 it recruited almost entirely from within the ANC, and every SACP member was an ANC member. On the other hand, the SACP had its own agenda which was completely separate from the ANC’s, even though the SACP did its best (which was very good) to deny this. Once the unbanning happened, it was theoretically possible to be an SACP member and not be an ANC member, but this was a pointless idea because the SACP’s power lay in the fact that it was an ideologically-driven organised faction within the ANC, and could therefore manipulate ANC structures towards its own ends. It is only recently that the SACP has pretended to have support outside the ANC, but this is almost certainly smoke and mirrors generated by the SACP’s desperate need to pretend to possess the mass constituency which its organisational tactics and practices have denied it. Without the ANC, the SACP is a big version of the Trotskyite organisations which blunder around on the Left in every country, doomed to fractious impotence.
COSATU was aligned with the ANC, but was not within it. The leaders of COSATU are also ANC members, but they have always reserved their independence. As a result, COSATU is a mass organisation capable of challenging the ANC — necessarily, since COSATU is a trade union and therefore its membership’s interests are not identical with those of the ANC government. Also, of course, although its numbers are nominally greater than the numbers of the ANC, COSATU is a less homogeneous organisation than the ANC — meaning that the leaders of COSATU might attack the ANC on grounds which their membership might not agree with, but might tolerate so long as the conflict did not become too intense. (What this means is that while COSATU has more intrinsic independence than the ANC, if COSATU were to walk out and form a labour party, a lot of COSATU members might continue voting ANC in defiance of their unions.)
On the other hand, COSATU’s alliance with the ANC is strategically important for the working class. This is because the ANC has pursued a policy sympathetic to organised labour, for the most part, even though the ANC’s broad economic policy has not been particularly helpful to labour. The obvious problem for COSATU is that any conceivable political alternative to the ANC would, at the very least, adopt the same economic policy, and would probably also be more hostile to organised labour. Therefore COSATU does not wish to see the ANC lose power, and also does not wish to walk away from the ANC, since that would greatly weaken the constituency of organised labour within the ANC and thus relatively strengthen the anti-labour business forces (and the relative influence of neoliberal business forces acting on the ANC from the outside).
What all this means is that the SACP and COSATU are quite willing to attack the ANC for its policies, or practices, or for any other purpose which they can justify. These attacks, however, are almost invariably, at least ostensibly, intended for the good of the ANC. When Jeremy Cronin compared the ANC with ZANU (PF), he could contend that, far from attacking the ANC, he was actually defending it against Helena Sheehan’s Trotskyite assaults, along the same lines through which Cronin purged the anti-ANC Trotskyite Dale McKinley from the SACP. (Of course, this is most noticeable when one is actually an SACP member. From the perspective of the ANC, it seemed that Cronin was arguing that the ANC needed to be fattened for a little longer before its throat was slit, as opposed to Sheehan arguing for putting it out of its misery immediately. However, it is quite possible that Cronin, never the most humanly sensitive person, did not realise that his “defense” would arouse hostility.)
During the Mbeki era, the SACP and COSATU denounced the ANC quite energetically. For the most part they got away with this. The obvious cost was that the SACP and COSATU were largely excluded from power. Actually, numerous members of the SACP and COSATU were appointed, or elected, to positions of power, but for the most part, in order to exercise power, they had to repudiate (actually if not rhetorically) the standpoints taken by their organisations. In return, the SACP and COSATU tended to decry those of their members who took power. This was the less obvious cost of the organisations’ standpoint; they lost all sense of responsibility to the ANC upon which they depended for their political authority, and all sense of the validity of ANC policy. This is why, now that the ANC is dominated by these two organisations, rather than developing new policies, the SACP and COSATU have fallen back on spin-doctoring.
This, of course, is the problem with the recent decision, almost certainly by Jacob Zuma, to withdraw charges against Zwelenzima Vavi, COSATU’s secretary-general and actual boss. The proposal to lay charges against Vavi was made by the ANC’s National Working Committee while Zuma was out of the country, and the allegation is that the NWC, the weekly decision-making body of the ANC, was unanimous in this decision.
The charges related to Vavi’s public accusation that Minister Shiceka and Minister Nyanda were corrupt, and that President Zuma was covering up for them. This accusation was not much worse than accusations made under the Mbeki government, although it was probably a little more extreme. It was not clear that the accusation held any water; both accusations related to media allegations, and while Shiceka had extensively denied the allegations made (and the newspapers which made them had not stood by their stories) the accusation against Nyanda related largely to claims that Nyanda was a director in a company which had gained unfair security tenders relating to World Cup stadium guarding. This is probably sleazy, but it is not clear that Nyanda had broken the law or that Zuma was obliged to investigate it. Certainly, both accusations were infinitely less significant than the ones against Zuma which Vavi had overlooked when he endorsed Zuma for the Presidency of the ANC and the country.
Basically, however, Vavi’s attacks might have been ignored, except for two factors. One was that Julius Malema had recently been brought before a kangaroo court charged with bringing the ANC into disrepute. (The real reason was that he was embarrassing the SACP by raising left-wing issues which the Party had discarded but could not acknowledge discarding.) The court, unable to sustain the actual charges, found him guilty of criticising the President of the ANC, now virtually a capital offence. Obviously, Vavi had done the same, and it would be impossible to deny it if charges were brought.
However, it wasn’t only Malema and his few friends who were smarting. Nyanda was a minor but significant figure in the SACP, and was also very close to Zuma. Hence, the attack on him was partly an attack on the SACP, partly an attack on the ANC, and partly a declaration that COSATU felt that it could smear whoever it liked and get away with it. Unsurprising, then, that everybody present at the NWC meeting — most particularly Gwede Mantashe, the all-powerful Secretary-General of the ANC, who is also Chairperson of the SACP — endorsed bringing the charges. It wasn’t as if Vavi was going to be kicked out of the ANC, but reining in COSATU was in everybody’s interest, as otherwise it would be encouraged to continuously shit in the Charterist nest.
This was all made much worse when COSATU announced that if Vavi were charged, it would walk out of the alliance. The implication was that the union considered itself far too important to be restrained by the organisational discipline of the political party which it was allied to. While this obviously made charging Vavi much more important for the ANC, it also potentially raised the stakes, since if the charging of Vavi went ahead, COSATU would have the choice between wrecking its political position by leaving the alliance on an issue which few ANC members would support COSATU around, or embarrassingly revealing its political impotence and frivolity.
COSATU did have an unexpected ally in the press. Business Day was particularly sympathetic to Vavi, but in general the press backed him, as did the pundits employed by the press. The general claim was that the whole episode was a conspiracy against Vavi allegedly led by Julius Malema, whom the right-wing press had been touting for about a month as an evil and almost omnipotent figure within the ANC. The right-wing press also adopted the COSATU propaganda position, which was that the struggle was between “leftists” and “nationalists” (ignoring the fact that leading SACP figures had endorsed charging Vavi). It was apparent that the political forces represented by the press supported Vavi in the name of “leftists”, which might seem surprising, since these forces were right-wing, hostile to trade unions, and generally sympathetic to big business. If any element within the ANC was sympathetic to these forces it would have been a nationalist element, assuming that such existed.
Of course, the reason for this alliance was that the right wing saw this as a potentially serious breach. (In this they were probably mistaken — it seems likely that had Vavi genuinely been charged, COSATU would have blustered and then backed down.) In other words, Vavi had been risking, and COSATU was toying with, a pattern of behaviour which evidently benefited the ANC’s enemies and undermined their capacity to further their goals (assuming that the Zuma administration possesses such things, a large assumption). This, if anything, showed the danger of allowing the alliance to run amok with the kind of unconstrained personal public vilification of the kind which had characterised Zuma’s campaign against Mbeki.
However, all good things come to an end. Zuma attended the next National Working Committee meeting, and thereafter it was announced that, after all, Vavi would not be charged. The entire NWC backed down in the face of Zuma — or, perhaps, in the face of the combination of Zuma, white big business and COSATU all acting in unison. COSATU crowed with delight, boasting that it had won the battle, and Vavi immediately showed his support for this by reiterating his attacks on the Ministers and on Zuma.
What this showed was that the disciplinary processes of the ANC had completely collapsed. In the place of such processes, was the simple fact that one could get away with anything provided that the President and his rich white protectors were willing to look the other way. Meanwhile, when the charges against Malema collapsed, a fresh charge was manufactured — but then dismantled once again when it threatened to rock the fragile bark of Zuma’s personal authority. It would be difficult to imagine the ANC’s internal coherence surviving this onslaught.
As if to ram the point home, the boss of the SACP, Blade Nzimande, wandered off from his day job as Minister of Higher Education (a job he is doing remarkably badly) in order to demand that the man who planned Chris Hani’s assassination, Clive Derby-Lewis, not be granted parole (as Zuma had suggested). Nzimande may well be right in doing this; Derby-Lewis was probably acting as part of a big white right-wing conspiracy rather than alone, as he claimed, and therefore does not deserve clemency. However, Nzimande has previously claimed that Derby-Lewis had nothing to do with the murder, but that it was instead carried out under the auspices of Thabo Mbeki, a man with whom Derby-Lewis had no connection at all. Therefore, Nzimande should have been calling for Derby-Lewis to be released — but of course it was no longer politically convenient to do so. In effect he was admitting that his earlier slanders had been lies.
There is no bottom to the rabbit-hole down which South African politics voluntarily leaped, along with Jacob Zuma, at Polokwane. We are never going to reach Wonderland. We will fall and fall forever, unless we wake up.
The hopeless state of South African politics is gradually becoming clear to many, yet this clarity seems to lead nowhere in the direction of any improvement.
For instance, Raymond Suttner has, much too late, realised that the ANC is not a sound political vehicle. He knew, as who did not, that the SACP is a corrupt clique of self-seeking, ambitious, cynical capitalists. But he had thought that the ANC was different, even at the time when CoPe was forming. (CoPe suggested that conditions within the ANC had become so unbearable that even the self-interested were beginning to walk away in despair, and that large numbers of rank and file were willing to walk off with them. Subsequent events have shown that the prospects for such a party are not particularly bright, of course, because self-interest has become a universal plague.)
Suttner blames Thabo Mbeki, with Jacob Zuma as an also-ran. His contention is that Mbeki introduced patronage into the ANC, sowing the seed of its downfall, and that Mbeki’s nastiness mobilised people against him, sowing the seed of his own downfall — and with his downfall arrived Zuma. It is convenient to have a well-defined, impotent enemy whom everybody is instructed to hate.
The reality of the situation is painfully different. Mbeki certainly employed patronage, but he had no alternative. The end of apartheid destroyed the principal unifying factor in the ANC, and thereafter, it was impossible to naively mobilise the mass of ANC supporters. With the common enemy gone, pluralism within the ANC had to be accepted — and therefore, for the first time since 1960, the ANC leadership faced actual elections with alternative candidates in which it was necessary to campaign and build up allies, and that meant patronage. It doesn’t seem that Mbeki saw patronage as a goal in itself; he used patronage to get the Presidency in order to carry out his policies.
Who drained the policies away?
Mbeki’s patronage meant that he had to offer jobs to pals. That meant that jobs had to be denied to those who weren’t pals. Those denied jobs then screamed that they were being oppressed. Sometimes those who got jobs would use them against Mbeki, and in order to sustain his power-structure he attacked (or got others to attack) those who criticised or undermined him. This animal was most mischievous; when attacked it defended itself.
In spite of all this shabbiness, nobody was prevented from evolving alternatives to Mbeki’s vision, using them to critique Mbeki’s vision, and inviting people to rally together against Mbeki’s vision. Such actions could have undermined Mbeki effectively — provided that the alternatives were superior to his. The problem was not that Mbeki was tyrannical and unpleasant, it was that while Mbeki smacked down his critics, his critics could not effectively smack back, because they had no ideological or intellectual responses. They did not feel the need for policies, because their complaint was that they, personally, were not getting the privileges which they insisted, on no basis, that they deserved.
That drained the policies away, and that is where Suttner is mistaken. In the end it was the left which undermined itself. Mbeki, for all his conservative posturing and bullying persona, was more tolerant and more left-wing than most — certainly more than Mandela had been. The failure to make use of the space Mbeki provided, particularly after 2003, was a failure of the Left. Suttner cannot accept this because it would require him to be accurately self-critical, which is not something which the SACP has ever been good at.
Where Mbeki most particularly and disastrously led the party and the country astray was in his fear of popular sentiment. Afraid of demagogues and of the exposure of his own lies, Mbeki and his allies did not attempt to win over the populace to support their policies. Instead, they encouraged docility and submission as much as they could, calling on people to trust the government. Many did, of course; also, Mbeki’s enemies mostly rooted themselves in the same rhetoric of authority and trust. As a result they cut themselves off from the public. The SACP, ANC-linked bodies and Congresses, even COSATU, communicated with the broad public chiefly through press releases and photo-opportunities. As a result, the public is less and less meaningfully engaged in politics.
Suttner rightly concludes that what is needed is a new party. A party which is not corrupt and which has principles — all that is true and desirable. But then, he adds, it must be a party which does not exclude anybody. This is much more dubious. Granted, the exclusive nature of the ANC, borrowed from the SACP, has become a huge albatross round the Zuma administration’s neck, but it is only an expansion of the Mbeki government’s fear of the public. There are plenty of people out there who would be prepared to support a party which supported them. A party without a disciplinary policy, a party unable to exclude anybody, is a party which does not have any real significance — a blank slate.
Indeed, this seems to be Suttner’s ideal; although he himself is an unshaken socialist, he does not believe that such a party should be rooted in socialism. (Presumably he knows — or, more probably, he believes — that the mass of the public is not socialist. But if they aren’t, isn’t it likely that this is because of the disappearance of any socialist party to promote socialist ideals?) Either he has genuinely lost his faith in the organising power of socialism, or he is trying to fool the public into joining a party and hoping that a socialist vanguard will be able to take it over once the party is fledged. Either way he is probably grimly mistaken, for a vacuous party would be easily captured, not by the socialists, but by the far right, the way CoPe is currently being captured.
Perhaps it is better to turn away from Suttner and towards Richard Pithouse, who at least seems to know what he wants. But does he?
Pithouse is a disciple (lapsed now) of the fiery Indian cricket historian and so-called supporter of the poor Ashwin Desai. When they were an item, Pithouse and Desai endeavoured to make use of the Durban shacklords’ organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo. When Desai had to leave UKZN and went off to bourgeois Grahamstown, Pithouse trotted behind, leaving the shacklords to lord for themselves, but continuing to contact them via cellphone.
From this it’s easy to discern that the Creator is not a Pithouse fan, so it’s vital to emphasise that Pithouse is doing a fairly useful job, though not as vital a job as he thinks he is doing. The shackdwellers of any South African city have a hard time of it and any organisation within their community is worth supporting. An organisation which actually supports the interests of shackdwellers is obviously preferable to one which pretends to support them but merely exploits them for the benefit of its leadership. Pithouse’s contention is that Abahlali baseMjondolo really supports the shackdwellers, whereas other organisations (particularly those linked to the ANC) are merely exploiting them. There is probably some truth in this, since ANC-linked shackdwellers are inescapably aligned with an organisation which does not only support shackdwellers, but instead represents the whole municipality, a body which has done some good for shackdwellers but has also often worked vigorously against their interests and in favour of working-class and middle-class householders and ruling-class plutocrats. There is good reason for Pithouse to choose to support the people he supports, just as there is good reason to support the south Durban working-class leftists who protest about the quality of life generated by industrial pollution in the area.
On the other hand it’s impossible to listen to Pithouse without concluding that there must be something wrong with Abahlali baseMjondolo. No organisation could possibly be as perfect as Pithouse pretends. Doubtless there is the usual stew of self-interest and manipulative behaviour which one finds particularly in any working-class organisation whose membership is fairly desperate, and which Pithouse edits away in order to present his friends as paragons. There is, presumably, a reason for this misrepresentation which goes beyond Pithouse’s personal vanity; something to do with some oversimplification of analysis which might lead to problematic tactics.
Indeed, this is the case. Pithouse places his friends on one side, and everybody else on the other. Everybody else is an element of a nebulous mass called the State. If you ain’t Abahlali, you’re the State. This legitimates anything Abahlali does, from trivial scofflaws like electricity theft all the way up to murder, apparently. On the other hand, any attack on Abahlali, such as the thuggery in the Kennedy Road settlement last year, is launched by the State and is not to be seen as shacklords engaged in turf wars — no, that would be too trivial for Pithouse’s holistic vision. However, in reality, this “State” appears to be the ANC.
One of Pithouse’s profound concerns is to keep the middle class away from his friends. He is deeply troubled by middle class people trying to gain influence over the poor. His problem, particularly, is with NGOs, who often act on behalf of middle class funders and do not have the poor’s interests at heart. This is obviously a very valid point (the natural tendency of the bourgeoisie is to colonise and dominate), but it would be a far more courageous one if Pithouse were more conscious of the internal contradictions of his argument — the obvious fact that Pithouse and Desai and Bond and McKinley and Achmat and practically every other Trotskyite speaking in the name of the poor are all middle class people, who are presumably doing this with private agendas in mind.
However, Pithouse is almost incapable of class analysis. Why, for instance, should the State wish to attack Abahlali, or any other such organisation? Pithouse waffles about “modernization” as if it were not a cover for more substantive issues, and waffles about how the middle class has its own agendas which differ from the State’s. In that case, is the middle class not the same as the State? Indeed, Pithouse cites a middle class family which has come to terms with shackdwellers and concludes that this means that all middle class people can coexist with the marginalised “lumpenproletariat”. (Meanwhile Pithouse seems not to see any such thing as a ruling class.) This suggests that Pithouse’s romanticisation is driving him away from any meaningful socialist vision.
That raises another point. We can see that the ANC in the shacklands might hate Abahlali as competitors. We can see that the ANC in the municipality might find Abahlali an irritating nuisance. Nevertheless, there is no particular reason why powerful people have to hate shackdwellers who pose no immediate threat to them. Pithouse can’t find anything particularly convincing to suggest why this is so — he just states it. Of course, by proclaiming a hegemonic, omnipresent enemy, the result is that it becomes almost impossible to seek allies. Meanwhile, it also becomes impossible to distinguish between really dangerous enemies and innocuous but annoying enemies. In other words, the fact that Pithouse checks his sociological knowledge at the door when he enters the Abahlali chamber actually means that he has nothing to offer Abahlali except a bourgeois manner and a gift of the gab.
Furthermore, what has Abahlali baseMjondolo accomplished? Nearly nothing, actually. Anybody can set up meetings in shacklands and help people steal electricity. This is largely possible because the state doesn’t bother to act against such things, partly out of laziness, partly out of shame. As for the organisation’s court cases and generally high PR image, this almost entirely stems from the supportive environment in which they operate — which, ironically, stems from the fact that the state is not currently so hostile to them as it might be.
Pithouse complains that Abahlali baseMjondolo do not get a good press and that the press covers up their travails. This is probably in part true. It is, however, true that almost every mention of the organisation in the media is favourable. On Pithouse’s analysis this is inexplicable; if the state is hegemonic and opposed to Abahlali baseMjondolo, why is it that there are so many sympathetic observations about it in the state-dominated press? However, if the ruling class (which dominates, but is not coexistent with, the state) hates the ANC and wishes to outflank it on the left, promoting an organisation like Abahlali baseMjondolo is undoubtedly a convenient way to go — always provided that the organisation is weak and therefore dependent upon ruling-class assistance. Indeed, by Pithouse’s claims, the organisation represents little more than 2% of the shackdwellers of Durban, who are a quarter of the city population (and the weakest quarter). We may assume that Pithouse is not underestimating. Its lack of achievement is due to its weakness. Were it strong, the state would be much more likely to attack it more seriously, and the experiences of shackdwellers in Harare in 2008 suggests what this could lead to.
None of this renders Pithouse’s activities completely worthless. However, it is interesting that both Suttner and Pithouse ultimately fool themselves into supporting organisations which are weak almost by definition, because they have fooled themselves into believing that the enemy which they face is weaker than it actually is. Both Suttner and Pithouse were lyrical in their expression of the evil of their expressed enemies, the ANC and the “state” respectively. Both essentially ignored the danger of the ruling class and the corporate white right. Admittedly, Suttner, quite rightly, rejected the simplistic idea of launching the putative party as an anti-ANC campaign. Perhaps he was on some level aware that this would simply be kowtowing to reactionary politics. The danger with Pithouse is that he doesn’t seem fully aware of what reactionary politics means.
All rather depressing when one thinks that these two are probably among the best of their respective breeds!
Oddly, the Creator was recently listening to the DA’s Shadow Minister of Rural Development, Mr. Swathe. This came after reading a number of newspaper articles and weblog posts written by right-wingers, virtually all of whom played the race card in one way or another. It’s worth asking what is meant by “playing the race card”. Its meaning actually differs according to who you are describing.
When a black person plays the race card, what s/he is doing is saying, in effect, “Whites are trying to take advantage of their privileged position in order to undermine me or the faction or policy for which I stand”. So, if two comparable candidates compete for a job, and one of them says “Yeah, but I’m black and he’s white”, that person is saying, in effect, “If you appoint this person, you will be furthering the aims of the great white conspiracy to undermine black people, and as a white person, this person will follow the objectives of that conspiracy”.
It would all be a terrible and silly conspiracy theory, if it weren’t for the fact that white people have been historically trying to undermine black people for the last couple of millennia, and to most blacks the Broederbond and the United Party are not easily distinguishable in their effects.
Thing about the race card is that, obviously, a person who is not winning an argument or who does not deserve to be considered for a post can easily say “You’re just doing that ‘cos I’m black”. In other words, what is called the race card only has meaning when race is used inappropriately, as a way of sidestepping real issues.
When a white person plays the race card, s/he is saying, in effect, “You’re just doing that ‘cos s/he’s black”; that is, “Blacks are trying to take advantage of their privileged position . . . the great black conspiracy to undermine white people”. On the face of it, there’s no difference that a philosopher could find between the two discourses. There is, however, an actual difference — which is that blacks aren’t generally in a privileged position and there isn’t a great black conspiracy to undermine white people. You will not find black people who think that whites are stupid, lazy or feckless — on the contrary, many blacks who unfairly play the race card are suffering from the belief that whites are cleverer, smarter and more diligent than they, and don’t want to be put in the shade.
What this means is that when blacks play the race card it is sometimes wrong in the specific instance. When whites play the race card it is sometimes right in the specific instance (in our corrupt society it is perfectly possible for a black-dominated entity to strive to exclude whites, just as it is possible for a white-dominated entity to strive to exclude blacks). However, as a general principle, when whites play the race card they are essentially trying to deny the obvious structural advantages which whites enjoy over blacks as a result of colonialism and apartheid. Whites playing the race card are almost invariably racists and are almost invariably enemies of the 1994 settlement.
Which takes us back to the Democratic Alliance.
Before Mr. Swathe spoke there was a speech by Willie Spies, late of the Freedom Front Plus. (Plus what? Now with added racial and tribal prejudice? It appears so.) The Freedom Front Plus, please recall, was a descendant of the Freedom Alliance, a broad front of racists and fascists attempting to prevent democratic elections in South Africa through the use of massive violence. The appropriately-initialled FA was responsible for possibly ten thousand murders before its bloody campaign collapsed in ignominious defeat, and the brutal thug responsible for the Mmabatho massacres in 1994, General Constand Viljoen, happily waltzed into Parliament with massive white support.
Spies is now a member of AfriForum, which is invariably described as a “human rights organisation” in the press and radio. AfriForum is an organisation devoted to the interests of white Afrikaners, although it is willing to accept support from brown Afrikaners if they do what they are told. As such it campaigns to secure the privileges which white Afrikaners enjoyed under apartheid, and to roll back any loss of white Afrikaner privileges which have arisen out of the collapse of the racist state. As such, AfriForum is a “human rights organisation” in the same way that the Ku Klux Klan is.
Spies was speaking against land redistribution, on the basis of his efforts to give land to white Zimbabwean landowners. He cited a family whose farm had been invaded by black people and who had taken the Zimbabwean government to court, first in SADC and then in South Africa. They had a fairly good case, so the Zimbabwean government didn’t contest it (they probably couldn’t afford the fees, anyway) and the landowners won. The people living on the farm beat up the landowners (cue for harrowing photographs of injured white people, on whose skin blood shows up much better than it does on black people) and drove them off the land, ramming the point home by burning their house down. It’s an ugly story, by any standard.
Spies, however, drew an interesting conclusion: that this had all been planned long before by Robert Mugabe (he cited Mugabe’s speech at his inauguration as proof) and, therefore, that the international community should have acted to prevent Mugabe from becoming President in 1980. It appeared that Spies had little faith in black people’s choice of leaders. (He was uninterested in anything which had happened in Zimbabwe between 1980 and 2000, or possibly just ignorant.) One could say that Spies was using Africa Addio-style propaganda to claim that there was a vast black conspiracy against white people, which is where we came in. Later, when Spies was asked how the hell land reform and restitution should take place, he replied that this should happen within the context of white ownership through the title deeds which they acquired (at gunpoint, as he did not say).
OK, one can expect this from the FF+. (It was notable that Spies was not particularly avowedly racist, didn’t mind shaking hands with black people, etc.) So one awaited Mr. Swathe’s speech with interest. How would the DA distinguish itself from the FF+ (especially since both parties had delivered eulogies following the death of Eugene Terre’Blanche)?
Mr. Swathe’s position was interesting. He agreed with Mr. Spies that there should be no land reform outside the context of property rights (to summarise: if you stole something before 1994, it’s yours, but nobody gets to steal nothing now). Very well; but what about land reform happening within the context of property rights? Here Mr. Swathe’s position was all too plain. Where blacks get their hands on land, said Mr. Swathe, it’s a disaster. In 90% of cases, they just break everything. They steal stuff. They’re always fighting each other and they burn things. They don’t look after anything and it all goes to hell. That’s why land reform is a failure.
Wow, one may say. It is possible to say that a specific farm handed to a specific black or group of blacks has deteriorated — there’s a farm thirty kilometres from where this is being written which once grew oranges, where the orange trees were burned away, the irrigation equipment was trashed, and where now a handful of scrawny cattle graze in fields which once supported a real crop, surrounded by the skeletal forms of dying pine-tree windbreaks. Clearly some black people who take over farms are people who cannot be trusted to wipe their own backsides without supervision. But to extrapolate from this that blacks cannot farm is a murderous lie. Indeed, one woman at the back rose up to protest that her father was involved in a highly successful farm which had been established through land reform. Ah, replied Mr. Swathe, I said 90%. There are always exceptions. They prove nothing. Blacks can’t be trusted with land, in general.
This is a lot more racist than Mr. Spies’s position. Perhaps, to be fair, it is not really more racist, but is simply openly expressing a racism which was implicit in Mr. Spies’s position. The question is, surely, how anyone can get away with such an expression of racist belief. The audience, at least half black, did not storm the podium and tear off either speaker’s trousers, which would probably have happened in 1990. (At the very least, probably the black half of the audience would have decamped en masse. Meanwhile, numerous black DA councillors were present, all of whom appeared untroubled by the racist propaganda spouted by their superior. This is weird, isn’t it?
It seems probable that sheer repetition has enabled this level of racism to restore itself to public acceptance. Of course, that alone is not enough, but repetition does have a numbing effect; gradually one comes to accept that people have a right to say a hundred and first time what has already been said a hundred times. However, the act of repeating the phrase “Blacks are stupid, lazy and feckless” should surely have been difficult to sustain at some point in the past. How did it get into the public discourse?
Obviously it has been commonplace within a part of the public discourse — most specifically, that part of the public who vote DA and FF+, white reactionaries and their hangers-on. There isn’t much doubt that apartheid-era attitudes exist big-time in this community. The fact that they have learned not to make lip-farts when blacks say things they don’t want to hear, and to shake hands with blacks in public, does not mean they have changed their minds.
Meanwhile, however, the massive media campaign against the government after 1999 had a powerful impact. This was in part a neoliberal corporate campaign, the object being to undermine the left and boost the right, but also to weaken the political authority of the government, to systematically deny it the right to take initiatives of its own. The silencing of Mbeki (in the media, that is) is important whether or not Mbeki was right; the point is that he had ideas of his own, and this could not be tolerated. However, once this had been accepted it was easy to go further and claim that Mbeki’s ideas, and the independence of his ideas, were intimately tied up with Mbeki’s skin colour; that, contrary to all evidence, Mbeki was a racist, and that all of Mbeki’s wrong ideas (and in this discourse, all of Mbeki’s ideas were wrong) could be traced back to Mbeki’s blackness, hence his hostility to (and envy of) superior white people and ideas.
And once this propaganda was established in the case of Mbeki, it could be used against any black intellectual who did not do as he was told by whites. Then it could be used against any black who said anything which was remotely unpopular. Then it could be used against any black who stepped out of line. At each stage, the discourse depended upon racial prejudice — and, particularly, upon blacks not contesting racism, but rather choosing to ignore it (for fear of becoming targets of the same type of attacks) or even endorse it (because destroying the career of a black who stepped out of line might create a space for oneself — and having to stick to the white line was a small price to pay in exchange for hugely lucrative employment, as people like Seepe, Mangcu and company have found).
As a result blacks have simply become accustomed to hearing racist propaganda against them without question, complaint or qualm. It is simply part of the background noise, and nobody is outraged when a black person recites filth last heard uttered by the Blankebevrydingsbeweging. As a result, blacks are being coached to believe that they are actually inferior to whites. The Zuma government has continued this process by refusing to hold blacks to high standards of integrity and competence, and indeed largely abandoning the idea that such high standards matter. Whites love this because Zuma is doing what they expect a black person to do, and because, whenever Zuma spouts guff about African solidarity or about a developmental state he is, by his example, undermining the very ideology he pretends to endorse. Thus one can safely believe, courtesy of Zuma and his merry males, that when a black says something which sounds good, that black, like Zuma, doesn’t mean it, and instead means the opposite.
So racism is succeeding as part of a carefully-crafted and quite clever plan on the part of whites, and is facilitated by white control of the media and of corporate capital. However, it is also succeeding because blacks (and all people of goodwill) refuse to challenge this, and instead often connive at it.
Perhaps you think this isn’t a problem?