Ebony In Ivory.

January 28, 2011

Should we care, even a little bit, about what is going on in Ivory Coast? It all seems as futile, petty and hideous as what is going on in CoPe. Gbagbo and Ouattara are like two clowns at a circus swatting at each other with heavily-padded sticks and performing pratfalls for the amusement of an audience which has failed to turn up.
Yes, but, like what is going on in CoPe, there is more to this than meets what the eye is permitted to see.
A little unreliable background. Ivory Coast was a French colony and became a French satellite state after the French rushed to neocolonise after their debacles in Vietnam and Algeria. It was ruled by a ruthless right-wing dictator, Houphouet-Boigny, for several decades. Somewhat like Kenya, its American equivalent on the east coast, it managed to stumble along with superficial peace and economic growth (based largely on the single crop of cocoa) although the dictator became increasingly demented and diverted more and more money to fantasy projects, a sort of mini-Mobutu.
But, of course, after the dictator died the wheels came off very fast. For one thing, the Americans were driving commodity prices down and thus generating a global economic crisis which enabled them to seize control of governments via global financial institutions (IMF, World Bank and other big merchant banks). Ivory Coast had run up gigantic debts and, with the death of their French-crony dictator and the collapse of the cocoa price, they were forced to borrow money from the IMF, which, as usual, imposed devastatingly unpopular socio-economic policies on the country in return for the loan. The man put in charge of administering these policies was an American-trained corporate hack named Ouattara.
Meanwhile in the increasingly irrelevant political front, Ivory Coast had become a democracy (that is, it was holding elections to decide who would take the blame for the policies imposed by foreigners). The big winner was a demagogue named Gbagbo, who had strong links to the country’s big business. As everywhere else in coastal West Africa, big business exists chiefly on the coast, where colonial authority was strong, as opposed to the interior, where colonial authority was weak. So Gbagbo was a Southerner. Just to further complicate matters, the coast is Christian or animist, the interior is Muslim. Oh, and there are tribal and linguistic divisions, too. But the biggest issue is money and power.
Gbagbo held power and didn’t want to give it up just because nobody liked him, so he refused to step down when he became unpopular — in part because he was quite popular with business, who put money into his campaign. He lost an election early in the twenty-first century because business had little authority in the interior. (Ouattara came from the interior, and therefore, even though he was a businessman, he had interior credibility; he was their homeboy. However, he wasn’t there at the time.)
The people who were there, however, rose up in their majesty in the north, set up militias and called for Gbagbo to go away and not come back. In the south, Gbagbo said “Shan’t!” and hunkered down behind his army. The result was a couple of years of low-intensity civil war followed by a standoff with occasional planeloads of suits from the African Union flying in to have long and agreeable lunches on the subject of brokering a peace deal the details of which seemed not to exist.
Eventually the Ivorians seem to have become weary of this farce, and Gbagbo agreed to hold an election, which was duly held last year with the American-backed suit Ouattara standing against him. According to the polls, Gbagbo lost and should have stepped down. Gbagbo disputed the result of the polls, claiming that the results in the North were not legitimate and that the votes for him had been disallowed, and demanding instead that loads of Northern votes be disallowed instead, thus ensuring that he won the election. (It was, actually, quite a close poll. It is just possible that Gbagbo may be telling the truth, although his record suggests that we should not buy a used car or a vote from him.)
All this looks quite a lot like Zimbabwe without any of the interesting features. Gbagbo is a bit like a Mugabe without struggle credibility or anti-Western PR skills (Gbagbo has mouthed off a lot of anti-French rhetoric, but in fact he has been in France’s pocket for most of the last decade — part of the conflict, as elsewhere in Western and Central Africa, is driven by the cold war between France and the US over control of the remaining scraps of the French colonial empire.) Ouattara is, like Tsvangirai, the IMF’s man, but without even a trade union history to betray. Presumably, if Gbagbo stays in power, Ivory Coast will be misruled. Presumably, if Ouattara comes to power, Ivory Coast will be misruled. There seems to be no prospect of good governance or real popular power. So far have we come in the evolution of democracy since the Greece of Pericles!
There is violence. People are being killed. It seems that people are being killed in the North and South — although, interestingly, the only actual flight of people is happening from the North. Why people should be fleeing from the North is not clear if Ouattara is the good guy (supposedly they are afraid of civil war, but then why shouldn’t people in the South be equally afraid?). It seems possible that this is, at least to some extent, a publicity stunt intended to legitimate whatever actions might be sought after by the international community, insofar as there is such a thing.
Indeed, outside Ivory Coast the situation is far more interesting. The United States has denounced Gbagbo and proclaimed sanctions against him. The European Union has denounced Gbagbo and proclaimed sanctions against him. The Economic Community of West African States (basically Nigeria and its little friends) has denounced Gbagbo and threatened to invade Ivory Coast to overthrow him. The African Union has denounced Gbagbo although, as is commonplace with the African Union these days, it does not seem able to decide whether anything else should be done. Such vigorous unanimity is nevertheless quite startling. It makes a fascinating contrast with the situation in Sudan, say, where an actual civil war was going on but there the reaction was much less unanimous and clear-cut. Everybody seems to be doing the right thing in step, with freedom on the march.
One should always be suspicious when everybody seems to be doing something altruistic. What are they really getting out of it? In this case, one answer seems to be oil. With the new deep-drilling techniques which so successfully devastated the Gulf of Mexico and reputedly have caused calamity in the Caspian, it will be possible to turn Ivory Coast from a cococracy into a petrostate, thus ensuring that its economy ruins our lungs instead of our teeth. The US is not tremendously interested in controlling the world’s chocolate (the US produces some of the worst chocolate bars in the world) but obviously crude oil is another matter altogether.
So it seems that the US is particularly interested in seeing regime change in Ivory Coast, as in Iraq, in order to secure its control of oil in the region (especially with the Middle East getting all unstable and stuff). Regime change, of course, means putting our sonofabitch in charge, and the designated sonofabitch is Ouattara. Therefore everybody has to pretend that Ouattara is the Nelson Mandela of West Africa, while Gbagbo is a dark evil slimeball like Aristide who must be removed at once. The fact that everybody seems willing to pretend this speaks volumes about the actual independence of West Africa and its environs. It is also rather striking that the AU envoy to Ivory Coast turned out to be the President of Kenya, that country with such a wonderful track record of managing elections and the political clashes arising out of them, who came out with the conclusion that not enough was being done to overthrow the evil Gbagbo.
In the past, the clash between the US and France suggested a possibility that, as in the Cold War, countries could benefit by playing off the opponents against each other. Unfortunately, this clash is no longer so clear-cut, for France is now run by a reactionary nitwit named Sarkozy who has close ties with the United States and is also deeply concerned with domestic issues. Since he wants to crush the French workers in order to imitate the U.S. economic miracle, even though that miracle is a thing of the distant past, Sarkozy is almost certainly willing to bow the knee to the US. Britain, of course, when told to jump by Washington, merely says, on landing, “Was that high enough, master?”. Germany couldn’t care less if West Africa sank into the Gulf of Guinea tomorrow, since Angela Merkel is busy building the Fourth Reich on the ruins of the European Union. Hence the EU/FR and America speak with one forked tongue on the issue, and since Nigeria is an American satellite and has been for decades, so does Ecowas, and so, with Nigeria and Kenya, the two American satellites, in authority, and the third American satellite Ethiopia playing third fiddle in the background, does the African Union. (What would Patrice Lumumba or Kwame Nkrumah have said?) In other words they are all doing what seems to be right in political terms (because Ouattara won the election) for reasons which are wrong in other political terms (both because Ouattara was put there to win the election by outside forces, and people are cheering him on because those outside forces are instructing them to).
It seems that the Americans have made West Africa unfortunately similar to the Middle East from which they are transferring their oily intrigues!
Almost the only people who have gained any credit in the whole sorry shebang have been South African politicians. Thabo Mbeki flew in and suggested a Government of National Unity, which is what he invariably suggests whenever anything goes wrong. It was, at least, smarter than anything anyone else has suggested, but since nobody else outside Ivory Coast was prepared to tolerate Gbagbo in power once they knew that the Americans wanted him out, nothing came of that. Jacob Zuma, oddly, has spoken out strongly in opposition to invading Ivory Coast and has suggested that, instead of invading Ivory Coast it might be an idea to see whether any of Gbagbo’s complaints of election fraud had any validity. That sounds a bit more sensible than once again tearing up the United Nations Charter in order to secure Washington a few more gigabarrels of crude oil. (Note that nobody has the least excuse for invading Ivory Coast, and indeed, nobody has any legitimate pretext for imposing economic sanctions simply on the basis of a disputed election result.)
It may seem odd for the Creator to be speaking out in support of Zuma, but then again, Zuma does come from the ANC and therefore cannot altogether go against its history of sanity and reasonable compromise, however hard he has worked to undermine this. It seems clear that Zuma is less in the back pocket of the United States than most of the other leaders of Africa. However, what is really horrendous is the way in which everybody does what they are told in unison, regardless of validity. It raises big questions about whether revolution in Tunisia, or even in Egypt if that comes off, will really build a new nation, or whether it will simply mean that Uncle Sam will have to untie the strings from his old puppets and tie new ones on in the way that the Wikileaks and Palestine Papers cables have indicated.


Anti-Social Behaviour.

January 21, 2011

Attacks on the social grant system operated by the Department of Social Security are becoming quite a common phenomenon. Only two weeks back, no less a person than Deputy President Motlanthe denounced social grants, saying that they promoted dependency. A little more recently, a journalistic article by Moloetsi Mbeki appeared in several newspapers making essentially the same point (which he had earlier made in his facile little book Architects of Poverty). To show that this trope is prevalent even at the lowest intellectual levels, the Mail and Guardian’s Thoughtleader website recently housed a similar diatribe. It appears that open season has been declared upon social grants. One wonders when the season will close.
Social grants are given to the poorest, most vulnerable, most needy people in our society. They are provided to the chronically ill, the physically disabled, and mothers with children, generally below a certain income bracket. These grants are fairly small in actual quantity supplied to each individual — generally, less than ten rand a day. However, even these apparently insignificant sums loom large for people living in rural areas on very little money. A few hundred rand can supply the necessities over and above what can be scratched from a smallholding — a replacement blade for a hoe, a little meat, some spices, an opportunity to go to town one day a month. One can’t overestimate the desperation lived by unemployed, prospectless people in rural areas far from access to transport.
So what is the justification for denouncing these grants?
The core argument is that they are quite expensive. It is difficult to assess how many people are getting the grants, but a figure of some 14 million has been put forward. Social security and welfare used some 16% of the budget, up from 11% in 1997. This isn’t a gigantic increase, and of course not all that money goes on social grants — but what does go on social grants generally goes very effectively. Still, it takes a lot of money.
The contrast usually made is between the possibly 14 million social grants recipients and the 6 million-odd income tax payers. The argument here is that since there are more than twice as many social grants recipients as there are taxpayers, therefore the country can’t afford to have social grants.
This makes sense provided that you failed Form 5 arithmetic. If not, you would understand that income tax payers provide about a third of state revenue, the balance being provided by corporate tax and by value-added tax, of which there are 50 million taxpayers. You would also understand that whereas social grants recipients receive a couple of thousand a head per annum, income taxpayers — because the income tax only applies to relatively wealth people, the richest 12% of the population — provide tens of thousands a head per annum. In other words, comparing taxpayers with social grants recipients is like comparing cabbages with Brussels sprouts.
It seems obvious that no sane person would make this mistake. (Indeed, there is no sign that the social grants system is putting a major strain upon the national economy.) Evidently, either the people making this argument are mad, or they very strongly want to put an end to the social grants system.
A somewhat less selfish and stupid argument is that the social grants system is demeaning. To be a social grants recipient is to be identified as very poor, obviously. That could be humiliating. However, poor people need not resent to receive help. Most poor people need help, and indeed want it. Therefore it does not seem likely that granting a poor person a small stipend is going to turn that poor person into a greedy lazybones incapable of personal action. Of course, some might be affected that way, but then why stop at poor people? Why not argue that increasing the pay of CEOs promotes a dependency culture among CEOs which discourages initiative? The same arguments would apply if they were taken at all seriously.
It is possibly true that some kind of dependency culture has arisen in South Africa. However, there is no sign that it has arisen out of the willingness of the government to give money to the poor. On the contrary, to the extent to which it has arisen among the poor, it has appeared because the poor are unable to take initiatives for themselves. This is not because of the inadequacy of the poor as people, it is because there are no opportunities for the poor to take action; there are no jobs and there are few occasions for job creation or even for mutual aid. The whole tendency of South African popular culture since the end of the struggle has been to undermine social solidarity, and this seems to have had its desired effect. In the underclass which makes up half of our population, people with skills and opportunities disappear from their communities in the same way that middle-class people with a rich university education disappear from the country. Overall the tendency is for opportunities to diminish and for the people who might create opportunities to go elsewhere instead. Against this situation of decline, social grants are nothing more than a Band-Aid to cover an amputation — but doing something is better than doing nothing.
This doesn’t stop some commentators from claiming, on the basis of no evidence, that people are deliberately becoming disabled in order to get disability grants. The claim is particularly that young women are falling pregnant in order to get child support grants — there was much talk of “Mbeki babies”, since the social grant system was being associated with President Mbeki in order to secure its discrediting among the affluent classes who hated him. This runs against actual experience; teenagers tend not to think in such terms, especially not about their sex lives. It would be impossible to do meaningful research on the subject, but it seems probable that the reality is that women falling pregnant to get the grants is approximately as plausible as people contracting HIV in order to get the grants. What this reveals is not the fecklessness of the poor, but the willingness of wealthy political propagandists to sink to incredible moral depths to discredit policies which they don’t like, and the willingness of the public to allow those propagandists out in public without pulling their trousers off and chasing them naked down the high street beating them with quirts. (The Creator has met some of those propagandists and regrettably took no such action, so is as guilty as anyone else.)
This more or less takes care of the arguments against. Of the arguments for, the obvious one — that giving to poor people can help them get themselves out of poverty — has already been made. Another is the simple one of justice: Since we have dramatic inequality, should we not at least do something, even if it is obviously inadequate, rather than nothing? (It is, incidentally, interesting that the affluent NGOs who promote the Basic Income Grant are virtually silent on the social grant system, which has expended to the point at which it is a mini-BIG; the reason for this seems to be that campaigners for a BIG, including the DA which is merely pretending to support a BIG whereas its actual plan is to reduce social security spending, are doing so out of political motives and have no interest in helping the poor.) In short, criticism of the social grant system should rest on the fact that it is inadequate, not that it exists.
A possibly more salient point is that the social grant system is one of the most effective economic stimuli the government has ever come up with. Every cent given to the poor under the social grant system is spent, is spent in South Africa, and most of it is spent on goods or services produced in South Africa. Therefore, the social grants system is a huge boost to South African retail, services and manufacturing. Money which the middle and upper classes might otherwise invest overseas is instead pumped into the South African economy. It is not only a matter of equity; social grants are an excellent Keynesian stimulus which probably have helped the economy survive the depression every bit as much as banking regulations did.
There remains another argument raised by Moeletsi Mbeki; that social grants are a political stunt. Mbeki contends that the ANC gives people social grants as a bribe, to make them vote for it. (Here he is plagiarising from Venezuelan right-wing propagandists against President Hugo Chavez.) It is obvious that social grants are not merely a political stunt, and it is probable that even if social grants are a political stunt, they are nevertheless desirable. However, are they a political stunt? Moeletsi Mbeki has not bothered to answer this question, preferring to assume it — his constituency is chiefly white people who hate the ANC, and therefore proclaiming that the existence of social grants is good for the ANC is a good way to get his white audience to hate social grants.
It is hard to determine the answer. On one hand, poor people might be grateful to receive social grants, as they are grateful to receive healthcare, education, electricity, water or housing. (Again, this might be used as an argument against healthcare, education, electricity, water and housing.) On the other hand, poor people living in impoverished areas without any prospect of employment might blame the government for their problems, and being given a modest stipend might not compensate for that at all. Therefore it is possible that the social grants, by themselves, are not significant. One would have to go out and ask people, and they might not give an honest answer, and since the vote is secret, how can one know the answer?
There are, however, some hints. In 1999 just over 16 million people voted, supposedly some 72% of the voting population (this may be based on inaccurate census data), and 66% of these, or 10,5 million, voted ANC. Thereafter, the social grants system was introduced, and in 2004 just under 16 million people voted, supposedly some 58% of the voting population, and 70% of these, or 11,1 million, voted ANC. This does not exactly suggest a surge in support for the ANC as a result of the introduction of social grants. Subsequent to 2004 the social grants system expanded considerably, and in 2009 just under 18 million people voted, supposedly some 60% of the voting population, and 66% of these, or 11,9 million, voted ANC. In other words, there is no sign of a significant increase in ANC support as a product of the introduction of social grants. If the ANC introduced social grants in order to bribe the population to vote for them this does not seem to be working, and one must wonder why, if this was the motive, the party persists.
Of course, an alternative might be that the ANC’s support would plummet were it not for the social grants. It is, however, odd that the proportion of the ANC’s vote has remained so stable through the evolution of the social grants system. If this is due to the social grants, one has to assume that by some mysterious coincidence, the social grants has led the ANC’s power-base to appear stable when in fact it would have declined without the social grants. Here we are getting into hypotheticals which can never be tested and which would probably be congenial to Moeletsi Mbeki. But the reality seems simple; there is no evidence that social grants play any real role as a political bribe; this is simply a desperate smear against the idea of social grants.
The reason why so many people are denouncing social grants is painfully obvious; rich people want to pay less taxes and therefore they want to cut public spending. Social grants spending is targeted on the poor. Rich people are not poor. Hence rich people want to cut social grants spending so they can invest more overseas and buy themselves more imported cars and whisky. The next time anyone discusses social grants, it should be easy to test their motives.


Leaking on the Sheets.

January 10, 2011

The appearance of Wikileaks is obviously much to be desired. It is not the first time that the Internet has been used to publicise secret documents, but it is the first time that a site has been set up to fulfil the function which investigative journalism was supposed to fulfil but rarely if ever has; to reveal facts which powerful people would rather keep hidden. The technique is very much the same as that used by pornographers; it is politically difficult (in fact, nearly impossible) to impose censorship on a site based in a country which does not have such censorship laws. Furthermore, the fact that a domain-name is registered in a particular country does not put it automatically under the authority of that country; it is difficult to know precisely where the site’s server is located if the people involved are sufficiently skilled to fake the server’s address. (Presumably this is why Wikileaks requires competent IT specialists to run it; anyone can set up a website, but not anyone can keep it running covertly or under attack.)
None of this has any actual relevance to the rape charges against Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange. Assange would deserve credit for having set up Wikileaks even if he produced child snuff porn in his spare time. However, those who disapprove of Wikileaks (meaning everyone who supports the strong against the weak) will naturally wish to pretend that these rape charges discredit the concept of Wikileaks. Therefore it is worth considering what the significance of the rape charges are.
A South African would be slightly bemused by the charges. Assange’s accusers complain, among other things, that although they had consensual sex with him, he then had sex with one of them later on in the night without her permission, and did not consistently wear a condom. If this kind of complaint appeared before a South African magistrate almost everybody in the courtroom would roll their eyes in disbelief. We have real problems of actual rape in this country, and have relatively little time to devote to matters of bedroom protocol. Incidentally, Sweden has a huge and largely unacknowledged problem with rape, and one might suspect that the laws under which Assange’s alleged behaviour is criminalised are on the books to help cover up the real sexism of Swedish society.
Yet the point is still valid. If Assange did those things, it was legally rape. It was also highly disrespectful of his partners (and indeed disrespectful of himself — he might have been absolutely certain that he himself was not HIV+, but how could he be so sure that his partner was not?). Having sex with a partner who has not consented to that particular incident of sex is something which the partner is entitled to interpret as rape. It’s much like marital rape. Nobody is entitled to mess with someone else’s genitals, however close they may be, if the someone else wants to be left alone.
On the other hand, all sex is about power and submission to power. Invariably, someone is on top, even if only metaphorically. As a result, virtually all sexual partners have willingly experienced behaviour which could be interpreted as rape, and the consensuality of submission to such is often not explicit. Such submission is erotic, whereas rape is not.
This all makes the implementation of a law like the Swedish law rather difficult, and it is hardly surprising that the complaints were initially rejected, only to be taken up later. Perhaps the Swedish authorities decided, on mature consideration, that the complaint deserved to be taken more seriously, Perhaps.
The problem is compounded by the responses to the problem. In the main, a large number of commentators (mainly heterosexual male) have tended to dismiss the charges as false and inspired by American political operators. These commentators have also tended to see Assange as a hero, and thus do not wish to see their hero tainted by such accusations. In reality, although Assange is a highly creditable figure for setting up Wikileaks, it is true that he has done little more than transmit information which the U.S. government did not want transmitted. Obviously this is deeply risky behaviour, but it is nothing like the courage (or foolhardiness) shown by Bradley Manning, the person who transmitted the information (on U.S. military conduct in Afghanistan and Iraq, and on State Department communications with their embassies) to Wikileaks. Assange’s activities do not grant him immunity from prosecution, nor should they, and those commentators (mainly female and/or homosexual) who have condemned Assange as a rapist are undoubtedly reacting against such claims.
However, most such commentators also follow a familiar pattern: the assumption that in a case of rape, the accused is guilty. The basis for this assumption is that complaining about rape is a difficult and unpleasant business, and going to trial is still less pleasant, since the alleged victim can expect to be attacked as dishonest and sexually promiscuous (one recalls the Zuma trial in which the defense’s core theme was that the alleged victim was lesbian and therefore, mysteriously, could not be trusted to tell the truth about being raped). Nobody would put themselves through this kind of mill without good reason. Therefore, it is assumed, the good reason must be because the alleged victim is telling the truth.
Recently, a fifteen-year-old girl accused two of her schoolmates of gang-raping her. South African feminists, more or less unanimously, took up the cudgels on the girl’s behalf. What they said, generally, was that it was terrible that this culture of gang-rape existed in South African schools, that it was terrible that nobody was protecting female children against it, and that the general conduct of the educationalists, the police, and everybody else within several kilometres of the gang-rape, was appalling, deplorable, and various other appellations of an unfavourable nature.
They were able to do this because they had not actually seen the video of the girl willingly having sex with her two schoolmates in front of several other schoolmates. Within a couple of days, however, the girl retracted her accusations, because since the video was public, once the matter went to court she would certainly have been charged with perjury. What had clearly happened was that the girl, like so many others of pubescent years, was caught up in the sexual delirium one goes through in that period and then suddenly realised that she’d been caught doing something which her parents would not approve of and which might damage her reputation in some quarters. Hence her natural response was to deny everything and blame someone else.
On mature thought she realised that her natural response would get her into more trouble than otherwise, and so she retracted her natural response and substituted for it the truth. For the sin of telling the truth she was immediately arrested under South African statutory rape laws which seem highly questionable for a country with a rape problem like South Africa’s, although when the statutory rape laws were introduced no feminists objected. (Basically, anyone who is found to have had sex under the age of consent is guilty of statutory rape; presumably police should be posted at maternity clinics to bust every pregnant woman under the age of sixteen years, nine months.)
Now, this is not to waste time on blaming teenagers for having sex, or indeed on our dumb laws, or even our dumb feminists. Rather, the point was that commentators assumed that the usual rule — that rape accusers are likely to be telling the truth — applied here. It did not occur to them that teenagers do not have the same kind of responsibility as adults, living in different circumstances, and that teenagers are therefore much more likely to lie to adults than not.
The Assange case is a rather similar one. It is entirely possible that Assange’s accusers are lying. What makes this possible is the political element in the case; the U.S. government would like to damage and/or discredit Assange by any means possible. It would be easy to offer the women in question rewards in exchange for damaging testimony — including, perhaps, the reward of getting a free ride through the courtroom, with a sympathetic judge, courtesy of intense U.S. pressure on the Swedish judicial system. There is, after all, no way to prove that they are lying; what went on in Assange’s bed must be based on their word against Assange. (Of course, this possibility does not mean that Assange’s accusers are indeed lying, although this is an assumption made by many of Assange’s defenders.)
One apparent contributing factor to Assange’s guilt is the fact that Assange fled Sweden. Why did he flee, if he was innocent? The answer is fairly obvious; if he was innocent, he fled because he suspected that he was being stitched up by the women in question and would not get a fair trial. Again, the possible intervention of the U.S. government is the factor establishing doubt. It doesn’t prove Assange’s innocence, but it means that observers cannot make assumptions of guilt of innocence based on Assange’s behaviour. (Under the circumstances, if Assange is innocent, but the accusers are also not acting on U.S. instructions but simply out of a sense of misplaced aggrievance, Assange would probably still have been right to flee — for how could he be sure, given the past conduct of the U.S. government and the embarrassing collaboration between Sweden and the U.S., that there was no such collusion? If they really are out to get you, paranoia is logical.)
So, in this case, the sensible thing to do is, surely, to assume that we do not know what happened in Assange’s bed and should not pretend that we do. In which case, we should probably assume innocence unless guilt is proven. The only problem lies in the question of whether Assange should be extradited to Sweden — which ties in with the question of whether this is a U.S. plot or just a consequence of Assange’s personal misconduct. It is difficult to speak on Assange’s behalf and say that he should go; surely, the best thing to do would be to monitor the process of events very carefully, and particularly the trial. (Notice that, even in South Africa, there is huge controversy over the Dewani case, where the extradition is about murder, and where no questions of international politics are at issue.)
What is most important should be that commentators should not yield to the temptation to trash Assange (as many have), even on the impeccable grounds of the universal rights of women to fair treatment and freedom from abuse. Doing that implies that a questionable charge of rape entitles one to undermine Assange’s political actions, which were extremely important and which should not be discredited. Rather, one should focus on Wikileaks itself, and pay attention to Assange, if at all, only if he is eventually found guilty by legitimate process. Pre-emptively trashing Assange (and ignoring the problems undermining the charges against him) is, effectively, a service to global imperialism.
Unfortunately, many people rate their own self-importance and their own prejudices as more significant than struggling for the freedom of the world. This is why the freedom of the world is at risk.


How To Win Friends and Influence People.

January 10, 2011

Let’s assume, because it is true, that the policies and personnel of the present Zuma government are a disaster. Let’s assume, because it is probable, that the present Zuma government has sufficient control of the ANC to prevent an internal uprising against their policies and personnel. Therefore, only two obvious alternatives appear plausible: to establish a counterforce against the ANC’s current policies and personnel which is powerful enough to consistently change those policies and personnel into something more South Africa-friendly, or else, to establish an alternative to the ANC which can oust it, either through revolution or the ballot-box.
The former looks easier, but this is probably an illusion. In South Africa under apartheid, we had a tremendous anti-state movement which eventually became so powerful an organization that it forced the apartheid government to the negotiations table. It is thus tempting to assume that it is easy to develop such an anti-state movement. (This assumption is reinforced by the assumption, often made by Left critics of the ANC, that the enormous power of that anti-apartheid movement was betrayed by the ANC.)
But that anti-apartheid movement resembled the resistance movements which arose in Europe during the Nazi occupation. Those resistance movements were easy to establish because the experience of Nazi occupation was so awful, and competing class or ethnic priorities could be disregarded because nothing seemed more important than getting rid of the Nazis. Even then, however, the active resistance was a comparatively small portion of the population, and without the assistance of the British and Soviet governments it might not have accomplished anything.
Once the Nazis were expelled, the solidarity of European resistance disintegrated. In Eastern Europe the leftist resistance enjoyed the support of the Soviet occupiers and helped to crush the rightist resistance (who received support from the Anglo-Americans). In Western Europe the rightist resistance enjoyed the support of the Anglo-American occupiers and helped to crush the leftist resistance (partly because they received no support from the Soviets). In both cases those original objectives of resistance which went beyond simply kicking Hitler out were distorted in pursuit of sectarian political goals.
Isn’t this very much what has happened in South Africa since 1994?
What, therefore, needs to be done is to establish that there is a clear and present danger to South Africa which the public needs to resist, and therefore a united front is possible. This danger exists on some levels. However, the different segments of South African society have such different priorities that they may not be altogether eager to cooperate against the present government.
To take a simple example, the unemployed want jobs, whereas the employed working-class want better jobs (or better conditions with the jobs they have). Providing employment for the unemployed is a completely different policy choice from providing better jobs or conditions for the employed. There is probably not enough money to do both at once. As a result, either one must choose, or one must pursue a policy choice which fails to satisfies both – and the danger of this is alienating both, if both workers and the unemployed believe that they are being betrayed.
There is, admittedly, another alternative. This is to find some issue not directly related to socio-economic need which appeals to both employed and unemployed people, and persuade them that this is more important than their actual need. This is essentially what the Republicans in the United States have done, and to a lesser extent what various other organizations have done in Western Europe and (for instance) India under the BJP. The goal is to either persuade people that some conveniently demonised policy or group is the source of their problems, or that attacking this policy or group is more important than resolving their problems. Ideally, the target of such campaigns should be people whom the mass of the public has been told to detest, such as homosexuals, foreigners or people of different skin colour or religion.
This works extremely well as a tool of mobilization. After several decades of experimentation, many of the politicians engaged in this particular pursuit have learned how to play this game without conspicuously appearing guilty of racism, sexism, xenophobia or general panic-mongering.. (For instance, the Democratic Alliance in South Africa, although its chief mobilization tool is hostility to black people, continually denies that it is hostile to black people.) In societies in the West where it is considered dangerous to promote too much hatred, this is an important issue because unduly obvious reliance on hate-promoting propaganda could backfire on the propagandists.
Even where the propagandists can escape responsibility for promoting hate, however, the problem is that promoting such hate makes it difficult to mobilize the public in support of desirable goals. If it were true that the Romani were responsible for the European economic crisis, or that blacks and homosexuals were responsible for the American socio-economic meltdown, then the current campaigns against them would make sense. Since the real problems lie elsewhere, however, this is not the case, and the people who have run those campaigns have gained power at the price of not being able to do anything effective to resolve the problems. (It is a price that the North American and European conservatives are happy to pay, since they are not interested in resolving those problems but rather in exploiting them for private gain.)
None of this means that groups or even individuals associated with malign practices cannot be targeted (even unfairly) for mobilisation purposes. During the apartheid era, for instance, it was easy to focus hostility to the apartheid state on Botha, or to the tricameral system on Heunis, or to militarisation on Malan, or police repression on Vlok. Likewise, it was easy to focus hostility to the apartheid state through condemning its minions or its supporters. However, this could only be made productive through the knowledge that the apartheid state itself had to be stopped, through knowledge of what the apartheid state was doing wrong, and through the belief that there was a workable alternative. In other words, one could hate policemen or bureaucrats or soldiers or racist propagandists and this contributed to one’s challenge to apartheid — so long as one’s hate was ultimately directed against apartheid. But hate for Afrikaners, and even hate for whites, usually lead to the ethnic hatred becoming dominant over the political context, which was one reason why white English-speakers and the PAC generally found it difficult to evolve effective political action.
Hence, the proper place to start, in order to establish a counterforce, is with the problem. We know what the problem is; it is unequal distribution of resources. Anyone who understands economics knows that this is a problem in practical terms; where the rich are too rich and the poor too poor, the economy suffers. (The entire goal of neoliberal “economics” is to prevent people from understanding economics.) Meanwhile, almost everyone understands that it is unfair that some gain enormous wealth for little effort while others are impoverished through no fault of their own. (The entire goal of neoliberal and neoconservative politics is to obscure natural morality and fairness.)
It is not enough to know these things. It does not mobilise people on a large scale to know that wrong is being done. What is needed is to have a clear, easily-comprehensible, accessible method of challenging the wrong that is being done, and if possible, to get the mass of the public excited about it. This would entail a clear plan for changing the distribution of wealth, through changed economic policies and social projects. Some of these could be incorporated into popular existing concepts such as a desire to wean South Africa away from its dependence on fossil fuels, to head off the impending urban water crisis, and to provide better public transport within and between urban areas.
However, it is not enough simply to say what needs to be done. It is also important to say how it should be done. It is also important to explain why it is important. For instance, the reason why light rail networks within cities could become a much more efficient system than buses needs to be combined with the fact that building such a network would employ a large number of people. But it is also necessary to explain how this can be done without instantly destroying the taxi industry (this is important not for the sake of the taxi industry, but for the sake of the people who might otherwise fail to energetically support such a plan out of sympathy for the taxi industry). This is complicated stuff — not so complicated that one needs a matric certificate to understand it, but complicated enough that it cannot be presented in simple soundbites. Soundbites are not for explanation, they are for chanting in demonstrations, so long as one understands what one is really chanting about. The problem is that too many organisers move directly from the problem to the soundbite without taking political education seriously.
In effect, the creation of a political force to challenge the ANC from the left — the apparent project being conducted by the Conference for a Democratic Left — has to begin with a massive programme of political education. It will be necessary to develop and explain the project — what needs to be done, how it is to be done, what effect doing it will have. This is desirable in the sense that it represents a project which must also be democratic, in the sense that some of the details will need some discussion. On the other hand, if there is to be so much discussion that nothing gets done, then the project will fail. Meanwhile, if getting down to business means riding roughshod over the minority because the clever people in charge of the project — the “vanguard”, in Stalinist rhetoric — have their own agendas, then the business will either fail, or will lead to something potentially undesirable, a dictatorial system.
The problem is that one does not simply want to bring about the change in the economic system (which in itself requires a massively disciplined organisation struggling against the ruling class and their dupes who are widespread in our society). One also wants to bring about a more democratic form of government. This is almost certainly what many of the people involved in grassroots left-wing politics also want. However, they don’t want democracy at the expense of accomplishment, and they don’t want their enemies to seize control of the system. Somehow a structure has to be built up to make the project work without being taken over by its enemies — inside and outside the left — or derailed. And all this without the disastrous problem of individuals becoming dominant within an organisation and using it for their own purposes, or else, using it to further their personal corruption which, when exposed, leads to the discrediting and shattering of the organisation, as happened with CoPe.
It’s not easy to do but it has to be done, and pretending that it is easy, or pretending that these problems don’t exist, is simply not an option if you want to accomplish anything.