It is a truth universally acknowledged that we are in shit. This is not unique to South Africa, of course. Virtually everybody agrees that the future is dire. Virtually everybody also agrees that this is due to bad things done in the past. And, therefore, virtually everybody is looking out for somebody to blame.
What does this really mean? Crisis implies that something has been done wrong, or is being done wrong. It means that there is something wrong either with policies or with the implementation of those policies. Why are those policies, why is that implementation, defective? The search for someone to blame entails believing that the answer is that some individual, or some faction or party, imposed those policies or disrupted that implementation.
But that is very, very rarely the case. It was fun blaming George W Bush for the policies and practice of the United States, while it lasted, although let us be honest and observe that someone ought to have noticed that Tony Blair, supposedly Bush’s polar opposite politically, was doing exactly the same thing in the same way. But then came Barack and a few have gradually come to notice that he is Bush with boot-polish on his cheeks.
It was fun blaming Thabo Mbeki for the policies and practice of South Africa under GEAR and subsequently blaming him for AIDS and for poverty and so on and so forth until Mbeki was flung out and replaced by someone named Zuma who (we were assured) would set all to rights and who proceeded to pursue Mbeki’s policies (at least avowedly) but with so much less competence and integrity than Mbeki’s people had displayed that it has been a real struggle for the South African ruling class to persuade its soundbite merchants not to blame Zuma for anything.
The grim fact is that blaming an individual, group or caste is almost invariably something which is done in order to protect some other individual, group or caste somewhere else. Therefore, whenever anyone plays the blame game, we should ask (but we almost never do ask) who this person is trying to exonerate. As Noam Chomsky remarked, when someone shouts “Thief, thief!” in international politics, the smart move is always to stuff your hands in your pockets and count your change.
The game of blame gets in the way of recognizing what the problem is. Not that all blame games are equal. Undeniably, in, say, 1994, it was fair to blame the National Party for a lot of what had gone wrong with South African society over the past forty-six years or thereabouts. But then again, this was used to conveniently exonerate Jan Smuts and De Villiers Graaff and Van Zyl Slabbert and the entire Anglophone corporate community and a great train of hangers-on around the corporate class and the capitalist community and the white and coloured and indian and even african supremacists. Which was very convenient for that corporate and capitalist and liberal and white intellectual and so on community, and this is one reason why we sit in some of this shit in which we find ourselves. So it would have been better, rather than saying simply down with the evil Nationalists (although hooray for De Klerk and his Nobel Prize, and Roelf Meyer and his fish-hook, and so on), saying instead “What the hell should we do now and how can we prevent the actual bastards who screwed us in the past, from screwing us again?”.
It’s sort of interesting to think about this while reading Moeletsi Mbeki’s Architects of Poverty. The gist of this book is that Africa’s bourgeoisie has failed it. Well, slaat my stukkend met ‘n slap snoek! Whoda thunkit?? Apart from, of course, Frantz Fanon and Patrice Lumumba and Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa’Thiongo and Ayi Kwei Armah and – well, just about every political analyst who has looked at Africa from any serious analytic perspective. Indeed, Mbeki acknowledges a few of these people, although he ignores a hell of a lot of others (especially he ignores essentially all the recent Marxists like Wallerstein and Arrighi, although Ben Fine is up there instead).
However, why has Africa’s bourgeoisie failed it? “Failed”, that is, in the specific sense that it has not encouraged economic growth and entrepreneurship and thus promoted the interests of the people of Africa, especially the peasants and so forth. This failure, says Mbeki, is easily explained: the bourgeoisie is separated from the workers and does not care about them, instead wishing to plunder the wealth of the state all for itself. (It would be appropriate, in that case, for Mbeki to quote Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which identifies the West’s bourgeoisie as doing precisely this – but somehow he does not, indeed identifying the West’s bourgeoisie as rather a source of creativity and productivity.)
This all seems a big puzzle, since the bourgeoisie in the Far East, with whom Mbeki compares the African elite, are very different, being willing to actually invest money in productive enterprises. Actually, one would have expected a bourgeoisie to invest money in productive enterprises. Why don’t they? What’s the problem? Mbeki doesn’t exactly say; it seems clear that it has to do with colonialism, but unfortunately Mbeki doesn’t devote much attention to analyzing the aftermath of colonialism, neo-colonialism, or any of the other elements of the African scene. We are instead left with the notion that the African bourgeoisie has undermined their countries for no particular reason. Is it significant that the biggest problem arises in oil-rich states (where, of course, Western intervention is at its greatest)? No, apparently not; Mbeki draws no conclusions.
Then again, there is South Africa. In South Africa, says Mbeki, the problem is again the black bourgeoisie. Well, at least the man is consistent. Apparently the black bourgeoisie are responsible for de-industrialisation in South Africa. No doubt they have been going around stuffing de-industrialisation through everyone’s letterboxes. But meanwhile, pace Fine, Mbeki says there is a minerals-energy complex in South Africa. Fair enough, but then why does this minerals-energy complex not scoop out the minerals and generate the energy?
It isn’t really credible that the black bourgeoisie are able to trump the minerals-energy complex. The minerals-energy complex is ESCOM, one of the biggest productive corporations in the country, combined with a cluster of multinationals. The black bourgeoisie is small potatoes next to them. However, Mbeki’s line is that the black bourgeoisie is powerful because they control the ANC. Therefore, the ANC is able to prevent the white bourgeoisie from doing anything productive, by corruption, by dishonest practices, by doing their darkie-type destructive activities. In short, Mbeki is trying to pretend that he believes that the white bourgeoisie, which controls the bulk of economic activity in South Africa and is in no way beholden to the black bourgeoisie, is being held down by the black bourgeoisie. If it were not for the black bourgeoisie, we should be living in a paradise.
In other words, all we need is for the whites to be allowed absolute freedom of action. Where, oh where, have we heard that sort of thing before? Oh, yes – on right-wing “free market” websites. Just leave the capitalists alone and they will sort everything out, because sorting everything out is what capitalists do. But it becomes apparent, on the other hand, that it isn’t just capitalism, it’s also a racial thing. White capitalists, after all, are equally able to take action, and under comparable circumstances, why shouldn’t the white capitalists be comparably likely to undermine the economy as they do in the rest of Africa? In fact, why shouldn’t the white capitalists be more culpable in respect of the undermining of the economy, because they are actually capable of undermining it directly, rather than simply taking political decisions which might conceivably affect capitalists unhealthily? Why are the white capitalists not to blame for going along with whatever the black bourgeoisie want, including their plot to destroy the South African economy by making the ANC take decisions which damage the economy?
Incidentally, those evil plots include most of the ANC’s policies which actually favour the working class or favour black people, such as the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the Labour Relations Act. Now, it’s possible that the middle classes in South Africa are responsible for this (we know that the black bourgeoisie, as Mbeki insists, heavily dominated the ANC for many decades). But it’s far from clear that helping out the working class is precisely the same as the kleptocratic behaviour which Mbeki claims characterizes the African bourgeoisie across the board.
So what Mbeki is actually doing here, it would appear, is blaming the black bourgeoisie for the faults of the white bourgeoisie, by accusing the black bourgeoisie of helping the black unionized working class. It’s not exactly the behaviour of a wholly sane person, in the Creator’s judgement, if one assumes that Mbeki is actually trying to account for South African de-industrialisation. Rather, this seems to strongly suggest that Mbeki not only doesn’t seem capable of explaining what has been happening in South Africa, but his arguments about the rest of Africa would appear to be entirely, and perhaps terminally, flawed.
On the other hand, what we might more productively suspect is that Mbeki is not at all trying to explain South African de-industrialisation or the dearth of development in Africa. Instead, he is trying to get white South African and foreign businesspeople, and foreign governments generally, off the hook And what better way, than by blaming the people who pose a potential obstacle to these forces by their mere existence?
Of course, this is not to say that the South African black bourgeoisie are innocent figures all a-smelling of roses. They are nothing of the kind. But the point is that it is not worthwhile blaming the bourgeoisie for everything. What we actually need to know is what the problem is, and how the problem can be solved. Even if the black bourgeoisie were the sole problem, Mbeki’s analysis provides no answers at all about how to resolve this problem. And if, as is obvious, they are only part of the problem, then blaming them for everything fails hopelessly in its attempt to resolve any problems at all.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that we are in shit. This is not unique to South Africa, of course. Virtually everybody agrees that the future is dire. Virtually everybody also agrees that this is due to bad things done in the past. And, therefore, virtually everybody is looking out for somebody to blame.
You are ten kilometres above the earth moving westward at a thousand kilometres an hour. Through your canopy you can see the whole central Mediterranean from this altitude. The sky is a blazing dark blue as it always is. The earth is a glaring sand-ochre as it always is. Your bladder is already full — damn that second mug of coffee! — and your g-suit is chafing at the back of your neck when you turn your head, pointlessly, to search for something that isn’t there.
You are the Master of the Universe for as long as you are here, which, although you have a big drop-tank on the centreline, is still only forty more minutes at cruising speed and far less if you have to throttle up for some reason, although this won’t happen. You can destroy anything in Libya that you can see. Touch a key and the display from your radar in ground-surveillance mode shows a marching mob of little dots. Metallic things. Huts? Cars? Mechanised infantry combat vehicles carrying infra-red-homing surface-to-air missiles, backed by search-and-track radar not yet switched on? (Your radar warning receivers are silent, as they always are.) You have no way of knowing.
You could blow them apart with three keystrokes and a trigger-squeeze. Four of them, anyway, since you have only four air-to-ground missiles (you are carrying air-to-air missiles to enforce the no-fly zone, of course, though you have seen nothing in the air west of the Benghazi bomb-line since you came here). But you would have to account for that when you got home. Here over enemy territory you can theoretically kill anyone you want with no comebacks, unless your target is unbeknownst to you an inserted SAS snatch- or spy-team or a band of rebels who lost their way in the desert and are blundering into enemy territory, which apparently happens all the time. In either of those cases you will get your own rocket from the squadron commander and a reprimand on your record which will ensure that you will never command your own squadron.
And what is the point of going to war if you don’t get promoted for it?
You are not allowed to go down and have a look-see. The sky chariot you are riding cost a significant fraction of the MoD budget and if it is lost, you will have to account for it if you survive. Those people far below might have something to hit you if you fly below ten thousand feet. Much safer to stay at thirty thousand, and it saves fuel, too; the lower you go, the less efficient your two throbbing engines pushing against all that nasty air. But from up here you can’t read a slogan or recognise a flag, so how can you know whom to kill? There are no free-fire zones. You talked of the bomb-line, but that’s a joke; the rebels are losing towns all the time and then lying about it, and sometimes they take towns and forget to tell anyone about it. You can apparently learn more about the war from watching al-Jazeera than you can from your intelligence summaries.
But you don’t watch al-Jazeera, although one of the junior people in the squadron does, on his laptop, and sometimes he mutters under his breath about just how crazy this all is, even though al-Jazeera is on our side now, which is funny because when you did a tour at Baghram, a bit of top cover for the Green Jackets who were helping the Yanks out with — what was it — Operation Typhoon Challenge, that was it — well, back then, al-Jazeera were the enemy. No, to be on the safe side, you scorn the Sun which is always on the wardroom table, but you read the Standard instead, even though they say it’s run by a Russian now. Doesn’t seem to have changed much. At least it’s not the bloody Guardian. Anyway, what the papers say is that you’re doing a good job, carry on.
You’re going to have to turn round soon, you and your wingman Woolly the Welshman. You’re nearly approaching Tripoli, which is someone else’s sector.
God, you’re bored.
This must be approximately what it is like to be participating in David Cameron and Nikolas Sarkozy’s war. Apparently there are only about fifty fighters, all operating out of Sicily because Algeria won’t provide basing rights (they are not happy at having political chaos on their eastern border, particularly not Islamist chaos) and so they have to fly across half the Mediterranean to get there. And when they get there, where are they? These are supersonic multi-role combat aircraft, mostly designed to penetrate Eastern European airspace for the purposes of fighting World War Three. They are ludicrously unsuited to counter-insurgency operations, which is essentially what is going on in Libya; a rabble of incompetent guerrillas fighting against a disciplined citizen army stripped of its heavy artillery and armour and thus supported chiefly by mortars and the BM-21 122mm truck-mounted multiple rocket-launcher. It’s impossible to distinguish a BM-21 from a regular truck unless you go in close, and not even then, if the bastards have thrown canvas over the rocket tubes. Take it out, and what if it turns out to be a civilian transport, laden to the axles with orphans no doubt?
It’s not like the original invasion of Afghanistan, when the people you were supporting were a trained and disciplined army and providing them with air cover was the tipping-factor in the civil war. Also, the whole USAF was involved in that bombing and by the sheer law of averages, firing kilotons of munitions into enemy territory had to make some difference. Fifty fighters means only about a dozen will be in the air at any moment and even if they were continually bombing it would take a long time for them to degrade resistance. They aren’t, and even with the arms embargo the Libyan government will probably be able to sneak enough weapons in to make up for any losses.
It’s interesting to compare and contrast this war with the Falklands affair, because there is little doubt that Cameron hoped (with his natural xenophobic hatred for dusky-skinned brethren ramped up to psychopathic rage) for a Falklands Factor. Our Boys Swat Sand Niggers Like Flies. It’s expensive enough; those planes are costly to keep aloft, and the Navy sails hither and yon, and the SAS and SIS tramp up and down the desert looking for something to do. But nothing actually happens.
There are obvious differences; in the Falklands there was a legitimate cause for a war, and in the Falklands there was actual diplomacy going on, whereas in Libya the British and French are simply launching aggression without limit because Barack said they could, and are avoiding all diplomatic contact with their enemy of choice because any such contact would expose the utter emptiness of their casus belli. But in a sense this is almost unimportant. What is really weird about this war is not that it is a brutal act of unprovoked aggression. That is nothing really new, although Western imperialists like to pretend that it is something extraordinary which only their enemies do.
No, what is weird is just how incompetently it is being carried out. Recall that in the time that it has taken for the Anglo-French Grand Alliance to buzz up and down Libya looking for something to do and watch the rebels triumphantly retreating before a demoralised enemy advancing in utter disorder, Maggie reconquered the Falklands. It was just five weeks from the sinking of the Belgrano to the striking of the Argentinean flag. Cameron may be more effective at ruining the British economy than Maggie was (admittedly, Cameron can’t take all the credit since Gordon Brown had done most of the spadework) but he can’t, it seems, be trusted to play by himself; his war badly needs CIA and US DOD assistance. The failure of the war is a fairly epic failure; it makes Bush’s military bungling look positively Napoleonic.
What the hell are they doing there? Presumably they could deploy enough troops backing the rebels around Benghazi to hold off the government troops 150 kilometres to the south. However, this leaves the government holding about ninety percent of the country including a lot of the oil fields. If the government takes the port at Misrata (and the fact that the rebels are evacuating by sea suggests that its fall is imminent) then the government will be in control of virtually all of the country except the not terribly big town where the uprising started. It is not difficult to sabotage oil pipelines, meaning that if the West denies the Libyan government the right to sell oil, the Libyan government can deny the rebels the capacity to sell it either. In which case, what are the rebels fighting about? And what does anybody gain from supporting them, given that the prospect of kicking Mad Dog Gaddaffi out of Tripoli is looking less credible by the day no matter how much propaganda is pumped out of London and Paris and Washington?
Meanwhile, we all know what kind of an impression this is making on everybody who isn’t being paid to tell lies about it. It’s difficult to believe that the professional soldiers and spooks and flyboys involved in supporting the rebels can have any real respect for them. (Part of the problem is that the Americans immediately installed some corporate elite in Benghazi the moment the dust and gunsmoke had drifted away, as if they thought they were in the Green Zone in Baghdad and could privatise the oil fields right away. The rebels are now left with an intricate structure for serving Western financial interests in Libya, but unfortunately they don’t have Libya, which leaves the structure with little to do. Meanwhile they still lack an army capable of taking on the Dayton, Ohio Little League junior baseball team.) Meanwhile, without the capacity to do anything effective, the West is also failing to develop political legitimacy for deploying such a capacity. So far, the Libyan government is looking like the most successful anti-imperialist resistance movement since Hugo Chavez blocked the coup against him nine years ago. Everybody who is hysterically denouncing them is looking dumber by the day.
Of course, many lefties jumped on the revolutionary bandwagon, no doubt figuring that since the West was going to win anyway, they might as well gain some pretend credit from the victory. Nobody expected the Libyan government to survive so long. Nobody expected the Americans to bottle out — but then, Obama always was timid (and the Powell Doctrine requires that Americans only fight when they are not only sure of winning easily, but of making a profit from the victory). Now everybody’s twisting in the wind, including clowns like Gilbert Achcar, who blew his Trot credentials on an imaginary anti-Gaddaffi struggle without even leaving himself an escape clause. Nothing sad there; none of those lefties will be missed. But meanwhile the weirdness goes on, leaving no sanity in its wake.
The troops, never mind whose, have marched into Abidjan, securing it for Western capitalism (of a special type) as completely as the troops which marched into the Ashanti country in 1895. There is looting and rape and murder, but as Donald Rumsfeld (inspirer of the current wave of plutocratic plunder) pointed out, stuff happens, and freedom (of a special type) is messy. In any case, as Human Rights Watch (which does not need to be instructed to say so by their patrons in the Pentagon and the State Department) incessantly shouts, the other side is much worse (by virtue of being the other side), and therefore it does not matter how bad our side is.
South Africans are prepared to follow instructions and celebrate the fall of Laurent Gbagbo, whom they know nothing about except that they are expected to celebrate his fall, and celebrate the rise of Allison Outtara, whom they know nothing about except that they are expected to celebrate his rise. Exception and expectation should be followed by expectoration, but they are, of course, not. We are too well-trained and too unthinking, like the participants in a Nuremberg rally. “One hundred thousand men in a single block!” cries the newspapers, and can one hundred thousand blockheads be wrong?
The clowns who rule Africa and Arabia and Central Asia are an embarrassment. They were installed, duly, by the West in order to create the illusion of independence. That was why clowns were chosen; they could clown for the cameras so that the West could roll the tape and explain that Western governments were not clowns and therefore all was well at home by comparison. And, of course, Arabia was the same. The West did its best to do the same for Asia — a typical example being the clowns who have scampered across the governmental stages of Pakistan — but were most successful in Central Asia, where the post-Soviet “independent republics” were exactly as independent as the dead calf in a game of dead calfball, a game characteristic of Central Asia, and which is played by Russia, China and the United States with the Central Asian Republics and their governments. But what counts for us is Africa.
The clowns in suits and battledress (or Mao) jackets are still with us, of course. What has happened, however, is that the opportunity for clowning has become somewhat restricted. Nowadays the script is dictated from Washington and includes a carefully-determined array of worshipful observations about Western interests combined with a strictly-limited collation of hypocrisy and mendacity intended to simultaneously cover up international corruption and facilitate accusations of African corruption.
Africa initially had the advantage that clowning made absolutely no difference. It was a country of incredibly weak states and strong capitalist comprador ruling classes. Win over the President, a few dozen generals, civil servants, businessmen and tribal chiefs, and you had the country. Of course, these people had to have the right to steal what they pleased, and frequently they squabbled over whose turn it was to eat. Their underlings had to have the right to steal, more modestly, but there could be no question about that right, for if they did not have that right then the leaders would not have the right, and if the leaders did not have the right to steal then the public might ask where the money was going.
Where it was going was, of course, overseas. First it went directly overseas, via the usual neo-colonial systems of overworked, underpaid plantation and mine labourers. Then in the 1980s commodity prices collapsed, so the rulers were easily persuaded to borrow money which they could not repay, after which interest rates were carefully raised so that African countries ceased wasting money on pretending to develop themselves and instead poured the money directly into the pockets of Western bankers. A few countries held out against this, but not for long. Presently in the 1990s came the call for the people of Africa to rise up against their leaders and stop them being so corrupt, and some even were fooled into doing this, and then less corrupt people were installed who focussed their attention on plundering the country directly for the benefit of foreigners, without diverting more than a tributary of the river of gold into their own Swiss or Brazilian bank accounts.
And now the situation is changed again, and not for the better. It is worth noting that the two Arab countries which the West has particularly chosen to attack since 2000 — Iraq and Libya — are two countries where the dictator tried to plough some of the state cash, controlled by a state-owned oil company, back into development again. Maybe this is coincidence, for these happened to be countries which the West wanted to attack anyway, because they had carefully demonised both dictators, and also because the West had an opportunity (though in the case of Iraq certainly, and Libya probably, the West worked extremely hard to create that opportunity).
But in Africa south of the Sahara, there have been a sequence of Western-backed invasions or “uprisings”; the DRC in 1997, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Somalia, the long torment of the Sudan, and now, of course, Ivory Coast. (The Ethiopia-Eritrea war was also one where the US had a hand, and perhaps it fits the system, because ever since that war Ethiopia has been firmly in America’s back pocket.) These are not, for the most part, important countries. However, they are opportunities for countries which the West has powerful interest in to display apparent power, and they are also opportunities for the West to ensure that a government is entirely under its authority, like the hapless Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia. And to punish governments which are not under its authority, which is why Charles Taylor is waltzing with kangaroos in The Hague.
What seems to be going on is that the West is becoming a little desperate. It is true that the economic crunch happened only in 2007-8, whereas many of the invasions of Africa and elsewhere happened well before that. However, the West has been in big economic trouble for some time. It is true that Clinton and Bush both pretended that all was well with the economy, but both of them knew that their respective economies depended ultimately upon financialised bubbles which would burst sooner or later. Both of them also knew that when those bubbles burst the economy would slow down if nothing happened to ease it, and both of them were aware that there were powerful forces elsewhere which could threaten U.S. economic hegemony — both were painfully aware of the power of China even though both chose to pretend that it did not threaten them.
So is it coincidence that both leaders attempted to develop control over important sources of natural resources? Clinton, via Rwanda, gained control of much of the world’s coltan production which facilitated the short-lived electronics boom of the 1995-2005 period. Bush, more traditionally, threw his weight into the oil supply. Cheaper oil would have helped the United States in the short run; the fact that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was so badly bungled that it briefly lowered rather than raising Arab fear of U.S. power counteracted this, and in any case oil is running low and so a fall in the oil price was undesirable. (Besides, it could have harmed U.S. financial interests which are heavily involved in oil futures.)
These solutions have turned out not to be solutions, and now the problem is multiplied by the fact that the West is now in approximately the situation of those hapless African countries in the 1980s. The West does not export enough to fund its imports, and it is massively in debt and therefore is suffering from capital flight. What is to be done about this? If it were possible to put pressure on Latin America and Asia, then this could be done, but Latin America and Asia are not easily crushed — Latin American governments are united in distrust of the United States, and most of Asia can shelter either under the Chinese wing or the Indian wing — and both China and India are highly ambiguous allies for the United States, and both are active competitors with Europe. Japan is no longer so supine towards the United States as it used to be, although it is probably the most abject supporter of U.S. power in east Asia. No, these countries are not credible sources of wealth or power. Nor is Central Asia so secure now that the United States faces massive competition there from both China and Russia, both of whom are restless about American empire in the region.
Is terrorizing Africa going to be a solution? The comprador elite can no doubt be persuaded to screw their populace more thoroughly. There may be some more natural resources to plunder more effectively, although the United States needs little more from Africa than oil. However, it is hard to believe that this will provide more than a tiny fraction — probably less than one percent — of the increment that the Western ruling class wants each year in order to keep itself in the expansive style to which it is accustomed. Moreover, the more armed aggression against Africa, the weaker the comprador elite becomes. Then, the more probable that countries will sag into internal uprisings on the Somalian model which will require foreign troops, or at least foreign funding for local mercenaries that the West is beginning to find difficult to afford and which will counterbalance any money gained from such operations.
So it does not look like a solution. But for the moment it might look like one. At any event, the Western populace needs to be unified behind some distraction and aggression against Africa is likely to be a popular policy, pandering to racism while dressed up as the liberation of the continent. Like the liberation of the arrival of the missionaries, the liberation of the arrival of the colonists, the liberation of the departure of the colonists, the liberation of the arrival of the World Bank and IMF and Lehman Brothers. Ah, we have been well and truly liberated, about as liberated as a continent can be and still draw breath.
If only we could free our own minds! Well, perhaps we can. Perhaps we even have. But unfortunately, with the press and other media firmly in the grasp of those with no minds and no concept of freedom, we have little hope of learning about it.