The Inane Game of Blame.

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.


One Response to The Inane Game of Blame.

  1. John says:

    Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find a very sobering assessment of the world situation via these references.

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