The Players and the Game.

July 22, 2011

The Department of Trade and Industry belatedly complains about the Competition Commission giving a free ride to Wal-Mart. A Cabinet lekgotla decides to set up a state-owned pharmaceutical company. The Democratic Alliance calls on the South African Revenue Service to investigate Julius Malema’s financial state. What’s going on here?
Clearly, a kind of game is being played. The white ruling class is strongly in favour of Wal-Mart buying out some of South Africa’s major retail industries. It is, equally, strongly against the establishment of a state-owned pharmaceutical company. It is also strongly in favour of demonising Julius Malema, most particularly because Julius Malema wants not only pharmaceutical companies but banks and mines to be owned by the state. Hmmm — looks as if these are moves in a chess game with two sides. One can cheer on either side, can one not?
On the other hand, the game is not so simple. If the government had really wanted Wal-Mart not to buy out local retail industries, it could have stopped it in its tracks very simply, but it did not, although the government did present evidence against the deal to the Competition Commission.
But why send the matter to the Competition Commission, which is simply a body which exists to cover up for the financial crimes of the ruling class? Either the government did not want to win the case, or it hoped somehow that a body not directly connected with it would torpedo the deal and thus enable it to win the case without taking responsibility for it. Again, either the government is terrified of the white ruling class, or it is in the pocket of the white ruling class but does not want to reveal this fact to its constituency, or else the government is simply divided between such factions.
Again, the fact that the Cabinet decides to establish a state-owned pharmaceutical company does not mean that a state-owned pharmaceutical company is going to be established. Such a company would take years and billions to develop, even under ideal conditions, and current conditions are anything but ideal. (Jeremy Cronin recently trumpetted a new bus service for Rustenburg, to be set up with simply oodles of taxpayers’ money — it’s going to take four years to get the buses running. Since it takes about a month to ship the buses here from China and a similar time to train the drivers, and the whole project will cost about a billion, we must assume that forty-seven months have been set aside for the political discussions over who is to rake in the rest of the money devoted to this initiative.) It’s obvious that the government wishes to be seen to do something about high drug prices; it’s less certain that it wants to actually do this.
Then again, the Democratic Alliance’s stunt is almost certainly not really intended as an action against Julius Malema the person. Malema the image is largely a construct of the white ruling class and its tame media, has been built up as a black boogeyman over a long period of time, and would be a sorry loss to them and their panic-mongers were Malema the real human being to disappear from view and the image thus to collapse in a great ruin of racist stereotypes. In any case, what they are protesting against is apparently Malema building a house, as if the notion of black people living in houses is rather distasteful to them. (Judging by the municipal policies of the DA, this is probably the case.)
So, in a vital sense, the game is not about winning or losing. The game is about being seen to play. The real owners of property are off the board.
But this doesn’t make the game unimportant. In a sense, the game is the only way in which the actual public has any opportunity to express itself, and it is also by watching how the ruling class plays its side of the game that we can see just how bizarre the situation actually is. While the public cannot take part in the game, it is free to yell at the government from a distance. Also, sometimes the pawns in the game (such as Malema) interact with the public.
Essentially, what these three episodes have in common is quite simple. The ruling class is not interested in developing South Africa, neither economically nor socially, the ruling class doesn’t want to help the people of South Africa, and the ruling class is strongly hostile to public debate on any meaningful issue. These issues are made absolutely clear through these three episodes. It’s much more than just that the ruling class is showing two fingers to South Africa, and dropping its pants and showing its arse to South Africa, the ruling class is shitting on South Africa and everything it and its people stand for. And, more to the point, the ruling class, through its control of the media, is preventing anyone from protesting about this gross defecation.
Look — it is possible to argue that Wal-Mart’s taking over a large retail chain is not really a huge issue. The obvious danger is that Wal-Mart will then use its global muscle to sell goods cheaper than other retail outlets can manage, driving them out of business and establishing dominance of the local retail market, after which it will be free to jack up prices again. That means that it will be doing what it has done in towns and states throughout the United States, so there is nothing unusual about this expectation. Of course, this will hurt consumers and increase unemployment, but not massively so — we are talking about a modest increase in prices and a few tens of thousands of people unemployed. It is bad, but hardly worth fighting about given the actual catastrophic conditions which the present government is promoting. However, the trade union movement is aware that it has let down the working class very badly, and therefore COSATU’s leaders need to pretend that they are concerned about jobs, and therefore they are cajoling the government into putting on this show, with, probably, little hope or expectation of winning.
On the other hand, though, the ruling class’s support for the Wal-Mart bid means that they are having to line up with foreigners (which South Africans don’t really like) and make explicit their support for big companies over little ones (which nobody except ruling classes really like). In other words, they are making themselves look bad (although they are couching their propaganda in the ridiculous terms of consumer choice) over a relatively minor issue which most of them are not going to benefit from. And, also, some of South Africa’s ruling class will inevitably lose out if the local retail chains go down. What’s in it for them?
Two things, or perhaps three. One obvious thing — anything the unions like, the ruling class will oppose. While the ruling class applauds the current leaders of the union movement for their incompetence, just as the ruling class applauds Zuma for his incompetence, the reason for this applause is that the ruling class hates unions as part of its hatred for democracy and freedom. Wal-Mart also hates unions. Case closed.
Another obvious thing — Wal-Mart are foreigners. The profits will go abroad. The bulk of South Africa’s ruling class are either foreign-based, or owe their allegiances to people who are foreign-based. Therefore, support for Wal-Mart means support for South African economic activity becoming more dependent upon foreigners, which the ruling class wants (and this also undermines democracy, since the less economic freedom locals have, the less political freedom the country has). Case closed.
The third thing is discursive. If the ruling class can get away with running a public campaign under the banner “Up with unemployment and neo-colonialism!” then they have set a vital precedent in breaking the spirit of the public. The more we let them get away with, the more they will take. In this sense the issue is potentially far bigger than its actual nature.
But it’s the same with the fantasised drug company — the ruling class is effectively campaigning here under the slogan “Higher prices for your drugs, with less access to the drugs you need, and let foreigners have all the money!”. And the representatives spouting that slogan are allowed to walk around in public and present that slogan in almost so many words. Nobody slips a tyre around their necks, sloshes petrol and strikes a match. This illustrates the decline of South African civil society very clearly.
And, in a sense, it’s the same with the DA’s propaganda campaign against Malema, a campaign which it is conducting in self-evident alliance with the South African Communist Party. (The DA-SACP alliance has been evidence since 2008, when Helen Zille and Ryan Coetzee joined with Max Ozinsky and Mcebisi Skwatsha to destroy the ANC’s power-base in the Western Cape by jointly smearing all the coloured Charterist politicians in the province.) The campaign is, of course, the DA going ooga-booga for its white supremacist constituency, but in another sense it’s the ruling class going after someone who might actually believe in some of the egalitarian issues he raises, and thus a major part of neoliberalism. The SACP, of course, does not believe in egalitarianism and never has, but is sitting pretty so long as it can pretend to believe in this, and definitely does not wish to be challenged by some upstart who might actually mean what he says and thus threaten the SACP’ corporate funding which keeps it alive. In other words, suppress debate, silence freedom of speech, and ensure that the ruling class doesn’t have to answer awkward questions about who owns what, and what they are doing with the money they are making off with.
What should we do about all this? At the moment, almost the only thing we can do is to remember that there is such a thing as the ruling class. A possibility, dubious as it might seem, is that the government might be persuaded to challenge the ruling class on occasion.
The way in which the Left serves the ruling class is to insist that the government cannot challenge the ruling class, and in fact to pretend that the government and the ruling class are identical. This means that the Left challenges the government rather than the ruling class, pretending that this is a bold stroke for the people and speaking truth to power and all the other tosh which the Left has adopted from the hired media whores of the ruling class. As a result, the Left struggles to undermine the only power capable of challenging the ruling class.
Issues like these three show that the Left is mistaken in this matter — and, to be fair, the Left is nominally on the side of the angels when it comes to Wal-Mart, and perhaps even pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, we can be absolutely certain that the Left will abandon this stance any time it finds it more comfortable to do so, which is why it is reasonable to suspect that in these cases, the bad guys are going to win, and the Left will blame this defeat on people like Malema rather than on their own cowardice, treachery and (among the rank and file supporters of Stalinism and Trotskyism in South Africa) simple failure to understand what is going on.
And that’s how the game is played.

The Masters of the Universe.

July 22, 2011

Japanese cartoons are pretty cheesy (the vast number of anime and manga fans out there are essentially connoisseurs of cheese), and as a result they generally express the heartfelt desires of the mass of the population, whether it be to tie schoolgirls up in intricate but extraordinarily tight bonds, or to witness the flattening of major cities by gigantic obsolescent reptiles. One such cartoon, represented for its target gaijin audience as “Masters of the Universe”, depicted those Masters as essentially demented, power-crazed deformities pursuing destruction for its own sake. “Monsters from the id”, as it was put in Forbidden Planet. (The connection between science fiction, pornography and comic cheesecake of all flavours is discussed in a rather dull book called Men Of Tomorrow.) However, it does look as if the cheese has it; the Masters of the Universe are following exactly that pattern.
Well, they are the Masters of our Universe, and that’s what matters.
Perhaps the most startling episode was when David Cameron (a.k.a. Lord Snooty) shambled out onto the stoep of the Union Buildings and began to drawl gibberish about how he would certainly not stop slaughtering Libyan civilians until Colonel Gaddaffi stopped defending Libya against foreign aggression. (Of course, what he said was that he would not stop defending Libyan civilians until Colonel Gaddaffi stopped eating babies, but nobody listens to what he says anyway.) Then Zuma stepped out beside him and said that he was completely in agreement with Cameron except over the issue of the role of violence in international affairs, because peace was required in order to promote democracy. Zuma seemed like a somewhat more courageous and plain-speaking Neville Chamberlain standing beside Hitler, except that Cameron would look even worse with a toothbrush moustache.
It says something very significant when the towel-boy of the Free World makes our corrupt, lying President look like the ideal statesman.
But to see just how bad the situation has become one has to look beyond the towel-boy to the recipient of the towels. Recently we underwent a visit by the wife of the President of the United States, who babbled even more nonsense than Cameron and was, of course, treated with the usual awestruck sheepishness by the hired bumsuckers of the local media. Possibly she is faithful to the mass-murdering pirate who shares her bed; probably not, knowing the habits of the U.S. ruling class. In any case, her arrival was simply a publicity stunt connived at by our own ruling class in a desperate effort to cloak the hideous realities of U.S. policies which have made all of our national problems infinitely worse ever since they began paying odious attention to us. But the Creator digresses.
The government of the United States is engaged at present in what all American pundits call “Kabuki”. It is a formalised contest over a formalised issue — the increase in the entirely unnecessary limit set by one branch of government over the U.S. national debt, which another branch of government wishes to exceed. Kabuki theatre, while admittedly highly stylised, has actual intrinsic meaning for its audience. What the Nippophobic American punditry are doing is misrepresenting Japanese culture, for the formalised American debt contest has no intrinsic meaning — its meaning is entirely extrinsic. It’s all about what’s happening behind the curtain where you aren’t supposed to look.
As if you didn’t know, the U.S. economy is in the toilet, and that’s one reeking toilet. The official unemployment rate is 9,3%. Best guess is that the employment rate according to the way it used to be measured is about 16%. If the Americans hadn’t thrown so many people in detention, it would be somewhere around 20%. This means that American unemployment is at its highest since measurement started, and quite possibly at its highest in the history of the country. (Not, in fact, far short of South Africa’s rate of official unemployment.) Nobody’s talking about the shanty-towns mushrooming around the country, but they’re there.
But nevertheless, things aren’t quite so bad as they were in the Great Depression. (Of course, the Great Depression didn’t start out so bad; the longer a depression lasts, the worse its effects are, and there is absolutely no sign that the current depression is approaching an end.) This is almost entirely a product of government intervention. As a result of worker struggles conducted during the Depression, the U.S. government now provides unemployment insurance (although derisory compared with that for other countries) which means that unemployed people are still, for a while, able to buy stuff, and that keeps the wheels turning; so does the “food stamp” sponsorship for the very poor, introducted in the 1960s. Apart from the gigantic borrowing programme to give money to American banks and manufacturing industry in order to prevent them from going bankrupt, there has been a steady process of injecting money (all either borrowed or printed) into stocks and bonds, which has kept the money markets alive. Most of this money goes to the very rich, but because so many Americans are now dependent on the stock market for a surprising amount of their income, the effect has been to keep consumer spending from collapsing completely as it did in the early 1930s.
This doesn’t mean that the U.S. government are good guys. These are either consequences of those residual socially responsible government programmes which haven’t been done away with yet, or they are incidental by-products of government actions to make the rich richer. There has been no attempt to create jobs, and apart from a deal to extend the term of unemployment insurance (without which U.S. consumer spending would have fallen much faster than it has) the present government has done nothing to ease the suffering of the victims of the present crisis. Every responsible American economist is leaving hanks of his or her hair on the floor. Irresponsible American economists are not doing this, because they have mostly been hired either by the Presidency or by Congress.
Now, enter the budget crisis. (Exit, pursued by a bear.) It has always been the pretense of the American ruling class that it is deeply concerned with balancing the budget — which means, translated from nonspeak, with the government not spending more than it earns. Since 1960, however, the American government, like the American people, has consistently spent more than it earned. We can, thus, safely say that this pretense is a load of crap. In order to hype the crap, the Republicans have made this campaign their own. (In the far-distant past the Democrats liked to pretend that they cared about the poor and downtrodden and therefore to pretend that they would spend money on them — and although this pretense has gone, the fossilised language of social democracy survives.) The Republicans tried to pass a law forbidding the government from spending more than it earned, which would have torpedoed the spending plans of the President, who happened to be a Republican, so this law was set aside. Instead, what they did was to pass a law setting a limit to the amount of debt which the U.S. government could run up and saying that the President had to consult Congress before this “debt ceiling” could be raised.
This was a time-bomb aimed at any Democrat who happened to be President when the Republicans controlled Congress. It meant that while Republicans could spend without limit (because the Democrats would not oppose any such spending), they could also block any Democratic spending once the debt approached the ceiling (as it inevitably would) and claim that they were doing so out of a sense of responsibility. The Democrats didn’t have the guts to repeal the law (which makes no social or economic sense whatsoever) when they controlled Congress and the Presidency together, and now the debt is approaching its ceiling and the Republicans are flexing their muscles, beating their chests and chanting “Hroom, hroom!” in chorus. Just like they did before, when they shut down the U.S. government under Bill Clinton.
The reason why the debt is reaching the ceiling is twofold. Firstly, the massive deficit spending of George W Bush, which Obama has continued (including all those tax cuts which the Democrats squawked about until they became responsible for them). Secondly, the massive deficit spending of Barack Obama, mostly to prop up the U.S. banking and manufacturing system and consumer debt, although a little has gone on Obama’s brand new wars in Pakistan and Libya. (He’s continuing to fight Bush’s wars in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan, and Clinton’s war in Colombia — ain’t it great being a Master of the Universe?)
If you really feel strongly about the deficit, the obvious answer is to repeal the tax cuts and end the wars. That would save a few hundred billion a year, after which you could take a good hard look at how to do something about consumer demand and economic growth. Much of the money currently funnelled to the financial system would probably be better spent being funnelled directly to American citizens in need of cash, who would spend it on goods and services. If you got America out of its present depression, you could then consider ways of restraining the growth of spending, so that revenue growth outpaced it, and thus the deficit would come down. This was what Clinton did, and what Mbeki did in South Africa. Conservative, but arguably sensible.
However, the American government is not concerned about spending. What it wants to do is to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. This is exemplified by Obama’s decision to freeze public employee salaries (effectively, giving everybody working for the government a big pay cut) even as the rich get a whole lot richer (meaning that economic inequality increases).
That’s what the heir of Franklin D Roosevelt is up to; you can imagine what the heirs of Herbert Hoover are up to. What the Republicans want are more tax cuts for the rich, less spending on healthcare, less spending on education and less spending on socal security and unemployment insurance. Obama, please notice, has promised to do this, but the Republicans want more and bigger cuts than he has offered and are therefore threatening, in thirteen days as I write this, to cut off U.S. government funding altogether by prohibiting the U.S. government from borrowing the money it needs to continue its activities.
Unpack those plans for a moment (bipartisan plans, even if the Republicans are more extreme). You reduce revenue. You reduce the staffing of hospitals and clinics (fewer people spending money) and make it harder for the poor to get healthcare when they re sick. You reduce the staffing of schools and colleges and make it harder for the poor to get educated. You cut back on the poor’s access to money in every way. You are thus reducing working-class and middle-class consumer demand, meaning that the buying power which keeps the wheels of industry and the shopping-carts of retail rolling is reduced. Basically, this might be bundled together as the “Sabotage of the U.S. Economy Bill”, or, in the traditional naming of bills after their sponsors, the “Bachmann-Obama Bill”.
Now, the Creator happens to think that the U.S. economy could use a little sabotage. Quite a lot, actually, and razing the cities, selling the surviving inhabitants into slavery and ploughing the fields with salt wouldn’t go amiss either. But it does seem a little odd that the Master of the Universe, faced with a major crisis, have sat down and put their heads together and come up with a plan to make the crisis considerably worse.
And that’s the best-case scenario. For, what the Americans in their infinite magisterial universal wisdom have failed to notice is that the United States is not an independent planet levitating in the cosmos. It survives by borrowing money from other countries which are considerably better administered than it is. However, those countries’ economies have been stretched to near-breaking-point by the U.S. mismanagement of the global banking system, which is being kept barely afloat at the expense of almost everyone else.
Now what’s happening, in the midst of the instability of the worst financial crisis in seventy years, is that the U.S. is presenting the world with two options; either it makes its own recession worse (thus making the global recession worse, since much of the world survives by selling cheap stuff to America) or it stops meeting its financial obligations. Among those obligations are paying the interest on U.S. Treasury Bonds, which is the principal support for U.S. imports and the current bulwark of global capitalism. If the value of Treasury Bonds collapses, as it must if the U.S. even temporarily defaults on its payments, the scale of global financial failure would be almost impossible to cope with. Also, if the U.S. can’t sell Treasury Bonds any more it has no capacity to import the goods and services it needs and the U.S. economy itself could break down. Loss of faith in the willingness of the U.S. to pay its debts (and maybe even the capacity to pay those debts) means, essentially, loss of faith in the global economic system, which means, potentially, the collapse of banking and currency systems across the globe. It could be 1932 all over again, but 1932 with nobody in any position of power having any intention of solving any problems.
It’s as if the Masters of the Universe are a two-year-old who somehow got into the china cupboard and adores the tinkling sound as the Delft cups and plates tumble to the floor. So far they’ve only been able to smash the contents of one shelf. Eagerly, the drooling, faeces-stained monster creeps towards the next shelf. Will it instead slip, and smash its horrible hydrocephalic skull on the shard-littered concrete floor below?
We must all hope so.

Profoundly Superficial.

July 11, 2011

One of the Creator’s attendants in this incarnation happened to mention that there was a marvelous Iain Banks out called Surface Detail. The book was brandished before the Creator’s eyes and praised by all present, particularly those who had not read it. The blurb on the back of the volume assured the Creator that the Culture was about to go to war with Death itself. This seemed like a fitting thing for the Culture to do, and in a sense might begin the disintegration of that appalling convocation of fictional self-opinionated blowhards, so the Creator trundled off to an Exclusive and duly returned with the necessary doorstop.
Big mistake.
Recycling is a very good thing. The world’s resources are known to be finite and, contrary to the opinions of right-wing psychopaths, plundering the rest of the solar system is no solution. We must, therefore, do what we can do use things over and over. But not, please, intellectually. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce – all right, you can get away with that if you are Napoleon III. But, please, not again and again. It grows dull. This is why U.S. foreign policy is so utterly uninspiring.
It would be tedious to enumerate all the ways in which Surface Detail recycles elements of earlier Banks texts. There is the sinister quasi-Sublimed race of unknown power lording it over a dead relic of a former civilization, which goes all the way back to Consider Phlebas. There is the surface detailing of the spaceships in Excession, as well as the unexpectedly-powerful-because-concealed spaceship in that same text, as well as the waffling intership communications in that same text. There is the unconvincing central character of Use of Weapons. There is the afterlife of Feersum Endjinn, somewhat modified via the afterlife of Look To Windward. There is the attempt to put one over on the Culture in Look To Windward and in Excession.
That will do for a beginning.
It should be possible for recycling not to be disastrous. Very few new ideas are born in science fiction, and therefore most science fiction depends on making new ideas appear new when they are not. This often entails taking old ideas and placing them in new contexts. Unfortunately for Iain Banks, his Culture novels are conceptually twenty-five years old and the context within which they appear is thus thoroughly stale. It has been possible for him to take more detailed looks at some of his ideas, or bring them into a contemporary context (after all, the work began in an era when socialism was still taken seriously by some of the public and is now being generated in an era when liberalism is considered equivalent to thoughtcrime). However, this is rather tricky, especially since he began doing this as early as The State of the Art. The danger with this is that “making it new” itself becomes formulaic, and therefore one needs a new way of making it new. Meanwhile, of course, the fans want everything just as it was before, if not more so, and someone like Banks can’t afford to ignore his public.
But unfortunately, the recycling which Banks undertakes here is not just intellectual recycling; it is also a recycling of everything that Banks has ever done to appeal to his nominal public. There is the Bad, Bad, Sociopathic Businessman (although, as usual with Banks, it is not quite clear what his business is or how he really makes his money, since he appears, like most Banks characters, completely without coherent motive). There is the Beautiful Asskicking Spy, and the Beautiful Asskicking Victim, and we have seen both these characters before ad nauseam, rather as if Banks were trying to relive his teens again through a sort of recreation of his first experience of Tomb Raider. There is the Representative of the Culture who is Weird (ho, hum) and the Representative of the Culture who is Scarier than you Think (yawn) and the Cruel and Heartless Alien Mistakenly Considering Himself a Goodie (bleah). All these characters are presented very much as they have been presented before, and therefore the reader is not encouraged to see them in any kind of novel context – they instead slot smoothly into the formulaic view of the world which has become Banks’ stock-in-trade.
Very well. What about the story? The story is about War In Heaven, or rather War Between Heaven And Hell, which ought to be interesting. Unfortunately, it isn’t actually about this at all. Some civilizations have decided to create an electronic afterlife of eternal punishment and carefully store the bodies and personalities of those who die in order to plunge them into this afterlife. A moment’s thought reveals that this is rather good grounds for revolution and the massacre of the people responsible. The point about the human Hell is that it was supposedly created by God as a result of our bad behaviour at some point in the past. You could blame your ancestors, or you could blame the Supreme Being, but there was nothing to do about it. But Granny and Sis frying in eternal flames just because some televangelist paid off a politician to organize it – that’s something you could do something about, and undeniably something would have been done about it. Banks fails to notice this because, frankly, he hasn’t thought the issue through – or, more troublingly, because his aliens, which after all represent alien people in the real world, are extremely stupid and fanatical. (That is, in a disquieting sense, Banks is buying into the genteel racism of British pseudo-left Islamophobia, of the kind displayed by various London novelists.)
Ow – that’s worrying. It means not only that Banks is disturbingly prejudiced in a way that affects his writing (this was what made Dead Air such a waste of woodpulp) but also that it affects the intellectual integrity of his science fiction – makes his story astonishingly implausible.
Well, what are we going to do about it? The Culture, famously, had tended to intervene against genocide. Obviously, plunging billions of people into eternal torture is a stage beyond genocide, even though Banks’ Hell appears to be derived largely not from Dante but from Disney. Fortunately, because the whole thing is run on a series of giant computers, it would not be difficult to transform the computer simulations into Heavens, and because the aliens building the Hells are in fact all technologically primitive, this could be done without their psychopathic leaders ever knowing. Alternatively, the psychopathic leaders could be told what has happened, and be told that they would no longer be allowed to manufacture artificial Hells, and also be told that in the event of their ever trying to do so again, the public would be notified of exactly what had happened, and why.
But all that would be much too conventional and normal for Banks, so instead, for no particular reason, he has his aliens institute a war within the computers (a very dull war without end or significance) and, when that doesn’t work out, has them institute a slightly wider war in the real world (again, a ridiculous one, fought with clumsy and transparent attempts to conceal the nature of the war and Blame Everything On The Culture). Why they feel the need to blame the Culture is uncertain. Very possibly, this blame game is an attempt to exonerate the West for its crimes by showing that the lesser breeds are always accusing the West of everything. If this is what Banks is trying to say, politically speaking he has really gone over the edge into utter absurdity.
Anyway, nothing which happens in the book is of any great significance. One of the diseases of space opera is pointless giganticism, and this is very evident here. There is a battle between the good guys and the bad guys, and the gorgeous bimboes and the bad (but spiffily-dressed) males, much of which seems rather like a narrated description of a Beyonce video.
There are one or two sentences in the book which have entertaining aspects (as when a character awakes hanging upside down and wonders whether there are any circumstances when this would be a good thing). Apart from this, truthfully, there is little or nothing in the book worth reading which hasn’t been done much, much better by Banks. The only reason for writing this book is to milk the value of the Culture franchise – meaning that Banks is no better than the vile businessmen whom he denounces, a writer stacking up bad literary debts hoping that the intellectual credit-default obligations will never be called in.
After reading the book, one must hope that they will. Banks is no longer a writer; he has become a disease.

At the Court of the Lords of Misrule.

July 10, 2011

The Public Protector is a kind of ombudsman. The idea is that you have a problem of any kind and you take it to the Public Protector and the PuProt will protect you from your problem. Not a problem — except that, firstly, the Public Protector has little or no capacity to investigate your problem, and, secondly, in order to get to the Public Protector you have to fight your way through a maze of lawyers. So, in effect, the Public Protector is the Rich Folks’ Poodle. Obviously, a really good, diligent Public Protector could make a little difference in a few cases — but equally obviously, you can’t expect miracles.
Recently, the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, made a little coup. To be precise, she investigated a newspaper report that the Police Commissioner, a Zulu sleazeball named Bheki Cele, had done a sleazy deal with a sleazeball property developer named Roux Shabangu. Invasion of the sleazeballs? Obviously yes. Not even the Public Protector could ignore it, although she found nothing which could actually show that any crime had been committed, because of her lack of any actual investigative capacity (or, possibly, will). What the media and the white ruling class prefers is that nothing be actually investigated, because investigation would lead to prosecution and, perish the thought, possible acquittal — whereas on the basis of constantly-refuelled smear campaigns, mere accusations can be kept in the public eye indefinitely.
Fair enough; that’s South African politics.
More recently, Madonsela has been in the firing-line, in a very interesting way. The newspapers suddenly burst into life with the allegation that Madonsela was about to be arrested. Thereafter, it was slowly revealed that she was actually under investigation for fraud. She had previously been working as an overpaid do-nothing for the do-nothing Law Reform Commission, and had been using her position, allegedly, to channel business in the direction of her private law company. Madonsela denied everything, especially the two million rand in business allegedly thus channelled, and said that she personally had pocketed only forty thousand rand from the deals — plus everybody had known that she was running a private business while she was working for the state, so what was the big deal?
Of course, such a denial raises a lot of questions — because Madonsela unmistakeably looks like a sleazeball. Anyone working for a private law firm while working for a state law organisation has an obvious conflict of interest even if she is as lazy as Madonsela seems to have been and if the organisation was as useless as the Law Reform Commission seems to be. Forty thousand rand is peanuts to an advocate, but it’s not small change to most of us. And Madonsela’s whole blustering and whining attitude is more or less guaranteed to suggest that she is guilty.
Fair enough; it’s always wise to suspect that an accusation against a person in power holds water.
What is, therefore, fascinating about this affair is not the actual issues or events, but the way it has been handled.The media treated Madonsela’s slapdash investigation of Cele and Shabangu as if it were Watergate. Then, when she was faced with evidence of her own sleaze, the media first pretended, falsely, that she was going to be arrested (the Star leading this particular propaganda), then proclaimed that she was innocent, then proclaimed that the fact that she was being investigated by the police as well as the Justice Department proved that there was a gigantic conspiracy against her and that everybody was against her and she was a brave little girl, blah blah blah. We have seen this kind of rubbish before with Nosizwe Routledge-Madlala. Obviously there’s a conspiracy to cover up for Madonsela; the interesting question is what this conspiracy could consist of.
One of the very interesting current things being investigated by Madonsela — or rather, of course, not investigated — is an episode known as “Oilgate”. This episode was extremely bizarre. The South African government was a bit of a thorn in the international flesh of the United States in the mid-2000s, because it opposed the invasions of Iraq and Haiti and the attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. Suddenly in 2005 the Mail and Guardian ran a story about how South Africa had supposedly been bribing the pre-invasion Iraqi government to supply it with oil.
The story could only have come from people with considerable access to the records of the Iraqi government before 2003 — that is, the United States government and the British government. The Mail and Guardian was thus, rather obviously, running Western imperialist propaganda in order to embarrass South Africa. The story, however, fizzled — there was very little to it in reality (the oil had been purchased under the notoriously corrupt “oil-for-food” programme which was essentially run by the US government under the figleaf of the UN). However, all attention suddenly shifted to another piece of information which suddenly emerged from nowhere (nobody thought to ask whether it had come from the same source from which the original “Oilgate” allegations had emerged). This news was that a corrupt businessman named Sandi Majali had bunged the ANC millions of rand before its election campaign in 2004.
There is no law against accepting campaign contributions, so the ANC did nothing wrong here, even if the ANC had solicited the money (which is unlikely, for by 2004 the party was actually flush with cash). However, Majali himself was clearly a crook, since the money wasn’t his — he had filched it from PetroSA, for whom he was working. The ANC had to pay the money back to PetroSA, while Majali went on with a life of corporate crime until he died in mysterious circumstances (possibly murder, more probably suicide) earlier this year.
So, why is the Mail and Guardian demanding that this long-dead and completely unimportant story be reopened by the Public Protector? Presumably, because by wasting money on taking her to court and bitterly complaining that the previous Public Protector very properly wasted no time on this trivial matter, they can keep a dead issue alive. And, as with the arms deal, this simultaneously provides a facile veneer of sleaze against the government (which can be controlled so as to protect the ruling class’s puppets in the government, while doing no harm to the ruling class itself) and serves the interests of Western imperialists in the background. Hurrah for our free press!
Madonsela, to be fair, has pointed out that she doesn’t really want to reopen an “Oilgate” inquiry, partly because no crime was committed of any public significance and partly because the only person who knows anything about the issues or could conceivably be prosecuted is dead. (This is also true of the arms deal, where the late Joe Modise is the only important person other than Jacob Zuma who appears to have been seriously at fault.) However, she hasn’t refused to do this — because the courts are commanding her to do it, having taken, for no sane reason, the part of the Mail and Guardian. (Presumably the Mail and Guardian is not wasting its own money in this matter, but has been slipped a few quid from someone in the Northern Hemisphere.) In short, predictably, she has shown no guts when facing down the ruling class, though she raises a hullabaloo when attacking someone whom the ruling class wants smeared. Well, she’s a South African lawyer — ’nuff said.
Meanwhile, it would be awfully nice if someone actually serious and well-trained and well-equipped could investigate the sleazy deals around leased police headquarters in Pretoria and Durban, where, if reports are remotely accurate, some property tycoon — Shabangu, or a white guy for whom he is fronting? — is pumping billions of rands out of the public purse with the cooperation of the Police Commissioner. In other words, the current Police Commissioner has been shown to be involved in corruption at least ten thousand times greater than the corruption attributed without actual proof to the previous Police Commissioner (who was sentenced to prison anyhow, as part of the huge coverup surrounding the Kebble murder and the installation of Zuma into the Presidency).
There’s a web of crooks enclosing us. Unfortunately, they call themselves the government, civil society and the guardians of the truth. So long as we don’t call them by their real names, we can look forward only to a pile of catastrophe, about which everybody will proceed to repeat the lies which they are instructed to repeat.