Cui bono? Who benefits? To whose advantage is it that the world is as it is?
Them. It’s a conspiracy. The truth is out there. They’re all out to get us.
OK, fair enough. I don’t benefit. You don’t benefit. Virtually everybody we know would be better off if the global socio-politico-economic system were differently organised. It’s not hard to imagine different ways of organising such things. Yet different ways of organisation are invariably attacked in almost all public spaces and debates, and supporters of different ways of organisation are marginalised. As a result there is essentially no way, or at least no easy, visible way, to debate change, let alone bring about change, which would lead to the improvement of our lives. What’s more, this applies to an ever-increasing extent the more intensely you fail to benefit from the system. None of this can have happened by accident, and the fact that ludicrous theories (“trickle-down economics”, the “marketplace of ideas”) have been evolved to pretend that it is an accident only serves as part of the theory.
Then who are the conspirators?
The usual line is that it is the State. The State is an interesting concept. It isn’t the same as the nation-state, although the nation-state is a convenient quasi-fiction to justify the existence of the State. The State consists of, firstly, the government and all its civil servants, then the capitalist structures which the government exists to serve, and then the general public’s structures which exist to promote and protect the structures of the government and the capitalist structures, and then the public itself. This isn’t, actually, as helpful as it sounds. When you talk about an “ideological State apparatus” it sounds as if you are talking about the SABC. But actually such an apparatus includes Mum spanking Tot for crossing the road without looking left or right first. If we are all the conspirators, then there is no conspiracy, postmodern theory is correct, and we can all go home and forget about trying to change anything.
Most civil servants, employees of capitalist structures, churchgoers, PTA members and family members aren’t exactly happy captives of the system. They would like to see it changed, except they are either afraid of punishment, or incapable of seeing any alternative. They may, if you talk to them, loudly defend the system, and many would kill or even die for it. But they didn’t create the system, they don’t benefit from it, and they have no power over it. The task of bringing about a revolution is to persuade these people of their condition, which is effectively what old-fashioned Marxists called false consciousness. Actually, the old-fashioned Marxists were right; there is a huge amount of misunderstanding of people’s status in society and in the system, much of which comes from within — you want to believe that what you are doing is right, even when it isn’t. But believing that it is a good thing to murder dissidents does not mean that Pinochet or Eugene de Kock were good guys, and so the mere fact that false consciousness may be perfectly sincere, and even contribute to psychological health, doesn’t make it a good thing.
But the only way to understand what that might mean, would be by taking the monolithic State to pieces and seeing how the system serves some and does not serve others.
We elect the government. In theory, this is supposed to mean that we determine the government’s policies, because if we like those policies we will vote for it, and if not, not. However, this rests on the false assumption that the opposition will, when it sees an unpopular government, pledge itself to pursue different policies which are more popular. In practice, this does not happen. Instead, again and again, we see party policies tending towards the same set of policies. In order to justify this behaviour, this set of policies is referred to as “the centre”. In actual fact, this set of policies, authoritarian neoliberalism, is extremely right-wing. Therefore, as in Spain and Britain and Greece and the United States and South Africa, the parties which purport to be liberal, leftist or social-democratic adopt the same policies as their right-wing opponents. When these policies lead to socio-economic catastrophe, the masses rise up and vote these parties out. The opposition, however, is conservative, right-wing and neoliberal, so they are voting in parties which are pledged to pursue the same policies which they were voting the other parties out for pursuing. It is no wonder that more and more people are viewing electoral policies as simply a pointless game.
Interestingly, exactly the same kind of thing was happening from the 1950s through to the early 1970s. In those days, the policies which were pursued in Britain and America and France and Germany were social-democratic policies based on managed capitalism. You were perfectly free to vote for the social-democratic managed capitalist of your choice, whether it were Clement Attlee or Dwight D Eisenhower. It made no difference. Admittedly, people complained less back then, because the system seemed to be working, even if it was rigged on both sides. Now that the system clearly doesn’t work, there are protests — mild ones. People don’t protest against the system itself, because they accepted it for so long that they are accustomed to electoral corruption and to the meaninglessness of voting.
But if it is a game, who is playing it? Who benefits from the political system consisting of a single party with two heads, two heads decreasingly different from each other over time? It seems obvious that it is not the voters who want this. Is it, then, the politicians who want this? But why belong to a social democratic party which calls itself conservative, or a conservative party which calls itself social democratic? For one thing, why did you join the party if your politics are the reverse of what the party is actually about? Why pretend that you’re what you’re not, given the strong likelihood that at least someone will notice, and the plausible danger that you’ll end up getting shunned?
Obviously, some force more powerful than immediate political advantage is at work, some force which makes politicians strenuously make themselves and their parties unpopular with their constituents. Equally obviously, this force must be a secret society capable of manipulating men’s minds without their realising it. Self-evidently, the force at work is S.P.E.C.T.R.E, and while we do not know which supposedly active volcano their headquarters is tunnelled into, it is also self-evident that the human nominally in charge is Ernst Blofeld. (Although more sophisticated observers realise that, given the effects that S.P.E.C.T.R.E has upon human society, the real commander-in-chief is almost certainly that big white Persian cat on his lap. As mice to wanton cats, are we unto the Great Cat God.)
Yes, but who are they working for? The only force capable of changing the world to that extent is the force of money. Politicians are motivated by money more than by their electorates, simply because money secures political security; you can make sure that you are elected with money, while also ensuring that you are no longer just standing around at the edge of the crowd at the parties of rich people which politicians have to attend — politicians with money can feel themselves to be a part of the action in a way that politicians without money cannot. If you are a bought man, you are contemptible — Thomas Frank remarks that the Rockefellers’ bought senator, the egregious Chauncey Depew, was viewed as a sort of butler, the man who did what had to be done but would never be invited to the dinner-table. But if you charge enough money, you have a wad big enough to gain access. In rich circles, money is the only thing which matters. So politicians have an endless inclination to seek more money — without it, now that politicians have no intrinsically positive social status, they are nothing.
This is what South African politicians have yet to learn, which accounts for why they sell themselves for such derisory sums.
Is there, then, some kind of central conspiracy which determines the policy which governments will be instructed to follow? This does not seem to be the case. If there were a capitalist Politburo, things would happen much more coherently. Also, very probably, things would work better, because capitalists have no special desire to see the general public unhappy. (Of course, they might decide that they want to see the general public emotionally and spiritually crushed, in the Chilean model, which would be horrible — but even that isn’t happening.)
Capitalists compete with each other; that is the norm. Of course, they collaborate, working together to screw everybody else, but they always do this with one eye on the possibility of suddenly betraying the collaboration and stabbing their associates in the back. As a result, although capitalists have numerous associative organisations which organise lunches and testimonial dinners, and although they get together for particular projects such as organising propaganda magazines and publicity associations, and they all seem to agree on these things, nevertheless there isn’t a great deal of commonality in their actions, in South Africa or anywhere else.
As a result, different capitalists buy different politicians. Capitalists will even give money to politicians who seem to be their enemies, knowing that these politicians may be brought on-side. When different politicians seem to be saying different things, although they all seem to be in the same party and following the same message, it’s entirely likely that this is because they have been bought by different people. The interests sponsoring Gwede Mantashe and Kgalema Motlanthe are not the same interests.
Meanwhile, many politicians are, in themselves, filthy rich. Therefore, they are not to be directly bought (buying Mitt Romney would be too expensive). Rather, capitalists have bought the lesser politicians upon whom senior, rich politicians depend. Therefore, the impact of buying politicians is often second-hand. (Romney and Gingrich, like Mantashe and Motlanthe, operate within a particular social class where plutocratic ideals are commonplace; therefore they are inclined to accept the instructions of capitalists. However, to make them take particular positions it is usually advisable to have other politicians come to them with the message that their campaign is much more likely to succeed if they support a particular position, and oppose a particular other position. The game capitalists are playing is, thus, a game of playing politicians off against each other, with the additional spin that if you control enough politicians through this game, you can get advantage over your fellow-capitalists; the more you control, for instance, a bill deregulating your industry, the more you can include in that bill elements which specifically favour your company. )
As a result, blowing up the Chamber of Commerce does no more good than blowing up Parliament. Power is not spread throughout the system — Foucault exaggerated, and the Foucauldians are a bunch of bullshitters on politics, as Edward Said rightly said — but it is diffused through hundreds, more probably thousands, of affluent, influential people. Furthermore, much of that power is naturally used to conceal this fact. Attacking politicians without attacking the businesspeople who control them is a waste of time — but the businesspeople are almost invisible outside the small sphere of the plutocracy, and so attacking businesspeople is likely to get you a blank stare from your audience. After a couple of decades, the American Right has been able to demonise George Soros, and the American Left has been able to demonise the Koch brothers — but the bulk of the American electorate is unaware of either, and if aware of these things, merely assumes that this is a load of trivial nonsense. Fight the power! Fight Obama or Romney! Isn’t that what matters?
No, it isn’t, and the consequences are pretty dire.