Blues for Allah in Africa.

January 1, 2014

The political situation in Africa grows more dire daily, which is perhaps not surprising but is certainly deeply disturbing. It will be remembered that Western-sponsored aggression against Somalia was the beginning of the latest wave of disasters. Then came Western-sponsored aggression and actual aggression against Ivory Coast to install a brutal dictatorship under the cloak of election, then came Western destabilization and aggression against Libya, then came Western aggression against Mali, and now we have Western aggression against the Central African Republic. In all these countries the consequences have certainly not been favourable, and they appear fairly often to have been disastrous. This coincides with the ongoing problems in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (most of which are aftermaths of the Western-backed invasion of the DRC in 1997), and in the MalagassyRepublic (which is an aftermath of the Western-backed coup). Instability in Zimbabwe may also be attributed to this, as may the ongoing instability in Mozambique and even in Angola.

Of course all of these countries bear considerable responsibility for their own problems, but there is very little doubt about the fact that the West’s involvement in the continent has been increasingly destructive over the last decade. This, perhaps not coincidentally, is also the period during which the West has substantially cut its aid to Africa. Perhaps it did not wish to waste time improving infrastructure and financial systems in a continent which it was proposing to turn into a combination wasteland and garbage-heap?

It is, however, striking how little advantage the West has acquired from all this. Supposedly, the invasion of Somalia was going to secure the Horn of Africa for Western oil and transport interests, whereas it touched off a wave of piracy and has yet to show much sign of offshore oil development. (Ditto in Ivory Coast, where the aggression was apparently mainly for oil rights.) In Libya oil production has plummeted as the gunmen whom the West installed in power have begun shooting each other and splintering the country into combative, repressive fragments. Much the same seems to have happened in Mali, although nobody outside the country seems to care (the war was, after all, fought to facilitate a pogrom against white people). It is striking that in all these countries, the war was fought by Muslims against Muslims, although with the funding and heavy-weaponry provided by Christian mercenaries. It’s almost as if the real object of the exercise is to make life as lousy as possible for as many Muslims as can be managed.

The situation in the CAR is particularly striking. It will be recalled that France had spent decades propping up increasingly vile regimes which were based on bigoted and repressive Christian regimes trampling on the rights of the Muslim majority. This included the deluded (and reputedly cannibalistic) rule of Emperor Bokassa, friend, ally and possible table companion of President Giscard d’Estaing. It will perhaps be recalled that France based its main African intervention forces in the CAR until France’s neo-colonial system in Africa began unraveling under the assault of the Clinton administration in the US, which wanted everything for itself. As a result the stability of the CAR itself ceased to be guaranteed.

Eventually South Africa pulled some of France’s CAR chestnuts out of the fire and arranged for a corrupt pseudo-elected dictator to be installed with South African assistance and French backing. However, the French wound down their involvement in the CAR in order to get more heavily involved in Mali, and meanwhile the South African government forgot all about what they were doing there. Hence, when the northern “Seleka” coalition attacked to overthrow the dictator, the South Africans found themselves outnumbered forty to one, with no intelligence worthy of the name, no prospect of reinforcement or resupply, and no reason for being there. After a short and bloody rearguard action the South Africans fled and abandoned the mission and Seleka took over.

It doesn’t seem as if Seleka have been a particularly competent government. In essence, they were people from the highly disorganized north, which shared almost no culture in common with the south (where the mines and what little money hadn’t yet been stolen was). Inevitably this was transformed by some into a Muslim-Christian conflict, and the presence of Chadian troops to help Seleka hold on to power, as well as the absence of any legitimacy or indeed purpose for the government, did not help. The Christians set up anti-Seleka militias, no doubt with French backing, the Muslims were urged to become more ludicrous by the usual suspects in the Arabian Peninsula, and meanwhile nobody else cared because, frankly, nobody would lift a finger if the whole Central African Republic were abducted by aliens from Galaxy Zog.

Ultimately, however, the conflict between Muslims and Christians was stoked up to the point at which corrupt journalists from French papers and from the Guardian were in a position to pretend that Christians faced “genocide” unless the Islamofascists were crushed immediately. It was the usual balderdash which is always used to cover up criminal international aggression. In reality the number of people killed was terrible, and the Seleka government was appalling, but the alternative showed no sign of being better. Then the French bribed the President to invite them in, and the mercenaries of the Légion Étrangère moved in to do the dirty work – that is, to protect the Christian militias in their anti-Muslim massacres. The Chadians and Seleka, after potting a few French and their allies, fled northward to where the mercenaries couldn’t get at them, probably hoping (probably correctly) that the brutal behaviour of the foreigners would ultimately provide more legitimacy for Seleka than anything else, and perhaps help erase the memory of their bungling thuggery.

And meanwhile Barack Obama, whose regime provides funding and transport for the French mercenaries since it can no longer afford to launch aggressions itself, piously declared that the CAR people should stop killing each other. As usual, Obama manages to be a more odious human, and a worse President, than George W Bush or any of his predecessors.

Incidentally, but not coincidentally (it is probably far more causative) there’s a very interesting recent book by the Hungarian-born scientist and statistician Morten Jerven called Poor Numbers which details why we don’t know diddly-squat about African economies. Jerven contends that most African countries don’t collect statistics effectively because they are discouraged from doing so by both donors and international finance agencies; he also points out that most international financial agencies differ dramatically and indeed absurdly over how wealthy African countries are and how their economies change over time. Many African countries deny this, but this may be a political matter (since Jerven is particularly critical of the way in which elite agencies like central banks and NGOs are privileged over the more grassroots statistical agencies and the agricultural service systems which they are meant to serve).

Jerven certainly makes a plausible case, which helps to explain why South Africa seems to be doing so badly (economically speaking) while other African countries appear to be doing brilliantly and yet are also somehow falling apart. What seems to be really happening is that these countries are exporting more unprocessed minerals which are counted as if the export were benefiting the countries (whereas it actually benefits the countries where the transnational mining companies are based) and these countries have evolved small affluent classes which appear to be spending more (and therefore boosting imports of luxury goods). In other words, South Africa on a grand scale, with as little attention as possible paid to the poorer sections of the economy and community.

In that case, what’s surely happening is a growing socio-economic divide within African countries (which does seem to be happening, and which may be even worse in many countries than in South Africa) which is driving increasing conflict – and meanwhile the central state is weaker and less legitimate, hence less able to address that conflict. And therefore foreigners step in because the real beneficiaries are the mining and agribusiness companies based elsewhere. And since those companies are mainly based in the West, where the public is reluctant to send off troops to die except in defense of Jesus against the devilish Muslims, the easiest place to do the job is in Islamic countries.

But it seems likely that this tendency, this combination of greed, guns and gullibility, is coming soon to a theatre of war near you.

Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution.

January 1, 2014

David Graeber, author of Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, is one of the most articulate and substantial anarchists to have appeared in the West for many decades. He is also, however, a vainglorious and preposterous prat. The combination of these qualities emerges in a complicated fashion from his recent book, The Democracy Project.

The centerpiece of the book is the Occupy Wall Street movement, which Graeber easily compares with the Tahrir Square protests. There are certainly valid points of comparison, since both movements achieved essentially nothing of substance. Graeber also notes that the kind of decentered movement which OWS was striving towards was copied extensively by the CIA and implemented for destabilization purposes – of which Tahrir Square was surely a major part. Notwithstanding, OWS was a comparatively idealistic affair which was not heavily influenced by the ideology of Western imperialism, neocolonialism and plutocracy, in the way that Tahrir Square was. (Of course, the book was written while Tahrir Square still appeared to have successfully installed an Islamic regime in Egypt, and before the Islamists were massacred and driven out by American military puppets.)

Graeber, being an anarchist, was excited to see an anarchist movement arising in the United States. This is not, however, as surprising as it might seem. Anarchism is extremely popular in a self-centred, narcissistic culture (it is much admired on the American extreme right) and it is therefore not surprising that any broad-based middle-class anti-establishment movement would be anarchic. The real problem was, and is, whether it was effectual or sustainable.

Because it was anarchist, the OWS movement was officially leaderless (although Graeber gives the names of numerous people, including himself, who actually did the leading), had no actual principles, ideology or strategy. It also had no recruiting system other than word of mouth, and of course did not have a technique for appealing to established media or political organizations. These are not seen as a problem by Graeber; instead, the problem is that organizations get involved, or try to get involved, in projects like OWS, a fact which Graeber sees as unfair because such organizations try to further their own agendas (instead of Graeber’s agenda).

Having sketched out what OWS was, or what Graeber wanted it to be, he then devotes a 100-page chapter to discussing its accomplishments. The chapter is called “Why Did It Work?”, a title which ignores the obvious point that by any serious standard it did not work at all. However, Graeber evidently set other standards.

He notes, for instance, that OWS initially received more sympathetic media coverage than other left-wing movements. He offers a few idle speculations about reasons, none of which amounts to anything substantial, then notes that after a few weeks media coverage was solidly hostile and remained so until the end of the movement. He also notes that OWS spread across the country (but acknowledges that much of the spread was extremely small-scale and temporary in nature) and attributes this to the widespread immiseration of the intellectual aspiring middle class on which OWS depended.

However, he also says that this middle class movement attracted working class support. He provides a lot of evidence showing the immiseration of the American working class and the way in which the financialisation of the American economy was damaging working-class interests. However, he doesn’t provide any evidence of substantive working class support for OWS (as opposed to the kind of sympathy which everybody feels for anyone who bucks the repressive system). There doesn’t actually seem to be any (indeed, Graeber later complains that OWS was betrayed by the unions, although there is no real sign that the unions ever committed anything to OWS). This would seem to be a key failure of the movement.

He then raises two points.One is, “Why did the movement refuse to . . . engage with the existing political system?”. The answer seems to be that it was controlled by anarchists like Graeber who had raised such disengagement to the status of a principle. (Of course, “engage” might often mean “collaborate”, and obviously OWS did not collude and should not have colluded with the Democratic Party’s attempts to hijack the movement to serve the narrow interests of the elite which that Party serves.) The key problem with this disengagement is that it meant that there were no coherent attainable demands and there was no attempt to develop such demands or link the demands with any OWS action. Instead, OWS simply tried to tap into the anti-politics discourse which the Tea Party also exploited. Hostility to the system, however, is not something which can lead to any kind of coherent alternative to the system – and Graeber and his friends were also extremely hostile to any such alternative being posed, because that would have limited the individualist libertarianism of their movement.

Nevertheless, he claims that this was an “explicitly revolutionary movement”. A revolution, that is, without any goals, without any capacity to change anything or indeed desire to change anything, and without the support of the working class or the armed forces. This is, apparently, the anarchist vision of a revolution. Graeber notes what is wrong with America quite accurately (although very superficially) but offers no alternative and no notion of what force is going to right these wrings – apart from the rhetorical gesture of the “99%”, which Graeber unfortunately confuses with an actual constituency. When he says that challenging the role of money in politics is a revolutionary act, this shows that Graeber, like so many South African Trotskyites, is confusing rhetoric with the concrete world; simply talking about the role of money is not going to remove money from the equation. Ultimately the plutocrats have to be erased or blocked, which is not going to be accomplished by repeating dull slogans over a “people’s mic” which seems exactly like what Graeber denounced the Workers World Party for doing (the WWP were the people who actually began the occupation movement; Graeber and his friends shouldered them aside and hijacked it, supposedly in order to protect the movement against the WWP).

Then, he asks the key question: why did the movement appear to collapse so quickly after the camps were evicted in November 2011? He argues first that this was due to police repression, but compared with the repression which South Africans faced in the 1980s or the Bolsheviks faced in 1917 or in fact which pretty much every successful or partially successful revolutionary movement, this was quite tame. (Graeber tries to coneal this fact with massively florid rhetoric about the evils of the police and their tactics, all of which were entirely predictable.) One must assume from this that OWS was just as fragile as a revolutionary from an earlier period would have assumed that an entity without organizational cohesion, ideological integrity or substantive goals ought to be. What Graeber insists, however, is that although the movement appeared to collapse, it did not actually collapse. He provides little or no evidence for this claim, which appears to be essentially false; there is no public movement pursuing the goals of OWS insofar as it had any, and none appears likely to arise, nor is there anything else making a difference in this regard.

The rest of the book is a passionate but very questionable and meandering argument in favour of direct democracy rather than representative democracy (the book is actually replete with evidence that direct democracy is an ineffectual way of confronting a repressive system) and a long claim about how change is coming despite the obvious absence of any solid force capable of bringing change about. At the end Graeber admits that a radical alternative is needed, but nowhere in the book is any such alternative presented – either because Graeber doesn’t have the imagination to provide it or because he doesn’t really have the courage to take on the critics who would attack him for providing it. Certainly no sign of any such radical alternative, backed by any effective political force, is available anywhere in the United States (or anywhere else in the West).

So basically, Graeber’s book depends on false claims and misrepresentations of what is going on, couched in exaggerated rhetoric about the wonderful courage of the participants in a failed movement which is represented as not having failed though the failure is all too obvious and was predicted by almost everyone who wasn’t an anarchist from the beginning. This is depressing, because it prevents Graeber from identifying what he did wrong, just as it prevented Graeber from understanding why the very similar anti-globalisation movement failed in 2001-2. (Graeber claims that it was killed by 9/11, which is simply question-begging; had that movement been healthy and strong 9/11 ought to have invigorated it.)

In other words, this is a potentially interesting book which tells a pack of lies and leads nowhere. We need a revolution. Mikhail Bakunin thought, quite wrongly, that he knew how to make revolutions, and always supported them. Graeber, like Bakunin, does the same (though more lethargically and less bravely). It was once said that Bakunin was needed in a revolution, but that the moment it ended, he ought to be shot. In contrast, however, Bakunin’s heirs — like Graeber — are not needed in any revolution, and this book, unfortunately, explains why.