The Force is the Last Refuge of the Incompetent.

January 12, 2016

Matthew D’Ancona, the dishonest right-wing journalist, says that the Star Wars narrative is a myth, or mythos, or legend, or whatever, for our time. Although this sounds like the kind of drivel which is always said about anything which looks remotely like fantasy, and although the source is almost guaranteed to generate bullshit, let us not dismiss this instantly. Let us examine it for a moment, and then dismiss it instantly.

A myth is a way of accounting for the mysteries of the world. Usually it is in some way actionable — either as a warning, or as an example to be followed, although usually not completely literally. It is never completely banal or meaningless.

So, assuming that Star Wars is a myth, what does it constitute? Well, there are heroes and villains. This is not like the Iliad, where there are no such simple differences. Instead, the heroes are impossibly good, although occasionally outfitted with clunky minor negative qualities in an unsuccessful attempt to stop them from being saccharine. The villains, meanwhile, have all the tropes of evil apart from one — namely, motivation. The villains are evil for the sheer joy of being evil, a collection of Saurons obsessed with power for its own sake. This does not really provide us with any example for acting in the real world — instead, what it does is to confirm the propaganda mythos of the Western imperialist states, most particularly the United States, under which everybody except “us” is evil, and it is not necessary to comprehend evil because they must simply be blown up.

The universe is exciting, but in a wholly innocent way; it is there to be explored, but (except when the evil Empire is involved, when menace is always present) there are no consequences arising from this exploration. There is little to be learned from this exploration. Rather, what must be learned is a simple series of techniques (somehow not available to everyone) by which one may use the “Force”, along with a few talismans like “light sabers”, to become invincible. Of course this “Force” may be used for evil, and that is what the Empire is doing, so therefore by conquering the Empire one is also purifying the basic nature of the universe.

All this sounds childish — in the most precise sense; it is the fantasic response of a bullied eleven-year-old boy to his objective circumstances; if only I had a gang to join, if only I weren’t picked on, if only Dad understood me more, if only Mom were a little more indulgent, if only I didn’t have to go to school, hey, look at that pretty frog sitting on that log! It is no accident that the original Star Wars was consciously aimed at prepubescent children (though with a few nods to older people so that their parents — and the reviewers — could sit through it) and that is why the central characters are so young, and consciously presented as even younger than the ages of their actors. And that is why so much of the second trilogy (which is the first trilogy in the narrative — like some Soviet technology, Star Wars is crude but far from simple) also features children. (However, the second trilogy is much more sexualised, not because this is integral to the plot but because of cultural changes among Western youth over thirty years.)

An important point here is that the story being told in the original Star Wars was very much a Cold War narrative. The story being told to the U.S. public was that a gigantic and loathesome Soviet Union had nearly taken over the world, and that the United States stood as a lone and feeble paladin against this vast, expanding monster. It was a crock of shit borrowed by Harry Truman’s spooks and thugs from the Second World War narrative developed by the Roosevelt administration (and even then it was deeply flawed). It was intended to scare the people into obeying their leaders, and it succeeded and the result was the Miltown-tranquillized 1950s, and this is the period to which Spielberg and Lucas were referring, a time of placid, unthinking obedience and confidence in one’s own rectitude.

As such, then, Star Wars is not a myth or an epic. It is an appealing but false story told to children to make them docile and perhaps educate them to comply with their parents’ commands. It is, thus, a fairy-tale.

This is not to condemn it. Fairy stories are not necessarily degraded or despicable. However, they have their limitations.

One of the most positive things about the original Star Wars, a feature which to some extent survived in the sequel but gradually disappeared over time, was that the backstory was told only through brief and casual allusion. The point about a fairy story is that you have to suspend disbelief except in certain crucial cases where elements are introduced to generate plausibility. If the story is of such a kind as to make the child ask “But why did that happen? Why did she do that? What did he want?” then the story is failing. (This, by the way, is different from a slightly young child asking “Why?”, where this word is code for “I’m bored and want to change the subject”.) There is nearly nothing of this in the original Star Wars because the action is carried along at speed with minimal explanation and therefore minimal demand for plausibility, and above all, minimal opportunity to ask why something is happening. More to the point, the gaps in the plot are plugged with references to a backstory in which one may assume that someone out there is in charge without being expected to ask who, or to what end.

Unfortunately, this backstory came to dominate the narrative. Just as while the Galactic Emperor was simply a flicker in the distance he was a genuinely scary figure, but shrank into pathetic pretense when he appeared in the flesh, so the crass, ill-conceived bricolage of the story of how the bad guys overthrew the Old Republic detracted from the fairy-story without providing any genuine mythology to take its place. Clumsy Oedipal imagery didn’t help much, and the ghastly racism entailed in the treatment of aliens like the Ewoks and Jar-Jar showed how little real taste Lucas, and to some extent even Spielberg, really possessed when they were not guided by masters like Eisenstein (whose genius in Alexandr Nevski Spielberg plagiarised to create his storm troopers). The problem is that when Lucas was working within a childish framework his project functioned well; outside that framework, the attempt to turn fairy-story into myth failed.

Moreover, when adults, who should have discriminatory capacity, are told that they, too, should believe in fairy stories, there is something wrong. It is perhaps no accident that Star Wars appeared at the beginning of the neoliberal era, when the whole of society began to rely, ideologically, on complete claptrap instead of partial claptrap. It is certainly no accident that Ronald Reagan immediately took up Star Wars imagery for his campaign to remilitarise and depoliticise American society, in his “Evil Empire” speech, going full circle back to the roots of the movie in Truman-style politics.

This is the basic problem. The most recent Star Wars work is, in a technical sense, simply a collage of imagery from the earlier Star Wars movies. There are vaguely interesting ideas — part of the story is set on a planet littered with the wreckage of the previous war, for instance — but none is developed, nor are they related to the action in the way that the fragmented backstory was in the first Star Wars. For no apparent reason, the current bad guys (who are allegedly a sort of fascist movement) have adopted all the trappings of the previous bad guys, the Sith regalia, the storm trooper armour, and even Darth Vader’s silly shuttlecraft.

There is no backstory here, or none worthy of the name; just unmotivated evil which must be fought against. It is the triumph of stupid authority; do what we tell you, fight against the enemy, although without having to make any obvious sacrifice yourself (but respect those mercenaries who are paid to sacrifice themselves on your behalf). We have seen this in the various wars launched by NATO countries against demonised enemies from the Taliban to the Islamic State, and the fascist tropes of the most recent enemy are similar to the Islamofascist tropes used to justify the invasion of the Middle East in pursuit of oil.

This introduction to a fresh trilogy has nothing fresh about it — except for one thing; it is no longer intended for children. Or, to be precise, in the modern American visual culture, it is no longer possible to discriminate between works intended for children and those intended for adults. (The most popular movies in America, and some of the most popular in the world, are based on comic strips for teenagers, and it is solemnly pretended that these pitiful pretexts for garish computer-generated special effects are serious, message-laden narratives.) The central characters in this work are young adults in their late teens or early twenties — immature, of course, but not dependent on others and not willing to learn from anything except their Jedi and Sith masters. The heroine is sexy, the hero is hunky, the villain is rather reminiscent of a youthful, callower version of Snape in the Harry Potter movies. There are vague sexual tensions between the three, never properly explored, of course. So the narrative is no longer a fairy-story — or else it is a fairy-story for what passes for grown-ups in the modern world.

And this is the problem: the narrative is not a narrative for grown-ups. It is a child’s story, a battle between a good which has no merit and an evil which has no credibility, with evil bound to lose because it is supposed to in the comic-books, and with no real plausible representation of the world at all, not even the distorted and symbolic representation of a child’s vision. The logical contradictions and farcically inept emotional manipulation are not excused by any merits on any other level, nor can you write it off by saying that this is not intended for grown-ups. It is the triumph of the people whom Hunter S Thompson rightly defined, in his depiction of the Clinton years, as the New Dumb.

Perhaps the coming of a fresh Clinton provides the perfect background to this horridly ill-conceived, clumsy, brutalising and wretchedly unimaginative movie.


Na-na-na-na-na Nene, nê?

January 12, 2016

Nyaaaaah. So the President has sacked his Finance Minister. Big, fat, hairy deal. Presidents sack Finance Ministers all the time, don’t they?

Well, not really, comes the refrain. Finance Ministers are frontline soldiers in the global war against the working class. Sacking your Finance Minister is like sacking your boss general in wartime. The French did that in May 1940, when they fired General Gamelin for losing the Battle of Sedan and brought in General Weygand, who proceeded to lose all of northern France, Paris and Bordeaux, after which he blamed the politicians and handed power over to the French Fascists who set up a Commission of Inquiry which exonerated them and explained that France had been stabbed in the back by Communists, Jews and Freemasons, who were all handed over to the Nazi occupiers as soon as convenient.

Um, maybe that’s not a very comforting analogy.

What did Nhlanhla Nene do wrong? Not really anything much — in fact, Nene hasn’t done anything. He was made Deputy Minister after Manuel was purged, when Gordhan was dragged out of SARS and shoved into Finance. When Gordhan, after half a decade of comprehensive failure, was kicked sideways into Local Government (where he has made a dog’s breakfast) Nene rose without trace into Gordhan’s ballet-boots. Of course he has presided over the decline of the economy. Five years of declining economy gradually erased all the accomplishments of the previous ten years.

But, as Dali Mpofu of the EFF observed, this isn’t simply Nene’s fault, or Gordhan’s either. Of course, as neoliberals and agents of the ruling plutocracy, they are complicit in the immiseration of South Africans and the degeneration of our economy. However, because the government and the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance are in league with the local and global ruling class in pursuing policies which further those objectives, nothing else can be expected. As Mpofu happily said, you could appoint Jesus Christ as Finance Minister and you’d get the same result; the moneylenders would still be in full control of the temple.

So there isn’t an obvious logical reason related to Nene’s performance which accounts for his dismissal. Nor does his “redeployment” to the South African branch of the BRICS Development Bank make any real sense; the South Africans are an insignificant element of the Bank even though it is based in South Africa, and there were already quite enough competent people involved in it. So there must be some other reason, and since Zuma hasn’t bothered to invent a plausible one, speculation is, as the saying goes, rife. (What else is rife? As the Chinese would say, rife is for the riving.)

One logical conclusion is that it’s all about Dudu Myeni, Zuma’s lass at South African Airways. (It is claimed that she’s his mistress, because newspapers need to be sold.) Apparently Nene refused to recapitalise SAA again (as it has been recapitalised so often before). So naturally the argument is that Zuma fired Nene because Nene was nasty to his chick.

Now, obviously this is possible. Myeni appears to be a strikingly incompetent person to run SAA and is certainly not the right person to run the airline. On the other hand, she is clearly not the only person to have run the airline into the ground.  So why particularly focus on her? Is there any other reason why certain people, especially in the corporate-owned media, should want to attack her stewardship of SAA at this particular time? Obviously there is; there is a concerted campaign to call for the privatization of SAA. The incompetent management of SAA is not essential to SAA; it is a product of the distortion of South African politics and economics by Zuma and his cronies. However, by pretending that nothing more can be done to save SAA, it is possible to claim that the only solution is privatization – which will probably be for asset-stripping purposes and thus will make a lot of money for the patrons of the corporate media, as well as setting a promising precedent for the profitable privatization of other state-owned enterprises. Yippee!

Now, Nene has been quite emphatic about not being willing to offer SAA money. This is fair enough, so long as Nene was saying that the Treasury was not willing to do this without a sensible business plan administered by a person who could handle the task. Not really hard to envisage. (Actually a little hard to envisage under the current climate – airlines are in fairly desperate circumstances and the South African economy is in the proverbial tailspin anyway.) But there’s no real sign that he was going to make such conditions, so presumably Nene was in league with whoever wants to privatise SAA. Maybe not a bad thing. Maybe even a good idea. But violently opposed to government policy, like his hostility to the nuclear deal (which was opposed by the ruling class before it was even arranged, let alone decided on.) In other words, it seems likely that Nene was trying to use his position to shove Zuma even further to the right than he has already moved – which surely helps to explain why the ruling-class media and propagandists generally responded with such preposterous outrage to Nene’s removal, and why they panicked when someone unknown was brought in, fearing that Zuma was about to nationalize everything, impose exchange controls and Africanise the economy.

He won’t ever do that, but that won’t stop the right-wing loonies who dominate debate on economic matters from shitting their breeches. Therefore they set up a vast clamour that the economy was declining too fast — apparently if the value of the currency, and the value of the stock exchange, and the rate of economic growth, and the rate of employment, all decline steadily, that’s a good thing; the Bad Thing is when it all happens so fast that even the middle class notices it.

What this did, of course, was to telegraph to the speculators all over the planet that the South African economy was vulnerable, and therefore to announce that those speculators could make some money by betting against it, and in doing so they precipitated the collapse of the rand, a massive spike in bond interest rates (because to keep people holding South African bonds they have to be bribed with higher returns) and a general financial panic in the country. This was Zuma’s fault, of course, but it was also the fault of the system which permits this to happen — but since the right-wing loonies who precipitated the crisis are totally invested in preserving the system, this will never be mentioned.

So Zuma, with the cowardice with which he has consistently performed in government, sacked the nonentity with which he had replaced Nene. Of course, he couldn’t put Nene back, for that would be to declare that what he had done was utterly wrong. Therefore he brought Gordhan back, and the economy immediately went into another nosedive while the media sang hosannas about how the economy was now booming thanks to this safe pair of hands on the tiller. If you were writing a fantasy about an utterly corrupt society where nobody had any integrity and no action was ever taken for altruistic motives while nobody told the truth under any circumstances except by accident, you would be depicting what was happening in this horrible case. Since Nene’s replacement couldn’t simply be turfed out of the Cabinet, he was sent to replace Gordhan in Local Government — a field in which he has at least some experience and a track record (though, alas, not a good one).

Does any of this matter, really? Isn’t Mpofu’s point still valid? Indeed it is; the ruling class is determined to keep ruling, and it rules because it wants to make a truckload of money. Gordhan and Nene’s job was to keep on making them that money, and they will continue to do so regardless of what happens to the economic indicators, up to and until the point at which the economy implodes, which will probably take several years. Zuma had to back down because he was interfering with the interests of the ruling class, or at least they could pretend that he was. However, now that the ruling class has pointed out to its friends all over the world that the South African economy is vulnerable and will not be protected, we can expect our economy to decline much more rapidly.

This is, of course, partly Zuma’s fault, but we shouldn’t forget that Zuma is only the patsy here; the real incompetence is the incompetence of the ruling class who are trying to game the system (including trying to replace Zuma with someone even less competent and more subordinate) and are, more or less by accident, finding themselves obliged to ruin our country.

 


Fuckinghellthechinesearecoming.com

January 12, 2016

So what are those inscrutable Orientals really up to, and what are they doing in Africa?

The answer seems to be fairly simple. China wishes to expand its economy over the next five years by about 35%. Most of this expansion will be in manufacturing, since the Chinese government is rightly suspicious of the financialisation which drives the expansion of the Anglo-American economic nexus. Such an expansion also requires a massive investment in infrastructure, to provide the power, transport, educational development and social cohesion required. All this requires an immense amount of raw materials, more than China alone can produce. Hence China must expand its imports of basic raw materials, and also, quite possibly, of partly finished goods which can be obtained relatively cheaply from abroad, assembled or finished in China, and sold on to the world market.

Africa can provide raw materials, and can also provide partly finished goods in some cases because of its very low labour costs and high unemployment, making African governments willing to accept the building of Chinese factories under conditions which countries outside the continent would view as exploitative.

So, what Africa stands to get out of this situation is a reliable market for minerals and agricultural produce and a limited amount of capital investment for beneficiation of minerals and agricultural produce and also investment in (perhaps) low-level manufacturing. Also, in order to get the goodies out of the continent, China is willing to invest in transport infrastructure — roads, railways and ports. This all provides, potentially, a small expansion in employment, and a fairly large expansion in trade which might help African countries overcome their chronic trade deficits.

All this sounds pretty good, of course. It’s a bit embarrassing, the rounds of applause at the summit, the droolingly supportive rhetoric from Mugabe (not that anything he said was wrong — periodically it seems he’s the last sane political leader left in the continent) and so forth. And we should, obviously, be suspicious that the Chinese will either not cough up with the investment or that there will be all sorts of hidden strings attached. Plus there’s no guarantee that the Xi faction in the Chinese Communist Party will be able to stand up to the corporate oligarchs and prevent them from financialising the system and wrecking it — only a few months before those oligarchs nearly brought down the Chinese banking system Xi was talking about making things more oligarch-friendly.

In other words, it’s good, but it’s not going to bring the millennium. Even the full US$60 billion, divided up between several African countries, amounts to well under $100 per capita over three years — not totally insignificant, especially for the highly impoverished states, but not gigantic. But a useful kick-start, potentially, and something which could possibly be leveraged further.

What the Chinese expect to get in return, apart from the raw materials and parts, is a network of contacts with African politicians, most of whom are pretty much up for sale. So it’s entirely possible that the Chinese deal will corrupt African politicians. To which one could say, big, fat, hairy deal, they’re already corrupt and the Chinese are not going to make matters worse. They might even make matters better, because the Chinese have things which they need to do and will not want African corruption to get in the way.

So, this being the case, why should it be that so many people are panicking and complaining and whining about all this?

One reason is, surely, that the Chinese project might, to some extent, benefit the ANC government, which most of those who are complaining about the Chinese dislike. The ANC naturally basks in the reflected glory of the Chinese involvement in Africa, since South Africa is one of the BRICS countries and can plausibly (although untruthfully) claim that it has played a significant role in inviting China to Africa. Indeed, China plays along with this by allowing South Africa to behave as if it is China’s gateway to Africa. (In fairness, South Africa is certainly a more congenial place to do business than Ethiopia, Kenya or Nigeria, the alternatives which China might use; also, although the South African government is deeply pro-American it is not so supinely so as those three countries which are little more than American puppets.)

Another reason is that people are naturally suspicious, which is fair enough, but it’s worth asking why the same people are so much less suspicious when anybody else invests in South Africa, or indeed elsewhere in Africa; foreign investment by Europeans almost always seems to be front-page news as if it were a kind of charity, and the more rare foreign investment by the United States is welcomed as if the Pope had come to town, but substantial Chinese investment is viewed with narrowed eyes and scrunched-up noses. (For the benefit of Middle Kingdomites, this is not an unsuccessful attempt by Caucasians to look Chinese; it signifies distaste.)

In fact, however, the big reason for the complaining is surely that the Chinese are in competition with the Americans, and in this instance as in so many others, are plainly winning the struggle for hearts and minds. The Americans have more military bases, but if the Chinese have more financial and political clout then they will be more likely to succeed in the long run — especially because the Americans seem incapable of using their military power for any productive political purpose. And this upsets the South African elite, who naturally side with the Americans against the Chinese. And, when the white elite sneeze, the black hangers-on under them rush forward bearing hankies, and that’s why so many black pseudo-pundits are delivering various levels of Sinophobia — that is, racism — against alleged Chinese imperialism.

This also obviously explains the hostility to teaching Mandarin in South African schools. The Chinese understandably would like some South Africans to be able to speak their language, and rather than hire only South African Chinese translators — after all, the South African Chinese are often pro-Taiwan — they’ve offered to teach Mandarin to South Africans who aren’t Chinese. Well, we can’t have that, can we? No indeed, if the Democratic Alliance has anything to do with it, which, perhaps fortunately, they don’t.

In the end none of this matters. China will continue becoming a global power whether Africa participates or not, and probably will begin to dominate Africa whether South Africa has any input in the process or not. The only difference is whether we manage to get out from under the yellow bulldozer and perhaps can make some productive use of the levelled playing-field (which, though the bulldozer may level it, will always be tilted in favour of China) or whether we just get squashed. The Americans and their hangers-on in South Africa would prefer us to get squashed. Unfortunately, however, they are not the ones who will be left a gory pulp in a muddy plain.