From Caracas, with Fear and Loathing.

March 15, 2013

It is difficult for a sane person to understand why Hugo Chavez spent the last fourteen years of his political career under continual attack from both right and left in the West. Why, after all, should the antics of the leader of a not especially distinguished country, however unseemly they might have appeared to the imperial elite, have attracted so much attention?

Was it the fact that he was sitting on a titanic quantity of oil? Not at all; Venezuelan heavy crude is difficult to refine, and in reality virtually all the refineries are along the coastline of the United States. So unless and until other countries built refineries capable of dealing with this product, the United States had a gun which it could point at the head of Venezuela’s head of state. (It was, of course, a gun which would blow out Chavez’s brains all over Washington’s new suit, since slashing oil production would cause prices to rise further and thus potentially encourage people to seek other sources of power.)

Was it the fact that he was in charge of OPEC? Not at all. Once again; Venezuela is a major reserve of oil, and a substantial producer, but nothing like Saudi Arabia and with nothing like the potential of Iraq. It is the major Latin American member of OPEC, but OPEC is actually dominated by Gulf states who are all Western satellites anyway.

In fact, the situation seems to have been largely created by accident. By two accidents, to be precise. On one hand, under the Bush administration the United States had decided to temporarily disregard Latin America (its traditional back yard) and Africa (the new playground which Clinton and his friend Blair had discovered) in order to restructure the Middle East and adjacent regions of Central Asia in an image more suited to American interests. This was going to be a large-scale, long-term project and the United States was almost certainly aware that it would take a couple of Presidential terms to bring it to fruition. (This was an underestimate; it is still going on. Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia!)

On the other hand, a mildly left-wing government had been elected in Venezuela, and another mildly left-wing government had been elected in Brazil, and another in Haiti. This did not, probably, greatly bother the Bush administration, which was not good at multitasking, but they did see that there was a potential for their basket of rotten apples in the continent to suddenly reverse trajectory and to start becoming fresh, healthy apples again — and that would never do.

So they stepped in to renew the rot. Brazil was too big a job to handle all at once (although they slyly wooed the Brazilian government with hints that if they would only stop this workerist, social democratic nonsense, there could be big friendly opportunities) so the other options were Venezuela and Haiti. In both countries the mildly left-wing governments were weak, seeking popular support by transferring wealth to the poor, and therefore had pissed off an armed and powerful elite. Nothing could be simpler than getting in touch with the elite and intimating to them that a discreet coup would not be opposed by the United States. Nothing was more pleasing and delightful to armed and powerful elites who felt their undeserved wealth and power slipping away, than using that wealth and power to renew their right to misrule their countries.

In other words, the coup of 2002 which overthrew Chavez was not a cunning plan organised from Washington but was rather an opportunistic act by Washington in aligning itself with the right-wingers in Caracas. It was not part of a carefully-wrought plan. This is worth thinking about, because if you believe that the United States’ domination of the world is a product of a careful and well-structured conspiracy, then you are liable to make assumptions about the way the United States is run, and about its future activities, which are likely to be inaccurate — and worse still, likely to incline you to think that you can’t possibly defeat this awesome conquering-machine and that you had better join it, as so many leftists have done throughout recent history.

In reality, the coup was bungled and failed, despite extensive American support for it. The end product was to force Chavez and his supporters into a more aggressive attitude towards the Venezuelan opposition who had supported the coup, and also into a more energetic attitude of support for the various left-wing and indigenous-peoples organisations throughout Latin America. The consequence was that the “Bolivarians” were strengthened in Bolivia and Ecuador, while soft-left organisations in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Paraguay and Chile were obliged to show some degree of solidarity with the Chavezistas. Chavez became much more publicly hostile to the U.S. government, and even talked about being a socialist; this doesn’t mean that he or his government were in any way socialistic, but it does mean that he was doing his best to irritate everybody who hates socialism, because he had become aware that these people were the enemies of his regime and it was worthwhile to force his followers to take a stand which would put plenty of space between themselves and their enemies.

The only American success at the time was the overthrow of Aristide in Haiti — which was an extremely poor consolation prize. Thereafter the United States was so concerned with trying to conquer the Middle East that it left the Latin American states alone (apart from one failed coup in Ecuador and, of course, the ongoing holocaust in American-occupied Colombia). It was only under the Obama administration that anything serious in the way of rollback was attempted, and this produced a very limited bag; the Honduran democratic government was overthrown by organised crime, and the Paraguayan democratic government was overthrown by the historically fascist Paraguayan ruling class. “Hurrah! We’ve got the poorest country in South America and the second-poorest in Central America back under our boots! What fun we shall have!”

None of this means that the situation is stable. (It is, however, significant that when the right wing took over democratically in Chile, it was unable or possibly even unwilling to destroy the good work done by its mildly left wing predecessor; it appears that truly reactionary politics, now as in the past in Latin America, can only be imposed by military might in the absence of democracy.) Still, Latin America is more united than it has ever been in the past and undeniably more democratic, and it is also less isolated than it has been in the past. This is because in addition to the Bolivarian political network and the universal hostility to American economic imperialism felt throughout the region, Brazil has jumped into bed with Russia and China, something which would simply not have been conceivable in the twentieth century when Brazil was little more than the corpse of a frog wired to a battery, jerking whenever the United States pressed the switch. BRICS is not an organisation which can be taken seriously — India and South Africa are not credible opponents of the United States — but it is certainly a straw in the global political wind. It is also an organisation of countries which — with the exception of South Africa — are likely to be politically important over the next few decades and who recognise that the United States is no supporter of their independence.

All this was largely made possible by Chavez’ stand. (It is extremely unlikely that Brazil would have joined BRICS in the absence of Bolivarismo.) It is also perfectly natural, incidentally, that pseudo-leftists like Patrick Bond are opposed to BRICS; such people are naturally opposed to anything which might bring about a genuine change in global power-balances, since such a change might force pseudo-leftists to take sides instead of piously declaring their hostility to a global regime which serves their personal interests.

Chavez himself, as a person, was demonised to an hilarious extent in the Western press. There is nothing unusual about this; a Two Minutes’ Hate requires an Immanuel Goldstein. Furthermore, there is nothing odd about demonising individuals rather than criticising regimes, for to criticise the Venezuelan government as a government would have required providing some sort of justification for that, and nowadays if you provide lots of false statistics there is always Google to prove you wrong. (Those who took the demonisation seriously, however, would not have bothered to Google anything; the process of crimestop would have seen to that, and they would simply have logged on to the right-wing Anglo-American websites which provide the false statistics in the first place, sometimes attributed to Venezuelan exile journalists whose salaries are paid from Langley.)

But Chavez as a person is not specially interesting. His death is not important precisely because he was a democrat and therefore was obliged to win the support of the Venezuelan public, meaning that the policies he pursued will inevitably continue unless someone steps in to stop them by main force which would have to entail crushing the Venezuelan working class. Ditto in most other countries in Latin America. What this means is that demonising Chavez accomplishes nothing except to keep the ignorant rabble in line in Britain (and the former Dominions) and the United States. Only in these countries does allegiance to the ruling class require allegiance to American elite propaganda; elsewhere, ruling classes tend to create their own propaganda. (In South Africa this generates cognitive dissonance, causing the utter incoherence of the ANC leadership in virtually all issues.)

It is true that demonising Chavez may have made it easier for the United States to take action against Venezuela, but it is difficult to believe that this would be an easy project to undertake. Eliminating the whole Bolivarian movement would be even more difficult, and eradicating the renascent leftism of Latin America would be virtually impossible. The grim fact is that Latin America is starting to take politics seriously — unlike virtually every left-winger in the West, or in South Africa for that matter — and this is not going to go away. Hence all the ooga-booga nonsense about Chavez and Venezuela and BRICS and any other progressive project, national or international, is of essentially no significance to anyone except the unserious.

Perhaps we in South Africa should start getting serious?


Trapped in the Net.

June 27, 2012

Yes, there is a lot of bullshit around, isn’t there? But if you dip into the past, far as human eye can see, see the vision of the world and all the bullshit there can be — it’s always been there. Perhaps in the past we were more fooled by it. As we get older, we can tell each other “The bullshit just doesn’t taste the way it used to” “Ar, I remember when you got twice as much bullshit for half the price” and so on.

Recently, in the United States, a genius named Roberto Unger who was partly responsible for President Barack Obama’s initial education at Harvard University, emerged from hibernation to make a YouTube video all about how awful Barack is and nobody should vote for him. This isn’t exactly fall-down-on-your-bum surprising stuff. Barack is awful, and nobody should vote for him. The only problem with that policy is that if you don’t vote for Barack, you will either still get him, awful as he is, or else you will get Mitt, and he is equally awful or, probably, a trifle awfuller yet. It isn’t clear, in short, how the Complaint of Unger will help at all in getting us all out of the mess of being ruled by tyrannical psychopaths armed with nuclear weapons. This possibly explains how Unger’s video failed to go viral. (Also, Unger’s Big Idea was that the Democratic Party should be forced, by losing the election, to put forward a different candidate, which would be better than Obama. Just the way, after Jimmy Carter, Clinton was better; just the way, after Clinton, Obama was better. Duh.)

However, the Obamabots sprang to arms. Apparently one commonplace critique of Obama was one too many — the terrible fear being that if anybody is allowed to get away with criticising the Divine Leader, then soon nobody will like him. (News for you, Obamabots — nobody does like him. You don’t like him. What you like in him is actually the smell of your own farts.) So a prominent Obama supporter launched a powerful attack on Unger (“Neener neener, yah boo sucks, pointy-headed radical, Ralph Nader”) which was immediately taken up by the Democratic Party Net, which in turn meant that Unger’s video got an immense audience. Possibly this will turn the tide against Obama — who knows?

But this raises the interesting question: how do you change this terrible system? How can one possibly break out of a political process which consists entirely of being granted the right to vote for contending criminal gangs on the basis of how well they frame the lies they tell? The system is disgusting to look at and even more disgusting to experience, but where is the alternative?

And so we turn to Hardt and Negri, no mean bullshit artists in themselves.

In Empire, they proved that there wasn’t really an empire. (Needless to say, it was a best-seller and hugely influential among the kind of political activist who likes to have a book next to the bed which can occasionally be dusted off and spoken about without ever being read.) In Multitude, one might expect them to prove that there isn’t a multitude, after which they can write an autobiography proving that they don’t themselves exist. (In imitation of Baudrillard’s trilogy of essays on the Gulf War.) However, as one might expect, they don’t have the courage of their lack of convictions and therefore acknowledge that there is a multitude. And their thesis is that the multitude is pissed off. This implies that these two European geniuses are almost as geniusy as the Brazilian-American blather specialist.

So — what is this pissed-off multitude to do? Applying their brains to the full, Hardt and Negri figure out that there is a difference between being oppressed and being exploited. Being oppressed means that you are being fucked around — which means that you can, once aware that you are oppressed, rise up and refuse to be fucked around, but it isn’t clear how you can do that since the oppressed are necessarily weaker than the oppressors. Being exploited, however, means that someone is making a profit out of you. Therefore, the exploited, if they perceive themselves to be oppressed (and if someone is making a profit out of you, you’re probably being oppressed) can refuse to provide the stuff which generates the profit, whatever it is.

Yeah, rrright.

Have you figured out the drawback in this, which Hardt and Negri mulled over for five years? People do not become oppressed for no reason; powerful people oppress weak people in order to exploit them. By exploiting people, oppressors become more powerful relative to the oppressed and exploited. Therefore, if the oppressed and exploited try to refuse to be exploited, the oppressors and exploiters can (and have a massive incentive to) ramp up the oppression to the point at which being exploited becomes a more bearable deal. This is what has happened everywhere in the world, and everybody seems to know about it except Hardt and Negri.

Hardt and Negri have noticed the “revolution in military affairs” which was quite big about five years before they wrote their book. The purpose of the “revolution in military affairs” is to be able to deliver weapons with great accuracy, thus making it possible to kill any specific enemy one wishes without suffering casualties. The apex of this revolution is Obama’s policy of murdering political enemies with missiles carried by robot aeroplanes.

There are two ways of dealing with this revolution: one is to develop sophisticated equipment to disrupt or intercept those precision-delivered weapons, and the other — far cheaper — is to make it impossible to find a suitable target for such weapons. For instance, Israel has developed an anti-missile system called “Iron Dome”, under which the primitive, firework-like rockets used by some of the Palestinians imprisoned in the Gaza concentration camp to “bombard” a small area of Israel can be shot down. The Palestinian rockets cost an insignificant amount of money to make in a garage workshop, and the labour is free. The Israeli anti-missile-missiles cost hundreds of thousands of rands each and require skilled labour and precision machine-tools to construct. Therefore, every time the Palestinians fire a missile which activates the “Iron Dome” system, the Palestinians win.

Meanwhile, if the oppressor doesn’t know whom to kill, if there is no target for the guided bomb, then the system breaks down as a system of oppression. Decentralising the resistance (which dates back to very early days — the cell system of organisation dates back at least to the nineteenth century) facilitates this. So the Americans have come up with concepts like “netwar” and “asymmetrical warfare”, under which those pestiferous people who dare to resist their activities are insufficiently organised to be easily stomped flat, and also have the temerity to be weaker and poorer than their murderers, thus unfairly making the murderers look like bullying fat-cats. This is jargon, of course, and it appears to indicate that the US has no more idea of how to really deal with the problem, than they had in trying to deal with exactly the same problem in the Philippines early in the twentieth century.

Hardt and Negri, however, are enthralled by the idea, because it serves their goal of campaigning against “vanguard parties”, to which they oppose the nebulous postmodern techno-jargon of the “swarm”. They don’t like vanguard parties — that is, parties which claim to have interpreted political conditions more thoroughly than the general public and therefore are out there in front of everybody else in the general march towards a better life for all.

To be more precise, they don’t like vanguard parties which, when in power, suppress other parties on the basis that the other parties are regressive (trying to bring a worse life for all) or, albeit nominally progressive, are in league with regressive forces. Like the Bolsheviks in 1918-9, suppressing the right-wing and left-wing opposition parties. One must agree with Hardt and Negri that this is very bad behaviour on the part of the Bolsheviks. Admittedly,  the right-wing parties were actively at war with the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, the left-wing opposition — the Mensheviks and Left Social-Revolutionaries — were either conniving with the right-wing parties or collaborating with British and French Military Intelligence, whose forces had invaded Russia, and whose chief agent Bruce Lockhart seems to have aided the murder plot against Lenin which ultimately brought Stalin to power after Lenin’s subsequent stroke. What all this seems to mean is that “vanguard parties” may seize absolute power, but that this isn’t a necessary criterion for being a vanguard party, but Hardt and Negri wish to believe this, and so does Noam Chomsky, and who is to disagree with them?

What they prefer is the revolutionary project which appeared in the 1950s. Under this one, instead of having a vanguard party, you have a revolutionary army up in the hills which fights for freedom. Astute observers may find something strange about the idea that an army is less disciplined than a political party. Those with a powerful memory for history will possibly also recall that the 1960s and 1970s were a massive era of revolutionary parties which had armies fighting for freedom, and that the only successes of this period were those of parties. Those who tried to operate with an army alone, like Guevara, or who tried to collapse party into army like the Red Brigades (not that they were an army in any meaningful sense of the word) failed so dismally that they can only be called an attempt at revolution courtesy of the right-wing revisionist press, which used them all as a justification for repressive activity. History therefore decisively refutes Hardt and Negri, for the successful pattern was the same one which Lenin and Trotsky had deployed, while the failed one was the one which Hardt and Negri eulogise.

They continue this down to the South African example, which they claim as an example of a dispersed struggle which was not based in one party or one army. Actually it was a highly focussed struggle which was based in the African National Congress, a fact which they have to jettison (which is not difficult, since they are largely relying on anti-ANC sources which falsify South African history). In any case, the consequence of the South African example, where the vanguard party has been abandoned and right-wing factions and organisations have been allowed free rein, does not seem an example which should inspire confident imitation.

Their final focus, however, is on a third level, which they identify with the EZLN in Mexico. This political organisation, led by the anonymous but charismatic “Subcomandante Marcos” enjoyed some brief attention in southern Mexico in the mid-1990s. Hardt and Negri, on the basis of the myth of the Zapatistas rather than the reality of the organisation on the ground, pretend that this was a leaderless party, and therefore suggest that this should be seen as a swarm of unled people all going in the same direction. They then cite a few highly centralised anarchist organisations as other examples, simply because these organisations are so opaque that nobody on the outside understands their hierarchy. They then suggest that this is the organisation for the future.

Yeah, right. The “multitude”, the “swarm”, who will have no ideology and no leaders and no organisation, but will somehow all go in the same direction through some kind of political tropism which creates the “net”. This is an extraordinarily asinine notion. Obviously it is possible that a vast multitude might come to a similar decision at the same time — this guy has got to go! — as happened in Russia in 1917 and Iran in 1978. But once the guy was gone, the politicians moved in to seize control in one form or another. Hardt and Negri are basically offering a new version of the ur-Marxist idea that history is on our side, and therefore we don’t have to make a revolution because history will do it for us. The multitude will determine everything. Presumably, on the basis of what they read in the papers and see on TV.

In fact, this is precisely what is happening now; the multitude are indeed determining everything, at the behest of Rupert Murdoch and Barack Obama. So, in the end, Hardt and Negri are counter-revolutionaries attempting to mislead us into quiescence under the pretense of offering something new. Does this mean that the bullshit of Multitude is even better at bullshitting than the bullshit of Empire was? Or is it just that nobody pays any attention to gibbering faux-leftist balderdash any more?


On On Bullshit. (Or, “Ich bin ein Frankfurter!”)

July 31, 2008

Harry Frankfurt is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Princeton. “Emeritus” in this case means “too old to be a threat to younger members of faculty”, although “Philosophy” in this case means “a subject nobody in the United States takes seriously anyway”. Princeton is one of the most prestigious of the so-called Ivy League “liberal arts” colleges, and also one of the most nominally liberal. Thus it is not a full-blown establishment institution like Harvard or Yale — which gave the conspicuously unacademic George W Bush the degree with which he did nothing of consequence before becoming (thanks to his Daddy the President) Governor of Texas and eventually, President in his turn. Nor is it a conservative technocratic institution like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where Noam Chomsky works) although Princeton does host the Institute for Advanced Studies (where Albert Einstein worked, although he produced no workable theories while he was there).

All that this means is that maybe Frankfurt works for an institution which can be taken seriously, though Frankfurt himself might be a pea-brained blowhard. Is he? It takes a certain amount of guts for an American and an academic to produce a book — actually, a short essay printed up in a small well-bound volume — called On Bullshit. After all, no country in the last two centuries has contributed more to bullshit than the United States, and few professions — outside law and public relations — contribute much more to bullshit than those of academia.

Frankfurt modestly does not try to claim to understand all of bullshit. He argues that it is a decidedly neglected field and that he wishes only to try to establish first principles in it — provide guidance towards the development of a theory of bullshit. That’s a worthy goal, to be sure. It’s also a goal which suggests that Frankfurt is not trying to bullshit his audience.

As a philosopher should, he starts out with the basics. Is bullshit equivalent to other better-understood terms, such as humbug? Is it simply another name for lies? No, he says; humbug seems to be related to bullshit, but definitions of humbug seem narrower than that of bullshit. On the other hand, it seems to be possible to bullshit without necessarily telling lies. (Towards the end of the volume he quotes Eric Ambler, “Never, never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through”.)

The Creator suspects that sometimes Frankfurt’s etymology lets him down. Frankfurt equates “bull sessions” with “bullshit sessions”, but the Creator doubts that this is legitimate. Most probably these sessions, originally undertaken by such figures as advertising executives, are intended to identify these people as the lead bulls in the herd, and the fact that they extrude gigantically more shit than other bulls, far from being a defining feature, is artistically neglected in such contexts.

Frankfurt goes off on what seems like a tangent about Wittgenstein — almost certainly this is, in part, meant to show us that Frankfurt takes his philosophy seriously. Wittgenstein, who constructed a Tower of Babel of precise philosophical structures, only to acknowledge that it was a load of crap and tear it down with a theory of language-games and the impossibility of attaining such precision in the last portion of his life, is a big, serious bloke who at the same time is a hoot. Sometimes he is inadvertently a hoot, as in the example quoted in the book, an example which takes the call for precision in language beyond the call of philosophical duty. Even Frankfurt admits that in this instance Wittgenstein was a bloody odious idiot, but when he deconstructs his statement, Frankfurt points out that his chief criterion was seriousness; that one should genuinely pursue the truth rather than making statements the truth of which could not be verified.

Aha. If Wittgenstein were President, we should probably be engaged in a War on Bullshit. But what would we be making war on? Is bullshit simply imprecision and vagueness?

No, says Frankfurt, finally getting down to brass tacks. Imprecision and vagueness is a tactic for bullshit, just as lying is, just as misrepresentation is. (Frankfurt even quotes St Augustine, who felt that lying was all right as long as you got something out of it — since St Augustine’s religion is based on a bookload of big fat lies and he served the Lords of the Lie all his life, this is startling but not surprising.) But bullshit is not a neutral thing.

Bullshit is where you have something which you want someone else to do, or refrain from doing. You want this because their doing, or not doing, something will act to your advantage. For some reason, you are not in a position to persuade that person, or those persons, by logical argument or any other legitimate means. Therefore you proceed by constructing an artificial construct of lies, misrepresentations, imprecise statements and various truths cherry-picked to sustain arguments in favour of the action or inaction you desire. Bullshit is the simulation of an argument rather than the thing itself; it always has huge holes in it which the object of bullshit is expected not to notice — and indeed much of the bullshit is designed to cover up those holes.

One interesting thing which Frankfurt also says about bullshit, and which may be true, is that it is not necessarily resented as much as lies. As in the Eric Ambler quote, if you tell a lie, you will probably get into trouble if caught. If you stand up in court and say “I was nowhere near that ATM machine on the 15th” and then the courtroom watches the CCTV video of you packing gelignite against the ATM machine and running the det cable away from it, you will not only go down for the crime, you face the possibility of a perjury charge on top of it. On the other hand, if you explain that when you were little your mother almost smothered you with a twenty rand note and you can find psychiatrists to testify that you have always hated money (improper toilet training) plus you bring a raft of Trotskyites into the courtroom to give evidence that property is theft and money ought to be abolished, maybe you will get some years knocked off your sentence. Bullshit baffles brains; lies, when exposed, alert them.

But why should this be? A lie is intended to fool you. But bullshit is a whole structure intended to fool you. It is a generalised fraud rather than a specific one, and it sucks you in much more than a lie does — accepting the bullshit, you become complicit, whereas if a person is lied to and does not know the truth, nobody can be blamed for being taken in. So the Creator would have thought that bullshit would arouse more resentment, and garner more punishment, than lies. Why should it be the other way around?

A puzzler. Frankfurt, instead of responding directly to this, devotes the last part of his thesis to another issue, the question of whether there is more bullshit now than there used to be. He sidesteps this, partly because he has no objective information (indeed, has not looked for any). Instead, he points out that bullshit will be generated whenever people are obliged to talk about things they don’t understand. (Reversing Wittgenstein’s “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one remain silent”, many many people insist on talking in the absence of information on the topic or any capability of generating reasoned relevant arguments or even appropriate questions. This makes the Creator very cross, and Frankfurt somewhat grumpy.) The question whether this is happening more than it used to, and if so, why, Frankfurt leaves open — which is disappointing.

More substantively (in theory, anyway), Frankfurt blames contemporary philosophical discourse. He says that anti-realism, the refusal to accept that an objective reality can ever be attained and therefore that the pursuit of such a reality is not worth attempting, is the problem. As a result, he says, what he calls the ideal of correctness has been replaced by what he calls the ideal of sincerity. This is a very moot point indeed, since in many cases “correctness” has been a cloak for bullshit and hence what was called devotion to this ideal was actually nothing of the kind; however, he has a point with regard to sincerity. The fact that one genuinely believes in something does not necessarily make it true; no doubt many people in Zimbabwe today genuinely believe in the righteousness of their causes, but this does not mean that they are not deluded people willingly manipulated by corrupt puppet-masters inside or outside the country.

Frankfurt also makes the point that by making sincerity their objective, people are valorising something which cannot be tested. If an economist says that poor people should have their salaries cut so that the money can be spent on hiring more people, is that a sincerely held viewpoint? There is simply no way of telling. Sincerity, indeed, can be artificially generated; if it is in your interest to hold a viewpoint (as in the case of an economist who knows that corporate consultancies are more likely to arrive if views are expressed which happen to benefit those corporations) then eventually you will probably come to believe that viewpoint. People do not usually persistently express opinions at variance with their principles; however, instead of the principles determining the opinions, the opinions often determine the principles. In other words, in the world of sincerity, bullshit trumps the truth — people bullshit themselves. Sometimes they do this in order to bullshit other people, sometimes they do it because they are bullshitting other people. Hence, says Frankfurt, sincerity is actually bullshit. (Or, perhaps to be more precise, you cannot bullshit anyone unless you can display sincerity, and the most effective way to display sincerity is to be sincere.)

This rather relates to the SACP now — but also, probably, to the ANC members who first hailed the development of the RDP Office in 1994 and then hailed its abolition in 1996. Bullshit seems to be an important way of avoiding or concealing the contradictions of politics even from oneself.

And that seems to be why bullshit is a more acceptable thing than lying. Officially, we are all supposed to oppose lies. Most of us get through life without telling more than a couple of lies an hour (unless we are in professions depending on telling lies, such as hairstylists). Most of us would prefer not to be lied to most of the time. But we are all bullshitters and we are quite happy to be bullshitted when it benefits us. If we live in a mansion, we desperately need the bullshit which protects us from thinking too deeply about people living in corrugated-iron shacks.

Of course we recognise bullshit when it does not benefit us, and particularly when it challenges us. There are no flies on us! (Except where we smear ourselves with bullshit — but we redefine those flies as winged arthropods of the species musca domestica, which makes it all right.) We cannot escape bullshit all the time.

Frankfurt does not explicitly express a solution, but it seems obvious that he would like people to return to the notion of the pursuit of truth and correctness. Thus, instead of filling the air with bullshit conspiracy theories, bullshit allegations of racism, bullshit claims of unfairness and bullshit claims of the revolution being in danger, we should simply ask ourselves questions of truth. Thus: are the charges against Jacob Zuma serious charges and are they backed by testable evidence? Can we find out whether he is guilty? Should we find this out? These questions have simple answers. The beauty of the bullshit which Zuma’s cabal generate is that there is no real answer to them — in many cases it is probably impossible to produce an answer and in others there is no hard sustaining evidence — but many people sincerely believe what Zuma’s cabal are saying. Thus bullshit is used to discourage people from pursuing the truth, and to encourage them to sincerely adopt bullshit positions.

It’s definitely a book worth glancing over. Frankfurt is — inevitably — not without his own bullshit. However, in that sense the book is self-deconstructing, because applying Frankfurt’s notions to his own book will help to clear the bullshit away. Certainly there is a valuable skeleton there. Plus, it is nice and short and handy to carry around. At least one academic from one country is working on a field for which he is well qualified and which potentially provides social value. Throw the man a few bucks.

Hoping For The Worst.

April 25, 2008

The Creator thinks of John Pilger as a good man. He challenges the establishment. Corrupt politicians and dishonest journalist hacks defame him. In his youth he hopped around the globe from crisis to crisis, like a transcontinental Robert Fisk. In recent years, Pilger was one of the intellectual pillars of the anti-globalisation movement. All right, he is a good man; but even Homer nods, and when a good man turns to bad ends, he does so big time.

Recently the Creator took up a copy of John Pilger’s Freedom Next Time. Anyone who reads a lot of Pilger finds it repetitive, since he recycles, like Chomsky, although he has some good ideas and is a fine journalist. But while Chomsky is always willing to acknowledge a mistake, Pilger cannot do this, especially not in regard to South Africa.

In 1997 Pilger produced a documentary on South Africa called Apartheid Did Not Die, thereafter writing a piece called “The View from Dimbaza”, published in Hidden Agendas. Both the documentary and the written piece were very well constructed. They explained that the South African government, the ANC, had sold out to neoliberalism and had to be overthrown before it destroyed the country.

Ten years later the country had survived the economic crisis affecting it when Pilger made the documentary (but which he did not mention). Far from applying neoliberalism, the ANC had expanded on the Reconstruction and Development Programme (building housing for more than a fifth of the country’s population), had introduced massive social grants and pensions for the country’s rural poor, and an expanded public-works programme, including free access to drinking water and massively increased access to electricity. Meanwhile the budget deficit was down to zero, thus reducing the cost of servicing the national debt from 25% of the budget to under 10%, leaving an extra R22 billion for public spending in the 2007 budget, rather than giving it to banks.

Ignoring this, in Freedom Next Time he insists that he was right, and attempts to prove it, somewhat unconvincingly.

Pilger first complains about how little changed between 1967 when he was last in the country, and October 1997, three and a half years after the first democratic elections. White South Africans were rich, and foreigners were even richer. Perhaps this is a problem, but what is to be done about it?

One thing was to give money to the poor. Pilger complains it is not enough (though he does not point out that six rand a day, while measly for a western European, is a big boost for a single child’s food in South Africa). He cites a claim of an 8% increase in poverty between 1999 and 2002 which seems strangely high, since nothing happened in that period to provoke it. If true, it is a grievous fault, but it is probably not true; Pilger’s statistics are suspect.

Pilger’s friend Cosmas Desmond, the PAC-supporting priest, feels that land should be redistributed. If only the Constitution were changed, the land could be taken from commercial farmers and given to, er, other people. The trouble is that the commercial farmers produce the country’s food. Subsistence farming would not feed the cities where more than half the population lives. Desmond inhabits a fantasy world of happy black peasants close to the soil, a colour-reversed version of the Nazi “Blut und Boden”, and Pilger joins him there in lederhosen, clinking a steinful of lager..

Pilger rightly points to the corruption of figures like Kgalema Motlanthe and Mamphela Ramphele of the World Bank. However, many of his supporting ideas are wrong. Calling New Africa Investments Limited a “creation of apartheid” because some of its elements were once facilitated by the apartheid Industrial Development Corporation is like calling Steve Biko a creation of apartheid because he went to school in South Africa.

Meanwhile, Pilger makes the mistake of listening to Patrick Bond, who claims that “between 1995 and 2000 . . . unemployment almost doubled”, ascribing this to black economic empowerment, as if allowing a handful of black people to get rich plunges the nation into poverty. (This very conveniently covers up for the behaviour of the white people who actually control the economy.) Actually, in this period the massive unemployment in the “independent homelands” began to be counted, whereas under apartheid, it was pretended that this unemployment had nothing to do with South Africa. Bond uses apartheid’s faked statistics to falsely smear the post-apartheid government, and Pilger uses this avoid admitting that his own predictions were false. This is quite odious behaviour.

Later Pilger similarly cites Bond’s false claim about ten million electricity and water cut-offs (as was exposed in 2003, he took figures from the small town of Stutterheim and pretended that they applied to the whole country). Pilger claims that black household income has fallen by 19% (because of the confusing shifts in the value of the rand in US dollar terms, figures can probably be found to justify this).

In addition to these dubious statistics, Pilger loves negative quotes. These mostly come from white people whose agenda is not always that of telling the truth. Pilger depends heavily on the right-wing South African media for his sound-bites. Sometimes he also uses the UN, which supposedly said that 1990s economic policy was no different from 1980s apartheid economic policy (it does seem odd, then, that the results of the policy were the exact opposite of that policy’s effects).

Pilger rubbishes the ANC by any means necessary. He claims that “It was the Black Consciousness Movement that inspired many people in the townships to confront the bullets and tear-gas”. (That was true in 1976-7, but not subsequently; the BCM played hardly any role in the greater struggle of the 1980s which was led by the ANC’s United Democratic Front. But Pilger does not talk to ANC people unless they were in prison at the time.)

He goes still further: “. . . worrying questions for many in the resistance. What exactly was the deal struck between the ANC leadership and the fascist Broederbond?”. Pilger pretends (again) that there was a significant resistance which opposed the ANC, but also that the ANC sold out the people from the beginning. Obedient to white right-wing propaganda (echoing some of Van Zyl Slabbert’s disinformation) Pilger details a mysterious meeting between white racists and the evil Thabo Mbeki to sell out the struggle. In reality, what the ANC was doing was trying to bring about its unbanning; for the same reason that Mandela met with Botha, which Pilger also jeers at. It seems he would rather have seen the apartheid state win than see the ANC get any credit.

This seems, again, a harsh thing to say, but it is not. For instance, when he says that “there was widespread disappointment and dismay” over the negotiations which had been taking place, he does not say from where. In fact it came from the tiny anti-ANC movements, many of which, like the PAC and AZAPO, were covertly (and sometimes openly) helping out apartheid death squads.

Still worse, he quotes Thabo Mbeki on the “historic compromise” of 1993, when democratic elections became possible, saying that without this compromise “there would have been a bloodbath and a great suffering across the land”. This is true; had the agreement not been reached the apartheid military would probably have restored control using its well-established spies and murderers. Pilger, however, talks about the “emptiness of the threat” by pretending that it refers to Afrikaner fascists rather than to the soldiers and police of the apartheid state. (Later Pilger reveals that he is familiar enough with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings to know that the apartheid military were paranoid mass murderers — he twits F W de Klerk for his involvement in terrorism. It’s OK to acknowledge this truth to the white elite, but when Pilger is talking to black people, he derides their struggle for freedom and dismisses all their efforts.

Pilger is actually — there is no point in mincing words — being racist. He says that “the black majority were misled”, as if they were fools to vote for the ANC in 1994. Since they voted for them again in 1999 and in 2004, they must simply be stupid. Pilger, who knows little about South African history, politics and economics and has scant experience of the country, deems himself entitled to judge who black South Africans should vote for. (In this racist attitude he runs parallel to his informant Bond, who has declared that the ANC do not deserve the votes which they receive from blacks.) Ironically, he later quotes Cosmas Desmond claiming that the ANC “have no respect for that which is African and no understanding that we can learn from the African experience” — apparently only white Irish and Australian visiting firemen can understand Africa.

The white affluent corporate-front Freedom of Expression Institute says things are as bad as they were under apartheid, and Pilger quotes this body as gospel truth. South Africa has become a one-party state, Pilger tells us, offering no source (it is a favourite talking point of the Afrikaner far-right). He devotes nine lines to saying that the ANC has done something (he doesn’t say what) but when discussing what the ANC should have done, most of what he mentions is what the ANC actually has done — except that Pilger refuses to admit it.

One runs out of patience in the end and puts the book down. Pilger wants to persuade us that everything has gone wrong in South Africa, even if this means telling lies. He also wants to blame everything going wrong on the ANC. Now, the ANC deserves criticism for many of its policies and even more criticism for misapplying those policies. However, it also deserves praise, which Pilger does not provide. Pilger talks as if he is revealing hidden truth, but what he is doing is copying down the dogmas of the affluent South African establishment, which hates the ANC and seeks to reverse most of its policies. Significantly he makes no mention of the alliance of white and black right wing with the corporate oligarchy — to him there is only the evil ANC and the noble white foreigners, like Dale McKinley, who would lead the struggle against it, if only South African blacks were not so stupid.

Why is he doing this? One reason seems to be that the ANC are in power and they have not always done the right thing. Pilger loathes people in power and insists that the right thing must be done. Compromises are anathema to him. He would much rather lose than win through diplomacy — thus he jeers at Mandela for smoothing the path of negotiations by offering hypocritical praise for Botha and De Klerk. If Mandela had instead insulted them, would that have been worth another few years of apartheid and twenty thousand more dead? Pilger apparently thinks so.

Indeed, Pilger seems to love extremism for its own sake. As a result, he despises incremental improvements. He prefers Mugabe-style radical change, even if it is foolish, perhaps because it is easy to write about. There is also a strong sense that he is happy to see failure and collapse — he writes about the brutality of the occupied territories of Israel and the bloodbaths in post-Taliban Afghanistan with obvious pleasure, as if he is relieved to see a simple division between oppressed and oppressor.

The trouble with this analysis, if you can call it that, is that it erases politics. Struggle is reduced to throwing rocks at armoured vehicles; the moment the struggle ends, Pilger denounces the rock-throwers turned Cabinet Ministers as sell-outs, and demands that someone must start throwing rocks at somebody. Everybody in a picturesque struggle with excellent photo-opportunities will be betrayed, so that Pilger and his friends can lament their defeat — unless they lose, in which case Pilger can lament that. Celebration of success is largely absent. Celebration of partial success is nowhere to be found, for Pilger defines all compromise as treachery. Betrayal and defeat are Pilger’s meat and drink.

Perhaps this explains why Rhodes University, one of South Africa’s most conservative educational institutions, gave Pilger an honorary doctorate. Rhodes’ Journalism Department, while it has good staff, is essentially a machine constructing servants of South Africa’s right-wing disinformation structure. Pilger, for all his other good qualities, is one of those servants.