Same Game, Different Rules.

May 19, 2016

The last decade has seen a dramatic deterioration in South African economic and political conditions. In this modern world very little attention is paid to memory, so the world of 2005 seems misty and vague, but in retrospect it was a national Utopia; we had a strong and popular government which was working to solve problems like inequality and HIV and foreign affairs with vigour and efficacy, we had a booming economy, and the nation was cohesive; the poor expected that someone would look after them, the rich expected to be left alone with their wealth, blacks and whites were gradually moving away from the hostilities of the apartheid era. In contrast, nowadays things seem to be falling apart; even the Parliamentary opposition has fallen into desuetude.

But in 2005 many were convinced that South African economic and political conditions were simply not good enough — which was a fair enough claim if anybody had been able to prove that they had a better alternative. There was a strong groundswell calling for radical change within the Tripartite Alliance, as if this long national nightmare of peace and prosperity needed to be brought to an end, to make room for strife and poverty. And, lo, that was exactly what came to pass. Now, in 2015, there seems to be another groundswell within the Tripartite Alliance, calling, if not for radical change because nobody would believe in that any more, at least for regime change.

Basically, the SACP and COSATU are threatening, as they did between 1998 and 2007, to withdraw support from the ANC until their demands are met. They are also, increasingly, criticising the government’s policies, and are throwing their weight behind a candidacy for the Presidency of the ANC not favoured by its current President. This all looks like a re-run of the Mbeki-Zuma struggle of 2005-8, but it is actually very different in practice although the actors and agendas are very similar.

The SACP and COSATU are aware that their influence within the ANC must decline with the departure of Zuma, who leaned on them and their capacity for manipulating elections very heavily in order to seize control of the party. Now the rest of the ANC leadership at provincial level is as good at rigging votes and faking credential challenges as anyone in the alliance, and they don’t need the SACP and COSATU. Therefore, the formerly indispensible cheaters are naturally looking for other allies. However, the process of looking for other allies makes them behave unreliably from the perspective of Zuma supporters. Therefore, increasingly, the SACP and COSATU are distancing themselves from Zuma – and thus makes others eager to step into their shoes as the gofers and hit-men for Zuma. In other words, they are making themselves dispensible, and meanwhile, since they have until recently been the utterly unthinking supporters of Zuma, nobody imagines that they are in any way principled.

Their weakness might not seem to be a problem. When they attacked Mbeki in 2005, he was completely independent of them, since they had withdrawn support for him for the previous seven years. Yet the hostility which they showed overthrew him – so can’t this be done again?

In 2005-7, however, the SACP and COSATU operated in alliance with the sleazeballs and derelicts who’d been flung from power, and with agents of Zuma who had hidden their real allegiances until it was too later for Mbeki to act against them in any principled way. There are still plenty of sleazeballs and derelicts, but the ones who opposed Zuma, or didn’t support him enough, have been turfed out of all positions and made a horrible example of, and that doesn’t encourage anybody to follow their example. So the SACP and COSATU may not have as many allies as they need, even though obviously think they have them.

The SACP and COSATU can no lonber pretend that they stand for anything positive. Both are so tainted with their unquestioning support for Zuma’s antics, especially where it contradicted everything they pretended to stand for, that they can’t get much in the way of disinterested public support any more. Therefore it’s harder for them to fool people into supporting whatever clown they decide to support, except for those whom they can bribe with cash (of which they don’t have much these days) or offers of jobs (and they have difficulty being trusted even with that.).

Much of the big business community supports the same person that the SACP and COSATU support — namely, Cyril Ramaphosa — so it is possible that the SACP and COSATU might be able to garner their support. However, the alternative to Cyril Ramaphosa is not a figure like Mbeki, whom the neoliberal elite hated and feared; it is, instead, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, whom the neoliberal elite know that they can do business with. So, although the elite might like Cyril, they don’t like him so much that they feel the need to do any favours for the SACP and COSATU. Moreover, the neoliberal elite ultimately does not like Communists or the organised working class, and would like to see them both eliminated; they were happy to offer them rope with which they could hang themselves, but now much of the big business community thinks that it’s gallows-time.

The general situation is also very different. Under Mbeki, the economy was doing tolerably well and the illusion of success was widespread in the global economy as well. Administration appeared to be functioning. It seemed easy to throw everything into chaos without long-term consequences; it seemed so easy to run South Africa, once one assumed that Mbeki was a corrupt and incompetent windbag; even a disaster like him could accomplish much.

But now the economy is deteriorating weekly, the world a combination of bloodbath and banking crisis, the administration of the country is inept on so many levels, leaderless and bankrupt. We know that bad times are coming. Therefore, disruption and disaster no longer seem like fun episodes without consequence, but rather seem like things liable to precipitate the catastrophe which even the ruling class is a little worried about, for fear that they might not get their cash out before it is looted or becomes valueless. Therefore, the ruling-class struggle against Zuma is not playing out in the same way that the ruling-class struggle against Mbeki played out.

There is not going to be a massive uprising. There is not going to be a mobilisation of the ANC’s leadership against Zuma. This is partly because Zuma has been there before and knows how it is done; in this sense he is more shrewd than Mbeki because he does not suffer from any illusion about how the members of his party or of the alliance might be motivated by any idealism. Like Stalin, he knows that politicians are motivated by greed, spite and fear, and therefore Zuma prevailed over Mbeki as Stalin prevailed over Trotsky, and any competitor to Zuma who does not have everything in the ANC sewn up in advance will fail as Bukharin and Zinoviev failed against Stalin after Trotsky’s fall.

But in that case, the ruling class attempt to overthrow Zuma will necessarily fail, because it is half-hearted. The ruling class doesn’t really care who rules South Africa so long as they rule whoever that person is. They know that the difference between Zuma or Dlamini-Zuma or Ramaphosa or even Maimane is not all that significant — certainly much less significant than any South African journalist would like people to believe. But meanwhile, Zuma very desperately doesn’t want Ramaphosa to take over, and meanwhile, a lot of Zuma’s supporters, and even his opponents, very well remember the slights and bullying and backstabbing which the SACP and COSATU perpetrated back in their days of glory. The fact that they want Ramaphosa to win is almost, in itself, a reason to oppose Ramaphosa. Wouldn’t it be nice, they ask themselves, if the SACP and COSATU went down to hell, dragged down by the concrete lifebelt of Ramaphosa?

As a result, current South African politics is strangely content-free. The savage and well-justified attacks on Zuma late last year, the frantic wish to have him removed for his temerity in deposing the ruling-class’s own man in the Ministry of Finance, blazed up but then died down again as soon as Zuma had appointed the ruling-class a new man in the same Ministry. Nobody cared that the new new man had a track record of incompetence identical to the old new man’s. The fury was just stage fire, created for the purpose and sustained by the incoherent and inchoate hatred which a politically ignorant media establishment is obliged to feel for anyone against whom their masters tell them to turn their hatred. When the ruling class walked away from the fire they had started, of course it guttered out; there was no fuel for it at all.

So we are stuck in a meaningless political transition between alternatives, none of whom are of any use to us. It is like the American Presidential elections, a mass of sound and fury and fanatical declarations that this empty suit or that empty suit represents the greatest hope or the vilest betrayal that ever existed in the history of what was once a Republic. Truly, our politics are now normal, driven, like everyone else’s, by Twitter and Facebook.

And without hope, of course.

The Two Stooges.

November 28, 2015

An apocalyptic battle, an Armageddon indeed, is looming for the soul of the ANC.

That’s a joke, if you didn’t guess. The battle is between two contenders for the Presidency of the ANC, namely Cyril Ramaphosa, who was installed as Deputy President at the Mangaung Conference to the surprise of almost everybody except the business community, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, erstwhile Minister of Health and current Chair of the African Union Commission.

On the face of it the two are uncontroversial. Ramaphosa was ANC Secretary-General during Mandela’s elected term of office. Dlamini-Zuma was Minister of Health at the same time, but was shifted to Foreign Affairs under Mbeki. There appears to be not a lot to choose between them.

Yet the ominously nicknamed “Premier League” of pro-Zuma provincial premiers have declared that they don’t want Ramaphosa to succeed as President of the ANC the way that Zuma succeeded Mbeki and Mbeki succeeded Mandela. They have thrown their support, which incidentally surely means Zuma’s personal support, behind Dlamini-Zuma. On the other hand, the South African Communist Party have come out staunchly in support of Ramaphosa. What is this apparent conflict all about?

Obviously, it isn’t about competence. On a purely technical level, both Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma are able people. Ramaphosa was an early financial supporter of Zuma, although never as enthusiastically so as someone like Sexwale. Dlamini-Zuma, meanwhile, was Zuma’s wife, although she divorced him on grounds which are murky but reflect little credit on Zuma. Thus, if it comes down to loyalty, one might expect Zuma to back Ramaphosa rather than the reverse.

What is Zuma’s agenda? Not to carry on the Zuma legacy, for there is no Zuma legacy. His agenda is to ensure that, once he has withdrawn from the scene, he is able to ensure that he will not be sent to prison for his crimes. The problem is that any future President faced with the problems which Zuma is leaving behind will be sorely tempted to blame it all on Zuma — which is quite deserved. In which case, the best way to blame Zuma would be to attack him directly for his corruption, and in order to prove that corruption it would be easy to have him hauled into court.

This, presumably, is what Zuma is afraid of, and it is certainly something that Ramaphosa is capable of. As a managerial bureaucrat in the private sector, there is nothing that Ramaphosa does not know about blame-shifting and double-crossing. But why would Zuma assume that the consummate political operator, Dlamini-Zuma, would be incapable of screening herself with Zuma when she gets into trouble, as she undoubtedly will? It could be that he believes that Dlamini-Zuma’s family ties with Zuma would prevent that. In that case he is probably mistaken, but it is at least a more plausible option than the notion that Ramaphosa would ever show any gratitude for the man who allowed him to be installed in power.

What, though, are these two people doing there? Ramaphosa has done nothing of substance since leaving politics in 1997 — his career since he was stuck in the Deputy Presidency has been a tour de waffle. Dlamini-Zuma’s time in the African Union Commission has been little better; she has basically served as a groom of neocolonialism and a useful stooge for the imperialists — reversing any anticipation which might ever have existed that her support for Mbeki’s policies meant that she had any of Mbeki’s principles. So neither of them has a record of substantial accomplishment within the ANC.

Meanwhile, however, both of them have records of substantial service to forces outside the ANC, and indeed outside anything really to do with the interests of South Africa or its people. Ramaphosa, of course, has been a servant of the mining industry and the white ruling class virtually since the ANC was unbanned. Dlamini-Zuma once seemed more impressive as a minister under Mbeki – which is the main argument used against her by her enemies – but on the whole she has accomplished very little since leaving office. Indeed, her activities within the AU have largely served to legitimate Western imperialism in Africa, largely in the interests of the NATO countries.

So the rise of this particular pair to prominence within the ANC possibly has nothing much to do with the value either for the elite of the ANC or with their popularity with the rank and file.

Of course, to the extent to which the rank and file has anything to do with it, given the choice they probably would not select Ramaphosa. At least Dlamini-Zuma hasn’t been demonised to the extent that Ramaphosa has, both by such forces as the EFF and by Ramaphosa’s supporters whose uncritical and ludicrous praise makes him look exactly like the toady of power that he is. And it’s just possible that Dlamini-Zuma has enough pride in herself to be prepared to take some kind of independent action. She might surprise us. She can hardly be worse than Ramaphosa, at least.

The argument that we need a woman for President is, of course, pitiful and should be discarded. It’s as loathesome as the argument that the psychopathic crook Hillary Clinton should be elected President of the US because she has ovaries. (Most of the women making this argument in Hillary’s case, and probably many making this argument in Nkosazana’s case, are probably making it because they like the fact that these women are problematic as human beings. Not that Nkosazana is anywhere near as hideous as Hillary)

All the same, however, nobody should assume that either of these stooges represents a substantial improvement on Zuma. No Messiah is coming to rescue us from the crises we are in. If we are to be rescued, we must rescue ourselves.

Einstein’s Definition of Madness.

October 3, 2012

It was apparently Albert Einstein who said that a simple definition of madness was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result to materialise. Since Einstein devoted the last thirty years of his life to trying to find the same flaws in quantum theory, perhaps he was himself crazy as a shithouse rat. However, perhaps the most conspicuous zone in which such madness takes root is in the deranged and unimaginative landscape of politics. It isn’t so very long ago that the Socialist Workers Party, that landmark of Anglophone radicalism, split down the mid-Atlantic; apparently the workers of Britain were going to be different socialists from the workers of the United States. More recently, the Socialist Workers Party of Britain, building socialist unity by all means possible, were able to join in a vast coalition called RESPECT, based loosely on the Stop The War Coalition (which had of course failed to stop the war, or even prevent it from starting), electing the first radical British MP since the 1940s. Needless to say the SWP soon withdrew from RESPECT, taking its own RESPECT with it and denouncing the rest of RESPECT as counter-revolutionaries, splitters, etc., etc. Lately, RESPECT (now sans SWP) managed to get its MP elected again in a different constituency. Ho, hum. Immediately, the SWP announced its irrevocable admiration for the cause of socialist unity by all means possible. Let us put the past behind us, let us not allow our differences to divide us in the cause of the joint struggle against the neoliberal tyranny which now threatens the very survival of life on this planet, etc., etc. Having done this, it was absolutely no surprise to see the leading non-MP in the RESPECT movement almost immediately march off (to the cheers of the SWP), complaining that she could no longer tolerate the party’s MP because he had made some ill-chosen comments about the ladies accusing Julian Assange of ravishment. Indeed, unity is all very well, but one can’t have unity if people are free to say what they think, can one? One holds one’s head in one’s hands, moans briefly at the catastrophic state of the Left in the world, and then turns to the dear Republic of South Africa, where everything is going along just fine, isn’t it? Alas, egregious left-wing blunders are all around us. As anticipated, the COSATU Congress decided to endorse Jacob Zuma, and therefore we can expect no successful contestation of the present calamitous path on which the ANC is set. So we cannot expect that the ANC can be changed so as to reverse course and save us and the country. Somebody else is going to have to do it. Somebody on the Left, and obviously not the Communists, so who? A few years back a group of South African Trotskyites got together along the lines of the Socialist Workers’ Party. They were mostly self-appointed socialist activists working at universities, funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (whom God preserve) and they banded together and conferred, calling themselves the Conference of the Democratic Left. (Not that South African Trotskyism has ever been democratic, but wotthehell.) After they had conferred for a while, they decided to confer on themselves the title of the Democratic Left Front. Obviously, this organisation is very small and lacking in general public support. On the other hand, since it is based at universities its membership has considerable leisure (and can get official funding for its political activities by claiming that it is investigating important social issues). So it has a certain amount of potential — provided that it can overcome the obvious danger that the academic separation from lived reality might lead to political ineffectuality. Unfortunately, since most Trotskyites are already separated from political lived reality (having been failing to accomplish anything of note since the 1930s when Trotskyism became a significant force in Cape Town leftist politics), the danger is extremely real. Where the Democratic Left Front has a problem is that it lacks a campaign. The ideological essence of Trotskyism is permanent revolution against capitalism, a fine phrase which means nothing because Trotskyites can always find ways of avoiding having to actually practice such revolution. The grievance which Trotskyites have against capitalism is the practice of uneven development, which actually means that some people are richer than others because the system is rigged. This all gets turned into an extremely complicated set of philosophical principles which you can read endorsed in the Monthly Review if you want to, but which boils down to little more than opportunistic Stalinism plus verbiage. So: what is the Democratic Left Front’s solution to the current problem? Revolution, obviously. Unfortunately, there is no prospect of revolution. The Democratic Left Front does show up at service delivery protests and sometimes manages to shoulder aside the actual protesters and hijack the press conferences which ensue. Unfortunately, this annoys the people who actually participated in the protest and find themselves shoved to the rear of the photo-opportunities by earnest middle-class people in besloganned T-shirts. Even more unfortunately, these episodes are very often used by individual Trotskyites to get their own names and faces in the papers, in the hope of enjoying organisational preferment thereby. This just breeds conflict. Meanwhile, service delivery protests are not revolutionary. The DLF denies this, but it has thus far failed to accomplish anything by its support for these essentially reformist actions, in part because a service delivery protest does not have any substantive transformational content; it is, generally, an opportunity for charging around and smashing things up while demanding the immediate provision of stuff you are already going to get.. The DLF therefore has also decided to work with the workers, who must be the vanguard of any Trotskyite revolution, setting up trade unions, although these unions have shown a lamentable lack of worker membership. Luckily, with the rise of sweetheart unions like AMCU, the DLF and Trotskyites generally have been able to throw their weight behind these. In effect, this means that the Trotskyites help the journalists working for the mining industry to couch their support for the sweetheart unions in vaguely Marxist terms. At Marikana itself, AMCU actually ended up sparking a worker uprising which led to massive salary increases, but it is not clear whether this uprising will go anywhere, and it certainly does not seem to be under the control of any Trotskyites, least of all the DLF. However, this does not seem to matter to the DLF. They do not, at this stage, need a long-term programme under which they patiently work towards their ultimate goal of a socialist workers’ paradise, the nature of which seems never to have been made clear by anyone. This is because the DLF’s principal goal is to weaken the other left-wing organisations in South Africa — specifically the SACP, from which many of the DLF’s members emerged after Blade Nzimande’s coup, COSATU (against which the Trotskyites were working at Marikana and Rustenburg) and, of course, the ANC. These, to the DLF, are organisations which must be eliminated before anything meaningful can be done. Therefore, there is no need for a campaign or a programme until the DLF is the sole survivor of this Titanic struggle, and meanwhile, since the best allies for the DLF in this struggle are big business and the white ruling class . . . you can guess what follows. Meanwhile, also in Cape Town, there is the re-launch of the UDF. This should not be confused with the re-launch of the UDF which happened five years ago under the auspices of Zackie Achmat, the Trotskyite prince of corporate whores. This new re-launch of the UDF is being promulgated by some figures involved in the “Proudly Manenberg” campaign (that is, again, some people on the left of the SACP who are marginalised under Nzimande) chief among them a man called Mario Wanza, who is not an operatic tenor. This, by the way, is a corporate branding campaign disguised as a community project, so it seems like a rather dubious exercise. These people have also been involved in the “Occupy Cape Town” movement, which was basically a picnic with some political posters waved in the course of it — something that might have seemed daring under the State of Emergency in the 1980s but is far from impressive now. And they have been involved in the campaign to piss off the suburban middle class by demanding that Rondebosch Common be turned into a squatter-camp. Basically, a crowd of waterheaded publicity junkies. The UDF, when launched, consisted of a cluster of affiliated organisations with membership in the hundreds of thousands, and the launch in Mitchell’s Plain in 1983 was the biggest political gathering seen in Cape Town since 1960. The new, consecutively re-launched UDF, has no affiliated organisations and, whatever its membership is, nobody has seen more than ten people gathered together to celebrate the launch (which has not actually happened). There is something rather pitiful about this discrepancy in numbers; at least the DLF admits to being Left, and is therefore by definition a small and feeble organisation, like all leftist organisations in South Africa these days. Another major problem is that the original UDF was set up using organisations which had been created to combat the Orderly Movement and Settlement of Persons Bill (that is, to struggle against a fresh wave of racist forced removal) and thus began with a clear agenda, which was then expanded into a campaign against the racist 1983 Constitution and the tricameral elections ensuing, which were aimed at dividing coloureds and indians from africans. The whole point about being united and democratic was that the enemy was out to divide people, and was preserving the tyranny of the white minority so that it was clearly undemocratic. Therefore it was unnecessary to be more specific than this; the establishment of the UDF had such clear enemies that its support was a given among anyone who wasn’t actually being paid to oppose it. (Except for Trotskyites, who opposed it and everything it did because it was not Trotskyite.) Nothing like these present conditions exists today. We have a united and democratic country. The problem is that we are united and democratic under corporate masters dominated by neoliberal imperialist governments elsewhere. Therefore, relaunching the United Democratic Front accomplishes nothing of political substance because there is no clear political agenda behind it which will unite people in a consistent and resolute struggle. Of course, relaunching the UDF is simply an attempt to play ahistorical politics, trying to wrap oneself in the winding-sheets of a dead political culture and pretend that it is alive. This is precisely the kind of mistake one would expect from people who do not live in the real world, but in a rhetorical world of their own fantasies. Needless to say, the corporate media has welcomed this, recognising in it another way to sling mud at Charterism and its history through an organisation which will be — unlike the real UDF — pitifully easy to co-opt. And if this is all we have to hope for from the Left — a bunch of hysterical, incompetent loonies incessantly pulling the same failed stunts over and over again while masturbating into political mirrors — then perhaps we should just jack the whole liberatory project in and go off and vote for die ware Jakob at Mangaung.

Zuma and the Elite.

September 10, 2012

One of the problems faced by Jacob Zuma in his quest for re-election as President of the ANC in December 2012 is that he no longer commands the kind of fawning press support which he received when he was campaigning against Thabo Mbeki, when he was trying to elude prosecution for his crimes, and when he was installing his cabal of shysters and corporate whores in government in the first two years of his government.

Is this an enormous problem for Zuma? Certainly it is inconvenient that the media which reflects or controls the opinions of many of the wealthiest and most powerful South Africans is no longer particularly supportive of him. On the other hand, the people who actually vote for Zuma are extremely distrustful of the press — as shown by the outrageous lengths to which his toadies went in pretending that the press was hostile to him at the time when they were not. (Meanwhile it is interesting that the luckless Jimmy Manyi has been hoofed out of the job of Zuma’s chief press spokesperson because the press doesn’t like him; obviously, behind the scenes, Zuma thinks that a little beaming and goose grease will make everything all right again.)

Evidently, while Zuma or the members of the cabal around him want the media to be supportive, this isn’t going to have much influence over the outcome of the elections at the National Conference. And, therefore, at rock bottom, if the elite who control the media withdraw their support from Zuma, this doesn’t mean that Zuma is not going to continue running the country. Insofar as elite support helped Zuma to take power, this means that they have created something over which they do not have the kind of control they would have desired.

This lack of control, of course, is the chief reason why they want Zuma removed from office and replaced by a more completely compliant dogsbody — so the whole episode appears to be a kind of postmodern self-referential game, except that it is a game where the losers are all the rest of us excluded from the elite and the immediate beneficiaries in Zuma’s circle.

The treatment of Zuma by the press is itself interesting. It is certainly a huge contrast from his treatment by the SABC, which sticks his droning, halting voice on every news broadcast and proclaims the profundity of his every empty utterance at every inconsequential gathering. (This probably has the effect of exasperating the public far more than persuading them of anything; it is like a bad advertisement which won’t go away because the advertisers have paid so much for it.)

There is a great deal of press criticism of the ANC. This criticism focusses particularly on corruption, a term which means essentially nothing. That is, when a state institution fails an audit this is defined as corruption even though no corruption has been demonstrated anywhere; when a private institution gets a state contract and that institution does not have the right connections with the press, this is defined as corruption. When no corruption has been demonstrated, or when it has been rooted out, this is a sign that it has been cleverly hidden, as in the 1997 arms purchase.

What is actually happening here is that the actual, relatively minor (but not insignificant) indications of corruption in the state are being used to proclaim that the state itself is corrupt. This seems to incorporate two agendas. One is the neoliberal agenda, that the state cannot be trusted. If the state is corrupt then obviously the state cannot regulate the business community (a.k.a. the white elite) and therefore proving the state to be corrupt is a good thing. (Also if the state is corrupt then any redistributional measure from rich to poor is ipso facto corrupt and therefore should be discontinued.) The other is the racist agenda, that black people cannot be trusted to run any establishment without white supervision and therefore that the state is defective because black people have taken over. This is the line pushed most conspicuously by Moeletsi Mbeki (because if a white person said such a thing, its self-serving dishonesty would be too conspicuous). A minor by-product of this latter agenda is that it is easy to persuade a black person that these allegations of corruption are entirely contrivances of white racism and therefore should be disregarded — which is handy for anyone who happens to be black and corrupt.

Such criticism of the ANC is not new — although it is more justified under Zuma’s administration than it has ever been. It is, however, wholly opportunistic and serves to distract attention from much more substantial problems. Meanwhile, such criticism ought to cut sharply at the Corruptor-in-Chief, since Zuma, it is well known, is the only President in South African history to face corruption charges, and moreover, had the charges dropped under shady circumstances rather than exonerating himself in a court of law. So, one would think, most of the mud flung at the ANC ought to adhere to Zuma more than to anyone else.

And yet the mud is always flung in a fashion particularly intended to pass Zuma by. Is there corruption in the process of constructing unnecessary power-plants? Look, Mbeki was responsible for an earlier tender for power-plants, and that must have been corrupt because Mbeki, and Zuma cancelled it — so he must be clean! Is there corruption in the process of providing textbooks? That must be the fault of the provincial government which Zuma is trying to smear, or of the education minister who was Zuma’s instrument in the smear, or of anyone but Zuma himself! Look, Zuma is going to Talk to the People (in a heavily-guarded venue with carefully-vetted audience)! He cares! Our Sovereign Lord the King obviously does not know what his Bad Barons are doing!

Attacks on Zuma are far more about his personal life; his sex life, or his business interests (but don’t mention Schabir Shaik, please). The noisiest attack on Zuma, and the one most related to his actual role in government, is the “Zumaville” campaign to denounce the development of three disadvantaged areas, because one of these, coincidentally, by happenstance, chances to be next door to Zuma’s fortified compound in Nkandla. This is, of course, a worthy campaign. It is outrageous both that the President should be allowed to build himself a gigantic luxury bunker in a secluded area — a kind of Berchtesgarten without the mountains — at the taxpayer’s expense, and worse still that he should be accused of organising that the neighbouring community becomes a peri-urban area at the taxpayer’s expense, arguably so that Zuma and his hangers-on don’t have to take the 4×4 all the way to Pietermaritzburg to do their shopping. (Not that the idea of ploughing big bucks into a blank spot on the map doesn’t have its advantages from a Keynesian economic perspective.)

But even this is interesting. The Minister of Local Government was hounded out of office for getting state cash for a tarmac road to his country mansion. Zuma has built both the road and the mansion at state expense and now plans to do still more at still greater public cost — yet nobody is calling for his resignation. It’s almost as if the hounds of the press are permitted to dash in Zuma’s direction, and bark a bit, but must under no circumstances bite. Whoever is holding them on the leash is in firm control.

Another excellent example is the way in which the impending National Conference is treated by the press. If Zuma were really as bad as his critics in the press sometimes suggest (and in reality he is far worse than that) then you would expect the press to support Zuma’s competitors. That is what they did in the run-up to Polokwane, after all. But on the “road to Mangaung”, as the press invariably put it (Mangaung being nearly at the centre of the country, almost all roads lead to it) the press is artfully refraining from taking sides. Instead, the contest is treated as one which is interesting, but not significant — very like a sports match. We are told, also, about who is speaking out against Zuma, or who is putting themselves forward for nomination as alternatives to Zuma’s nominees, but we are not told what their policies would be, or why they should be so deeply concerned to replace Zuma. The media wants us to be concerned about the leadership of the country — and to some extent, perhaps wants Zuma out — but goes to great lengths to refrain from saying why.

What the press is concerned with, therefore, is to prevent the public from becoming conscious or active. (In this, it is very like the press elsewhere in the world — in the United States, for examples, the Republican and Democratic Parties are united in their desire that the voters should pull the lever or push the button on the voting machines without ever wondering what they are actually voting for.) What is wanted, instead, is vague discontent, focused for preference upon various celebrity politicians who can be conveniently scapegoated by the press and thus replaced by other celebrity politicians who can again become the focus of future vague discontent. So long as the discontent does not become focussed, and particularly does not become concerned either with installing a politician not vetted by the people behind the press, or with recognising that the people behind the politicians are also the people behind the press, the ruling class in South Africa can go on fooling the public indefinitely.

It is a moot point whether this is actually possible. The bulk of the populace knows fairly well that conditions are bad and getting worse. They know what issues need to be addressed, and they know that nobody is actually addressing them. Therefore, they know that the politicians presented as their saviours are not their saviours; if they believed all that rubbish in 2007 they certainly don’t believe it now, and the ones who challenged the rubbish in 2007 are now well-equipped to say “We told you so”. By now, too, the sheer extent of socio-political inequality and the ever more obvious way in which big business dictates the public political agenda without the slightest pretense of consulting anyone except their employees in “civil society” organisations is upsetting just about everybody. Many people don’t understand what’s going on, but nearly everybody knows that the system is rigged against them and has a shrewd suspicion that someone is hiding behind that curtain.

And so it goes on; the rulers want to exploit the situation for their own benefit, while the rest of us hope somehow to pick up a few fragments of advantage from the disaster that is brewing, but don’t know how to do it.


The Dead Republic (I): Mittelschmertz.

August 30, 2012

The United States is a fascinating source of entertainment for those with strong stomachs and capable of viewing it from a distance. Watched on television or read about over the Internet, it generates much the same psychological effect as must have been experienced by Elizabethans who crowded excitedly around the sand-pit to watch a bull being torn bloodily apart by terriers. Plus, it provides the merciful and self-satisfying illusion that one is up here rather than being down there, in the United States, amid the blood, noise and stink.

The problem with this pleasant detachment, which is extremely and increasingly evident amid even American webloggers and the few astute members of the official commentariat of that country, is that it is simply an illusion. There is no place where America cannot reach, and if they can’t blow you apart with a Hellfire they’ll get you with Goldman Sachs.

Dear old Julius Nyerere of Tanzania once remarked that Tanzanians should have the right to vote in American elections, since the media informed them more thoroughly about those elections than about the ones in their own country. He had a point. At the very least, we should be trying to find out what is going on in the United States, and if there are any chinks in their armour through which we can fit the needle-blade of a misericord.

It seems rather obvious that there are, for the United States is in a fairly bad way as a World Power. It has enormous global influence, of course; it can terrorise Syria with the best of them, and Western Europe looks instinctively to New York to decide whether the stock markets in Frankfurt or London go up or down. However, it is light-years away from the bright days of fantasy under Clinton, when it seemed to have won the Cold War and to be the unsurpassable ruler of the Free World and so on.

Let’s not forget that the Bush rampage was essentially a reaction to decline; Bush had convinced himself (with the help of a large team of like-minded imbeciles) that the Indispensible Nation was in decline because of the weak liberalism of Clinton, and that throwing a bit of weight around would resolve all the problems, especially those of international respect and financial crisis. Instead, America discovered that invading the Middle East was hard (having not learned from Israel’s fiascoes because the American neoconservatives listened to Israeli politicians rather than Israeli generals) and also discovered that in the end, lying about how rich you are doesn’t make you get any richer.

Obama has simply been trying to do the same sort of thing with far less resources, meaning less opportunity for error, and far less political support. His own party supports him only tepidly, being dimly aware of how corrupt and evil his policies are and more thoroughly aware of how unpopular his policies are everywhere outside the United States. His policies have made the United States far less secure, since apart from being universally disliked and distrusted, it is also weaker because of the financial catastrophe which he has done nothing to ameliorate. Hence, it’s about time that someone challenged him. However, it is impossible for this to happen from within the Democratic Party. Almost unprecedentedly, nobody even put up a primary candidate to challenge him, for fear that otherwise the vile Republicans might take heart from a division in the divine Democratic Party. Meanwhile, all potential third-parties are weak, gutless, heartless and hopeless. The OCCUPY movement, never as lively as its press agents made it appear, is dead. It would seem, therefore, that there is nothing to be expected from the left or from the stinking carcase of what was once liberalism in America.

Therefore one must turn to the conservatives for succour. Surely they, with their immense funding, their vast army of activists backed by researchers, their dominance of American intellectual journals, can provide an effective counterweight to Obama? Perhaps they can. However, there is no sign that they want to.

The Republican Party in the United States appears to have become a very strange organisation — perhaps stranger than most leftists realise. The American Right has been bizarre, by left-wing standards, for a long time. However, it is worth noting that the American Right has at least had an objective, a case on its own terms, since the days of Goldwater. The Right’s contention has always been that its opponents were cowards and also perverts, who were also selling the country out for gold, but also out of a desire for the destruction of America for its own sake. This was because the Right believed that its own policies were not merely perfect but self-evidently perfect, and therefore anyone else’s had to be not only wrong, but wilfully wrong.

This made a certain amount of sense so long as the actual goal shielded by this nonsensical concept was quite plain — to reverse the gains made by the American working class between 1880 and 1950. This was a reasonable, even understandable project, and since one of the chief allies of the American working class had been the liberals (who had basically allowed American workers to enjoy a satisfactory standard of living in exchange for social harmony) it was natural that this was cloaked under a denunciation of the liberals. (Since the liberals speedily jettisoned all support for the workers the moment they felt themselves criticised, this was not necessary, but it was convenient — because the effective demonisation of liberalism could be used by the ruling class to mobilise even the working class against its own interests.)

All very well, but there were a couple of problems. The United States in 2000 was not the same as the United States in 1880, when it had been splendidly isolated from the rest of the world, impervious to foreign attack and almost entirely self-sufficient in manufacture and resource. It faced stiff competition from powerful foreign economic entities. Moreover, sustaining its society was technologically complicated. There was little value generated by unskilled labour; therefore, an educated labour force was needed, and such a labour force was very different from the blue-collar underclass exploited by the American elite in 1880. An educated labour force would be aware of the advantages enjoyed by educated labour forces in other countries; it would therefore be unhappy at being reduced below their level. It could be expected to resist, and if it did not resist it would become demoralised. This labour force was needed for its brains, and if it were intellectually depressed, the performance of its brains would suffer.

There was an additional problem. In 1880 the middle class had been small. By 1980, it had grown to a sizeable part of the population. If the ruling class were to acquire as vast a slice of the national income as it had enjoyed in 1880, the middle class would simply have to go. But unfortunately, the middle class was absolutely essential, because it was the class which generated the trade in goods and services which sustained the economy of the United States. Return to a pre-Fordist social structure would mean returning to a system under which the overwhelming majority could not buy very much — and therefore, the minority could not sell them very much. In other words, it required a considerable contraction of the US economy, and therefore ultimately a contraction of the wealth of the US minority. A return to the Gilded Age would mean a return to the age when billionaires were a rarity.

It seems quite clear that the American Right did not think at all about these things, and therefore went ahead and did what it could to slash wages, slash taxes, reduce social services, cut back on infrastructure maintenance, ship jobs overseas, downsize manufacturing in favour of financial services, and all the other things which neoliberalism brings us. Inevitably, with all this came stagnant growth and expanding unemployment. To counter this, the American Right permitted massive borrowing to finance the goods and services on credit. To reduce the cost of imported goods, the American Right obliged the same policies to be implemented everywhere in the world that the American writ ran. As a result, when this unsustainable system led to a financial collapse, it happened almost everywhere except in Russia and China and parts of Latin America, precisely the places where the American system was frowned on.

The apotheosis of this system is Willard “Mitt” Romney, the billionaire fund manager who has become the Republican candidate for the Presidency. That he is rich, effete and out of touch with the average American is obvious, but this is a red herring; the same is true of almost anyone who is likely to become a candidate for the job. What is much more problematic is that he appears to have no idea that the system which he is trying to manage is getting dangerously out of control.

Romney, following on the approved right-wing script, accuses his opponent of being socialistic — because he did not allow various American corporations to collapse, but instead gave them government loans when they went bankrupt due to their incompetence and due to the disasters caused by the system generated by the American government. He proclaims that the core problem is that government is doing too much, and that it must do less. To ensure that it does less, he wants to cut taxes, chiefly on the wealthy, even though America is currently running a vast budget deficit and is only very slowly growing, if at all. Tax cuts on the rich will not promote demand; they might promote investment, but America has immense amounts of surplus capital and is not investing it, so such cuts will simply expand this surplus. If the tax cuts do not increase growth then they will increase the budget deficit, providing excuses for further cuts in social services, but such cuts will definitely diminish demand.

It is evident that Romney has no new ideas and no consciousness of what his political class has done to the country. His concern is simply to defend what he has and to preserve the system which benefits him and his friends. It is essentially the same as the concern of his opponent, except that his opponent is also trying to pretend that he isn’t doing this — because forty years ago Democrats were supposed to oppose this sort of plutocracy, and sometimes even did oppose it a little. However, they opposed it out of a sense of fairness, not out of a sense of personal advantage. Whether or not the money was spread around a little, both Democrats and Republicans would remain rich. Now, however, the question is whether Romney’s economic policies — or even Obama’s — are actually sustainable, or whether the United States is not teetering on the edge of a complete breakdown of the economic system, a crisis of demand which will make 2007 seem minor.

It is probably this crisis which makes the United States and its allies ever more aggressive towards the weak countries which they want to plunder. There is no real difference between Obama and Romney over the proposed war with Iran. Meanwhile, Russia has provided India and China with improved weaponry with which to wage war with the United States should they need to, and China also has the money — while both Russia and India, and to a lesser extent Brazil, are unhappy at the way in which the United States’ global meddling is disrupting their own interests. Thus, just as the greatest power in the world finds itself in crisis and decline, the lesser powers find themselves indignant and empowered. The next few years may be a rather crisis-ridden period.


The Art of Destruction.

November 23, 2011

It isn’t easy to destroy things which the overwhelming majority wants to preserve. You can set fire to the Reichstag, but there’s always a chance that someone will rebuild it; you can slash a painting, but even if it is irreparable, someone will paint another painting. Destroying democracy, destroying art, destroying hope — this is difficult. It takes time to prepare it. First you have to make sure that the majority is powerless by securing all power for a minority; then you have to persuade a big chunk of that minority that it will gain from the destruction, then you have to sideline, silence or intimidate the rest of that minority. Even then, when you go ahead with the destruction, you must be careful to proclaim that you are merely clearing space for the triumphant creation of a New Jerusalem which everyone who experiences will praise and delight in.

What is being destroyed, in this case, is the developmental state adopted by the ANC in the early 1990s, the democratic consciousness of such developmentalism evolved in South African political struggle from the late 1970s, and the hope that someone might save us from the catastrophes into which colonialism, apartheid and neoliberal neocolonialism have plunged us. It is tricky. Outside the white community, very few South Africans have openly called for these things to be done. Instead, these actions are introduced by stealth, and with great care and caution, until they are implemented fully and hailed as the solution to all our problems.

The latest example of this process is the 300-page prologomena to a proposal for a memorandum of understanding regarding the possible development of a National Plan at some stage which has been issued to tremendous official acclaim by the Minister of Planning. It isn’t exactly an impressive document; it’s rather a 100,000-word truism, like being trapped in a lift with the most boring person you’ve ever met who won’t shut up for five hours straight.

But, on closer inspection, the truism is not innocent, either. The line coming down from the National Planning Commission is that we have all got to accept that the government cannot necessarily do anything for us. We need to do things for ourselves. Yes, we have all been sitting here, doing nothing, waiting for the government to do things for us. It is easy to remember how we were doing that under apartheid. Now we must cast this process aside and stand up for ourselves and do things for ourselves. We must create our own jobs, we must build our own houses, we must apparently do our own policing and our own healing and educating. The fact that we don’t know how to do these things, don’t have the resources to do these things, and in any case, that we pay taxes so that the government will do these things (and the government is not proposing to remit those taxes in exchange for us taking over the erstwhile work of the government) is trivial, unimportant.

What makes it unimportant is that the planners of the government are proclaiming that the government, ideally, shouldn’t do anything; therefore, incapacity doesn’t matter, weakness and helplessness don’t matter, the only thing that matters is that the government should not waste money on helping the people, who must help themselves. Whose money must they not waste? The money of the people who do not wish to pay taxes, that’s who. So, ultimately, what is going on is serving the interests of the rich against the poor.

No surprise there? No, no surprise. However, in the past people pretended to care about these things. Conditions have been so improved for the ruling class that their agents no longer need feel hampered by human feelings or compassion of any kind.

What actual “development” is envisaged by the Zuma administration? Electricity, certainly. Vast power plants built at great expense to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and vast power plants built at still greater expense to pour radioactivity into the soil (one hopes, not into the atmosphere, although we can never be certain of that). Healthcare — vast amounts of money to be spent on sending a minority of the poor to rich hospitals. Transport — vast amounts of money to be spent on superhighways built by large construction companies, financed by electronic tollbooths whose proceeds go to multinational corporations.

Of course one needs electricity and healthcare and transport, but all these things could be acquired in a developmental way — a way which promotes domestic employment and investment and does not cost so much foreign currency. So, in a sense, these things are being provided in an anti-developmental way. Why the Zuma administration has chosen to do things in this way is unnerving.

There are, however, signs of worse to come. An important issue is the Ministry of Human Settlement, which used to be Housing, which used to provide houses for the poor. Now, this Ministry has allowed the immense backlog of public housing to expand, because it has openly declared that it is no longer concerned with providing such housing. (Indeed, it has said that it is more concerned with mending the houses which have already been built, although it is not clear that this is actually happening — as with most Zuma administration declarations, this seems to be chiefly a publicity stunt.) Instead, the Ministry of Human Settlements says that henceforth people should attempt to acquire their own houses, with assistance from the private sector. Meanwhile, Human Settlements will supposedly devote a great deal of attention to providing service for informal settlements, although this does not seem to be actually happening.

The problem here is that the original RDP houses were supposed to be start-up houses for people who couldn’t afford their own houses. They were “matchboxes”, not because the ANC thought that people should live in matchboxes, but because they were supposed to be the core of bigger structures which people could build for themselves once they had somewhere stable to dwell. What Human Settlements is saying, therefore, is that the state will no longer provide this assistance — will no longer encourage people to live in better houses. So although the plan is being sold as a promotion of self-help (and an explicit attack on the previous promotion of self-help as being, supposedly, a handout which would promote dependence) it is actually an attack on the poor. Needless to say, the Left is saying absolutely nothing about this, because the person chiefly responsible for this project is a billionaire property-developing Leftist.

Unfortunately, there’s more. President Zuma has declared that the people need to take charge of their lives and stop expecting the government to do things for them. Then he went to Cannes and, addressing a business forum, declared that he was strongly opposed to protectionism (that is, to the economic policy which enables economies to grow rapidly and develop new industries). Various Ministers have echoed these sentiments, fundamentally saying that everybody needs to become entrepreneurs, under the most unfavourable business conditions imaginable, and that the government is not going to do anything at all to make these business conditions better. Communities must look after themselves, says the Minister of Planning, working through such developmental agencies as churches and sports clubs.

All this has not yet been wholly translated into policy, but the point is that Cabinet Ministers and the President and the Deputy President are all sounding off in a vein which nobody dared to open under Mandela, and which, under Mbeki, was essentially confined to the white-controlled press and business community. Effectively, they are attacking the notion of the developmental state, saying instead that people can go and develop themselves if they want any development. (This, so soon after they espoused the verbal concept of developmentalism, copying Mbeki’s born-again developmentalism which followed the end of GEAR.)

Of course, the concept of developmentalism is itself a bit suspect. The idea that the state, as separated from the people, can or should provide what the people want is an absurdity, and is often the process through which developmentalism becomes pure ruling-class control. But at the same time, the democratic state has a responsibility to provide the people with what they want, or to make it possible for the people to obtain what they want. Zuma and his merry men are repudiating this contract, not because they genuinely don’t believe that the state could do this if it were prepared to. They are repudiating the contract to discourage their audience from believing that the state can help them, because they want the state to help someone else — namely, the people who benefit from the exorbitant projects which Zuma and company are imposing on South Africa.

This is not really any different from the kind of state which evolved in the West — the Anglo-American model of do-nothing regime. But since this is happening courtesy of the ANC, it means that South Africa’s people are now being told that their liberation was for nothing, that in effect, the new state, which was supposed to serve the people, is in fact going to do nothing for them. What is more, this is what we have been told endlessly by the enemies of the ANC, since long before the liberation — that there would be no improvement, only a seizure of power by the corrupt and the incompetent. This idea saturates white South African politics and is the source of most of the comments that you will find posted by white reactionaries on South African weblogs.

But it’s scary to think that the ideas of those white reactionaries are now dominant in the minds of people who once fought for South African liberation. If this persists, it means the destruction of expectations and of historical hope. And then the terrorists will finally have won.