Problematising the Left (III): What Causes The Disconnect?

September 2, 2014

There is surely no reason to become a leftist for the money or the power. Nor is there a good reason to become a leftist in order to support the established elite. Therefore we can assume that bribery or good connections are not in themselves reasons why leftists come to support imperialism or plutocratic capitalism.

Still, they do. The previous couple of posts demonstrates this in some cases, and there are many more. The “neoconservative” movement in the United States, and the “New Labour” movement in Britain, rely heavily on former far-leftists who have shifted to reactionary positions. The reasons are obviously not simply idiosyncratic — the occasional intellectual who happens to have psychological problems, as one could argue that Arthur Koestler did. There are too many cases for that. Hence it must be some sort of problem arising out of some ideological assumptions or organisational circumstances related to the left.

It is tempting to see this as an epiphenomenon of the collapse of Communism; certainly that event did immense harm to the self-confidence of actual Marxists. (Nearly three decades later people like David Harvey are terrified of being overly prescriptive for fear of seeming Stalinist.) On the other hand, a lot of the people who are in this space, like most organised Trotskyites (and their predecessors) were always opposed to the USSR and the Communist Party (and are currently opposed to the Chinese government). So that might be a contributing factor for many, but not the sole or even the most important one.

Perhaps it is a more complex variant of such an epiphenomenon, however. The collapse of Communism meant the collapse of left-wing disciplined organisation, the collapse of confidence in the idea that socialism could be attained by the efforts of a massive phalanx of intellectuals and activists backed by the gigantic fist of the working class. Under such conditions all that was needed was unanimity around the correct line, which usually turned out to be the line provided by the Central Committee who received it from the Chairman, and which usually turned out to be the wrong line, so that the entire party and its allies marched together towards disaster. It is easy to see why this kind of political activism lost its attractiveness once it lost power — although in practice, despite their disavowals of it and their endless blather about democracy, most left-wing organisations adopt strikingly similar techniques.

But these techniques do not work without a tight-knit organisation backed by a powerful guiding ideology. Therefore left-wing organisations fragment and their members see themselves in individualist terms rather than in collectivist terms. Therefore again, such members, having adopted left-wing principles, feel no organisational or ideological allegiance. Nothing overrides their private opinions, as it does in an organised political movement; there is no sense of “Well, I don’t really like this, but I’ll do it for the good of the cause”.

In the contemporary world, this is particularly problematic because the overwhelming propaganda of the neoliberal reactionary movement is everywhere. Thus on one hand such individualistic leftists are in danger of buying into the propaganda inadvertently, and on the other hand, because they are individuals and lack collective support, they are in danger of adopting the position that since the propaganda is overwhelming and there is no visible sign of an alternative, some kind of compromise is necessary and even sensible. This compromise would probably take the form of accepting some of the policies of the neoliberals while rejecting (or pretending to reject) others. This is exactly what the social democrats did, and it proved to be suicidal; the left condemned them only, seemingly, to fall victim to the same disastrous practices.

So the left is not only organisationally dissipated, but its members are liable to become stealth supporters of the current oppressive and exploitative regime. This is not the same as the way in which non-members of left-wing organisations have always flitted in and out; people who impulsively decided to join a radical movement and then equally impulsively decided to leave were leftists before they joined and remained leftists afterward. What seems to be happening now, however, is that many leftists are finding ways to cease to be leftists after they have become dedicated leftists, and therefore use their existing leftist techniques to pursue their no-longer-leftist policies, while continuing to pretend to be leftists! What we have, therefore, is a flood of Koestlers rather than Burnhams; a flood of people who insist that their socialist god has not failed, but who, when you look inside their temple, turn out to be worshipping the golden calf with a cartoon of Marx sellotaped onto its face.

Since these people don’t know that they are frauds, because they are fooling themselves, they are convincingly self-righteous, and many who see through them are repelled from the whole left, deeming this a typical characteristic — which all too often it is.

Another problem which may help account for the curious disconnect of the left from sane or healthy political standpoints is its state of being frozen in time. There is a sense in which the left’s lack of faddishness is healthy. Admittedly, the left does have its own intellectual fashions, certain ideas or patterns of ideas which are (or were, back when the left was more coherent) in vogue from time to time. However, for much of the history of the left there was a strong sense of not being fooled by the accident of contemporary circumstances. Believing that they were in touch with a historical movement which might take centuries to work out but which would almost certainly end up in their favour — a coherent popular exponent of this was Jack London in The Iron Heel — they did not allow themselves to be distracted by momentary issues whether these were for or against them. (Of course, this was taken to mad extremes by the Stalinists, who didn’t allow trifling problems like the suppression of the German Communist Party to distract them into focussing much serious attention on the Nazis until it was much too late.)

But today the left takes this to even more of an extreme. Louis Proyect, for instance, refers to those who choose to support the Eastern Ukrainian resistance (or at least condemn the imperialist project which installed the junta in power in Kiyiv) as “campists”. Does this mean that he is accusing them of being ostentatiously homosexual? No, he is accusing them of dividing the world into a socialist camp and a capitalist camp, unlike sensible Trotskyites like himself who recognise that the two sides are both capitalist and therefore should both be rejected. In other words he is living in the 1960s, or at least wishes that he were and wants his readers to believe the same. A large part of the left, at least the renegade, pro-NATO left, has adopted comparable tactics — where appropriate, adopting Cold War attitudes towards Russia or China, or transposing these onto the Islamic world (while, usually, finding themselves able to support those “Islamofascists” who happen to be receiving military assistance from NATO and its Wahhabi friends in the Gulf).

But the world is not exactly the same as it was in the 1960s. The left is in an infinitely weaker position across much of the world than it enjoyed in those days. The most important problems confronted by the world are even worse than they were in those days — and meanwhile most of the problems which existed in the 1960s have not gone away. It’s just that the left no longer possesses the power to address them, which makes it tempting to assume that they cannot be addressed except by more powerful forces — which usually means forces which are actually opposed to the left, like “civil society organisations” and plutocratic entities and so on, but which are often perfectly willing to adopt leftist guises and even permit leftists to act as their frontpeople. There, again, the left is fooling only itself — especially since the left’s ideological structures are increasingly unknown to the broader public which is not exposed to them because the left lacks the means to promote its ideas.

Can all this, then, be solved? Can the left avoid this process by which so much of its leadership, and sometimes even its organisations, turn into the opposite of what they set out to be, while loudly declaring the success and integrity of their positions?

One hopeful point is that this doesn’t really seem to happen so much in situations outside the ambit of the Western left. The Maoists in India and its environs, or even the more left-wing of the Bolivarians in Latin America, do not seem so liable to fall into this trap — perhaps because, however improbable their causes, they nevertheless have something which needs to be accomplished and which they know cannot be accomplished by reciting the phrases of their enemies while implausibly mumbling about one’s commitment to Marxism in stale jargonistic phrases. Nor are they, by and large, plagued by a lack of organisation, or even of desire for organisation. They know that there is real danger out there with which they must deal, even if their response to this danger is often irrational. Even our own Economic Freedom Fighters, however doctrinally insipid or intellectually shallow they may appear, know that things are tough and getting tougher and that someone has to fight their corner if they are to survive, and that if they don’t, nobody else will, and that their enemies are not going to magically transform into their friends through compromise or adopting their phraseology.

However, the Third World is not the solution. Ultimately, the leftists of the developed world are needed to bring about revolutionary change and stop the developed world from attacking the rest of us. Somehow, then, the wealthy leftists of the world need to be persuaded to shed their insufferable smugness and their treacherous weakness and become real leftists again, or else we are all still in big trouble; victory in Vietnam did not matter when the Western far right was able to transfer its aggression to other things, and today Vietnam is more neoliberal than not. It’s hard to see how this can be done, but perhaps South Africa and Latin America are the places to learn how to do it.

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Back to the Future Election.

November 20, 2008
The last time the Creator contemplated the coming election it seemed that the ANC was going to grit its teeth and buckle down. Since then, the Zuma gang have smashed the whole china shop. However, the fact that they are standing knee-deep in shards, mooing loudly, does not necessarily mean that nobody is going to vote for their bull. Come, let us reason together.

And, to reason properly, let us have a Table, for who can reason without a Table?

Party Percentage of vote in 2004 Constituency
ANC 69% Africans of all classes, middle-class urban coloureds and indians, working-class rural coloureds and indians.
DA 10% Whites, working-class urban coloureds and indians, everyone who hates the ANC, most rich people.
IFP 6% Zulu nationalists
UDM 2% Africans who miss the homeland system.
FF+ 1% White afrikaners who miss apartheid.

It’s immediately obvious that this is a stable situation. The ANC has a broad base and the other parties have narrow bases. The ANC has some capacity to make inroads into the other parties’ constituencies whereas the other parties have very limited capacity to do the same. This is, basically, why the ANC has grown by 9% since 1994.

But hold! Policies do count. In other countries policies don’t count because all parties have essentially the same policies. In South Africa there are a few differences. Let us see what they are:

Party Percentage of vote in 2004 Professed ideology
ANC 69% 60% social democracy, 30% neoliberalism, 10% black consciousness.
DA 10% 60% neoliberalism, 40% white supremacy
IFP 6% 50% neoliberalism, 40% Zulu supremacy, 10% black consciousness.
UDM 2% 100% humbug
FF+ 1% 90% white supremacy, 10% social democracy.

This table, subjective as it is, suggests some important issues. The FF+ has no prospect of growing and will probably gradually fold into the DA. The UDM and IFP have no prospect of growing and will probably gradually fold into the ANC. This means that, even more than appeared to be the case in the previous table, the ANC looks like a winner; it has the potential to win over 8% of the voters while the DA has only 1% to win over. (Actually this is not quite true because there are a number of tiny parties like the ID and the ACDP which the DA will eventually take over when they have served their purpose.)

The big issue is that very, very few ANC voters will go over to any of the other parties. They simply have no reason to. The fact is that while the ANC has neoliberal elements to it, very few will vote for it because of this. If you are a neoliberal, chances are you will support the DA. And, if you are a social democrat, you have no reason to vote for any other party. Hence this keeps electoral support stable.

Of course, people may distrust the ANC’s leadership — in other words, may doubt that their professed ideology is real. But it would take a very big degree of distrust to drive people into other parties. This is why the ANC’s support went up between 1999 and 2004 — admittedly, after 2002 the ANC softpedalled neoliberalism. There is also, often, a big disjunct between what people say and the way they vote, simply because the press and various political leaders attack the ANC for its neoliberalism and many people will heartily agree with this and then go off and vote for the ANC again. Most people can recognise the difference between partly neoliberal and wholly neoliberal parties and policies, even if from a Trotskyite point of view there is no difference — except that Trotskyites usually prefer the wholly neoliberals, on the basis of “the worse, the better”. But the rest of us don’t spend all our time on campus and living in the real world is a powerful antidote to Trotskyism.

But what happens when you don’t know, or trust, the leaders of the ANC? Let’s have another table and see:

Party Percentage of vote in 2009

(with plausible leaders)

Percentage of vote in 2009

(with Zuma leadership)

ANC 71% 65%
DA 11% 13%
IFP 5% 5%
UDM 1% 2%
FF+ 1% 1%

The assumption here is that the ANC’s share would go up with plausible leadership, but would go down with dubious leadership — but only to a limited extent. After all, Zuma could be a fluke, or his promises might come true after all. Because people would stay away from the polls the DA’s share would go up (and also with bad ANC leadership the DA would have good grounds for getting the vote out). The IFP would not benefit (Zuma is a Zulu nationalist who has good relations with many of their leaders) but might stay the same because of low turnouts. The UDM would probably benefit from low turnouts and a degree of protest voting. The FF+ is hopeless.

Note that this is not a big change, and this is roughly what the Creator predicted. But now the ANC has been driven into a split. The question is, how far will it split? The new party, the Congress of the People, is often called a “splinter” party, which suggests that it is pretty insignificant, like the UDM. However, the CoPe has a lot more leaders than the UDM, and is represented in a lot more provinces, and has a surprisingly large amount of money coming from somewhere — also, despite being rather inept in some ways, it has fairly dynamic and high-profile leaders. Hence it is automatically several times as significant as the UDM. Three times would put it at 6%. Five times would put it at 10%. The party is talking about winning the Eastern Cape, Free State, North-West and Limpopo, which constitutes about half the ANC’s support-base and this puts it at 30%. Which of these seem most plausible?

The probable answer is in between the extremes. CoPe is essentially identical to the ANC in its professed ideology and its target constituency. Perhaps the CoPe hopes to make inroads into the DA’s support base, or at least to hijack some of the supporters from other parties who might otherwise have moved into the DA — CoPe is less unattractively reactionary than the DA. On the other hand, with the exception of Phillip Dexter, CoPe has no visceral leftists in its ranks (Shilowa is no longer an obvious leftist, despite his trade union background). It could thus be hampered by its lack of social-democratic credentials — though it is very probable that the Zuma faction have already overplayed their hand in propaganda terms around this issue; nobody can see any of Zuma’s acolytes as left-wing anti-capitalists.

How disgruntled is the ANC membership? We know that Mbeki had a 40% support-base at Polokwane, but election-rigging and sheer confusion means that this probably underestimates the actual anti-Zuma base. If this 40% were the CoPe’s resource, then that would translate to at least 27% of the total vote, putting the ANC itself down to 42%. However, conference delegates are not the same as voters; it is likely that the average voter was less upset about Polokwane than the delegates were.

On the other hand, the average voter is undeniably peeved with the ANC. If it is true, as some claim, that virtually all the provincial elections this year have been rigged to install Zuma supporters, then this would build an even stronger potential base for CoPe. It is certainly true that since Polokwane the ANC has done nearly nothing to win the public’s trust — and their passivity, incoherence and lack of direction since Zuma and Motlanthe seized power has not helped either. The bullying, bluster and occasional thuggery which we have seen will undoubtedly upset those voters who are not blind Zuma supporters (and there are much fewer of those than there are blind Zuma supporters among the political elite, simply because the political elite is easily bribed).

A guess: if the ANC continues to blunder along with its present incompetence, and if the CoPe are able to present a manifesto with a reasonable amount of left-wing content (a simple Keynesian platform of doubling spending on housing and public works, and setting up a state development corporation to channel that money into labour-intensive activity, would probably be enough and would present the CoPe as more concerned about the economic crisis than the ANC is) — then the CoPe might be able to push 30%. The Creator cannot imagine that they would do better than that. If the ANC gets its act together, outflanks the CoPe from the left and stops bullshitting so much, it might be able to hold the CoPe below 10%. Hence, maybe, a plausible figure would be 15% for the CoPe. Let’s put that in tabular form again (leaving out the decided possibility that the CoPe will fail altogether and get under 5%) and see what happens:

Party Smart ANC, dumb CoPe Average ANC, average CoPe Dumb ANC, smart CoPe
ANC 58% 53% 39%
CoPe 9% 15% 30%
DA 12% 11% 11%
IFP 4% 4% 3%
UDM 2% 1% 1%
FF+ 1% 1% 1%

(This assumes that the IFP might be vulnerable to a serious CoPe campaign, but omits the possibility that the ID’s voters might defect to the CoPe en masse.)

It might well be an interesting election.