The Drift Goes On.

September 2, 2014

In the South African government, nothing has been attempted, no new initiatives established, not a single challenge confronted, since the elections. It is not necessary now that the elections are won and Zuma does not need to take any action to confirm his position in power. So we continue to drift towards the rocks, with only a few gentle bumps under our keel to illustrate what awaits us.

Such as the exposure of Pallo Jordan. Such as the bailout of African Bank. Such as the dismal failure of the Farlam and Seriti Commissions. These are not substantial events, but they are pointers towards our ultimate disaster.

Jordan’s is a mildly interesting case. He constructed a remarkable career as a victim of the ANC’s anti-intellectualism. He had been, it will be recalled, the chief of the ANC’s public relations in exile, not an inglorious job but not actually one providing much access to serious popular attention. The people from whom Jordan received substantial attention, however, were the whites who went to meet with ANC delegations in the late 1980s. As PR boss Jordan was naturally involved in all such meetings and was thus able to focus attention upon himself. Whites returned from these meetings to say that while there were a lot of fools and extremists in the ANC, still there were also some decent people in the ANC, like Jordan. Why, he had, according to him, almost been imprisoned by the ANC for speaking his mind! Anyone who was almost imprisoned by the ANC had to be a good guy, obviously; just as Vaclav Havel had to be a good guy because he had almost been imprisoned by the Czech Communists.

Jordan was an ideal person for this particular job. He had slipped into the ANC almost by default — his tradition was not Charterist, but Non-European Unity Movement. Not only did he thus come from a political heritage of being an impotent blowhard, but his dad was a novelist whose main work was so thoroughly uncontroversial that it was made into a TV series by the SABC in the 1980s. (Not that it’s a bad book, by the way.) He was university-trained, urbane, had a Western accent — everything which whites liked about black people.

The only thing which held him back, apart from his drinking problem, was the fact that he was not sufficiently subservient to white capital. The trouble was twofold: as a senior ANC member, but not very high up, he was not free to sell out; as a member of the ANC’s nominal left wing and Africanist wing, selling out to white capital was theoretically against his principles. Meanwhile, because he was not one of the party bosses he was not offered enough of a bargain by the whites to overcome his scruples. Hence he remained, very conveniently, as a mildly pink (but black) liberal with good connections in the white political and academic world, available after the unbanning of the ANC for parties and functions generally (at least when sober) and always ready to say things which sounded radical without actually either breaching the limits of permissible rhetoric within the ANC or alienating his support-base.

All this was very fine, and yet there was something which he lacked, something needed perhaps to earn the respect of his white bourgeois support-base if he were to be seen as an intellectual. So he falsified his curriculum vitae; he pretended that he had completed his abandoned degree at an American cow-college and he then pretended that he had acquired a doctorate from the London School of Economics. Risky? Who was going to check? He was not using academic credentials to apply for any job. But Pallo Jordan was merely a motormouthed ANC member; Dr. Pallo Jordan was an intellectual with a capital i, a man to whom you had to listen even though he had nothing to say that you had not heard before.

Since he was a man congenial to the white ruling classes, they were not going to ask too many questions. And, since having a man with a doctorate was handy for the ANC’s image, they were not going to ask too many questions. So he was safe — for a while. As it turned out, he was safe for twenty years, though for every one of those twenty years he must have had at the back of his mind the question of what would happen when he was found out. He never had the power to suppress exposure. Meanwhile, he could do nothing about it having once made the lie public; he couldn’t even register for a real PhD, because that would require him to admit that he didn’t have an undergraduate degree in the first place.

The only other question to ask is why he has been exposed at this late date. It is not really plausible that Gareth van Onselen went through the credentials of every ANC cabinet minister since 1994 looking for evidence of fakery. (Apart from anything else, he would doubtless have found a lot more stuff.) Someone must have decided to pass the Jordan story on to Van Onselen. Was it an ANC person? Then why not nail him much earlier, when he was still an undistinguished cabinet minister? Thabo Mbeki had reason to nail him long ago, when he was siding with Mbeki’s enemies — instead, as was Mbeki’s habit, he put Jordan in the Cabinet, where he remained even after Mbeki’s downfall as the least distinguished of Ministers. Of course, someone could have developed a personal antipathy to Jordan — he slept with the wrong person, he spoke to the wrong people — it is hard to guess. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely given the white liberal conduit through which the message passed, perhaps the white ruling class decided that Jordan was no longer of interest to them and could safely be sacrificed. And then came the usual flurry of humbug, fools and charlatans defending Jordan, fools and charlatans attacking Jordan, fools and charlatans distancing themselves from Jordan. Nothing is to be gained from that, of course.

But is anything ever to be gained? It is only seven years ago that the global financial system was brought to its knees by unsecured lending — that is, banks lending money to people who could under no circumstances pay it back, and then lending more money out by pretending that those people would be able to pay the money back and hence it could be counted as good debts. At that time South Africa’s banking system still existed in the shadow of a cautious Minister of Finance named Manuel; dishonest and reactionary he might have been, but he had one thing which distinguished him from the pure neoliberals — he was prepared to tolerate banking regulation, at least within some limits. So banks were required to have some solid basis for the money they loaned out, and the South African banking system itself remained largely unaffected by debt crises which destroyed banks bigger than the whole South African economy.

But then we were in a depression, and in a depression people need money, especially rich people who already have money. And the banks were getting few deposits because nobody had cash to put in them. (How foolish of the people not to have money, as the corporate economists always point out!) And meanwhile all the restraints on corporate neoliberalism were removed when all the social democrats in the ANC were kicked out of government. The next step was obvious — let the banks do whatever they want, mix and match all the “registered financial services providers”, a term which sometimes seems to mean the financial equivalent of spaza shops but usually just means bucket-shops. Confuse everybody and unleash the dogs of capital!

And so a couple of years ago a brilliant idea came to South Africa — unsecured lending! All those people out there with no money — let’s lend them money! What could go wrong? And indeed we were told that this would save everybody from loan-sharks because these were serious banks with serious knowledge of the market, and who were we to criticise them? Why, loan-sharks were responsible for Marikana! (Yes, people really said that. It’s as plausible as anything that comes out of Dali Mpofu’s mouth, after all.) And needless to say the leading light in unsecured lending was the African Bank, a bank not controlled by africans, but who asks questions when Afrika is calling? As recently as a month or so ago the corporate pages of the newspapers were telling us that African Bank would overcome the collapse of its share price and defeat the creditors circling it like bacteriophages.

Well, of course they were lying. African Bank turned out to have lent money to serious creditors on the basis of ten billion rands of bad debts and was placed under curatorship by the Reserve Bank, which had permitted it to get into such a pickle in the first place. No doubt someone will make a pile of money out of African Bank’s assets — the debtors are already being ordered to keep hurling their money into the financial bonfire which African Bank has become. No doubt nobody will be punished for the deregulation which led to the problem, and no doubt other banks which are engaged in the same practices will not stop their unsecured lending, but will instead work harder to cover it up and to try to make deals with creditors. At present the economy is moving slowly into depression. How many other banks are in African Bank’s position? Unfortunately, if we find out, the consequences are likely to be catastrophic on our already anaemic and half-dead economy.

And will our anaemic and half-dead civil society be able to bear up under the strain of such economic crisis? Not if its performance at the Farlam and Seriti Commissions is anything to go by.

These two Commissions exemplify everything which is wrong with our civil society, which runs largely on money and lawyers anyway. They were both set up on the supposition that when you put a judge in charge of something, something will get done — which is true, although since our judges are a pack of bought rascals and nincompoops, we can usually be sure that this “something” will not be worth the candle. Like all Commissions of Enquiry, they were also set up to cover the arses of government by pretending to get something done on an issue of supposed importance. However, what’s interesting is how differently they have pursued their paths, sought their goals, and been responded to by those who have pretended to clamour for truth and justice.

The Farlam Commission investigating events surrounding the 2012 Rustenburg mine strike, the violence which accompanied it and the police massacre at Marikana in August that year, was headed by a white man, the Seriti Commission by a black man. This difference accounts for much of the different treatment of the two commissions by the whites who own or control civil society organisations; the Seriti Commission was denounced from the start whereas the Farlam Commission was welcomed from the start.

However, it’s not only about racism. The Farlam Commission would potentially expose wrongdoings of the ANC government which were known to exist. The Seriti Commission would potentially expose wrongdoings of the ANC government which were claimed to exist. In the former case it was simply about revealing what was known; in the latter case, people who had been making claims for a decade and a half would have to provide evidence that their claims were real. In other words, civil society had no problem with Farlam, because they could lose nothing by prancing about making accusations about events which everybody had watched on Youtube; the problem with Seriti was that many leading lights in civil society might find themselves having to confess that the accusations which they had already made were not founded on any factual information.

Farlam’s commission stumbled about like blind men, failing to focus on anything clearly, evidence appearing before it chaotically and with endless debates over whether or not anyone could be found to pay the ludicrous, exorbitant fees which all the lawyers for the various parties — the so-called “evidence leaders” — were charging, and without which, supposedly, the Commission would grind to a halt. Farlam exerted all the physical authority of a quadriplegic with a speech impediment; he failed to provide leadership or guidance for any of the evidence leaders, allowing them to rant at will but without seemingly showing any concern about accuracy or relevance, and certainly without participating himself as all competent commission judges in the past have done. In short, it was perfect, so far as civil society was concerned — but completely useless so far as an investigation into events at Marikana was concerned, which is why nothing has come out of the commission but blather, bullshit and repetition of what had already been said many times before.

Seriti’s commission has been brisk and well-organised. Since they were (allegedly) supposed to find out whether anything had gone wrong apropos the arms deal, they structured the commission as an investigation — first call in the people responsible for the whole affair, and then call in their critics to explain what they had done wrong. So they called in the military to say whether they wanted arms (yes, they had) and whether they were happy with the arms they had got (yes, they were) and then called in the politicians involved in the arms deal to say whether they were crooks (no, they weren’t).

The whole sequence, of course, provided a glorious opportunity for the representatives of critics of the arms deal to have their say. They could provide evidence that the military had not wanted or needed arms. They could provide evidence that the arms acquired had not fulfilled the desires of the military. They could provide evidence of political corruption in the arms deal. Nothing whatsoever was stopping them.

Instead, they did essentially nothing. They called the bona fides of the witnesses into question, which would be significant if a crime were being discussed, but no evidence of any crime was presented. They cited unsubstantiated newspaper reports (probably planted by themselves) that the witnesses were lying. They blustered a lot; Paul Hoffmann even tried to bully Thabo Mbeki, and burst into tears when his bizarre boorishness led inevitably to accusations of racism against him. But nobody provided any evidence to justify having set up the Seriti Commission in the first place.

We are still waiting for the second half of this commission, during which the people who failed to provide evidence during the first half will have an opportunity to provide evidence. But why should they do so later, having failed in the first case? After all, many have already been revealed in previous court cases to have lied about having evidence, such as Patricia de Lille and Terry Crawford-Browne, or have become laughing-stocks like Paul Hoffmann. Others, like Richard Young, have (after a decade and a half darkly proclaiming what they could reveal if given the chance) suddenly discovered prior commitments and sound excuses for not turning up on time, if at all.

Manifestly, our civil society loves commissions of enquiry led by flabby weaklings which fail to confront the issue, but hates commissions of enquiry which attempt to actually investigate anything. In other words, our civil society is a crowd of bullshitters with plenty to hide. Presumably they can be bought by any bank, however insolvent, and no doubt any of them with a false CV can be sure of mutual protection. But, Lord, aren’t they good at making accusations against everybody except themselves!


Rethinking Ernesto Laclau (III): Lessons for South Africans.

October 7, 2013

Laclau seems like something of an irrelevancy for South Africans. We were rather busy overthrowing apartheid while he was celebrating the collapse of Communism. (The extreme right claims that apartheid was purely and solely an anti-Communist project). Few of us were Trotskyites, and postmodernism never gained much of a political footing (except, again, among the extreme right, who found, like Balkan nationalists, that postmodern identity politics could be employed very well to provide intellectual support for their racism). So the opinions of a postmodern Trotskyite about the collapse of Communism and the ultimate wrongness of Marxism don’t seem to have much impact on us.

However, it’s what Laclau says, and the way that he says it, that matters, because it helps to explain the way people of that ilk think. Most probably, the big issue here is that most people who are actually in Laclau’s court pretend not to be — but in 1990 it was trendy to sound as reactionary as that; nowadays even Zizek pretends to be a leftist (except when he’s backing fascism in the Balkans, of course). Thus when we look at Laclau we can see what may be going on behind the masks of contemporary pseudo-leftists who resemble him.

It’s not, however, a simple matter. There are several “lefts” within South Africa and in many organisations they are blended together. Virtually all of these “lefts” appear to have a grand central legitimating narrative — the pursuit of freedom and equality, in essence. It is the way in which freedom and equality are pursued which distinguishes these “lefts”, although the fact that they all have the same discursive objective — which doesn’t mean that they have the same actual objective — may mean that they can work together. Laclau’s argument against any kind of central authority or any central legitimating narrative might thus seem to distinguish these “lefts” from Laclau’s point of view.

But is this the case? The liberal “left” pursues the goal of freedom for the rich — focussing, via neoliberalism, on the rights of capital, and via constitutionalism, on the absolute authority of the laws which the rich have had drawn up to serve their interests, and the judges whom the rich have trained and hired to serve their interests. Equality in this case means that everybody has the right to spend their wealth with equal freedom, and everybody has equal obligation to obey those laws which apply to them — an equality which happens to mean that the rich are essentially unrestrained by anything and the poor are restricted by vast hedges of prohibitive ordinances. We can thus see here that abstractions on the liberal “left” are used to justify actual, concrete repressive practices, and also to conceal that those practices are repressive. This is perhaps clumsier than Laclau’s position, but it is something which he would, to a large extent, endorse.

It is not surprising that our liberal “left” has echoes of Laclau’s position, given that Laclau is basically a neoliberal in Marxist drag. Another major issue for the liberal “left” is democracy, which Laclau also endorses as the ultimate political goal, and in this case the liberal “left” sees democracy as the right of the people to give power to a small cabal chosen by the liberal “left”, a cabal whose narrow policies, all serving ruling-class interests, are dictated by the liberal “left” and where there is essentially no place for debate or discussion. This might seem unsympathetic to Laclau, who claims to constantly desire debate and discussion — but since Laclau is hostile to all collective political positions aimed at pursuing a clearly-defined goal (these being therefore grand narratives) he would actually be quite comfortable with a totalitarian system provided that it did not overtly require public acts of submission. (Laclau and the neoliberals both approve of public acts of submission to totalitarianism which are made on an ostensibly individual basis, and which are therefore, in liberal terms, free choices.)

The Stalinist tradition informing the Charterist movement might seem anathematic to Laclau. Indeed, it is again ostentatiously a pursuit of grand narratives, and ones which — unlike the liberal ones — bear some relationship to political reality and practice. The ANC’s narrative circles around “a better life for all” courtesy of “growth, employment and redistribution” of wealth and power. COSATU’s narrative circles around “decent work for decent pay” against a backdrop of incoherent distrust of big business and the “neoliberals” who are identified as sell-outs within the ANC. The SACP’s narrative is still less coherent, amounting to the pursuit of socialism through a “national democratic” process and a similar incoherent distrust of big business. All these grand narratives, although they appear to have defined ends and means, are actually so flexible as to be virtually meaningless.

The practice of Stalinism is to take the shortest, crudest road to an immediate political or socio-economic goal — which, interestingly, resembles the “problem-solving” approach which Laclau favours. Under traditional Stalinism, however, the process of perpetually cutting the Gordian knot — whether by squeezing the peasants, massacring the middle class or the landlords, or building gigantic engineering projects with forced labour — is aimed at introducing the prerequisites for a socialist state under continual attack from capitalist powers (which attacks provide additional legitimacy for Stalinist policies). Stalinism’s small-scale problem-solving, therefore, was aimed at trying to attain a far grander objective — the liberation of the global working class. Now that this liberation is no longer a goal, Stalinist practices and problem-solving activities have to be justified on their own terms, and the brutality and repression involved is no longer legitimated by any real grand narrative. Although the language of the Stalinist movement in South Africa remains idealist, the actual practice of the Tripartite Alliance belies this — at best it is the small-scale problem-solving activity of Laclau’s politics, and more often than not, what appears to be small-scale problem-solving is actually intended not to solve problems such as poor service delivery or a lack of infrastructure, but simply to enrich individuals and entrench their control of patronage. This is the core problem with Laclau’s ideological hostility to idealism, that without idealism corruption and greed go unchallenged, and it is being worked out in practice here.

But what of the far left which is largely disempowered and therefore can still be seen as idealist? The bulk of this far left is Trotskyite (incorporating anarchists in this general category) and therefore Laclau is speaking to them more than to anyone else. He wants them to abandon grand narratives (such as Trotsky approved of) and pursue fractured and short-term goals.

Like the Stalinists, South African Trotskyites have eschewed all serious critique of capitalism — although this was relatively easy to do since they did not do this in the past. They have, however, also gradually moved away from their traditional critique of Stalinism towards focussing on attacking the ANC. Such attacks are rarely based on large issues — except in a rhetorical sense, where the ANC is denounced as having sold out to capitalism — sometimes legitimately, within the narrow terms of the accusation, but often these denunciations are false and rooted in the ignorance and prejudice of the audience for the attacks.

The positive side of Trotskyism, however, has been devoted to smaller problem-solving. Providing antiretrovirals, providing housing, securing the rights of shackdwellers and protecting the rights of people to establish illegal electrical connections, and securing the right of newspapers to publish officially secret information, are all comparatively trivial issues in themselves. Not that they are insignificant, nor that they could not be used to build a serious organisation, but this could only be done, and they could only really be made significant, through situating such individual things within a broader socio-economic analysis (which in Trotskyite terms ought to be a Marxist one).

Instead, all these individual activities, each usually pursued by a small clique within the small clique which is South African Trotskyism, have been pursued with scant reference to any broader goal relating to the left. Providing antiretrovirals was partly aimed at damaging the leadership of the ANC and partly at enriching the manufacturers of the drugs. “Providing housing” turns out to mean attacking the actual providers of housing without generating any broad alternative. The rights of shackdwellers turns out to entail the rights of a narrow cabal of shacklords who seek power over the marginalised in society, without any effort to transform the system which leaves people in shacks. (Such an effort would require supporting socialised, state-sponsored housing.) Protecting illegal electrical connections is simply an attempt to exploit the desire of the public to have access to electricity without paying (but meanwhile there is no Trotskyite criticism of the corporatisation of the electricity system and the corruption which has come to pass in recent years). The right of newspapers to publish secret information might benefit foreign secret services, but also empowers newspapers which form portions of massive corporate entities, some of them transnational. This appears to be little more than mischief-making against the government, but it is also couched in terms which inevitably benefit large corporations.

This suggests that where the left abandons its principles and its all-embracing explanatory concepts, as Laclau desires, it does not become a more productive force of dissent. Instead, it becomes an empty vessel which is easily captured by the rich and powerful. Postmodern politics is not liberatory, it is, instead, enslaved. The purpose of postmodern political intellectuals is to conceal that enslavement, or to justify it (Laclau does both). The end product of this kind of politics is the shadow of a political organisation without any substance.  Behind the posturing and rhetoric of the South African left (whether Trotskyite or Stalinist or liberal) is nothing more than the desire for gain of one sort or another — there could be nothing else when there are no actual coherent left-wing goals or any techniques to attain those goals. And, since the right wing has both money and goals and techniques, inevitably the left wing finds itself captivated by the right wing agenda — and is equipped with all manner of sophistries to enable it to do this without acknowledging that it has done so. Hence the left in our era is little more than an appendage of capital.

Today, for instance, Rob Davies, once a trade unionist, now a Minister in charge of servicing corporate capital. Today he was babbling on in response to some leftists who were babbling on about how his policies do not serve the interests of the people (of course they don’t, they aren’t intended to). The leftists did not actually present a coherent critique of Davies’ policies (presumably leftists are no longer capable of such complex actions) but nevertheless Davies was sufficiently stung to start blathering about “outmoded shibboleths” such as socialism, egalitarianism and the right to decent pay for decent work. Like Laclau (and like Tony Blair and every other traitor rotting the left away from within) Davies combined meaningless rhetoric with empty promotion of novelty. The power of the “new” and the condemnation of the “outmoded” means that we need no longer pay any attention to the facts — only to the image.

And this is the branding problem we must cope with.