Critique Notes 64
As indicated in the last ‘Critique Notes’, Critique is now 40 (not 60 as appeared in Critique 63) years old, having first appeared in May 1973. To mark the occasion we will shortly have a virtual issue, which will be free for 3 months, containing some 12 of the best known articles in Critique. You might find it easiest to access this issue via the Critique website: www.critiquejournal.net. Readers might find it worthwhile to listen to the podcasts which are now on the site, discussing contemporary political economic themes and their background.
The Protest Movements
There are now protest movements covering much of the globe, of which the latest are those in Turkey, Egypt and Brazil. The exact demands are different depending on the particular country. The nature of the demonstrators is not quite so different. With the exception of those in Russia, where the leadership is exercised by what amounts, in the context, to the far-right, the demonstrations stand on the far left in their demands, albeit with an inchoate leadership. In the end, what practically all the protestors are calling for is both a higher standard of living and direct democracy. In Turkey, the demonstrators demand that the 50 per cent who did not vote for the party of the prime minister should also be catered for. Indeed, why should the secular youth be forced to conform to Islam or any other religion? In Brazil, the demonstrators call on politicians to fulfil their promises. The Brazilian government claims to derive from the left, but it has subordinated itself to capital and so the market.
In this latter respect, there is a similarity with South Africa in that the government there also claims to be of the left. The so-called ‘Freedom Charter’ of the African National Congress (ANC), adopted in June 1955, called for the nationalisation of the mines:
The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole.1
It goes on to effectively proclaim the right of every citizen to a reasonably high standard of living:
Rent and prices shall be lowered; food plentiful and no-one shall go hungry;
A preventive health scheme shall be run by the state;
Free medical care and hospitalisation shall be provided for all, with special care for mothers and young children;
Slums shall be demolished, and new suburbs built where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, cre`ches and social centres;2
In reality, the ANC has not fulfilled any of these proclaimed goals, except in the most minimal way. The Freedom Charter was the brainchild of the South African Communist Party (CP), which to all intents and purposes was at the core of the ANC. Its left, and the left in general in South Africa at the time, wanted the Freedom Charter to have socialist demands, but the Communist Party had taken a nationalist turn and refused. Indeed, the clauses on nationalisation were only included under pressure. It is, therefore, not any great surprise that once in power the ANC/CP did not carry out its own nominal programme. Given the nature of Stalinism, adapting to bourgeois forces and so minimising its programmatic demands, the settlement of 1994 with its contemporary was only to be expected.
However, one of the leading participants in the CP/ANC at the time has recently come out with a different explanation, that of nai¨vete´.Hehas effectively combined that with an apology. Since the nature of Stalinism is a given, one can only welcome his confession. Writing of the 1994 settlement, he says that: ‘An ANC-Communist party leadership eager to assume political office (myself no less than others) readily accepted this devil’s pact, only to be damned in the process. It has bequeathed an economy so tied in to the neoliberal global formula and market fundamentalism that there is very little room to alleviate the plight of most of our people.’3 He argues that the ANC/CP accepted the International Monetary Fund conditions, and the settlement set out by big business in part because Mandela wanted to avoid a devastating civil war, which he thinks was unlikely in any case.4
The problem lay elsewhere in that the CP was certainly not ready to deal with a revolutionary situation in which socialism in one country was itself impossible. From the time that it adopted a nationalist strategy, a nationalist solution bound into the world market was inevitable. In that respect, Nelson Mandela acted within the real framework of the anti-apartheid movement. Kasrils implicitly blames him, as indicated above, but it was inevitable. Mandela was only being consistent within a liberal-nationalist framework. It is not surprising that he has become a hero to the international bourgeoisie.
The logic of the settlement amounted to the building up of a black middle class and the absorption of a number of black political and economic leaders into the ruling class. Otherwise capitalism was to be maintained and indeed ‘purified’ with the denationalisation of a series of enterprises. The Afrikaner bureaucracy was protected in both jobs and pensions. Protection of industries was reduced and South African mining and industry were allowed to transfer both their headquarters and their assets overseas. The removal of discriminatory rules and laws was undoubtedly a step forward, but it was limited in its impact as the majority of workers, particularly unskilled and semi-skilled, remain black and with very low wages, under conditions of very high levels of unemployment - from 40 to 60 per cent. Even the gains cited by Kasrils are dubious in view of the high and rising prices of electricity and water, whose improved supply he cites, not to speak of the very poor level of education, placing South Africa at 132 out of 144 countries.5 The situation in South Africa was discussed in the context of the strikes taking place there in the ‘Critique Notes’ of Critique 62, and the point was made that the statement of the striking miners that their situation has not improved since 1994 is substantially correct.
What do the Protest Movements Want?
In other words, the protest movements of today carry an implicit or explicit critique not just of the market but also of Stalinism and social democracy, with their consistent record of support for capital and the market. The market cannot deliver either a health service for all or a full all-round education from the early years to graduate level for the whole cohort of the young age group. It is therefore no surprise that health and education are major demands of the demonstrators in Brazil, and a real issue in South Africa.
Everywhere the issue of inequality is crucial. There can be no justification for a difference of several hundred per cent in salaries between the ordinary worker and those who run enterprises. The socialist demand that no one should get more than a skilled worker remains a reasonable demand and a real goal. When a substantial proportion of the population lives in shanty towns as in South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere, while a tiny percentage of less than one per cent live in villas akin to palaces, there are visible reasons for burning resentment, which must find an outlet.
Why the Youth, why the Middle Class?
Capitalist society is nothing if not hypocritical, and never more so than in its decline. On the one hand, its high priests proclaim the need for honesty, respect for one’s fellows, the need to help those out of luck, assist the poor and co-operate with others to build a better society. On the other hand, capital itself and its governments never cease proclaiming the virtues of competition, the dog-eat-dog society, the importance of individual hard work, and contempt for both those out of work and the poor. Businesses do not tell the truth about their products, until forced to do so, and politicians stand for one set of principles when out of office and another when in government.
Parents try to instil a sense of morality and an idea of decent goals for their children. Adults have to adapt to the real alienated world, where the commodity rules and force is employed when required. Nonsensical propaganda fills the gap. Youth and especially students are confronted by this conflict between what they have been taught at home, and up to a point at school, and reality, and they have to find a modus vivendi. At particular nodes in history, they revolt. In fact, they reflect the views of society as a whole, under conditions where they have a licence to speak out.
Turning Point in History
We are at such a turning point. Capitalism is in decline, the supreme imperial power, the USA, is itself in decline and the world is in a contemporary depression. Stalinism is living an afterlife in support of capitalism, whether as a social democratic party, as in Italy, or in government as in South Africa, or in China.
Anti-Stalinist protests as in China, by workers as workers or workers as citizens occur on a large scale and the system seems to have evolved a certain immunity to them, through a combination of concession and repression. The individual intellectual protests and the demands for freedom of religion in Tibet and Sinkiang province are severely repressed but stand to the right of the popular working class protests. In the USSR there was a similar dichotomy but the elite took advantage of the discontent of the intelligentsia and its orientation to the market in order to shift to the market in what became a clearly anti-working class regime. The cost, however, was the break-up of the USSR. The Chinese have learned that lesson and are unlikely to repeat the exercise. As the USSR was coming to an end, it relied more and more on the need to provide a rising standard of living, which it ultimately was not able to do. China has a parallel problem in that it has built up a ‘middle class’ of several tens of millions, but it needs to expand it and raise its income to higher levels. Reports indicate that they are consciously trying to do so. If they are successful they will have a bulwark against the demands of the majority working in agriculture and industry. In the context of a global depression, which would have been much worse if not for the Chinese pumping money on a large scale into the Chinese economy, the regime is likely to find it a difficult exercise. In this context, the protests might gel into a more powerful movement, particularly if movements in the West find their socialist voice.
In a police state, mass opposition cannot take open forms until the regime itself is on the way out. Limited protests with the inevitable state retribution are the norm. Reviewing the book Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and Out of Love with Putin,by Ben Judah, Luke Harding reports that ‘In his travels to Russia’s ignored corners, Judah discovers little support for the liberal opposition but almost universal discontent’.6 There is no reason to confine this judgement to any section of Russia. It would be hard for the ordinary white-or blue-collar worker anywhere in Russia or elsewhere in the former USSR to support a market that destroyed their standard of living, relatively low as it was. The global depression has not made it any easier for the marketeers and market fundamentalists. Putin and his governments are a novel blend of a disintegrating Stalinism with an authoritarian market. It is clear that the regime has no place in history, but the forward movement of history is taking its time.
Nevertheless, there are regular protests and limited forms of action, with the repression that usually follows. The website www.ikd.ru reports on recent trade union, working class opposition from all over Russia. Very little of this form of opposition penetrates the press outside Russia, not unsurprisingly.
Two aspects unite all the contemporary mass youth opposition and they are the critiques of inequality and of contemporary ‘democracy’. The two are obviously closely linked in that those who hold the economic power ultimately determine the political control of the society, in however complex a way. It is precisely because that link is now so obvious and the political mask so transparent that modern forms of democracy are under such scrutiny.
The Chartists demands of the mid nineteenth century in the UK have yet to be met, above all in relation to annual Parliaments. As long as politicians can be elected for a four-or five-year term (sometimes longer, as for the US Senate), as is usual, they can promise one thing and do another. They can then rely on the electorate to forget, abstain from voting or give up on the electoral system altogether. Cynicism rules. The obvious solution is to have a simple recall system with election for no longer than a year. That would turn politicians into popular delegates, with constant feedback to their electors. However, that would not be enough to ensure democracy. Under present conditions the media, money and what amounts to ruling class corruption play crucial roles in parliamentary-type politics.
The demands for direct democracy now being made in Brazil, Turkey and elsewhere are not just a result of their local country politics, but also a clear realisation that democracy is limited in the imperial countries, in Europe and North America. Behind a democratic form, which some might call a fac¸ade, there is an authoritarian structure.
University courses in sociology do not discuss a ruling class while politics courses do not discuss the political influence of those who own the wealth of the country. Economics courses justify inequality. The result is there is no empirical or theoretical discussion of the social and economic forms that support the political system, let alone the real nature of the politics of the country.
Today the political system itself is cracking. The parliamentary or presidential system is on its last legs. In the UK, politicians have been shown willing to take bribes to exercise administrative influence, or to ask questions in parliament. They have been found guilty of asking for too much money for expenses. In itself, odd examples of corruption might not mean too much, even if it is clear that it is commonplace. However, the reasons are all too clear.
Today, to be a politician is a career as much as being a doctor or dentist. The older days when an individual entered politics only because they had a burning desire to change society in order to end poverty and reduce or abolish inequality are over. Such principled persons would accept that resigning from their party was necessary if that party changed its policies against their principles, losing their source of income. Today, it is virtually impossible to belong to a major party and pursue a principled path. In order to be elected, money is needed and the media must either support the candidate or at least take an honourable opposition against such a candidate and not try to smear him or her with true or untrue but untested allegations. Unsurprisingly, the parties do deals with the newspaper owners. In the UK, the connection with Rupert Murdoch has become all too clear. Those individuals who are honest and sincere, whether left-or right-wing, prefer not to besmirch themselves by entering politics.
Modern politicians command little respect. Berlusconi is only at one extreme of the spectrum. It is hardly surprising that a comedian, Beppe, should have won 25 per cent of the vote in the last election in Italy.
At the same time, behind this formal democratic structure, there stands, in the UK, a bureaucracy closely connected to the ruling class through the individuals going through the same high schools, universities and workplaces. They have imbibed the same culture and the same bonds of loyalty to the nation and state. They have their hands on the levers of power, as shown at points of tension and instability, as during the miner’s strike in the UK. Finance Capital in the City of London showed its loyalty by detecting the place where the Miners’ Union had placed its money. The police, although nominally under local councils, obeyed the Crown, under the control of the government. Every country has its own mode of control. In other words, the ruling class rules and when it has to show itself it does so. It cannot always maintain control, of course. It might lose power or have to share power.
For someone on the left, who opposes the capitalist system as such, there can be no place in such a political system until the end, as it were. Realistically, such a person would not enter the less conservative party, but if, in some misguided fit, they did, they would not last very long, unless they adapted to the prevailing competitive individualist non-political culture. In turn, left-wing parties face enormous obstacles.
They have to find the money in order to pay the usual deposit, to campaign, print and distribute leaflets and pay the full-time workers who maintain the party offices. They have to find a way to get their message across when the media, the educational establishment and the state oppose and victimise them.
In the end, the structure of power does not rest on formal elections but on the socio-economic control exercised by those who run the privatised economy: those who own or control big business. Logically, the only way to democratise the society is to elect the managers and the controlling structure at the place of work, while nationalising the means of production, distribution and exchange.
The kind of direct democracy now being demanded automatically leads to the situation described in the last paragraph. What is the point of determining the progress of society as a whole when your everyday working life is determined by a dictatorship? The logic of the contemporary movements leads to the end of rule by capital, even if the members of those movements do not know it.
The Progress of the Depression and the Protests
Governments and the ruling class have been taken by surprise by the strikes and demonstrations, and their initial reaction has been extreme, none more so than in South Africa where they shot and killed 34 miners at Marikana. However the police have not been backward in attacking demonstrators in Turkey or Brazil, even if they have not been as violent. Brazil has taken a more moderate line in meeting with representatives of the protestors and making concessions.
In fact, the spark that has set the youth of the world alight, not least in Europe - in Spain, Portugal and Greece in particular - has been the depression itself. Austerity has been the enemy, the cause of mass unemployment and declining wages. Inequality appears as a major issue all round but particularly in the now fading Occupy Movement.
If it were not for the fact that the ruling class has been unable to produce a clear policy, so continuing to maintain the austerity line even where they officially abjure it, they may have come to terms with protest movements. While the recent protests have been taking a stronger political line, the older ones have failed to get very far. The Occupy movement is effectively moribund outside the USA, while the other protests are very limited to the point where opinion polls are showing, for instance, that the British public accepts the austerity line. This probably only reflects the superficiality of the opinion polls, as just a few months earlier they showed a good majority against austerity. Indeed the mood appeared bitter and angry. That is almost certainly the case today but tempered by a degree of cynicism.
However, the downturn continues, getting worse in third-world countries and no better in the first world. It is interesting that the second wave, as it were, of militancy in South Africa, Brazil and Turkey is both stronger and more severely repressed, reflecting no doubt the increasing economic difficulties in the depression.
If the ruling class continues along its present line of repressive muddle, it might as well accept that it has had its day. It is building up a global contingent of militants for the next round, whether that is in a few years or 20 years.
The faint drumbeat of the revolution can be heard and it is getting louder.
- 1. Official website of the African National Congress, http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=72
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. Ronnie Kasrils, ‘How the ANC’s Faustian pact sold out South Africa’s poorest’, The Guardian, 24 June 2013, p. 25.
- 4. Ibid.
- 5. ‘Editorial: Still Dysfunctional’, The Economist, 21 October 2012.
- 6. Luke Harding: ‘There is no Motherland’, The Guardian, Guardian Review, 29 June 2013, p. 9.