Not entirely omniscient
1 May 2017 00:40 (South Africa)
South Africa

Op-Ed: Twenty First Century struggles for Social Justice

  • Mark Heywood
    mark-heywood.jpg
    Mark Heywood

    Mark Heywood is Executive Director of SECTION27 and an Executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign.

  • South Africa
Photo by Antoine Skipper via Flickr.

Let me put my cards on the table. I loathe the excesses and failures of capitalism. It is an inefficient, and corruptible economic system. It is only good for a tiny minority. It is bad for the majority, for the environment, for peace, for equal and non-violent relations between men and women and for rounded human development. Most thinking people should know that by now. I would love to see the back of it. By MARK HEYWOOD.

In this context, Norma Craven, the Head of the Office of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa’s Movement for Socialism, has penned a very belated reply to an article I wrote in April this year arguing that the future can be better for all. Norma charges me with being a reformist (Oh sin of sins) and adds a quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail at a quote I used from Shakespeare’s King Lear to call up Lear’s sudden discovery of a conscience, and his complicity in the suffering of the poor of his realm. I have no problem with that. Actually, I agree with the character Dennis who says:

Strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

The best comedic satire is biting, accurate and political. But before I start to reply to Norma’s substantive critique of my “reformism” (for those of you uninitiated into mystical Marxist talk, that is the sin of believing that lasting reforms can be won under capitalism) let me return the ball with bit of satire from another classic from the Monty Python team, Life of Brian.

During a debate between members of the People’s Front of Judea (or is it “the fucking Judean People’s Front”) a revolutionary organisation ham-handedly plotting to overthrow the Romans, an exchange occurs about what the Romans had brought to the conquered territories. The dialogue opens like this:

REG: The Romans have bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers' fathers.

LORETTA: And from our fathers' fathers' fathers.

REG: Yeah.

LORETTA: And from our fathers' fathers' fathers' fathers.

REG: Yeah. All right, Stan. Don't labour the point. And what have they ever given us in return?!

As the discussion progresses the hapless members of the PFJ concede that in addition to the aqueduct the Roman had “given us” sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, wine …

REG: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

XERXES: Brought peace.

REG: Oh. Peace? Shut up!

This little bit of brilliant satire (The script can be found here. It’s still good for a giggle) was making fun of the “Marxist socialists” that littered the British political landscape in the late 1970s. The film was released in 1979, four years after Monty Python and Holy Grail. But the problem it lampoons looms as large today, as it did then, and as it did 50 years before. This time the joke is on the “Marxist socialists”. Or to put it another way, the joke is on the failure of many Marxist socialists – accurately portrayed as a quasi-religious sect - to recognise the fruits of the capitalism and not just see its faults.

Capitalism is an intrinsically exploitative and unfair system, but in its post-Cold War manifestation, at the same time that it has generalised misery globally, it has also brought about technological development, new consumer technologies, leaps in medicine, the flat screen TV and the cell phone. To name, but a few. It is these fruits that explain why, what Norma calls “the working masses”, have been ambivalent about turning their back on a system that exploits them. Their attractive bright lights explain why, in 1989, so many people from the former Eastern-bloc countries rushed, lemming-like, headlong to embrace capitalism.

The Monty Python skit reminds me of a reminiscence I heard outgoing Greenpeace Executive, Director Kumi Naidoo, make this week. Speaking at a meeting on community mobilisation for the right to health, Naidoo recalled how, on a student march against apartheid education in the 1970s, while those at the front sang out “We want Equality”, those in the rear had transmuted the chant to “We want colour TVs”. And, yes indeed, the “working masses” (today an endangered minority of the world’s poor), do want equality and colour TVs. By contrast, many Marxist socialists are colour blind. Or rather they have their colour TVs, but patronisingly think that the working masses eschew such luxuries, in favour of political purism.

Capitalism is as ridden with what Marxists call “contradictions” as it always was. Recently Thomas Piketty proved, with meticulous research, that capitalism’s fostering on inequality remains central to its DNA. There will be no trickle down. Yet, the capitalism of 2015 is not the same as that of 1989 or 1917 or 1848. In Marxist parlance, you would say that it is qualitatively different. In fact, capitalism is not even the same as itself; the term itself may be increasingly unhelpful. As recorded in a book that will be launched this week (Capitalism’s Crises: Class Struggles in South Africa and the World, edited by the intelligent Marxist, Vishwas Satgar) there are many different capitalisms at work in our 21st Century world. Today the brutal Chinese Communist Party-type capitalism (which the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party seem to wholeheartedly embrace, and which we ignore at our peril) is as different from Russian crony capitalism, as chalk and cheese. And whilst Marxist socialists might be seeing the death throes in Western capitalism, they conveniently overlook the birth-pangs of Chinese capitalism, or its possible implications for a new dawn of African capitalism.

Norma and I go back a long way, and can manage a robust discussion! I worked with her in the late 1980s in the British Militant Tendency, and the Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC. In those days we predicted that the world faced imminent “socialism or barbarism”. We did not see or understand the great technological revolution that was already underway, and the vast new markets that were opening up for profit-driven companies in Eastern Europe and Asia.

Yet, the main problem with Norma’s “rebuttal” is it doesn’t tell us anything about how we are going to overthrow capitalism. She sounds like King Lear venting on the heath threatening to bring down thunder and lightning, on his enemies, yet unaware that he no longer has any magisterial power. Of course, Marxist socialists still have a few panaceas up their sleeves. One of them remains blanket nationalisation; they want more parastatals like Eskom, Telkom and South African Airways. But more seriously, how will one nationalise many companies, when one of the features of the last 30 years is the manner in which capitalism has internationalised itself? How are you going to nail down this Hydra-headed monster, particularly when the dwindling workers of different parts of the globe have very different views on capitalism – if they have a view at all.

Norma also doesn’t say anything about what Marxists (and Gwede Mantashe) call “the balance of forces” between the working class, and the capitalist class. She doesn’t analyse the implications of the massive emasculation of the working class, and the power it once wielded at the point of production. But above all what Norma and the Marxist socialists miss, is that beyond the brute industrial power of the workers, or perhaps combined with it, the poor and exploited have more powerful tools than ever before, to regulate the market in the interests of humanity, and to direct it in the interests of development.

This, for me, is the crux of the matter.

Contrary to suggestion, the workers did not come out of our liberation from apartheid in 1994 penniless, and with empty pockets. They came out of it with the Constitution, the supreme law in our country, that prescribes that there must be equality; that sanctions property redistribution, and mandates government to provide equal and quality education for all children, regardless of class and race. Today, the workers have labour laws, a Public Protector, a Human Rights Commission, democracy, legal rights which need to be combined with the power of the organised poor to enforce dignity, decency and opportunity. None of these rights are self-enacting, but if people mobilise to demand their realisation, real reform is possible. In South Africa, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), of which I am a proud member, has proved that it is possible to use the Constitution. We did so in order to assist to save three million lives, ensuring over three million people have access to life-saving antiretroviral (ARV) medicines. The TAC and our allies internationally, forced powerful pharmaceutical companies to drastically drop the price of medicines. We beat them in court and on the streets. That is a tangible reform achieved under capitalism.

By contrast the socialist rhetoric that has come from even the most powerful and honest leaders, like Zwelinzima Vavi and unstrategic trade unionism, has not stopped the slaughter of jobs, the epidemic violence against women, and the gradual slide from quality education, access to health care services, and sufficient food.

Frankly, this did not need to be. The left are as much the authors of our own misery as victims. And the leaders of the working class, of trade unions and Marxist socialists bear a particular responsibility for the state we are in. Or rather the state the poor are in, because we are doing alright. That is why the rupture NUMSA instigated within COSATU and the Alliance, is so important. The coming Workers’ Summit could be an opportunity for introspection, for rebuilding unity, and for a reinvigorated trade unionism. Or, it could be one more missed opportunity.

Fulminating against capitalism will not prove to be a successful mobilising strategy for the United Front or the trade unions. You can shout out the word Lenin till the cows come home. It may satisfy you, but it won’t be heard by the masses. They have moved on. Lenin, like Marx before him, was a great political analyst. But they did not expect to be deified.

By contrast, organising a broad alliance for tangible reforms, such as quality free basic and higher education, could motivate millions. Such an alliance should include the middle class and even some capitalists, people who can be persuaded of the nightmare their peers are leading us into; the type we started to build for the Unite Against Corruption marches.

Frankly, for the modern age rather than invoking mystical powers of dead Marxists give me someone like Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, even Bob Marley, for their mobilising power, for invoking the soul, making people think about morals, and expressing the ordinary needs of ordinary people caught up in Marley’s rat race.

Which brings me back to King Lear, and his wish that:

if only to go warm were gorgeousWhy, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wears’tWhich scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need.”

For the record, Norma and I hail from the same Marxist sect, the Committee for a Workers International. I left it in 1994 when it became obvious to me that capitalism was not facing imminent demise, and that the black working class in South Africa was not going to proceed swiftly from its “February moment”. In 1917, the Russian masses recognised the treachery of the Mensheviks (read ANC) to the October overthrow of capitalism, and the installation of the Bolsheviks (read Workers Party). Today I have no fealty to any “isms and schisms”, other than to equality, and a pragmatic struggle to fulfil the rights that are contained in the Constitution. If that makes me a reformist, so be it. DM

Photo by Antoine Skipper via Flickr.

  • Mark Heywood
    mark-heywood.jpg
    Mark Heywood

    Mark Heywood is Executive Director of SECTION27 and an Executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign.

  • South Africa

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