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What’s in a name? White Monopoly Capital


Jeff Rudin works at the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC)

The implication that monopoly capital is somehow ‘white’ and that this profoundly imprecise colour coding shapes the logic of capital accumulation in post-1994 South Africa is inherently racist, and even the ANC now acknowledges this. White Monopoly Capital contributes nothing analytically. But it does offer a lens through which to see connections between the understandings and strategies that shaped the SACP, the Cosatu and the non-SACP Left for more than half a century.

What,” demanded an angry young questioner of Ronnie Kasrils, “is your view on White Monopoly Capital? The ANC says colour doesn’t count. I say Whiteness is an essential part of monopoly capital. What do you say?”

Kasrils was speaking at the Alternative Information & Development Centre’s launch of his latest book, A Simple Man. His answer surprised me, and, no doubt, his would-be interrogator as well: he had no problem with the term. He went further by saying that the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party, of which he had been a long-time member, was perfectly at ease with the concept and had been so for a very long time.

Here was Ronnie – who, at great personal risk during his long contribution to the anti-racist struggle against apartheid – effectively saying that Bell Pottinger had been wrongly accused of, and, therefore, unjustly punished for, having invented the racially inflammatory and divisive concept of White Monopoly Capital! Here, too, was Ronnie, the lifelong communist happily going along with a South African specific colour-coded description of monopoly capital that has nothing to do with the very different Marxian analytical understanding of monopoly capital. Neither ‘monopoly’ nor ‘capital’ per se but the specific couplet ‘monopoly capital’ is a key Marxian class-imbued concept of how the normal, worldwide, processes of capital accumulation inevitably lead to a monopoly stage, at which point it outgrows national borders and then plays a major role in shaping the histories, the economics and politics, of both the individual countries it penetrates as well as whole epochs globally.

The unproblematic use of White Monopoly Capital by the SACP is similarly – and widely – mirrored by other Marxian groups and organisations that are usually highly critical of the SACP. It is this broad, standard use of the term that merits further attention. This is to say, the issues raised here are in no way individualised around the person of Ronnie Kasrils, or, for that matter, around any other particular individual.

The implication that monopoly capital is somehow ‘white’ and that this profoundly imprecise colour coding somehow shapes the logic of capital accumulation in post-1994 South Africa (that is, a South Africa in which white capital, like all things apartheid deemed to be ‘white’, no longer enjoys any exclusive constitutional and statutory privileges and protections) is inherently racist. Even the ANC now acknowledges this. Moreover, besides adding to the body of descriptive colour confusions, White Monopoly Capital contributes nothing analytically.

Nonetheless, White Monopoly Capital does offer a lens through which to see much of the interconnections between the understandings and strategies that have shaped the SACP, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the non-SACP Left for more than half a century. (My capitalising of the Left signifies a broad political orientation rather than any unified organisation.)

Black Economic Empowerment

The idea that it is Whiteness that makes monopoly capital unacceptable to the Left has a logical corollary: that ‘black’ capital is, somehow, not only different from ‘White’ capital but is sufficiently acceptable for it to be promoted. Hence, the (initially) uncritical support for BEE, from the Left. (The support has now become ambivalent with the growing recognition that BEE, which is supposed to empower all black people, is a fiction, for capitalism can only ever empower the elite it privileges.) Hence, too, the same (initially) uncritical support for ‘outsourcing’ provided only that the outsourced business is certified black. It is the acceptability of black capital that enables the Left to remain solid in its opposition to privatisation.

The first big collision with the reality of black capital being no different from white capital came in December 2003. This now largely unknown or long forgotten event turned out to be what was then the longest and most bitter strike since 1994. The dispute was between Equity Aviation Services and some 800 of its baggage handlers represented by the Cosatu-affiliate, the South African Transport & Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu). The strike, affecting four of South Africa’s six airports, merits some detailing.

Equity Aviation Services was formed at the beginning of 2003 when the British multinational service giant Serco and a local black economic empowerment consortium, Equity Alliance, bought a 51% share of the previously state-owned Apron Services from Transnet.

According to Satawu, Equity Aviation offered a 0.5% wage increase conditional on an increase in the working week from 40 hours to 45 hours. The company offered a further 3% performance bonus but sick leave was to be reduced and transport subsidies phased out.

Six seeks into the strike, another Cosatu-affiliate, the National Education & Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) issued a statement, expressing its ‘anger’ that a privatised company with a big black empowerment component could “force workers to lose a whole month’s salary….” [SABC News 28/1/04]. Eleven weeks into the protected strike and after 150 workers had been dismissed, a joint statement was issued by the ANC, SACP, COSATU and the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO). The statement urged Equity Aviation Services to respect a range of long established, standard negotiating principles and practices.

In the 13th week of the strike, Randall Howard, Satawu general secretary, said Satawu supported the government’s need to advance black economic empowerment. But, he added, the state’s ‘disengagement’ was unacceptable if the price unions paid was ‘ruthless profiteering’.

A Satawu memorandum to the then Minister of Public Enterprises, Jeff Radebe, warned that unions will resist the ‘restructuring of state assets’ if it happens at the expense of workers. The union demanded, as reported in Mail & Guardian in March 2004, that 5% of the Equity Alliance shares be handed back to Transnet to restore state control.

The March 2004 issue of The Shopsteward, Cosatu’s official magazine, noted:

The strikers at Equity Aviation Services) … have been suffering terrible hardship, fighting against an arrogant and intransigent employer. They are not only struggling for themselves, but to establish an important trade union principle – that gains which have been won through negotiation cannot be stolen back in the interests of maximising profits.

The most telling comment, however, was made by someone who was to spend most of her working life in the progressive trade union movement, Jane Barrett, Satawu’s then National Research and Policy Officer. Speaking when the strike was still only six weeks old, she acknowledged:

The problem with this dispute is that we didn’t put up a huge resistance to this particular privatisation. To be honest I think the union genuinely believed, because there was a strong black economic empowerment component, that things wouldn’t be too bad, but it’s been quite the contrary. Everyone in our union agrees that we have not come across such hard-headedness since the 1980s and, if anything, this is the kind of dispute that will harden attitudes against privatisation because it simply demonstrates what can happen. The impacts of deregulation in this dispute are exactly the sorts of things that we [Satawu] and Cosatu have been saying all along — invariably privatisation produces a downward variation in working conditions for workers. The way a private company makes profit is to cut the labour costs.”

Barrett was badly wrong in one major respect. Contrary to her expectations, the dispute did nothing to ‘harden attitudes against privatisation’. Not, at least, when BEE fronted the privatisation.

Patriotic Bourgeoisie

The same colour confusions behind the Left’s support for BEE are to be found in the idea of a ‘patriotic black bourgeoisie’, a now rarely heard concept but one that enjoyed huge popularity in the late 1980s and early 90s. A patriotic bourgeoisie are supposed to put broader national concerns at least on par with their own narrow class interests and self-promotions. In the South Africa of 1994 this was supposed to mean political support for such major policies as the Reconstruction & Development Programme (RDP), which had been the electoral platform upon which the ANC had so convincingly won the 1994 election. The abandonment of the RDP only two years later put paid to the idea of patriotism having much purchase amongst the (then, still mainly aspirant) black bourgeoisie, including those who formed the first democratically elected Parliament and Cabinet.

The ‘1996 Class Project’

The SACP came to refer to the abandonment of the RDP and its replacement by Gear (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) as the ‘1996 class project’; a euphemism for putting the working class firmly back where it belongs in a normalised capitalist society. Despite these two monumental attacks on workers and their expectations of restorative justice for the poor and marginalised, colour, not class, remained the principal preoccupations of the Left.

The Left was not unaware of its profoundly contradictory position of class being its fundamental tool of analysis while colour remained its central focus; it was just unable to self-correct. Consider, in this instance, Cosatu’s major policy paper adopted at its 8th National Congress in 2003, ‘Consolidating Working Class Power for Quality Jobs – Towards 2015’. This now virtually unknown document serves as a reminder of what was then understood, even though Cosatu (like the SACP with which it is closely related) was unable to make the strategic and tactical changes embedded in the logic of its own understanding.

Some 15 years ago, Cosatu was noting:

To strengthen its position, big white [emphasis added] capital has embarked on a campaign to win sections of the formerly oppressed into its camp. That can [note: it hadn’t already done so!] lead to a situation where parts of the black leadership are co-opted, and the will to discipline capital disappears. … That would lead to social disintegration. Nonetheless, the state has increasingly put its resources behind the campaign to build a ‘black bourgeoisie.’

Some in the ANC …seek to transform COSATU … into salesmen of capital … This tendency was reflected in the ANC’s vicious 2001 briefing notes, which labelled COSATU, and in particular its leadership, as [an] ultra left …lunatic fringe.

The displacement of working class leadership … appears in the disproportionate influence a small group of high-level black businesspeople and capital in general has on government economic policies. … The class implications of this have still to be fully analysed.

Cosatu … could never have imagined the current situation, where it must compete to influence government policies, not just with other civil society formations, but – much worse – with capital itself.

With ironic timing, Cosatu’s most significant event, in 2015, was not the fruition of its long-planned ‘consolidation of working class power’ but its expulsion of its largest member, NUMSA, along with its General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. NUMSA is now the largest union of a new federation, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) and Vavi is now SAFTU’s first General Secretary. But little else has changed. White Monopoly Capital is still the main enemy and it is still standard practice to paint the working-class black.

National Democratic Revolution

Being comfortable with the notion of White Monopoly Capital also directly links with the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). Several writers have drawn attention to the paradox of African leaders of the Communist Party being much more African nationalist than Marxist. This affinity to the ‘national question’ made them especially receptive to the anti-colonial policies of the Cominterm, the Communist International of the inter-world war years, which advocated an alliance with those progressive cross-class forces actively engaged in struggles for national liberation. The NDR (and its precursor, Colonialism of a Special Type) is the South African form of this policy. It is premised on the close alliance between the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu continuing after the fall of apartheid. Led by the working class, the post-1994 NDR is supposed to be the same multi-class alliance only now committed to a transition to socialism. Yes, socialism!

The NDR is still a dominant theory in 2018, despite Cosatu’s trenchant critique of it at its 8th National Congress, in 2003, as the extracts below make clear.

The working class do[es] not drive policy or control the state …. At best, the state plays a mediating role between capital and labour. At worst, it maintains the privileges and power of the bourgeoisie.

This process of class formation has produced internal contradictions within the multi-class alliance led by the ANC. Opening of opportunities has been associated with growth of the black middle class. Some elements now argue that “black economic empowerment” – and the National Democratic Revolution – requires only development of a black capitalist class. For these strata, the national democratic revolution means a non-racial democracy where the educated and well off can take high positions in business and government, guided by the motto of ‘each for themselves, and the market takes the weakest.’

Above all we recognise the displacement of the working-class leadership of the National Democratic Revolution.

By 2018, ‘the process of class formation’ has firmly consolidated Cosatu’s fears of what the ANC means by the NDR. For Cosatu and the SACP, their enduring commitment to the NDR means that self-delusion must now be included in the consolidation of colour confusion.

What’s in a name?

Contrary to Shakespeare, there are occasions when a particular name does matter monumentally. This op-ed began with Kasrils’ ready acceptance of White Monopoly Capital. Indeed, as he made clear during his book launch, the (supposed) whiteness of capital was not just a South African phenomenon: he also colour-coded European and North American capital as white. The focus of the meeting at which Kasrils spoke was not directly his book but rather the question: How did we get into this mess?

Pravin Gordhan, as his swan song in anticipation of his sacking as Minister of Finance, kept urging everyone to “connect the dots”. Yet, if everything is already actually connected and the apparent separation therefore reflecting a distorted reality (which is my view), Gordhan’s challenge becomes the need to reconnect the dots.

The foregoing is my contribution to reconnecting the dots that help explain how we got into this mess. As a consequence of the primacy the Left gives to so-called race, the dot common to all the reconnections is its predisposition to blindness. Lost in its readiness (let me rather say ‘our’ readiness, for I am part of that amorphous grouping) to promote the former victims of centuries of the most brutal racism and national oppression is any significant sight of the contradictory consequences of the actions taken to redress those injustices while still in a capitalist society. Hence, Affirmative Action and BEE have been wonderful for its few beneficiaries but the costs for the vast majority of the population have been enormous. Affirmative Action and BEE are both inextricably dependent on a thriving capitalist economy. Among the eminently predictable consequences of giving effect to what then unavoidably becomes the over-arching imperative of promoting capitalist well-being are: privatisation, outsourcing, casualisation, mass unemployment, stark poverty and growing inequality. And, of course, corruption.

The idea that (outside of state-sponsored, statutory sanctioned racism) the colour of political leaders, capitalists, managers, professionals and, for that matter, organised labour plays a significant role in determining behaviour gives rise to and sustains notions such as the patriotic bourgeoisie, which, in turn, give credence to the National Democratic Revolution, in which the patriotic bourgeoisie – under the leadership of the working class – are expected to be active participants in the transition to socialism. Put thus, the enormity of the illusion is self-evident.

From a Left perspective, all the above ought to form an essential part of answering how we got into this mess.

But there’s still more. The privileging of race has meant more than just the neglect of class. It’s been the veritable impoverishment of class; not – it needs emphasising – the descriptive class of sociology but the analytical class of Marx. Some sociologists acknowledge class in the form of the hierarchical strata into which all societies are structured. At its simplest, this is just the division between rich and poor. More sophisticated versions have many more divisions to allow for differential incomes and/or status. The existence of ‘social classes’, in this understanding, is permanent. As the Bible says, the poor will always be with us.

This is very different from Marx’s revolutionary understanding of class: his analysis eventually leads to classless societies. One doesn’t have to agree with Marx – unless one is part of the Marxian left. In this latter case, there is the not unreasonable expectation that Marx’s class analysis will be integral to the seeking of an understanding of all things social – including ‘race’ as a social construct.

So, what is Marx’s understanding of class? His clearest, most succinct answer, in my opinion, is in Capital Vol. 3:

The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of the direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community, which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its political form. It is always the direct relationship between the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers…. which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state.

Now this is a comprehensive reconnecting of the dots! Therefore the Marxian Left ought to be in the forefront of critiquing the colour coding of capital and labour, along with the more specific idea of White Monopoly Capital. Names can matter; sometimes enormously. DM


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