The Marxist intellectual project in South Africa is utterly chaotic, but by no means could it be said to be in tatters.
This applies equally to the Marxist political project, witnessed in the acute convulsions breaking out around and in the trade unions, the Economic Freedom Fighters, the United Front, perhaps in a metalworkers-led workers’ party, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the diminutive Trotskyist and Black Consciousness groups, as well as in local strains of so-called autonomism, in disconnected environmental justice activism, in our underdeveloped socialist feminism and in all the other mostly stunted lefty initiatives.
But the time has not been riper for the Marxist project to flourish for at least a quarter of a century, here in the world’s most unequal major country and most intense site of sustained class struggle.
It was no fluke that in March last year, Sandton business elites were named as the world’s most corrupt corporate crew by PwC, who found that eight out of 10 managers commit economic crime, or that the International Monetary Fund considers these firms the third-most profitable in its database. Nor is it surprising that in September last year the South African working class was named in the Davos World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report as the most militant on Earth, for the third year in a row.
Johannesburg was thus a fine laboratory for more than 150 Marxists of varying pedigrees to ponder 70 papers delivered at last weekend’s World Association for Political Economy (Wape) forum at Cosatu House, co-hosted by the Chris Hani Institute and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) Centre for Civil Society. The theme was The Uneven and Crisis-prone Development of Capitalism.
World economic fragility
Helpfully, given so much interest in world economic fragility and the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries, a fifth of the attendees were serious suit-and-tie academics associated with the Chinese Academy of Marxism in Beijing’s Academy of Social Sciences, home of the Wape secretariat.
If official neo-Maoism occupies the Wape chair in the person of Enfu Cheng, a former teacher of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and senior enough to be an occasional critic of state policy, so too were at least four people with substantial tendencies for Marxist political economy holding the positions of Wape vice-chairpersons:
- A Brazilian dependencia theorist, Niemeyer Almeida Filho;
- A representative of the Japanese tradition’s Marxist mathematical modelling, Hiroshi Onishi;
- The United States new left theorist who founded the social structures of accumulation analysis, David Kotz; and
- Sam Moyo, a Zimbabwean whose roots in agrarian class analysis flowered when he recently became president of the thousands-strong Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.
Does this sound like a mixed masala of Marxist intellectual tendencies that could ruin a good analytical meal? Maybe – but wait. Add to this the unique spices favoured by South Africa’s own mutt-Marxisms: a self-critical opening keynote address on South Africa’s century-old race-class debate by SACP theorists Jeremy Cronin and Alex Mashilo, followed by Wape distinguished achievement awards to the venerable South African Trotskyist Martin Legassick, the founder of South African feminist and ecological Marxism, Jackie Cock, and the editor of the Wits Press Democratic Marxism book series, Vishwas Satgar.
It is a sign of the times, though, that this perplexing diversity actually worked, as intellectual friction created far more light than heat, at least on this occasion.
Why? We have seen a fast-maturing two decades of world political economy as a result of the utter bankruptcy of bourgeois economics. The breakpoint wasn’t the 2008 crisis but 1995 when Mexico melted down and then 1998 when South Africa joined the mighty East Asian economies in a massive, unexpected financial bubble burst.
And that was when our geniuses at the treasury and Reserve Bank, egged on by bank economists, decided we would prosper with exchange-control liberalisation so severe that the biggest JSE firms fled, drawing out such high levels of profits, dividends and interest that, to pay out those flows in forex, our foreign debt rose from $25-billion then to $145-billion now. Yes, that’s the same level in relation to national economic output – just over 40% – that PW Botha stared at 30 years ago, when he gave the Rubicon speech that ensured an apartheid-ending financial crash.
Thanks to neoliberalism’s intellectual crash, many social scientists ridicule bourgeois economics and prefer the moniker political economy.
In so doing they honour what Adam Smith had mustered in his 1776 Wealth of Nations, followed by David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill: describing conditions with far more overarching ambition than did the founders of modern economic analysis, the 1880s to 1920s’ Alfred Marshall, with his price signalling, or the 1920s to 1940s’ John Maynard Keynes, with his Depression-era concern about inadequate national consumption (effective demand).
The long history of Marxist analysis in South Africa dates to Rosa Luxemburg’s 1913 book The Accumulation of Capital. She didn’t have a chance to visit the region but she used copious references to first-person accounts of ways that “non-capitalist relations provide a fertile soil for capitalism; more strictly: capital feeds on the ruins of such relations, and, although this non-capitalist milieu is indispensable for accumulation, the latter proceeds at the cost of this medium nevertheless by eating it up”.
Capital’s feast continues. Marikana would fit her account perfectly, for there capital also looted women’s unpaid labour in social reproduction as well as the environment. “Historically, the accumulation of capital is a kind of metabolism between capitalist economy and those pre-capitalist methods of production without which it cannot go on and which, in this light, it corrodes and assimilates,” she said of migrancy and its twin process, rural dispossession.
But if political economy really aims to offer ruthless critique of everything, as advertised by Marx, then no shibboleths could be left unquestioned last weekend, including socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Two University of KwaZulu-Natal PhD students, Farai Maguwu and Toendepi Shonhe, presented papers on the way the diamonds of Marange and the tobacco of Mashonaland East are being ripped from the soil by Chinese companies, such as Anjin, and contract-farmer purchasers, in alliance with home-grown Zimbabwean bullies. There’s a word for this: super-exploitation.
The Chinese visitors began grappling with a harsh reality: their corporations are, in Africa, too often indistinguishable from massacre-minded Western capitalists and South African compradors such as those so well known in the Lonmin and Ramaphosa axis.
And in one of the crucial debates – are the Brics anti-imperialist, sub-imperialist or inter-imperialist? – another winner of a Wape distinguished accomplishment award, Pritam Singh, concluded: “Brics is amplifying world economic problems, not solving them.”
Whether or not that or any other fierce debate is resolved soon, the big challenge is to continue to construct Brics-from-below connectivities through Wape, especially as the 2016 forum is likely to be in Delhi.
If so, it would not be unreasonable to expect a renewed, vibrant, autocritical world political economy to emerge from the travails of the uneven and crisis-prone capitalism of the Brics. And maybe even from the multifaceted mess of South Africa’s many Marxisms.
Patrick Bond is taking up an appointment in political economy at the Wits School of Governance, besides directing the Centre for Civil Society UKZN. His co-edited book, Brics: An Anti-Capitalist Critique, will be published by Jacana later in the month and will be debated at the Mail & Guardian-sponsored South African Book Fair.