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World Political Economy Meets South Africa’s Many Marxisms

With around 100 books of progressive political economy and political ecology penned about South Africa since 2000, the Marxist intellectual project here is utterly chaotic, but by no means in tatters.

Same as the Marxist political project, witnessed in the acute convulsions, yet simultaneously optimistic openings, breaking out across the society. They are evident around and within the trade unions, split roughly in half between pro- and anti-government; the Economic Freedom Fighters in parliament carrying the mandate of a million voters (6% of the electorate last year); the labour-community United Front and perhaps a metalworkers-led Workers Party; the 200 000-member SA Communist Party (SACP); and a few diminutive Trotskyist and Black Consciousness groups. There is also vibrant ideological and strategic debate within what are too often localistic strains in so-called ‘autonomism’, in the disconnected environmental justice movement’s activism, in our underdeveloped socialist-feminism, in progressive NGOs and institutes, and in all the other mostly-stunted (to be frank) lefty initiatives.

But the time has not been more ripe for a Marxist regroupment here and globally for at least a quarter century. A convincing, unifying intellectual critique of both local and world-scale capital is vital especially in the world’s most unequal major country and most intense site of sustained class struggle.

It was no fluke, after all, that last March, Johannesburg business elites were named the world’s most corrupt corporate crew by PricewaterhouseCoopers or that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) considers these firms the third most profitable in its global database. Nor is it surprising that last September, 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.

The class-conflict teams deservedly win gold medals in the global games, ignoring in practice South Africa’s banal, feel-good Rainbow Nation rhetoric; hapless Corporate Social Responsibility gimmickry; class-snuggle ideology in government’s National Development Plan and tripartite National Economic Development and Labour Council; debilitating cracks through most trade unions; or the profusion of ideology-free ‘popcorn protests’ in poor communities – so often turning xenophobic if the wind blows from the right – instead of consistent social movements.

Johannesburg was thus a fine laboratory for more than 150 Marxists of varying pedigrees to ponder more than seventy papers delivered at last weekend’s World Association for Political Economy (WAPE) Forum, co-hosted by the Chris Hani Institute and University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society (disclosure: which I direct). “Hani was South Africa’s answer to Che Guevara,” Institute director Eddie Webster reminded the visitors, “a Marxist of classical training, revolutionary politics and total commitment.”

Had he not been assassinated in 1993, Hani would have endorsed this WAPE Forum theme: ‘the uneven and crisis-prone development of capitalism.’ Helpfully, given so much interest in world economic fragility and the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa), fully a fifth of the attendees were serious suit-and-tie academics associated with the Chinese Academy of Marxism within Beijing’s Academy of Social Sciences. From there, the WAPE secretariat has, over the past decade, moved the Forum around hospitable sites across the globe, landing last weekend, for the first time, in Africa.

And here, 82-year old Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin was named winner of WAPE’s Lifetime Achievement Award. But with apologies, he was compelled to pull out of the Forum at the last moment, as he had found a better class of people to join, in Athens. The Greek masses are vigorously mobilising for a possible sovereign default next Tuesday on what they term the ‘Odious Debt’ owed by the prior government to the IMF.

That in turn would inexorably require a ‘Grexit’ from the Euro and then Amin’s famous ‘delinking’ strategy, the (1989) title of one of the books that makes him the most cited social scientist in African history, by far. With Spain’s left likely coming to power later this year, the time for Amin’s ideas is arriving in southern Europe and indeed in so many other sites of extreme uneven capitalist development.

Sympathetic to some (not all) of Amin’s ideas, an 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. But so too were at least four substantial tendencies of Marxist political economy seated in WAPE’s vice-chairs:

* a brilliant Brazilian dependencia theorist, Niemeyer Almeida Filho;

* a representative of the Japanese tradition’s Marxist mathematical modelling, Hiroshi Onishi;

* the US New Left theorist who founded “social structures of accumulation” analysis, David Kotz; and

* Sam Moyo, a Zimbabwean whose roots in agrarian class analysis flowered in his recent presidency 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. There was a self-critical opening keynote address on SA’s century-old race-class debate by SACP theorists Jeremy Cronin and Alex Mashilo, invoking the four edgy words ‘uneven and combined development.’ This was followed by WAPE Distinguished Achievement awards to the venerable South African Trotskyist Martin Legassick; to the founder of SA feminist and ecological Marxism, Jackie Cock; and to the editor of the Wits University 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’ve seen a fast-maturing two decades of world political economy, as a result of the utter bankruptcy of ‘bourgeois economics’. The break-point wasn’t the 2008 crisis but back in early 1995 when Mexico melted down and then mid-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 South African Treasury and Reserve Bank, egged on by bank economists, decided we would prosper with exchange-control liberalisation so severe that the biggest Johannesburg Stock Exchange firms soon fled, drawing out such high levels of profits, dividends and interest that, to pay out those flows in hard currency, foreign borrowings have soared: from $25 billion that Nelson Mandela inherited from apartheid to $145 billion now.

Even if nearly all South African university – and indeed still most international – Departments of Economics don’t yet get it, a radical alternative is required. Not the band-aid reformism offered by Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, or by development economist Jeffrey Sachs, or even by the egalitarian Thomas Pikkety, whose celebrated Capital in the 21st Century bears no relation whatsoever to its ancestor, Marx’s Das Kapital, since Pikkety apparently didn’t read Marx.

Neoliberalism’s intellectual crash was confirmed when no prominent economist aside from Nouriel Roubini predicted the 2008 crisis, as was so well documented in the movie Inside Job. As a result, social scientists of varying persuasions now ridicule bourgeois economics and instead have adopted 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 a range of socio-political-economic and even environmental conditions with far more ambition than did the founders of modern economic analysis, the 1880s-1920s’ Alfred Marshall and 1920s-40s’ John Maynard Keynes.

Though brilliant in their own contexts, Marshall and Keynes were irretrievably committed to more ambitiously describing, not challenging, the logic of capital. Their respective emphases on ‘price signals’ and ‘effective demand’ (i.e. a country’s economic buying power) resolutely avoided Marx’s 1850s-70s discoveries. Marx’s innovations in Kapital are most commonly understood as the ‘laws-of-motion’ dynamics behind capital accumulation – including contradictions that create crises – and the motor forces behind class struggle, especially extraction of surplus value, i.e. exploitation.

So it was that Marx and his successors reformulated ‘political economy’ in a manner now vital to contemporary analysis. Yet occasionally you will see the term hijacked in works by liberals and neoliberals: rational choice theorists, World Bank researchers and frustrated mainstream academics. Had these pretenders visited the WAPE Forum in Joburg, they would have felt resonances to the deep history of Marxist analysis here.

South Africa’s Marxist analysis most forcefully dates to Rosa Luxemburg’s 1913 book The Accumulation of Capital. In the years before her 1919 Berlin murder, shortly after founding the world’s second major communist party, she didn’t have a chance to visit the region. Nevertheless, Luxemburg used copious references to first-person accounts of means by which in South Africa, “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.”

She drew into her revision of Marx’s analysis of deep-rooted exploitative systems such as the migrant labour, coming of age then as male peasants were turned off land or hit with ‘hut taxes’ to compel them into wage relations at the mines, fields and factories, and their women into social reproduction units for South Africa’s notorious ‘cheap labour power,’ mainly at a distance in ‘Bantustans’ hundreds of km away from their men-folk. Luckily with apartheid’s 1994 demise, that’s now history… or not? The word Marikana would fit Luxeumburg’s account perfectly, for in that notorious platinum town which hosted the 2012 massacre of 34 workers by Lonmin and its police allies, capital also loots women’s unpaid labour in labour 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,” Luxemburg remarked of migrancy and its twin process, rural dispossession. In this same spirit, our region remains the site where Marxist research must still most decisively expand its own boundaries, going far beyond social relations at the ‘point of production’, i.e. where ‘surplus value’ is ripped from the worker by the machinery owned by the 1%.

And that means, if political economy really aims to offer ‘ruthless critique of everything existing,’ as advertised offhandedly by Marx in 1843, then no shibboleths could be left unquestioned last weekend, including so-called ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Two PhD students, Farai Maguwu and Toendepi Shonhe (who – disclosure – are enrolled in the UKZN Centre for Civil Society) presented papers on the way the diamonds of Marange and tobacco of Mashonaland East are being ripped from the soil by Chinese companies (Anjin and contract-farmer purchasers) in alliance with home-grown Zimbabwean bullies. There’s a word for this: superexploitation.

Although it was apparently not easy, a nuanced realpolitik-Marxism meant the Chinese visitors began to grapple with the harsh reality: their national corporations are, in Africa, too often indistinguishable from massacre-minded Western capitalists and SA compradors such as are so well known in the axes connecting firms like Lonmin to SA elites like Cyril Ramaphosa – once a 9% Lonmin owner who emailed in a request for ‘more pointed’ police attacks on workers 24 hours before the cops killed 34 in August 2012… and now South Africa’s deputy president.

But that in turn led to the uncomfortable realisation that solidarity is still a long, hard slog. And in one of the crucial debates – are the BRICS anti-imperialist, sub-imperialist or inter-imperialist? – another winner of the WAPE Distinguished Accomplishment award, Pritam Singh, concluded, “BRICS are amplifying world economic problems, not solving them.” Whether that or myriad other fierce debates are 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 next year.

If so, it would not be unreasonable for a renewed, vibrant, auto-critical ‘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 own myriad Marxisms.

Patrick Bond is next week taking up a joint appointment in political economy at the Wits University School of Governance in Johannesburg, alongside directing the UKZN Centre for Civil Society. His book BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique (co-edited with Ana Garcia) will be published in July by Pluto (London), Haymarket (Chicago), Jacana (Joburg) and Aakar (Delhi).

More articles by:

Patrick Bond (pbond@mail.ngo.za) is professor of political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Governance in Johannesburg. He is co-editor (with Ana Garcia) of BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique, published by Pluto (London), Haymarket (Chicago), Jacana (Joburg) and Aakar (Delhi).

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