Quote of the week

Universal adult suffrage on a common voters roll is one of the foundational values of our entire constitutional order. The achievement of the franchise has historically been important both for the acquisition of the rights of full and effective citizenship by all South Africans regardless of race, and for the accomplishment of an all-embracing nationhood. The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts. In a country of great disparities of wealth and power it declares that whoever we are, whether rich or poor, exalted or disgraced, we all belong to the same democratic South African nation; that our destinies are intertwined in a single interactive polity.

Justice Albie Sachs
August and Another v Electoral Commission and Others (CCT8/99) [1999] ZACC 3
20 June 2012

Marx, nationalisation and education

Before we begin a discussion on this topic (that always seems to get the establishment rather hot under the white collar), a few points about the previous post on authority. First, it is now established that New Democracy simply does not enjoy popular sovereignty / authority in Greece: 55% of the 62% of the voters who cast a ballot did so for a party that explicitly opposed the bailout conditions (Syriza being the largest amongst them.) (See http://www.opendemocracy.net/openeconomy/yanis-varoufakis/greek-election-result-assessment .) No wonder New Democracy is now suddenly saying that the bailout conditions should be changed. So, yes, everybody knows that a bailout and austerity is not the solution and now the ruling party in Greece also knows it, conveniently after it won an election on pro-bailout policy – rather late than never, I guess. The question is what they are going to do about it when they meet with the establishment next week. Second, everybody who has studied ideology knows that it is at its purest when it is perceived as natural, unquestionable, the way things are, should be and only can be.

And it is precisely on this latter point that Terry Eagleton premises his book I am currently reading, entitled Why Marx was right (2011). Eagleton argues that one can always tell that an ideological system is in trouble when its embedded acceptance as natural or unquestionable begins to dissolve, causing it to rise once more to the level of consciousness and, most crucially, discourse. As Eagleton writes, we can tell that capitalism is in trouble, precisely because the word is once more in circulation – people are talking about it.

Eagleton in this book sets out to debunk the 10 standard mythical “truths” about Marxism, the first being the post-1989 celebratory capitalist slogan that Marxism is dead / finished. Eagleton points out that Marxism is above all a critique of capitalism, so to say that it is dead is to say that capitalism is dead as well. He continues to argue that what discredited Marxism was really the sense of political impotence amongst Marxists at the time of the collapse of institutionalized communism in the late eighties / early nineties. But this disenchantment was way too early: “if the faint-hearted had managed to cling to their former views for another two decades, they would have witnessed a capitalism so exultant and impregnable that in 2008 it only just managed to keep the cash machines open on the high streets”. I remember at the time that radical capitalists argued that the States of the nations that were in trouble should not intervene in order to save the banks – they argued that the markets should correct this failure and labelled this state intervention as “socialist” – and they were right, but it was a socialist intervention to save the world as we know it. Capitalism continues to be in deep trouble and the apparatchiks in Brussels have finally figured out that bailout programs do not work. So we will see what they come up with next.

One of the many things I find important in this book is Eagleton’s argument that Marx at least, never thought that socialism could be executed in conditions of mass poverty and political isolation – that is why the movements where called Internationals and that is why the Communist Manifesto calls on the “workers of the world”. The socialism  of the USSR turned into Stalinism precisely because of the attempt to execute it under the above circumstances. And an argument that I found particularly compelling was that there is a socialism that does not reject markets. Marx himself argued that markets are both emancipatory and exploitative. Eagleton sets out a detailed account of how market socialism can become a real possibility, how the exploitations of the market can be brought to an end without bringing the principle of competition to an end. I must admit that I think that much of his argument here is situated at the level of ideality, but of course that does not mean that such an ideality cannot be concretely aspired to. No-one rejects freedom as an ideal because many in the world continue to live in the chains of economic oppression and deprivation.

The continuing call amongst radicals in South Africa for nationalisation of the means of production should be considered against the background of these arguments. I wonder if Irvin Jim has thought about what he is going to do on the day after nationalisation, banning labour brokers is hardly going to keep him busy for a whole Marxist working day. And spending time selecting the latest luxury sedan (for the account of the taxpayer) does not count. It is one thing to continuously call for nationalisation, it is quite another to actually nationalise for the benefit of the people as a whole. I am not sure that those who call for nationalisation actually understand that it is a first step in a complicated socialist process – a step that forms part of a plan to transfer ownership into the hands of the actual producers who in turn need to be “skilled, educated”, “politically sophisticated” and in the “habit of democracy”. Eagleton argues that nations with a history of colonial rule are especially likely to be bereft of these benefits because the selfish and exploitative colonial powers distributed such benefits only amongst themselves. This does not mean that building socialism cannot be begun in conditions of material deprivation, but the starting point is not nationalisation, it is education.

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