Jeremy Cronin’s criticism of Cosatu’s recent hosting of a “Civil Society Conference” is impossible to understand without understanding his – and the SACP’s – assumptions about the world and South Africa in November 2010.
Cronin’s premise is that “an enemy” is attempting to make the public debate about the future of South Africa focus on minor issues where “the enemy” believes it can score a victory over the ‘progressive forces’ (of which Cronin assumes he and his organisation and his government are a part).
Cronin and the SACP accept some version of the following as a true and accurate reflection of reality (although Cronin himself would probably not phrase things so crudely, mechanistically and deterministically, it amounts to the same story):
Global capitalism and its local allies are securing their ability to continue to accumulate wealth
The bad guys in Cronin’s universe are a complicated (and brilliantly disguised) set of global business interests linked to and by the interests of powerful Western countries, especially the USA and the UK. What this enemy wants and needs is a world in which it can make loads and loads of money – especially by paying the lowest possible wages and taking resources and wealth from the Third World and packing these tightly around themselves in the playgrounds and fortresses of the First World.
Any change in any society that puts checks and balances on its ability to make money must be opposed – destroyed even before it takes root. Thus, thoroughgoing transformation of South Africa would strengthen the hand of the poor and dispossessed relative the the global capitalist/imperialist elite and must, therefore, be stopped.
Global capital/imperialism are constrained from arguing directly in favour of the oppressive political systems and unequal economic arrangements required to support their ability to extract wealth.
Instead they weaken the existing popular governments in the Third World, encourage the spread of corruption and (crucially for our purposes here) divert real debates about change that would benefit the poor and marginalised into light-weight debates about the individual rights and freedoms of the small group of citizens who have moved on from being concerned about the basic conditions of survival. And they do this by hoodwinking essentially good people and organisations who have a weak understanding of the world.
If this is the enemy, who’s on Cronin’s side?
In this version of the universe the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions are the structural expressions of ordinary people’s struggles to be free and fed.
Because Cronin is constructing this version of the world wearing his South African Communist Party beret, we must understand that Cronin assumes himself and his organisation to be part of a long-term plan that will overthrow the global yoke of capitalism and imperialism and construct a society based on human imperatives other than profit.
So what’s wrong with that?
Communists like Jeremy Cronin are not misguided in fearing and distrusting global corporations of private enterprise. Left to their own devices humans will extract as much from each other – or from groups other than the group to which they feel they belong – as is possible.
They will take until they are stopped. This is reflected in every business cycle and it is reflected in every attempt to re-regulate markets after bubbles (always caused by a feeding frenzy) have burst.
Additionally big global corporations will spend billions of dollars sucking up to politicians especially in the most powerful nations on earth – or more directly manipulating the political process.
However, there are two significant things wrong with Jeremy Cronin’s (and the SACP’s) version of the world:
Firstly, the communists’ (and all tight party organisations and religious groups’) vision is obscured by their need to see the world as completely structured by two big gangs that are at war – the white hats and the black hats, the good and the evil, the oppressor and the victims.
There are more complex political choices to make than just to pick a side and back it to the hilt and defend its doctrines against all comers.
Global markets and trade and international relations are structured by hugely complex forces, not the least of which are government and supra-governmental organisations attempting to regulate various forms of behaviour. i.e democratic political processes attempting to subdue, moderate and direct the functioning of human fear and greed.
“Picking sides” in such a complex world is no easy matter.
Secondly, the communists fail to see that they and their organisations are subject to the same raging impulses of greed and terror that structure global capitalism – in fact they are structured into it, (only subject to no shareholder and less accountable and regulated than your standard global business).
The conference that Cronin criticises was precisely an attempt to discuss the best ways to regulate those impulses because they appear to have become the dominant impulses within government and the ruling party.
It is fine for Cronin to dispute this, but it is not fine for him to argue that his allies accept the functioning of criminal greed in his government and organisation because his government and organisation is struggling to combat these matters at a higher level.
We do not live in a simple world. It is my belief that the enemy is not out there in his serried ranks on the plains, he is in here with us, in our homes, in our families and in our beds. The enemy is right inside us, in our own hearts and in our own heads.
Until we realise this our best politicians will continue this Quixotic tilting at windmills.