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 percent of the electorate last year); the labour-community United Front and perhaps a metalworkers-led Workers Party; the 200,000-member South African 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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).