A response to Cohen's letter to the left
IF THERE is one feature of intellectual life in South Africa that makes me despair more than the failure of the political left to provide us with material for lively and informed debate, it is the crassness of the commentary coming from the right. Tim Cohen exhibits this to such a disturbing degree that his article, "Time for Communist Party to make a contribution" (July 16), demands an answer.
In the notorious "God that failed" tradition he compares the Marxism that so enthralled him in his days as a student with the capitalist realities he confronts today. But, from the evidence of his article, both his youthful encounters with Karl Marx and his mature understanding of today's world are staggeringly inadequate.
He "lost his faith", he tells us, when "observable facts turned out more and more at odds with the grand theory".
But the grand theory with which he then presents us is not grand theory at all - it is a series of half-truths about what purports to be Marxism, while the "observable facts" are the predictable ideological clichés.
The "falling rate of profit"? It's been rising, writes Cohen. This, as the world's leaders flounder in a capitalist morass of economic stagnation. The labour theory of value? Ridiculous, writes Cohen, in a world dominated by exchange value. This, as a system based on exchange value crashes and global financial capital evaporates.
Then comes the class struggle. No such thing, of course. Capitalism has "lifted billions of people out of squalor". This is a throwaway comment, too imprecise to answer directly - but to offer a starting point: the number of people in the world defined as hungry increased markedly in the years of the recent financial crash and approached 1-billion in 2010. It is estimated that one in seven of the world's population is malnourished.
Cohen admits many people have remained poor - but, he reminds us, under capitalism the middle class has exploded and many workers have bought TV sets, washing machines and homes. The burst of the subprime housing bubble should at least have taught them and him something about investing in the latter.
And so it goes on. "Economic determinism.. Bunkum!" writes Cohen. In fact, Marx was not an economic determinist, and in opposing it he would certainly never have used the vulgar economism of Cohen, who demonstrates the superiority of West over East Germany by comparing the Trabant with the Mercedes SLK, or South over North Korea by comparing rockets with cellphones.
After demonstrating the limitations of his knowledge of both Marx and the way in which most people experience the world today, Cohen invites the left to leave the "twisted fantasy world of a German romantic who lived a century-and-a-half ago" and "join us" in "the real world".
And what is that world? It's a "fabulous, inventive, creative, rich, fun place" of "financial literacy, entrepreneurism, capital efficiency, work processes, brand building, inventory management". I would balance that with a billion hungry; a hundred million homeless; the irrevocable changes in climate and the destruction of the irreplaceable resources which threaten the existence of humanity itself. And war, of course: the exercise of military power, without consideration for civilian populations, as the major powers seek to extend their grip on the world's materials and markets.
Then there's the commoditisation of human ambitions and desires, the exploitation of both human strengths and weaknesses, and the social and psychological cost of coming to terms with the violent appropriation and transformation of what we value into what can be exchanged for profit.
And with all of this the greed implicit in a process of continual accumulation, the dishonesty with which this is promoted, and the violence manifested when this is frustrated.
Cohen's view of the history of capitalism is that of increasing freedom to pursue wealth and success. The opposing view is one of ever-restricted opportunity for the majority in a deepening crisis alleviated only by the enormous inventiveness with which capitalism exploits humanity. And this is apparent not only in the long, but in the short term. In 2007-08 the financial markets collapsed, ruined those who had invested in them, and were bailed out by the state backed ultimately by taxpayers' money.
Finance capital was able to do this because it had been placed beyond control by deliberate policies of deregulation in pursuit of a free-market ideology. The market rules: the market does this and does that. But there is no market out there. What there is, is people. Some clever, some stupid, some honest, many dishonest, most greedy - but all trapped in the machinery of finance capital and deluded by the free-market ideology of the age.
Last month this was exposed. Traders working for Barclays had manipulated a crucial interest rate. For a moment, this lightning flash of scandal revealed how powerful people's selfish decisions fix the vital economic information which determines the quality of our lives. The blogs call for criminal prosecution and the media for the restoration of banking values. Like children in the classroom, bankers and politicians point at each other and shout: "It wasn't me, Miss."
But this is not a question of cleaning up a mess. It is about changing our ideas and our mind-set. It is about realising and coming to terms with the fact that the myth of the market is of our making, and what has been exposed in this scandal is not an aberration, but the continued existence of that myth.
Or so those on the left believe. One cannot expect Business Day to go along with it. But its readers deserve more from Tim Cohen's attack on what he sees as Marxism, the left, and the Communist Party. If, as he hopes, the left will join his real world, he has to do better than make a travesty of its ideas and ambitions.
. Guy is the author of a number of books on South African history, such as The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom.
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