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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 11, No. 25, 19 July 2012

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Open letter, closed mind - a response to Business Day's Tim Cohen

By Jeremy Cronin, SACP 1st Deputy General Secretary

On Monday Business Day contributing editor Tim Cohen published an open letter to the SACP addressed to our general secretary, cde Blade Nzimande ("Time for Communist Party to make a contribution", BD, 16 July). In his letter Cohen regurgitates a formerly fashionable trend amongst anti-communist, ex-left-wingers back in the 1960s.  He begins with a "confession" - as a student in the early 1970s at the University of Natal he was enamored with Marxism, but "over the years", he tells us, "I gradually lost my faith".  I can only assume that for Cohen Marxism wasn't a dynamic theoretical and programmatic body of thought, but some kind of naïve idolatory, or teenage crush.

Retired history professor Jeff Guy has already responded admirably in a brief article buried in the back pages of Wednesday's Business Day ("Trabant versus Mercedes, Cohen versus Marx", BD, 18 July). I imagine Professor Guy was embarrassed that one of his former students should display such a crude understanding of Marxism, and such a cynically smug version of the world as it is now. According to Cohen the world we are living in is "a fabulous, inventive, creative, rich, fun place [with] all the freedom…[the SACP] promises but never delivers."

Professor Guy in his response highlights several indicators of grinding global poverty, underlining just why it is stupendously crass on the part of Cohen to imagine that global capitalism has somehow lifted the whole of humanity into the happy hereafter.

It is perhaps no surprise that at the very moment in which the bankruptcy of the standard capitalist neo-classical economic theory is so glaringly obvious, Cohen should choose to embark on a diversionary attack on Marxist theories. Cohen, who has replaced his teenage left-leaning idolatory for a middle-age crush on neo-liberalism, wants us not to notice how mainstream neo-liberal economic theory dismally failed to anticipate the current global economic crisis, and how it remains nonplused by its continuation. Even the chairperson of the US Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, recently conceded to a Princeton university audience that the standard macro-economic models had failed to predict the crisis because they "were designed for non-crisis periods"!  As one critic remarked, that's as useful as having a weather bureau whose meteorological models assume that every day will be sunny. The neo-liberal economic models espoused by Cohen and his clique turn out to be apologies for a system, not an analysis.

But let's turn to Cohen's diversionary critique of Marxism. "Marxist theory…is not only wrong but diametrically wrong… it's the precise opposite of truth", he tells us. "Take, for example, the tendency for the rate of profit to fall…Turns out globally speaking rates of profit have been generally increasing ever since Marx predicted they would start to fall. Capitalism began producing wealth at a rate faster than any social system previously known."

In the first place, Cohen makes the elementary mistake of conflating "wealth creation" with the "rate of profit". Yes, indeed, capitalism as a mode of production has dramatically dwarfed all previous modes in its immense capacity for "wealth creation". Between 1900 and 2005, driven largely by capitalist expansion, world economic output increased an incredible 24 times. That's impressive…until we stop to consider a few things. First, this growth has been grossly mal-distributed. Notwithstanding this stupendous growth, more than 1 billion people still live on less than $1 a day, 2,7billion on less than $2 a day. Moreover, capitalist growth is not necessarily a tide that lifts all boats (even if very unequally). For much of the world's population - forced off family peasant farms and into urban slums - the quality of life relative to their grandparents has actually deteriorated.

Then there is the small matter of the environment - the 24-fold economic growth since 1900 is increasingly undermining the environmental conditions for the sustainability of human civilization itself. We are hitting (and probably have passed some) of the carrying capacity limits of our planet. Any economy is a sub-set of the environment. All inputs into the economy come from the environment, and all the wastes emitted from the economy go back into the environment. We have a finite planet, while voracious capitalism requires constant, unrelenting growth that is using up natural resources quicker than they can be replaced. 

But let's return more specifically to the subject of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Marx borrowed this concept from the classical liberal economists of the 19th century, Adam Smith and Ricardo. They were indeed concerned at this tendency, based they believed on the increasing use of machinery with fewer workers. Marx agreed that there was a tendency for the rate of profit to fall, but he was more interested in why it had turned out to be so slow - and he analysed a number of countervailing factors which we won't dwell on here. Over the past century there has been a debate WITHIN Marxism about the centrality or otherwise of this concept for Marx, and either way about how useful it is any case in order to understand the systemic fault-lines within global capitalism.

However, the falling rate of profit is a long-range tendency within capitalism. Across the few centuries of capitalism's history, driven by increasing capital-intensity, there has indeed been a tendency for the rate of profit to fall across the system. It is this tendency, amongst other factors, that has driven smaller firms out of business and for a massive process of monopolization to occur - first at the national scale from the late 19th century, and in recent decades on a global scale. The much-trumpeted "globalization" of recent times has essentially been a rapid process of global monopolization dominated by the financial sector. The total revenue of the five hundred largest corporations in the world (the so-called Global 500) is now around an incredible 40% of all world income! So much for the so-called "free market".

The global monopoly power of these massive corporations that control much of the world's production (including in countries like China) along with their strangle-hold over the global supply chain has been used to resist the underlying trend of a falling rate of profit through several strategies. Among these strategies is monopoly pricing and ever-increasing globalization - the conquest of low-cost labour markets (China, India, etc.). But these strategies to resist the gravitational pull of the tendency for a falling rate of profit have created their own systemic log-jam - a crisis of over-accumulation. The global monopolies have cornered vast amounts of surplus which can no longer be invested (profitably) in production, and so we have seen the third and increasingly dominant feature of contemporary capitalism - financialisation, the increasing shift of surplus capital out of productive investment and into a speculative casino economy.

Over-accumulation in a capitalist system is the systemic crisis of producing (or having the capacity to produce) - not more than is needed by humanity - but more than can be PROFITABLY SOLD. And it is this inherent tendency to capitalist over-accumulation (rather than a falling rate of profit as such) that lies at the heart of capitalism's bouts of crisis, including the current global crisis. In our current global conjuncture the over-accumulation crisis has been hugely compounded by global financialisation.

In the US, for instance, the finance, insurance and real estate sector nearly doubled its share of the economy relative to the productive sector between the early 1980s and the present. The increasing domination of finance global monopolies then perpetuates in a vicious feedback loop all of the underlying structural strains within the capitalist system.

To put it simply, banks create money out of thin air because they are able to issue loans far in excess of their deposits. Because more money must be paid back to the banks than was loaned in the first place, more money must be created if loan defaults are to be avoided. This additional money basically comes from one source - more bank loans, more money out of thin air. It is this debt-based monetary system that is now driving the insatiable appetite of capitalism for relentless compound "growth" way beyond what is environmentally sustainable. And it is the same attempt at gravity-defying expansion of finance monopoly capital and the speculative basis on which it rests that has led to the current financial sector implosion spreading from sub-prime loans in the US, to banking and sovereign debt crises in Europe.

The SACP emerged last Sunday from its largest and one of its most unified congresses ever. Important resolutions and an updated Party programme, "The Road to South African Socialism" were discussed and approved. We are convinced that the policy work (and organizational unity) of our Congress will play a very positive role in taking forward policy and organization within our broader alliance, government, and our country. In a country suffering from the persisting legacy of a neo-colonial capitalist growth path and in a world immersed in a multi-dimensional capitalist crisis, these SACP contributions, rooted in a living Marxism, are more important than ever. 

Notwithstanding its hypocritical title ("Time for Communist Party to make a contribution"), Tim Cohen's open letter had no intention whatsoever of engaging seriously if critically with our Party's actual ongoing contribution. Indeed, the South African commercial media with few exceptions simply didn't know what to make of our Congress. Diversionary reports that had nothing to do with the Congress at all were the order of the day. Cohen's closed-mind open letter turns out to be just another variant of the same thing.


Libyan Elections - Burying The Amnesty Report

By: David Edwards (the article was first published on www.medialens.org)

In January 2005, we described how the British media were united in celebrating Iraq's 'first free election in decades'. (Leader, 'Vote against violence,' The Guardian, January 7, 2005)

The BBC's main evening news reported 'the first democratic election in fifty years' (BBC1, News at Ten, January 10, 2005). The Daily Telegraph wrote of 'the first democratic elections' (Leader, 'Mission accomplished,' Daily Telegraph, December 6, 2004). The Independent argued that 'democratic and free elections can bring a hope of peace' (Borzou Daragahi, 'Bin Laden backs deputy Zarqawi,' The Independent, December 28, 2004).

In their excellent book, Demonstration Elections (South End Press, 1984), Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead listed six criteria of election integrity:

  • 'Freedom of speech.'
  • 'Freedom of the media.'
  • 'Freedom of organization of intermediate groups.'
  • 'The absence of highly developed and pervasive instruments of state-sponsored terror.'
  • 'Freedom of party organization and ability to field candidates.'
  • 'Absence of coercion and fear on the part of the general population.'
  • As Herman and Brodhead noted, a good way of 'looking at the validity of elections is to examine the conditions making for a free election and see how the actual electoral case conforms to these criteria.'

But this the US-UK mass media never seriously attempt to do in covering elections in states newly 'liberated' by the West. Instead:

'Following the government's lead, the media accept the election at face value, focusing on the personalities of candidates, the surface mechanics of election day procedure, and other secondary matters and propaganda gambits, the most important being the alleged efforts to disrupt the election by the bad guys. They carefully avoid or downgrade issues such as the prior decimation of a political opposition, death squads as an institutionalized phenomenon, and the exclusion of major political opposition groups from participation.'

In regard to Iraq, for example, serious analysis was replaced by the simplistic message that, no matter how much killing the 'coalition of the willing' had done (with journalists consistently undercounting the death toll by an order of magnitude) at least 'we' had brought political freedom to Iraq.

But tragicomedy was always close at hand. On the BBC's Newsnight programme, Jon Leyne reported that the victorious Shia United Iraqi Alliance would choose a new prime minister from two candidates: 'both religious Shiites, but also both acceptable to the Americans'. (Leyne, Newsnight, February 14, 2005)

Leyne continued: 'We call them a religious Shiite alliance... but they're very sensitive to what the Americans would feel if guys with turbans took over this country.'

And indeed everyone, of course, knew that 'democracy' in Iraq had to be 'sensitive' to American concerns, not least in regard to 'guys with turbans' (which sounded like a euphemism for 'towelheads'). It was obvious what 'acceptable to the Americans' meant for the claim that the elections were in any real sense 'free'. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Bush I, made the point in April 2003:

'What's going to happen the first time we hold an election in Iraq and it turns out the radicals win? What do you do? We're surely not going to let them take over.' (Quoted, Walter Gibbs, 'Scowcroft Urges Wide Role For the UN in Postwar Iraq,' The New York Times, April 9, 2003)

That was clear, as was the lesson implicit in the punishment meted out to Iraq's third city, Fallujah, just weeks before the election. Smeared by the media as an insurgent 'stronghold', the city was subjected to all-out assault by US forces leaving 70 per cent of the houses and shops destroyed, and at least 800 civilians dead. ('Fallujah still needs more supplies despite aid arrival,' www.irinnews.org, November 30, 2004)

Also, in October 2004, the prestigious scientific journal, The Lancet, published a report estimating that almost 100,000 more Iraqi civilians had died than would have been expected had the invasion not occurred.

The media turned a blind eye to this and much other evidence clearly challenging the claim that elections were conducted in the 'absence of coercion and fear on the part of the general population' and without 'the prior decimation of a political opposition'. Instead, with smoke still rising from the ruins of Fallujah, the likes of Ewen MacAskill in the Guardian reported that Iraq was preparing 'for the country's first democratic election'. (MacAskill, 'Blair 'feels the danger' on visit to Baghdad,' December 22, 2004)

Libya - 'Dawn Of A New Era'

The same media, echoing different politicians, are this month responding in near-identical fashion to elections in Libya. In line with Herman and Brodhead's analysis there has been much discussion of 'personalities of candidates' and other 'secondary matters', but no serious attempt to judge the integrity of the elections against rational criteria. The Telegraph reported: 'a coalition led by the Western-educated political scientist and former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril appears to have won Libya's first free elections in 60 years…'

The Times hailed Libya's 'first free elections today' (James Hider, 'After the pain, a hope for liberty and democracy,' The Times, July 7, 2012).

Luke Harding wrote in the Guardian: 'Libya's former interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril has won a landslide victory in the country's first democratic election...'

Barack Obama described the elections as 'another milestone in the country's transition to democracy.' The European Union hailed the 'dawn of a new era'.

In selling Libya's elections as free and fair, the media have had little to say about a report by Amnesty International published as Libyans were preparing to vote: 'Libya: Rule of law or rule of militias?' (July 2012), based on the findings of an Amnesty visit to Libya in May and June 2012.

Amnesty reported 'the mounting toll of victims of an increasingly lawless Libya, where the transitional authorities have been unable or unwilling to rein in the hundreds of militias formed during and after the 2011 conflict'.

The militias are now 'threatening the very future of Libya and casting a shadow over landmark national elections… They are killing people, making arbitrary arrests, torturing detainees and forcibly displacing and terrorizing entire communities... They are also recklessly using machineguns, mortars and other weaponry during tribal and territorial battles, killing and maiming bystanders. They act above the law, committing their crimes without fear of punishment.' There is 'a very real risk that the patterns of abuse that inspired the "17 February Revolution [sic]" will be reproduced and entrenched'.

Amnesty added:

'The authorities have also failed to resolve the situation of entire communities displaced during the conflict and unable to return to their homes, which were looted and burned by armed militias seeking revenge… The entire population of the city of Tawargha, estimated at 30,000, was driven out by Misratah militias and remains scattered across Libya, including in poorly resourced camps in Tripoli and Benghazi.

'Not only are such communities barred from going home; they also continue to face arbitrary arrest and other reprisals. These human rights violations are taking place against the backdrop of a judicial system that simply cannot cope with the volume of cases and is failing to provide justice and redress.'

Indeed Kim Sengupta reported in the Independent this week on horrendous conditions facing Tawerghans forced to live in an old cement factory in the outskirts of Benghazi:

'The outside of it has been turned into camps that serve as a sprawling "home" for people from his city - about 17,000 of them in all, who shelter in shacks made out of PVC pipes.'

Sengupta commented: 'not many Tawerghans turned up at the polling stations set up at the camp. "Would voting bring back my son? He is a prisoner, or maybe they have killed him. I do not know. We are not free to find out," said Raga Ahdwafi, a 50 year-old resident of the camp.'

Undeterred, Sengupta blithely concluded his article with a comment reviewing 'Libya's first free election in half a century.'

Amnesty noted more problems impacting on the credibility of elections:

'Public criticism of the thuwwar [revolutionaries], who are widely hailed as heroes, is uncommon. Even officials, activists, journalists, lawyers and victims of human rights violations who privately acknowledge the prevailing lawlessness and abuses committed by the thuwwar do not raise their concerns in public, fearing reprisals. Their fears are justified.'

As for any new government:

'They will inherit a country with weak and unaccountable institutions and devoid of independent civil society organizations and political parties. The legacy of powerful officials and security forces acting above the law will not be easy to dismantle.'

According to the LexisNexis database, the words 'Libya' 'election' and 'Amnesty' have appeared in just four national mainstream newspaper articles in the last month.

In one of these four articles, Patrick Cockburn reported that clashes between rival tribes and communities were 'leaving hundreds dead'. Worryingly for free speech, Cockburn noted that this kind of bad news from Libya is being suppressed: 'the widespread arbitrary detention and torture of people picked up at checkpoint by the thuwwar (revolutionaries) is not publicised because the Libyan government wants to play them down, or people are frightened of criticising the perpetrators and becoming targets.'

Cockburn cited Amnesty report researcher Diana Eltahawy's view that 'things are not getting better'. Eltahawy commented that in May the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) passed a law giving immunity to the 'thuwwar' for any act they carry out in defence of 'the 17 February Revolution' last year. Interrogations by militias, though very often involving torture, are deemed to carry legal weight. Eltahawy said there is 'a climate of self-censorship' within the post-Gaddafi government about these abuses.

Part of the problem, Cockburn added, is that 'foreign governments and media alike… rejoiced in the overthrow of Gaddafi last year' and so 'they do not want bad news to besmirch their victory.' A rare example of honest criticism directed by a corporate journalist at his own colleagues. As the burying of the Amnesty report suggests, the implications of this 'bad news' for claims of electoral integrity have not been seriously discussed anywhere.

And what about the West's goals for the elections? We have to leave the 'mainstream' media far behind if we are to encounter common sense analysis of this kind from the World Socialist Web Site:

'The elections for a new General National Congress in Libya are an attempt to provide a "democratic" facade for an authoritarian and undemocratic government, subservient to the interests of the major Western powers, corporations and banks.

'The NATO-installed National Transitional Council (NTC) ensured that candidacy was restricted to a relatively small layer approved by the Electoral Commission.'

The reality, as Herman and Brodhead noted way back in 1984, is that the US government uses the symbolic value of a client state election 'to mobilize home support for its preferred policies… to mislead the home populace about both the situation in the occupied country and the intentions of the US government' and is thus 'designed to win approval of external policy by deception'. This applies equally to the UK government, of course, and is unlikely to change any time soon.


The Communists are coming, Again!

By Jacob G. Hornberger (the article was first published on MWC News)

Conservatives are at it again. Faced with the possibility that Americans are finally starting to realize that U.S. foreign policy is the cause of anti-American terrorism, conservatives are now reverting to their old stand-by position for justifying the continued existence of the national-security state: communism!

No, I'm not referring to China, even though the Pentagon is now reorienting its focus from the Middle East to that communist country. I'm instead referring to Venezuela — yes, Venezuela! — the country whose democratically elected president, Hugo Chavez, supposedly constitutes a grave threat to U.S. "national security."

Shades of the Cold War and falling dominoes! Let's see: Chavez is a socialist who has established close ties to Fidel Castro, which I suppose makes Chavez a communist too. Even worse, Chavez, like Castro, has chosen to maintain his country's independence from U.S. government control.

In other words, unlike many other foreign countries, especially those on the U.S. foreign-aid welfare dole, Venezuela doesn't chime in and endorse the U.S. Empire's invasions, occupations, assassinations, kidnappings, renditions, and torture around the world as part of its much-vaunted "war on terrorism."

In fact, Chavez, like Castro, is oftentimes very critical of U.S. foreign policy. Apparently, that's one thing that makes him a grave threat to "national security" (whatever that term means).

So, how exactly do Chavez and Castro pose a threat to "national security"? Well, I suppose the scenario is that Castro's military forces might cross the ocean and invade Miami while Chavez's military forces work their way up through Central America and Mexico, where they then invade the United States at Brownsville — after merging, that is, with the Nicaraguan army, whose commander in chief, Daniel Ortega, is another long-time Cold War communist grave threat to U.S. "national security."

Then, Chavez and Ortega's forces could work their way to Virginia, where they could merge with Castro's forces, which would have worked their way up the east coast. And then they all would conquer Washington, D.C., whereupon they would reinforce such programs as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and public (i.e., government) schooling, all of which are core features of socialism in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

Yes, this is all ridiculous, as ridiculous as it was during the entire Cold War. The communists are not coming to get us. And the dominoes are not going to start falling. In fact, the biggest threat to our freedom and well-being lies with homegrown socialism and imperialism that are foisted upon us by American liberals and conservatives.

All this is just the standard conservative claptrap to keep the national-security state, the permanent military industrial complex, the CIA, the hundreds of overseas military bases, and the ever-growing military budgets a permanent part of American life.

Traditionally, governments turn to three primary "threats" to justify their permanent military establishments: communism, terrorism, and drugs. The U.S. government isn't the only one that does this. Egypt's military dictatorship, an ally and partner of the U.S. government that receives billions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid, does the same thing.

Communism was the big official bugaboo during the Cold War. "We have to have a permanent national-security state to protect us from the communists, conservatives said. If we don't invade Vietnam, the dominoes will fall. If we don't invade Cuba and try to assassinate Castro, the communists will soon by running the IRS and our public schools. But as soon as the Cold War is over, we'll fully favor dismantling the big national security government that we have brought into existence."

Nonsense! Despite the small-government rhetoric, conservatives love big government. When the Cold War was over, the last thing they wanted was to dismantle the national security state. After all, there were the drug dealers to worry about. And then after the U.S. Empire began provoking people in the Middle East, the "terrorists" became the new official enemy, replacing the communists.

And now we come full circle. The statists are now returning to the communists to serve as another official enemy. That means that if they get their way, we'll now have all three official enemies to worry about, all at the same time — the communists, the terrorists, and the drug dealers. What a grand bonanza for the lovers of big government!

With the grand failure of both the welfare state and the warfare state, Americans now have a tremendous opportunity to restore a free society to our land. The best thing that Americans could ever do is dismantle both the welfare state and the warfare state and all the taxes that fund all this statist junk. That's the key to restoring a free, prosperous, secure, and harmonious society to our land.

Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.