Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Shock Doctrine 11: Democracy Born in Chains

(Previous posts here, Matt's posts here, Trend's "How to Overthrow a Government" here.)

I know, it's been a while. I've been busy, and while I still am, I had a moment this weekend to relax and read and I caught up on Shock Doctrine so I could post more for all of you. Look grateful.

This week's chapter is about South Africa, and I don't know enough about South African history to really critique Klein's position. However, I know someone who does, and so I asked Shenid Bhayroo, professor of journalism at Temple University, to tell me what he thought of Klein's take on his country.

Here's some of what he told me:

To the analysis of South Africa: I would argue that Klein's "shock" metaphor does not adequately explain the post-1994 political economy of South Africa. First, her analysis, in the book as a whole and for South Africa, begins circa 1970s. This is curious, in the case of South Africa, since this disregards the significant anti-colonial, anti-apartheid history dating back to the post-WWII years. In particular, the role of the independent trade union movement, the socialist left in South Africa, and individuals such as Steve Biko.

Second, the now-ruling party, the ANC, never capitulated to the policies of the IMF and the World Bank. On the contrary, the former liberation movement never advanced a leftist, let alone a socialist, agenda. The ANC (African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People's Congress) created with popular support in 1955 the "Freedom Charter." This document addressed the many injustices of the Apartheid system and created a set of principles (the Charter) that would form the framework of a "new" South Africa. The Freedom Charter represents a minimum set of demands/principles for a democratic society, with human rights for all citizens. It is a populist document, reflecting the minimal demands/requirements of a "free" society.

More than a "shock doctrine" of SAP's and high interest loans, the current political economics we now have in SA is the consequence of the system of Apartheid, which in turn was a manifestation of rapacious capitalism - as evident by the exploitation of the millions of working class (black) workers. Labor laws, the education system, the health care system, the economics of the system were engineered so as to facilitate the development and entrenchment of a ruling elite--both economic and political. The transition to a post-Apartheid South meant that the ANC could deliver on its promise to build on and expand political power for the "people." This it has done to a large degree. (BTW: In the last two general elections I voted for the ANC). But the government has not done the same for economic freedoms. Hence the scourge of corruption, the emergence of a wealthy black elite, and the lack of real empowerment of the working class.

Thus, I would argue that the shock doctrine thesis oversimplifies the ANC's economic agenda - which from the outset sought to assure foreign investors that a "free market" would prevail in post-Apartheid South Africa. In fact, large scale privatization of public resources took place in the early years of ANC rule in South Africa. The ANC was never substantively critical of the fundamental policies of the "free market," or for that matter critical of the system of capitalism.

As Dr. Bhayroo points out, Klein does stress that apartheid itself was an economic system, but she doesn't make much of an effort to look at the internal critiques of that system. She does mention the boycott strategy, which held corporations accountable for doing business with the apartheid government, but as Rushkoff notes in Life, Inc. this sets up a dichotomy of good corporation/bad corporation, when really the existence of the massive corporations AT ALL is inherently problematic.

In other words, separating corporatism/radical capitalism from human rights violations, as Klein notes in earlier chapters, doesn't work. As long as the post-apartheid government, or the post-Bush government here at home, still believes in "markets" (by which they mean the right of state-subsidized corporations to exist) then the problem will never completely be solved. Corporate capitalism requires an underclass to do the low-paying work it thrives on.

How does this relate to the U.S.? Torture--as in our current discussions of the proper response to Bush Administration torture--is not the main problem. It's a symptom of the sickness. Maybe the most obvious outward one, but a symptom nonetheless. We cannot separate the torture from the rest of the decisions made by the government. It is a symptom of a world in which corporate power is absolute and people don't matter except for what one can get from them. A commission on torture that obsesses over who knew what and when misses the entire point. Of course Pelosi was in some degree complicit--of course Obama is. We still have the same system in control.

"I think when you focus on torture and you don't look at what it was serving, that's when you start to do a revision of the real history."
-Yasmin Sooka, South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, quoted in The Shock Doctrine