Saturday, August 25, 2012

Zuma, Motlanthe, Malema: anyone for President?

Here are a few political thoughts. They are only thoughts: not necessarily personal opinions and definitely not a plug for any side in our fissiparous and floundering ruling party/alliance. They will accordingly be a laughing stock, safely ignored, or found completely unacceptable. In short, they offer something for everyone.

Jacob Zuma is not a bad president, but a weak one. Thabo Mbeki was a strong president, but a bad one. To grumble too much either way is to miss the point. SA takes the presidents it gets. That is current procedure.

Whereas people could rarely understand what former president Thabo Mbeki said, President Zuma has always been clear. He explained from the start he will do what the party decides and since the party has difficulty deciding anything, he does not know what to do.

Though that sounds a joke, it is serious, but in quite another way. The constant calls for leadership can be seen as a yearning on all sides for someone who would crack the whip, sort things out, bang some heads together, ride a little roughshod, maybe. Someone of stature.

Do we unconsciously want a Big Man, perhaps? In what is SA’s essentially one-party state, there’s a joke that could turn out to be serious indeed.

Our outcast national-socialist Mr Julius Malema is telling anyone desperate enough to listen that no leader is any good. Once it was Mr Mbeki; now it’s President Zuma and, gratuitously, Cyril Ramaphosa. How long before it’s Kgalema Motlanthe and there’s no one left with credit, or credibility, at all?

Perhaps SA’s problems are too much for any one person. They are certainly too much for any one party.
Letter published in BDlive, August 24 2012

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Herheim's answer at Bayreuth for opera lovers puzzled by 'Parsifal'

As people get older they start to look back and talk about the past, as you must have noticed.

They contact former school mates, old friends and flames and, as it seems, try to relive things that are beyond recall. It is why reunions of all kinds and websites like Friends Reunited are so popular. They keep up, for everyone, the illusion that we can go back: that time has not passed and we are able to find things again as they were.

Most attempts at recovery are not only fruitless but extremely painful. Life is a river and, as the philosopher reputedly said, you cannot step into the same river twice.

Nevertheless we would not be human if we did not reflect, in private moments, on our own tiny history, on what we’ve lived through and dealt with, and try to make some assessment of it all. Out of the jumble of events, only a blurred outline and an indistinct course take shifting form. In some, this leads to their critically reviewing their lives and loves and one-time automatic convictions and sometimes also to their 'reforming'; it is a famous theme in art and life. The composer Richard Wagner, a most thoughtful intelligence, would certainly have gone through it. More important, he had every means, as a great artist, to put down his personal journey and his conclusions about it for posterity.

Even from him, perhaps particularly from him, we must not expect clarity. Parsifal is a work about understanding, forgiveness and redemption, not, as it has been said to be, about a very powerful and, by many accounts, often unpleasant personality starting to lose it in his dotage. There is no resignation or acceptance in Parsifal, nothing in it ‘failing’ - except for Evil failing. Along with Wagner's well-known lifetime obsession with Redemption has come the wisdom that is supposed to come to us all, but which is probably no more than our grasping at long last that there is, after all, a bit more to life than we thought at 25, or even twice the age.

Is this reform, is this a spiritual awakening or renewal, is Parsifal a religious work? There is no reply that will suit everyone (though many will think it was simple-minded of Nietzsche to say this final music-drama with its rituals of the Mass was Wagner ‘falling weeping at the foot of the Cross’). You find the same conclusions in the case of another huge and elusive intelligence, Shakespeare, in his beautiful Winter's Tale and The Tempest. I saw a play about Shakespeare in his later years once and in one of the scenes the character of the contemporary, controversial playwright - and younger man - Ben Jonson, bursts out in exasperation to Shakespeare: ‘The Winter's Tale! - what was that all about!’ The audience laughed happily at the joke. Most of us were also younger than the poet when he wrote his play.

In the same way, it is frequently pointed out that Parsifal simply baffles many people (as well as boring very many more rigid). Leaving aside the slow pace, and everyone's different tastes in music, they have been known to ask nervously, even after sitting diligently through the full four and a half hours: ‘Er - what is it about?’

Stefan Herheim’s marvellously imaginative production of Parsifal at Bayreuth answers unforgettably:

The person’s whole life, a people’s entire history, are in the end the means to redemption.

Monday, August 6, 2012

If Marx was wrong, can Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters be right?

Stop reading now if it seems like this article is going to attack the leadership of the EFF personally or go on about how Marxism killed millions of people and what a terrible thing that was. It is not about that.

Karl Marx was an extraordinary and original thinker.  He wove many of the radical intellectual ideas of his day into what he and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels held was a scientific explanation of history and socialism. In the nineteenth century, very many clever people thought that science could explain, even solve, every problem eventually.

Speaking at Marx’s graveside in March 1883, Engels made clear that both men saw their ideas as proven beyond argument. He called Marx ‘the man of science’ and declared: ‘Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.’

The law of development of human history? Discovered it?

Among Marxism’s many contentions, two are foundational. One is that capitalism is destined to destroy itself through its own contradictions; the other is that history is not just random events randomly following one another, but a process. History is something working itself out.

If these assertions are true, if history is a predestined process, there is no reason why ‘capitalism’ - whatever we understand by the term - is not on course to destroy itself along Marxist lines or for some other reasons we cannot foresee. It could be - and there would be nothing anyone could do about it. On the other hand, if history is not predetermined, then there is no reason why the fate of capitalism is sealed. People in that event are not puppets and there are things they can do about it.

In the years since Marx’s death, and not only in Europe but across the entire globe, observation and experience, the two basics of science, do not support his predictions. In spite of two hugely destructive world wars, the great capitalist powers survived or later recovered; more significantly, new world players are now following their example; one mass impoverished industrial class has not emerged; the state has not withered away; and capitalism has gone through repeated crises, but each time come through.

The leaders of the EFF, like all revolutionaries, are entitled to point out that is only true so far. But the fact that they have come to rely on prophecy shows that they cling more these days to faith than science. No science showed Marx had discovered, much less proved, a ‘law’ shaping human history. Even if such a law existed, science does not explain why its presence would have been vouchsafed, without experiment, to Marx alone, especially as his own thinking as a member of the bourgeoisie should have made that, by his own theories, impossible.

Human conduct is not reliably measurable or predictable and even if it is predictable in some respects, as some behaviourists would argue, experiments never manage to place it beyond doubt. Local circumstances always vary enormously and laboratory conditions are practically impossible in a world that is in a permanent passage of change. That is why psychologists and sociologists are guarded in saying how people will behave as individuals or in groups and why economists are even more careful to hedge their bets. They speak of tendencies; possibilities; opportunities. Not laws.

Some familiar conclusions and some conclusions worth thinking about stem from this.

For a century and a half, ‘communism’ has enjoyed an apparent moral superiority that derives from its claim to have detected and to represent inevitability. The status quo, indiscriminately labelled oppressive and sinning ‘capitalism’, no matter how modern societies differ and representative governments successively adjust to change, is always by contrast not only defective, but also damned.

This thinking in its classical Marxist form - and in its Marxist-Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist, Freudian, neo-marxist and New Left, Maoist and other variations - is systematized belief, not science. Communism was never and is not scientifically inevitable; communist parties do not speak for a permanently excluded class and no longer speak alone for the poor. If they ever did.

But if they wish to speak for those currently excluded, they must give the real people they call ‘the voiceless’ a voice, by submitting themselves to elections. Unlike the South African Communist Party, sheltered by its alliance with the ANC, the banished Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters have had to take that risk, avoided by revolutionaries till now as counter-revolutionary.

Despite all the media hype, despite the inequality and evident injustices in SA society, it is anybody's guess how it will work out for them without History on their side.

Revised article that first featured on Politicsweb on August 1 2012