By Themba Zondo
“It is not the aesthetic style of a period that determines and marks its character; it’s the organisation of the economy in that period that determines the nature of the period…”, here Professor Robert Paul Wolff, an economist and literary critic of capitalism, summarises exactly what it is that the South African Communist Party (SACP) led Left Popular front should be focusing on. He elaborates by adding, “There is such a thing as feudal law, feudal politics and feudal religion, all based on and growing out of the feudal organisation of the economy. And then that is replaced by a capitalist organisation of the economy, which gives rise to capitalist law, capitalist politics. It isn’t the politics or law that brings about the change in the economy; it’s the change in the economy that brings about the change in politics and the law.” This I aim to explain, as simple and straightforward as it, using the an instrument we could wake up tomorrow and have the way we organise labour within State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), as a spring board, to advance the very nature of Marxist thought i.e. CORPORATE STATE POWER.
How is our economy organised? According to the World Bank, the South African economy is ranked as upper-middle income; it is one of the largest economies on the African Continent. Our South African economy was largely built by primary and secondary industries such as mining and manufacturing; however, following a similar global phenomenon, huge pockets of our economy now lay within tertiary industries like real estate, financial sector, business services and wholesale and retail trade. With a (1) Nominal Gross Domestic Product estimated at R5.1 trillion, having contracted by 1.4% in Q4 of 2019 mostly thanks to negative performance in the transport, storage and communications industries, and (2) a growth rate having reached its peak within the past 10 years at 4.8% in Q1 of 2011 as compared to a peak of 10.64% growth in the Chinese GDP in 2010, and (3) government debt increasing to 82.8% of GDP in 2021, there is room for the South African worker to be conscious to the fact that things need to change. 86% of our South African economy is controlled by only 10% of a population of 58.78 million people.
That is to say, a small number of people really determine the nature, style and/or direction of our economy, and thus nature, style and/or direction of our law, politics and to a degree religious practise. Karl Marx and Frederic Engels prove this in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 when they assert that “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”
The South African Communist Party remains the true vanguard of the working class. Who is this class that the SACP is apparently a vanguard of? The communist manifesto has this to say: “In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piece-meal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” It further notes that “The lower strata of the middle class – the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants -all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by the new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.” What does all this mean? A working class is a class that does not own any strategic means of production.
A farmer who may very well own equipment to clear the land, cultivate it, plant maze, reap it and turn that maze to produce meal for himself and his family falls into this class of working people. His equipment no matter how sophisticated does not have any bearing on the economy and thus he cannot qualify to be a capitalist. Should the same farmer realise potential to clear a bigger field and thus produce more than what his family needs, he may need to get assistance i.e. hired labour, to reach his targets of achieving producing a surplus, of which HE decides what to do with it. It is at this point that the said equipment, means of production, he may have now elevate him into the ruling class as he now wields strategic economic power within the society, class antagonism 101.
At the 14th National Congress of the SACP, delegates seemingly resolved for the SACP to, as is contained in the said congress’s resolutions under article 7 resolution (a), “actively contest elections”. This resolution, based on my argument, is deeply shallow and does not seek to
advance the NDR in its true nature. As we have seen “actively contesting elections” in this current epoch of capitalism does not do much in the total liberation of the working class. More needs to be done than the superficial “state power” narrative purported by the SACP.
Suppose we are looking in the wrong place for an answer. Let us consider resolutions under article 3 of the abovementioned congress resolutions i.e. Radical structural economic transformation. On the surface it may not seem like it, but indeed these resolutions seek to give rise to what is popularly known as RET. RET in the interest of societal developmental mobility, not narrow factional self-interests. This, I believe, is where the SACP could have redeemed itself in its quest for State Power. Part of the reasons that South Africa is trapped in a consistent and deepening crisis of unemployment, inequality, and poverty is as a result noted under article 3.1 (a) i.e. “relocation of production from low-wage global-south countries and the acceleration of technological innovation and mechanisation as part of the Forth Industrial Revolution”. Article 3.3 Combat inequality and private monopoly, to open up and democratise the economic space, is in my view what the SACP and many other socialist movements should base their primary focus on. These resolutions speak to the rise of COPORATE STATE POWER.
How do we realise COPORATE STATE POWER? Simply through co-operatives. Co-operatives are, according to the University of Nebraska cooperative development centre, “an association of persons (organisation) that is owned and controlled by the people to meet their common economic, social, and/or cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled business (enterprise)”. As noted above, with a hegemonic minority hold on the economy, the establishment and support of co-operatives in the current form and pace may take years for us to truly realise CORPORATE STATE POWER. Proposals must be made to parliament that firms, of a then determined turnover, operating within the borders of South Africa, in every sector, SHALL be owned by its employees.
This indeed will prove to be the sole revolutionary act by the SACP since the “democratic” breakthrough of 1994 other than the superficially symbolic gains made. As eluded above, SOEs have a major role to play in the quest for CORPORATE STATE POWER. We have seen how vulnerable workers are as a result of the decisions of their superiors at SOEs, and most indeed in the private. Workers, across the value chain in any given industry do not have any democratic control of the outputs of their efforts in the work environment. The worker, the very stakeholder that has intimate knowledge of the product/service rendered by their employer, the stakeholder that spends more time at work than with family, the stakeholder that becomes brand ambassadors by virtue of association, this stakeholder that is remunerated a fraction of company executives has simply been forgotten/missing at the table when decisions around raw materials, human resources, retrenchments, and indeed, most importantly what to do with the surplus produced, i.e. profits. The entire operations of an overwhelming majority of firms out there is controlled by a very few persons within them, often those who do not perform directly productive duties towards the output.
To save SOEs, and to ensure their sustainability, they need to be converted to co-operatives. This should give rise to those who have worked in them and invested their knowledge and expertise to lead these organisations themselves. Co-operatives, in the fashion argued for here, give workers of a particular firm the opportunity to every now and then (periods to be determined by them) review their own strategic objectives, against their sectors objectives (as agreed with by workers of other firms in the sector), and thus make decisions around who to employ as their CEO, CFO, and/or operational managers, etc.; decisions around using less polluting methods in the operation of their workplace; decisions around the pace of the introduction of new technologies in production; decisions around the distribution and/or investments of profits.
It is incorrect, and short-sighted to view co-operations as something that is small-scale growing from the ground up. We will not address the triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty in this lifetime if we keep going at the pace we are on. CORPORATE STATE POWER does indeed possess the potential to defend the National Democratic Revolution. The motive forces of our struggle are the working class, a class in perpetual contention with the ruling elite for the means of production and by extension a better improved quality of life. These motive forces, black or white, atheist or religious, may band together in solidarity in the control of means of production and thus the true transformation of society. That’s the National characteristic. Democracy should govern every aspect of human lives, and not to be limited to an event that takes place every 4-5 years when political parties canvas for votes. Indeed great strides have been made in the South African context to democratise almost every aspect i.e. schools, clinics and Universities are to some degree democratically run.
Then there is the Community Policing Forums within a number of communities that are governed by principles of democracy
(their role in policing needs to be more of an oversight body of policing work rather than the vigilante posture they have become). A number of other bodies are run through democracy, even churches. Yet workers do not enjoy any democratic rights at work. They do not choose their wage and that of executive management, they do not choose their working hours, and they don’t get to decide what should happen with the surplus THEY produce. The workplace is the most undemocratic environment by far compared to other facets of human life. If workers had the choice regarding the inputs of their product/service do we expect them to choose machinery/technologies that may see them rendered irrelevant and thus unemployed? Would workers decide to retrench themselves because executive management took bad decisions (high pay cheques and/or investing profits in unproductive assets)? A democratic work environment has the potential to bring stability to a particular firm and spill over into the industry/sector and once that chain of events has started we may very well enjoy a stable growing economy.
Co-operatives argued for here are not that small vegetable garden (progressive as they are) run by a few community members, CORPORATE STATE POWER is where workers really command every value chain of the economy. This is Revolutionary in that the very structure of the workplace, and by extension the structure of the economy, is totally transformed.
The proposition here is not for government to hold and control the economy on behalf of the working class, but rather they themselves, the workers, actively take charge of the economy. Workers at banks, retail stores, manufacturing firms, mines, etc. do have the capacity to run whatever business they are employed in, and run it better in the interest of social mobility and not profit maximisation. If all employees of a particular bank in a particular district resigned tomorrow and jointly sought a banking licence to offer banking services in their towns something great could come from that exercise.
These local bankers could for instance, democratically decide to fund/loan more newly formed local co-operatives in whatever sector where workers have decided to do away with the current oppressive workplace arrangement. It would be government’s responsibility as well, where necessary, to see to it that enough funding is available to nurture these businesses. In some instances pension funds could be bundled together for a start-up of something workers can be proud of that is their own. As already proposed other firms will need to be legislatively converted in the interest of a transformed economy. Directorships of these co-operatives may be liquid (change at intervals determined by workers, without monitory differences between directors and the rest of the workforce) to ensure the democratic stewardship of the organisation, or even be open to every last employee.
An economistic brand of workerism pursued in the argument? Well it could seem that way looking at it from a preoccupied contemporary vantage point, rather than through Marxist thought. I do not seek to argue that workers should not wage the battle in important political arms like the administration, parliament, security forces and the like, but as we have seen that the character of these institutions are given rise by the nature of production in any given society at a given economic epoch. Vladimir Lenin highlights this point when he
writes in The State and Revolution that: “The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonism objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.” “Class antagonisms” Lenin refers to are most sharply felt at the point of production.
Indeed, one is tempted to think that not all societal problems can be resolved at the point of production (shop floor), but a revisit to the works of David Ricardo, Adam Smith and Karl Marx (the most well renowned economic social philosophers in history) one sees what their point of contention is, it is not about who hold office (administrative) or who the military commander may be, their work is mainly based on the organisation of the economy. If the argument driven here is seen, from any quarter, as having workerist tendencies, then I submit, that from the calibre of persons mentioned in proceeding sentence, that Marx is the pioneering workerist in human history (if you disagree with this submission refer to: Capital, a critique of the political economy volume 1).
An economic revolution is imminent.
Socialism is the future, build co-operatives now!
Cde Themba Zondo is a former YCLSA VUT branch deputy chairperson and a member in good standing in the Josie Mpama District. He writes in his capacity as a full-time revolutionary.
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