Friday, October 12, 2007

The IMF, shock therapy and Apartheid

Comment is premature, perhaps, because unlike Johann Hari, I haven't read Naomi Klien's "The Shock Doctrine" yet so I can't tell whether this following paragraph from his review is an accurate reflection of what she has written or if it is his elaboration of a thesis he is in fundamental agreement with. Regardless of which, the analysis of the 'shock doctrine' in relation to post-Apartheid South Africa was, well, pretty shocking:
"As the people of South Africa were fighting the last battles against Apartheid, the successor ANC was forced to haggle with the IMF and World Bank for their loans. The conditions? Ditch all the social protections included in your Freedom Charter, and leave the economic structures of Apartheid in place."
It was this last expression that annoyed me because I think it's intended to sound vaguely Marxist but it's anything but, as far as one can tell from the analysis put forth here. For instance, by the 'economic structures of Apartheid' do Klein/Hari mean simply capitalism? If so, there's two points here:

1) South Africa was certainly capitalist - and it also practiced Apartheid. But not only can the two not be fused together in this lazy-assed way, describing a basically capitalist system in this fashion ignores the manner in which Apartheid radically circumscribed two basic elements essential to the operation of any properly-functioning capitalist economy - trade and the free movement of labour. Any analysis of the collapse of apartheid should take surely take account of this? At least it should if it is an analysis that has any roots in Marxism.

2) A reading of the section of the Freedom Charter that deals with economics reveals an essentially Old Labourish, Clause Four sort of doctrine. The Soviet model, in other words. Post-apartheid it was obvious to anyone who had been paying attention that this was never going to serve as an economic model for the new South Africa. This, as anyone with any sense of economic history understands, was due to the (then very recent) collapse of the Soviet model.

It is certainly not my purpose to defend the IMF. The policy of 'shock therapy' fails to take account of an elementary fact of economic history, which is that the Western powers, whilst able to withstand the pressures of international competition as matured industrial economies, enjoyed a period of protection whilst they were still developing. But if neither Klein or Hari can rise above this lazy stuff about how sinister the IMF is with this vague yet all-inclusive condemnation of 'neo-liberalism', I was left wondering if Chris Dillow might have a point when he argued that this is the state the left gets itself into when it abandons Marxism. No alternatives, no understanding of capitalism as a system that governs the lives of both workers and bosses and politicians - just a vague lament that the reason Bad Things happen is because Bad People are in charge.

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