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The madness in the world

25 July 2016

A few days ago I wrote  about how I thought that the world was going mad in ways, or to an extent that I had not experienced before. Yes, there has always been evil in the world. There have been wars and rumours of wars. Ten years ago Israel was bombing Lebanon. Twenty years ago Yugoslavia was disintegrating in violence. In every age bad things have happened. But now, somehow, it seems worse.

Something is in the air.

People seem to be divided as never before.

A month ago the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) had a referendum on whether they should remain in the European Union or not. England and Wales voted to leave, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Do it has raised the question whether Scotland and Ireland should remain in the UK. The referendum has revealed deep and bitter divisions, not merely in the country, but in political parties. The Labour Party, for one, seems to be tearing itself apart.

Something is in the air.

Since the Internet reached South Africa in about 1990 we’ve been able to observe at first-hand the bitter rivalry of the USA’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee presidential elections, where the candidates, when elected, bomb the same countries that their opponents would have bombed if they had been elected. But this time round the divisions seem deeper. As in the UK, the political parties themselves seem divided.  The Democratic Party seems to be divided in the same way as the Labour Party in the UK — The Political Compass:

Despite most polls indicating that Bernie Sanders would fare significantly better than Clinton against Trump, the party clearly wanted Hillary. This surely suggests that when push comes to shove, the Democratic establishment would prefer Hillary to lose the presidency than Sanders to win it. On the other hand, a large section of the GOP mainstream is probably uncomfortable enough with their blustering billionaire to swing behind Hillary — but never Sanders.

Something is in the air.

And now I discover that I’m not alone in thinking this. An Orthodox priest in the USA writes Why I Must Oppose Donald Trump: One Priest’s Perspective – Saved Together:

Whether in the public sphere, or sadly, even among family and friends, or communities I have witnessed the very swift decline of exchange of ideas, benefit of doubt, and allowance of nuance. I have certainly been guilty of contributing to this decline, perhaps even as I sit down to write this blog post. But I think about this a great deal when I reflect on why I feel such a heavy weight about discourse on issues, on politics, on morality or ethics. Certainly “there is nothing new under the sun” and I have recognized there is a definite hubris in thinking of the current era as being more significant, better or worse, than others. However I must admit that I have felt the weight more acutely of the disconnect, the fog, the fear, in the past few years than I ever have before.

Something is in the air.

That puts it far better than I can, and I commend that blog article to anyone reading this.

In South Africa too we see something similar. In some places the ANC is tearing itself apart over the nomination of candidates for local government elections. Three weeks ago we saw buses being burnt and shops being looted because some ANC members were dissatisfied: their favoured candidates had not been nominated.

trumpMost of the attempts at analysing this seem shallow, or to miss the point. There is plenty of anti-Trump rhetoric in the USA, which you can see in the social media, but much of it is as crude, vindictive and facile as Trump’s own rhetoric, accompanied by the ugliest pictures of Trump that people can find. There seems to be an assumption, at least in the mainstream media, that since Trump uses racist and xenophobic rhetoric, all his supporters must simply be racist xenophobes. And in the UK there is the similar assumption that because Nigel Farage used racist and xenophobic rhetoric, all those who supported #Brexit must be racist xenophobes too.

I think this article captures something important that is often overlooked, and I think it also applies, mutatis mutandis, to UK #Brexit supporters and South African EFF supporters as well, many of whom are in a similar demographic group — Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why | Thomas Frank | The Guardian:

This gold-plated buffoon has in turn drawn the enthusiastic endorsement of leading racists from across the spectrum of intolerance, a gorgeous mosaic of haters, each of them quivering excitedly at the prospect of getting a real, honest-to-god bigot in the White House.

All this stuff is so insane, so wildly outrageous, that the commentariat has deemed it to be the entirety of the Trump campaign. Trump appears to be a racist, so racism must be what motivates his armies of followers. And so, on Saturday, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan blamed none other than “the people” for Trump’s racism: “Donald Trump’s supporters know exactly what he stands for: hatred of immigrants, racial superiority, a sneering disregard of the basic civility that binds a society.”

But the article goes on to point out that what may be attractive to many Trump supporters is something else — trade.

Donald Trump talked about trade. In fact, to judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern – not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate on 3 March: asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about … trade.

It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.

And it is here where I think one may find similar demographic groups supporting #Brexit in the UK, and the EFF in South Africa.

There’s a video going around on the internet these days that shows a room full of workers at a Carrier air conditioning plant in Indiana being told by an officer of the company that the factory is being moved to Monterrey, Mexico, and that they’re all going to lose their jobs.

NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, isn’t a full-blown common market like the EU, but the principle is much the same. Ever since Maggie Thatcher destroyed Britain’s mining and manufacturing industries and turned the Brits into a nation of hairdressers, there has been much the same problem there, and in the eyes of many of those affected that problem has been exacerbated by the EU.

In South Africa there is a somewhat different history. During the apartheid era sanctions drove the government to strive for autarky, for rather similar reasons to those of the Hoxha regime in Albania. This meant that a lot of manufacturing industries developed, protected by high tariff walls and sanctions. These were not especially beneficial to workers, however, because the government’s policy of “border industries” created a border with labour (black) on one side of the border and capital (white) on the other.

But what happened after the end of apartheid?

Most of the manufacturing was outsourced to other countries, with consequent unemployment at home. The ANC, though it promised “jobs”, bowed to foreign pressure. Instead of manufacturing vehicles in South Africa, many factories reverted to assembling knocked-down kits. The actual manufacturing was moved offshore. And the same thing happened in the textile industry. Most of the clothing that people buy nowadays comes from Asia. A few years ago we saw a huge Chinese emporium in the little border town of Oshikango in Ovamboland, northern Namibia (see here). What does China buy from Ovamboland? The trade seems to be all one way, yet before 1970 Ovamboland had autarky.

There have been other factors at work in South Africa, which may or may not apply in the USA and UK. During the apartheid era, labour relations were handled by the police on behalf of the management. If there was a labour dispute, management called in the police to pacify the workers with teargas and rubber bullets, and put them in their place. There is much talk of “transformation”, but little has changed in that respect — witness the Marikana massacre of a few years ago. Unlike manufacturing, it wasn’t possible to move the platinum mines overseas, and the result showed that in spite of enlightened labour legislation, little has really changed.

In all this there are three parties, or perhaps four — management, workers, government and consumers. And part of the problem is intransigence on the part of both management and workers. That too has transformed little since the days of apartheid. But part of the problem is also the ANC’s Thatcherism, and having bought into neoliberal economics.

And so I suspect that the EFF appeals to much the same demographic group as that which voted for #Brexit in the UK, and supports Trump in the USA. In spite of the “global village” created by the Internet, human divisions seem to be growing wider and deeper, with little communication across the barriers.

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