04 November 2011

The Land Fallacy (III): the Green Paper on Land Reform

Meanwhile, the South African government carries on with land reform policies that are a mix of naively hopeful, resolutely ideological, politically expedient, but also occasionally pragmatic and useful. Some of the ‘principles’ were stated by the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Mr. G E Nkwinti.

There is a strikingly positive note sounded in his address to AgriSA (predominately white land-owner farmers) in his speech of 13 October, “Opportunities and Challenges for commercial farmers within a new land reform policy framework: Building vibrant, equitable and sustainable rural communities, at Middelsdrift, Gauteng. (http://www.ruraldevelopment.gov.za/DLA-Internet/content/document_library/Ministry/Ministry_Minister_Speeches/minSpeech-14102011.pdf )

It begins,
“Dit is vir my ‘n groot voorreg om vandag hierdie konferensie toe te spreek, en ek dank u vir die uitnodiging. Ons loop nou al ‘n langpad saam!
[It is my great honour to speak at this conference, and thank you for the invitation.  We walk this road together!’]

In February 2010, I addressed you and I was sincere in stating that “ons wil die pad van ontwikelling en grondhervorming saam met julle loop.” This partnership won’t be short term, as we want to work together over the long-term”

Good words indeed, but the reality of the new Green Paper on Land Reform (http://www.ruraldevelopment.gov.za/DLA-Internet/content/document_library/documents/GreenPapers/GREEN_PAPER_LAND_REFORMAugust2011.pdf ) and the ‘Strategic Plan of 2011-2014 are more sobering. (See http://www.ruraldevelopment.gov.za/DLA-Internet//content/document_library/documents/Publications/Strategic_Plans/RDLR-STRAT-PLAN2011.pdf )

The first four pages of the Green Paper are devoted to a political diatribe based on what appears to be apartheid-era anthropology (especially the Afrikaans-university based volkekunde, and the ethnology of the Bureau of Native Affairs) and the work of the social historians of the 1970s and 1980s. The work of the social historians did not pretend to be about the present, and the mid-century anthropology, or volkekunde, even then presented a romantic view of the African past.

The authors of the Green Paper seem to have taken over the mantle of these approaches, together with a commitment to racialism that is worthy of Dr. Verwoerd and Dr. Eiselen. In any case, the authors seem to have taken over the heavy burden of advancing racialist thinking and African romanticism into the new century. The authors ostensibly direct their attention to what they call ‘rural blacks’ (sect. 3.1).

Whatever it is based on, it shows little regard for what actually happens in South Africa’s rural, farming, and small-town areas. Were the authors of government policy document like the Green Paper to take their heads out of the history books and look at the present, they would be surprised to find that there is scarcely a ‘peasant’ or rural farmer to be seen. Yet the Green Paper envisions “rural communities” with a society based on social relations that “are much deeper as they tend to be historical and inter-generational.” Citing the romantic notion of ‘ubuntu’, the Green Paper seeks to promate a ‘way of life’ “ which would have evolved organically, nourished and cemented by shared hard and good times.” This ‘vision’ might seem more appropriate to Hollywood movies, but it is justified with vague reference to ‘class struggle’ and racism of the past.

The Green Paper on Land Reform of 2011 begins with statements that are almost mystical in their overall ambition. It deliberately confuses the important distinction between government and party by stating ANC’s “goals” rather than principles of good government.
The preamble states that the ANC (not government) is acutely aware and “sensitive to the centrality of land (the land question) as a fundamental element in the resolution of the race, gender and class contradictions in South Africa.”

Thus, the failure of any policy, not matter how excellent, is effectively guaranteed by loading it with the weight of a commitment of ‘resolve’ the issues of ‘race, gender, class contradictions in South Africa’. No policy of any government, however well meaning and well funded has ever been able to do this, so it is not even remotely possible that a land policy in South Africa could accomplish this.

By loading what should be a practical policy aimed at achieving, at least, viability of an agricultural sector with such grand ideological ambition, failure is more or less guaranteed. This will be blamed on everyone but the ideologies and ideologues themselves.

When I lived in Tanzania during some of the darkest days of Tanzania’s socialist great leap forward in the 1970s, the country was taken back wards to the pre-colonial past. There was nothing in the shops, and the country was on the edge of mass starvation as ideologically-driven ‘land reform’ policies were gradually relaxed to allow the country to function again. It was said then that while Nyerere was ‘incorruptible’, it meant that he was not corrupted by money. Many people acknowledge to me that “Nyerere had been corrupted by ideology”.
This is now the case in South Africa. As the land claims process has led to increasing failures of farms that have been ‘restored’, as often happens, the ideological noose is tightened. By now, there has been so much global experience of this that one would think South African planners would be wise to the dangers. However, they appear to be still isolated within ideological cocoons. Will they be able to emerge from these cocoons as beautiful bright butterflies. It looks increasingly unlikely.

With words like ‘agrarian reform’, ‘class contradictions’, and ‘rural development’, a dated and naïve Marxism is evident. But with words like ‘vision statement’, ‘business strategy’, ‘strategic goals’, and ‘mission statements’, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform’s “Strategic Plan 2011-2014 clearly buys into the rhetoric of global business’s magical evangelicalism.

In the preface to the Strategic Plan 2011-2014, the Minister, Mr G E Nkwinti states that “Land is a catalyst for poverty alleviation, job creation, food security and entrepreneurship.” Ironically, the Marxist and Statist agenda has been deeply confused with ‘entrepreneurship’ while at the same time planning to create 500,000 rural jobs through direct state intervention. Out of this, it hopes to achieve “food security.” The Minister goes on to say that his “department has therefore taken a conscious decision to recapitalise all distressed land reform projects, and to provide support to emerging farmers and rural communities.”

I suppose this is better than taking an unconscious decision, but by promising to throw good money after bad, it is likely that virtually all of any budget, no matter how large, will be swallowed up in attempting to replace infrastructure that has now been lost to neglect.
It takes only a few months for a farm’s infrastructure to decline past a point of no return. After this, it will be as if starting afresh to win a farm out of the bush. This is manifestly impossible as a purely government initiative.

The Minister assures us that he has “envisaged that this intervention will ensure production discipline, as well as contribute to job creation and national food security.”
While holding out the hope that all of South Africa’s problem will be solved by ‘recapitalisation’ of failed farming projects, not only will this lead to massive disappointment, but will result in loss of large amounts of capital … again.

The ‘principles’ for land reform are:
— de-racialising the rural economy;
— democratic and equitable land allocation and use across race, gender and class; and,
— a sustained production discipline for food security

Yet it is hard to see how an explicitly racial policy can ‘de-racialise’ anything. If the policy seeks to address the ‘rural economy’, as it says, then land reform itself can only be lost in a much more complex agenda of economic reform. A decision has to be made.

And, if land ownership is what makes class distinction ‘class’, then it is manifestly impossible to have a land allocated that is ‘equitable … across … class’ distinctions. This is fatally confused thinking.

Until there is a realization that it is not land itself that is at issue—that is, it is not ‘central’ or ‘fundamental’—but rather the social and structural conditions under which the land is used, there cannot be resolution of the ‘land question’. The government is asking the wrong questions, and is stuck in the past of a naïve Marxism weirdly ‘modernised’ with business-seminar evangelism. Neither perspective comes close to describing the reality on the ground.
Unfortunately, the Land Reform Green Paper is not the only government and legislative initiative based on romantic visions of an idealised past, and on vague Marxian-inspired maunderings. (We must note that the notions put forward are not Marxist in any rigorous sense, but ‘marxian’ of the most vulgar variety.)

Similar Romantic nonsense is to be found in the government bills and acts relating to ‘traditional knowledge’, traditional healing, and traditional governance, chiefship and other matters. They have little basis in contemporary social science thought or knowledge.

02 November 2011


So, what we ‘know’ is that the land restitution process has failed because White farmers have all the knowledge, and all the land, and black people don’t have either; moreover, there is not enough investment. If knowledge and land can be ‘transferred’ according to the current laws, and the social imagination that goes with this, with a little (or a lot) of investment, all will be well.

History will have been ‘rolled back’ like the recovery of old files from a crashed disk drive. The true African past will be restored, now as the ‘present’ instead of 'the past’. We will leave aside those rubbish labels like ‘past’ and ‘present’, and all else will be the same. Glorious. But time does not work like that. If it did there would be no way to tell what time it is. there would be no history at all. So it doesn’t. We know that history has somehow happened and that it can’t be put back in the can.

So ‘restitution’ or ‘restoration’ are obviously not justified by common sense. That’s because they are political. And there is nothing wrong with that. That is, after all, one of the ways that history happens: politics does it.

So let’s let history be as it may, and politics too. Surely the land is where all value ultimately comes from? We all have to eat, and food comes from the earth. As the estate agents tell us, and common sense ,politics, Malthus, and economics allsuggest with respect to land: they aren’t making any more of it, are they? Strangely, that probably does not matter because it is what you do with the land that makes it anything at all. There are 7 billion of us now on land that once nearly saw the extinction of the human species only a few tens of thousands of years ago, the blink of an eye.

Saying, and believing that land is the ‘ultimate’ value, is like saying that all energy comes form the sun. That statement is absolutely true. But it means that the money in your pocket and in the digital representation of what you think is your bank account, and even the thoughts in your head ‘come from the sun’. It is unavoidably true, but a kind of knowledge that is of almost no use. The same is true of land.

But I have a story to tell.

this past weekend I was out in Mpumalanga around the town of Machadodorp looking again at the wonderful and strange ‘stone structures’ that lie in the tens of thousands across that landscape. In order to get permission to walk across these lands, however, I needed to find out who owned the land. Saturday morning, 29 October 2011, I went into the BKV, the agricultural supply store in Machadodorp. I was hoping that they would have some register of land ownership, or have contact with farmers that I could speak with. I walked in and was directed to the back office where a young woman was sitting printing out a long list of something on accordian-fold paper with a dot-matrix printer. I haven’t seen that sort of technology for a decade, so I knew for sure that history is not evenly distributed. At least not in Machadodorp.

I was fortunate. “Yes," the young woman told me, "the farmers have having a meeting this morning; right now!”. I asked if I could come with and she told me to follow her. She said, ‘We just have to stop by the police station first.’ No problem. It turned out her husband was a SAP officer, and she needed to drop some keys with him, then off we went to the farm where ’the farmers’ were meeting.

It was off one of dirt side roads. The meeting was being held in a large brick building with a tin roof, and a kitchen at one end, with a pass through counter connecting it to the rest of the large shed like building. There were fairy lights wound onto a thick rope that was draped on one wall, but otherwise an empty hall. It appeared to be a community hall of some sort, but located on a private farm near the very modest farm house.

the discussion was all in Afrikaans, and I was introduced during the course of it. I said that I was doing research on the stone circles and structures in the area, and that I would like to speak with any farmers that had such structures on their land. I knew from GoogleEarth that all farmers in the hall had such structures, and after the meeting many approached me to invite me onto their farms. I decide to go the next day to one farm whose owner told me that he had found possible evidence of mining. On Sunday, he had agreed to stay home from Church so that he could show me around his farm. I was delighted, and arrived that morning for our walk.

But I am not going to write now about the walk. I want to write here about ’the land’ and the nature of the farming that went on there.

[I will just speak here of the ‘farmer’, without a name. The name is a common Afrikaans surname and from a line that has been settled in this area since the mid nineteenth century. The family is white, Afrikaans speaking. The farmer speaks English well, but apologises for his lapses.]

After we had walked over the hills and the archaeological sites, and located an old mine shaft, I was invited into the house. One of the farmer’s sons was visiting from Pretoria where he lived and worked, and the farmer’s wife was there. I am invited for lunch, which turns out to be, not surprisingly, the family’s Sunday braai, since it is Sunday and that is what they always do. The food is brandy and coke, and lots of very well cooked sheep fat with a little meat, some potato salad, and fruit and custard afterwards. And coke and brandy. (Town and my hotel is, fortunately, only a few kilometers away and on a straight road.)

After lunch, I learned more of how real farming works, and how land is valued in this economy.

The farmer has only been on the present farm for about 7 years. Before that he had rented a farm, and then had a share in another farm where he farmed cattle and sheep. When he moved to the current farm, he had benefited from a government purchase of his previous share of a farm, so he was able to afford his current farm of 1000 plus hectares.

As at the farmer’s meeting, talk was largely around the issues of land claims, stock theft, and various ways to make a living in farming. Most of the discussion of land claims, land restitution, and government purchase of farms to restore them to black owners circled around the fact that almost all restituted land had returned to bush, the infrastructure lost. No successes were mentioned, though there may be some.

Nevertheless, the irony was that the farmer, white and Afrikaans, was able to own a farm because of a payout from government for the smaller share of a larger farm that he had owned. That farm went to “three black families”. According to his story, the families had fought about who would manage the farm they had received for free from government, and the fight had become so acrimonious that none of them were able to do anything about the farm. The farm had a dam that fed a gravity feed irrigation system. Large pipes ran underground to 8 take-off points where surface irrigation pipes could be attached. After the huge community party that the government had thrown to celebrate the transfer of the land to the community, the farmer had watched the farm quickly return to bush. He said that he had only sold the land to the claimants. The irrigation equipment therefore still belonged to him. Nevertheless, he left it for the new farmers. As the irrigation surface infrastructure was gradually obscured by weeds, and then by bush, he watched. Eventually, he went to the farm, now abandoned, and collected what was left and put it in storage. I asked him if the new owners knew this. “Yes, but they can sue me. I have told them this, and there has been nothing.” I asked about the underground piping, that must be quite valuable. In many cases this is stolen soon after farms of this sort are transferred. “No, they don’t know its there. And it is concrete piping, anyway, so it is useless to steal it. We buried it a meter deep so that it could not be stolen. They have only stolen the risers and taps, so the system is useless now.”

The farmer had acquired the basis for his flock of sheep in an interesting way as well. One day soon after he had moved to the new farm, he noticed a flock of some 50 sheep on another piece of abandoned farm land. He did not recognise any of the sheep as local. He phoned the police to tell them that he suspected that they were stolen sheep. The police told him that they had had no reports of stolen sheep, so there was nothing they could do. He watched the sheep. The next day, there were 30 sheep left. And the day after there were 20 sheep.

“Why”, I asked him, “would someone steal sheep, then leave them in the veld for them to disappear?”

“No,” he said, “that’s what they do. The sheep are from far. The thieves take them, and then leave them in the veld. If someone comes to claim them, then so be it. The thieves themselves are not caught. During the day they go around to butchers and churches and anyone who might buy meat and take orders. So they get orders for 20 sheep. But they have 50 in the veld. At night they go and slaughter 20 sheep in the tall grass here no one can see them. The skins will all be there in the grass. I found them later.”

In this case, 50 sheep had been stolen, and 20 carcasses had been sold the first day, and then 10 or so the next. By the time where were only 20 left, the farmer acted. Since the police had still not found the owner, he went and collected the remaining sheep himself. He put them in a camp next to the road where they were visible from the house and from the road. He had not stolen them from anyone. Taht job had been done by the thieves. He had merely collected what was left. That was then the basis for his new flock. They now amounted to almost 50 again, and many had just given birth to twins that year, so the flock was growing strongly.

In conversation later, it emerged that the farmer also owned some rental property in Pretoria. His son was chiding him for not spending the income wisely. ‘Pa, whenever you have money you buy one of your beloved bulls! Put it into more property in Pretoria, and then you’ll make money!” his son told him. He asked me if my children also offer such cheeky advice of their old man. I told him that they did. Although he did not say so, it was clear that he was going to use his Pretoria-based rental income to continue to buy animals. The urban economy was subsidising his farm.

Most of the other expenses of the farm were also not from farming. The farm had a large amount of Black Wattle, an alien vegetation tree species that had spread rampantly across this landscape for years. Today, farmers are trying to eliminate this ‘alien invader’. The farmer was not exception. He was turning the black wattle wood into charcoal. He was producing around 10-12 thousand tons of charcoal a week. This was being sold to a specialist steel mill that produced a highly specialised steel that could only be made with wood charcoal. Wood charcoal is virtually pure carbon, and does not contain the impurities that coal does. Thus the farm was being supported by a highly specilised international niche market for specialist steel. That is, it was earning its keep so long as the black wattle, other Australian aliens could be harvested and turned into charcoal.

As I looked across the landscape then, I saw tendrils of blue smoke rising all around: charcoal burners. I had not noticed this before. I now recognised that these tendrils of smoke were a prominent part of the landscape, but only once I SAW it. Before that, it was just smoke. I now saw it as charcoal burning for specialist steel. The smoke was a significant part of the local economy. This was not ‘land’, but only a small part of land use that depended on international steel markets and current technological needs somewhere else in the world.

These and other activities create the value of the land. None of it depended on knowledge that could be ’transferred’ to ’new black farmers’ because all of it was embedded in complex social networks, events, and many other sources of income.

In fact, the farm produced significant amoounts of value in meat and charcoal, but very little of this could be accounted for in any straightforward manner. IT CERTAINLY did not ‘run like a business’. If it ran like a business, perhaps it could be transferred to new owners, but that was not the case.

Moreover, no amount of ‘investment’ would make this farm work better or more efficiently since the land is marginal, and only works because of the complex arrangements that have uniquely emerged over the course of the current owners life-time, and over generations.

More coming up...

01 November 2011

The Land Fallacy

What is land?, or ‘the land’, arde (Afrikkans), umhlaba (Zulu)?

Land is dirt spread over rocks. A lot of dirt spread over a lot of rocks. that is what we start with, but it is hardly what makes ‘the land’ the issue that it is.

In South Africa, like Zimbabwe, and like Kenya in the 1950s with the Kikuyu land and cultural revitalisation movement known as Mau Mau, is one of the biggest political issues today. Two ideas are prominent in this context: the idea that land was ’taken from the blacks’ by ’The Whites’, and that it is the source of great wealth that can only accrue to the person (or persons) who own it.

This has implied that there must be ‘restitution’ of land to its ‘original’ owners before there can be peace and justice in ‘the land’, and that such restitution will provide a better living to some, or even to all. At least, it is believed, it will provide a better living to those whose land has been ‘restored’ to them. This has not proved to be the case.

In most cases of land restitution that I have been aware or, involved in (as a consultant for the claimant communities) or heard about, the farms that have been restored have failed if they were viable and working farms, or have simply returned to bush, with all infrastructure now lost to neglect, decay, and in many cases deliberate theft. Theft has been committed by parts of the “communities’ to whom the land has been restored, by the White farmers who have lost their or sold their land in the process, or by opportunistic other criminals.

In many cases, land has been ‘restored’ through a number of legal, government sponsored channels to multiple families. Often a great deal of land is involved. Many of the recipients have been more or less opportunistic collections of people who signed up for the claim. They are often led by a single ‘leader’ who sponsors the claim, signs up ‘community members’ and shepherds the deal through the process. But let’s leve aside for now the question of whether or not these collections of claimants are ‘real’ communities (or real ‘communities’), or simply chancers.

The point I want to make is that all but a few of these farms have failed almost immediately, or within a few years of restitution. And I want to advance some ideas about why this has happened.

The first point is that the process and rationale for land restitution has rested on a number of fallacies. This is what I call the Land Fallacy, although it consists of a number of related fallacies about the nature of farming, of ‘the land’ and about the nature of community and ownership.

In many cases that I have had first-had experience, members of the claimant communities truly believe that if they own the land that money will flow into the pockets as it did into the previous White Farmers (Boer’s) pocket. this will happen automatically, without effort on their part. The land will create money as a bank account draws interest: its just (apparently) happens. This is partly the result of the ‘struggle ideology’ which is stil prevalent today. People are made to believe that ‘the farmer’ has money simply because he sits on the land. This is believed by rural labourers and the rural and small-town unemployed. It seems like an entirely reasonable belief, under the circumstances. It is also believed, however, by those who make policy, and they have no excuse for this. Or, that at least seems to be the case. Collections of people--often represented as ’The People’-- are “given” free land and led to believe that they will suddenly be wealthy.

When this does not happen, they complain of poor ‘service delivery’ (meaning they are not receiving money), and burn down the local ANC offices or harass any of the ANC party officials that they can find. (But they are very scarce.)

Government abandons the ‘successful claimants’ to this joint fantasy. REasons are given by the pundits. Chief among these reasons is that ‘knowledge’ has not ‘been transferred’ to the claimants from teh farmers. Second, government admits that it has not invested in the ongoing viability of the new black farmers. Third, it is argued that black farmers and land owners don’t have the ‘capacity’, the knowledge or ‘know-how’ to manage the farms.

In fact, all of these claims are fallacies, like the central fallacy of the ‘land question’. the central fallacy is that the land itself has intrinsic economic value. It does not. the fallacy of the explanations for failure are based on failures to observe the reality on the ground.

First, the purported knowledge that farmers have is not ‘transferrable’. ‘Mentoring’, ‘training programmes’, and explicit instruction of new black owners by older white farmers has also failed. Second, it is likely that it would require vast investment--as this is currently being done in small measure--to actually make these farms work under new black ownership. This is NOT because new black owners do not have the knowledge. indeed, they already have most if not all of the knowledge that is required to run the farms. This is one of the reasons that ‘knoweldge transfer’ and ‘training’ does not work: they already know the stuff.

in short, it is not a stranglehold on knowledge of farming by white farmers, nor the ignorance of new black farmers, nor the levels of investment.

The reasons for failure are complexly structural. Again, in short, what makes South African farms work is embedded in social networks of many generation’s duration, in economic networks and personal habits, even in what Bourdieu called 'the habitus’--embodied and tacit cultural systems. It is embedded in ecologies that have emerged over centuries. It is often invisible, intangible, implicit knowledge that is shared but nevertheless secret, or inexplicit and inexplicable to the farmers themselves. It is embedded in what we call ‘culture’ and ‘social structure’.

This does not mean it cannot change, but it will not change under the current political orders and policies which guarantee failure and stasis.

But this is for the next blog.

18 July 2011

Economics is the Opiate of the People: When economics hides the cultural realities

I have been watching for some time, as have many, the struggle n the US over how to manage the economy, and specifically, whether to adjust the debt ‘ceiling’. Although this is clearly ‘economics’ it is strange how little it has to do with money.
What makes this stranger still is that it seems to upset Karl Marx’s slogan that culture (specifically religion) is "the opiate of the people.” ( Although Marx’s slogan was about ‘religion’ it is fair to say that in the terms he worked with, ‘religion’ was virtually identical to ‘culture’ (See Marx’s first published essay in English: “On the Jewish Question”). since Marx had no effective theory of culture, per se, this is what he had to work with.) Today, Economics is becoming the opiate of the people.

Religion itself has long since rendered many people comatose. Economics is the new drug. Perhaps it should be banned.

The American ‘debt ceiling’ is an piece of legislation that imposes and arbitrary amount of dollars as the ‘limit’ that the government can borrow. But there is no reason at all that there has to be a debt ceiling, or that it has to be a certain amount. There is no reason. And that is the problem.
The reason of a financial limit of this sort is purely moral, which is to say, a political goal that is conditioned by moral sentiments. It is therefore a cultural issue, not an economic one, and the reasons for the debate in Congress appear to be cultural, but are hiding behind the strongly-held American belief that there are economic ‘laws’. This is simply not the case.
In today’s New York Times, for instance, one columnist argues: "Politicians Can’t Agree on Debt? Well, Neither Can Economists"

The financial impasse in America then is less and less an issue of ‘finance’ and more and more an issue of belief. As a question of belief, then, it suddenly becomes possible to understand what is going on. If it were simply a financial issue, it could be settled by a more or less technical adjustment. Now, however, the extremity of the financial crisis has revealed that the core is not financial at all but cultural.
so long as everyone agrees that the issues are financial rather than moral and cultural, however, the crisis cannot be resolved. Strange to see culture hiding behind economics, since we have been taught in the social sciences that economics hides behind culture. Religion, for instance, is supposed to disguise the economic reality. The job of the social scientist, in the view of many, is to reveal the ‘underlying’ and ‘hidden’ economic ‘realities’ that lie hidden under a veneer of culture. This was the goal, at any rate, of the Marxist and left ‘cultural studies’ when it emerged in the 1970s.
Now it appears that Economics is the opiate of the people.

By ‘Economics’, of course, we mean the theoretical edifice of the formal discipline so called. As much as there has been an economic crisis in the last few years, it is fair to say taht there has also been a crisis in Economics, the discipline and the ideology of capitalism, neoliberalism and the world’s economic system with the IMF and World Bank, and the big economies at its core.
This has been taken by many to be almost a god-given ‘reality’. (Some American fundamentalists might well think that it is given by god, may god forgive them!). If Big Economics, however, is taken as religion, then we are back to Marx, only this time with Marx standing on his head. We can set him back on his feet, in today’s world, by recognising that there is no such thing as an ‘economic reality’, or ‘laws of economics’, and that when Economics becomes religion is can become the opiate of the people. And, worse, not just ’the people’, but of their ostensible leaders.
Is this sad, or just funny?

04 July 2011

Dominique Strauss-Khan, Global economies, & Gender

Global Economies, Gender and the DSK Affair
Prof. Robert Thornton
Wits University
4 July 2011
The most extraordinary aspect of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case is the remarkable similarity between DSK and his accuser: they are both global players. Each deploys gendered power in different ways within radically different but intimately linked frameworks. Far from being the exemplar of the powerful against the powerless, each shows agency in extraordinary ways.

Commentators have focused on the fact that they represent the polar opposites of global political and gender categories: a predatory and powerful male against a powerless and virtuous woman, one rich the other poor, Jew and Muslim, White and Black, European and African, French and American immigrant, a manager of vast wealth and a hard working cleaner who was there to pick up his tissues and wash his sheets.

The affair seemed to personify the great dialectical oppositions of race, class, and gender. What brings this affair to international notice, however, is not just their difference but that fact that both operated in global markets, each successful in their own terms.
DSK was the head of the International Monetary Fund, while the Guinean hotel maid was an international multiple fraudster. According to the reports in the press, she had faked her appeal for asylum status by memorising a tape that she had bought from a man who specialised in sad stories of abuse and trauma.

These were not just any sad stories, but stories that Americans, and American immigration officials in particular, would believe. Her story revolved around being a devoutly religious woman who had been gang raped by out-of-control African men in the violence-torn streets of yet another African failed state.

The apparent back story is that this is where terrorist train and hide from American forces, but where good women who fear god, but who can also change bed linen and run a vacuum cleaner, also live in precarious balance with the forces of evil.

In a continent where HIV/AIDS prevention programmes pour hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting sexual abstinence, a masculine gang had forcibly raped her. By seeking to escape this antithesis of morality and good government, and by bravely standing against the oppression suffered by all women, she stood out as a beacon of what is called ‘hope’. Except she didn’t.
Instead, it turned out that she was a strongly motivated and clever player in the global market. The story that she told the US Immigration office, that she had learned by heart off a tape that she had paid good money for, had been worth its weight in any currency she might deal in. She had asylum status in the wealthiest country in the world, and was making a mint.

She was not what she seemed: a poor hard-working African women without agency or power to oppose the forces of patriarchy, race and class that oppressed her. Instead, she had multiple bank accounts spread at least across the US, if not the world, and had received at least $100,000 into the US accounts in the last year alone. She had reported on her US tax return that she was the sole bread-winner for two children, (only one of whom turned out to be hers), and that her only income was from her job as a cleaner in a big hotel chain that catered for uber-wealthy clients like Domnique Strauss-Khan. She was cheating the welfare system for rent on a New York apartment, and a successful tax fraud. The female accuser has moved from a point of high virtue to someone that Americans seem to hate most: an illegal immigrant, a tax fraud, and a welfare cheat. Its all about the economy.

In fact, it turned out she had a boyfriend in jail in Arizona. He was a Wolof-speaker like her from Guinea to whom she exposed her plan on the telephone. Translated from an obscure dialect of Wolof, she assured him that she knew what she was doing with Frenchman, and that she expected to make a lot of money from the rape story. Her boyfriend had been caught trying to barter counterfeit fashion items, almost certainly made in China, for marijuana from Mexican drug dealers in Arizona. He was an illegal alien, and the prison recorded his conversations. All in all, this was an elaborate global deal involving people from most parts the world’s multiple economies.

A Times correspondent in France, Elaine Sciolino, commented after the new stories emerged that “Until today, it was white versus black, rich versus poor, man versus woman, Jew versus Muslim.” It seemed to reflect, in other words, the received wisdom about the standard categories of world conflict. Although these were also in play, what is perhaps more important is the fact that DSK as IMF primo represents that global public economy while his accuser clearly represents the other global economy: secret, mostly illegal, untaxed, mostly unobserved, dealing in drugs, fraud, money laundering, counterfeit goods and clever narratives that make it all work.
Both Strauss-Kahn and his accuser are part of opposite halves of the global economy. Their stories reveal its hidden double nature. The formal, public economy of the IMF creates as its dark twin in the unobserved economy that supports many people like the Guinean hotel maid, her children, and her boyfriend.

This is not just a story of rich and poor, white and black, macho male and guileless female. It is also a story of how the world really works as opposed to how it is supposed to work. When the accuser phoned her boyfriend to discuss how much money she could make off Strauss-Kahn, she was doing on a personal level what a Goldman-Sachs trader, or any banana-republic dictator, does on a daily basis: they gamble and deal with flows of wealth that span the globe, that knit its economies together, but also permit a range of economic practices that may be far from the norm, and far from legality.

Seen as a global player in the unobserved economy of drugs, fraud and cash, DSK’s accuser was a successful woman. She was making money despite her origins in a country that should have doomed her to poverty. Ironically, she is one of those who benefits most, as she is meant to, from the euro-socialist policies that Strauss-Kahn speaks for. That she does so fraudulently is built into the way the system actually works.

But the IMF is also accused by its many detractors of dealing very roughly with those who do not play by IMF rules. It imposes harsh penalties on countries that do not comply with its structural adjustment programmes. In some cases, those penalties drive people like DSK’s accuser all the way to New York where she can seek a kind of revenge on the chairman of the IMF itself. The IMF works at the level of states and complex institutions. DSK’s accuser works at the level of networks of hidden economic deals involving untaxed and unaccountable values and cash in an unobserved economy of a different sort entirely.

This has implications, too, for the way we understand gender. The political version of the gender story in this case is about the powerlessness of the female victim of male violence, the immigrant, the single mother, the black woman in the urban metropolis. When we are able to perceive the varieties of power that this woman is able to utilise, however, we also should be able to see how the realities of ‘power’ and gender is as multiple—or at least two sided—as the economies that DSK and his accuser participate in.

Gender here may indeed be less important that the social forms of gendered lives that oppose each other. Dominique is the pater familias supported by a loving wife and daughter. This is a powerful social form, not just a powerful ‘male’. This ‘domestic’ unit is opposed to the fatherless composite family that the woman supports with the help of a felonious boyfriend dealing global contraband and confidence stories.

Gender appears in this light far too abstract to comprehend the real struggles. It is the social forms of ‘family’ in which gender plays only a part that is far more important in the longer-term outcome of the alleged rape. A focus on the rape alone, like the focus on class, race and gender fail to illuminate much that is important. The small scale social forms of the ‘domestic’ and the daily life, as much as the global political economies in which they each participate, are as important as the grand categories of the usual social analysis.
In other words, the homogenising, binary concept of ‘gender’, like the concept of ‘the economy’ or ‘class’ obscures more than it reveals in an attempt to understand the DSK affair that concentrates so many of the grant dichotomies of today’s world.

To be ‘real,’ women need more than being assigned to the category ‘female’. The same is true for men. To be ‘real women’, in other words, women need what we call ‘flirtation’, and this is something that mere category of ‘male’ and ‘female’, or even ‘patriarchy’ and ‘the oppressed’ fails to generate. But more than this, it is hard to deny that the sense of danger, or of loss and gain as in a game, can be central to our sense of being who we are as ‘gendered’ selves. The fact that both DSK and his accuser are ‘predatory’, seeking gain with other’s loss, make this story even more compelling. While much has been written in the press, and said in conversation, about how ‘powerful men’ seem to need the predatory sexuality that seemed to be in play here, less has been said about how the ‘powerless’ deploy their own systems of predation. The fact that one is more successful than the other in long run is what makes class and gender the fundamental categories that they are, and we must not lose sight of the intricacies of the way they are played in the real world.