Moeletsi Mbeki is both right and wrong

By David Moore

AS with many Marxists converted to the free-market, Moeletsi Mbeki is both right and wrong. In his How political élite underdevelops Africa, published in the Zimbabwe

Independent on August 6, he illustrates the enthusiasm for the market that only a reconstructed Trotskyite could.

He combines acute materialist analysis and heady criticism of Africa’s ruling class with the strong dose of missionary idealism for which high priests such as Hernando de Soto (“set up private deeds and poverty will disappear like magic”) are famous, and authorises it all with citations from the World Bank and the IMF. Perhaps if he is still a Marxist, he believes that when the peasants and the transnational corporations are freed from the grip of Africa’s predatory élite, a true working class will emerge and join its comrades in the West for a real revolution – the one for which Trotsky and Lenin could not wait.

There is much in such an analysis with which one can agree. More than a decade after the end of Soviet-style socialism and mixed-up third world experiments, one sees a litany of mistakes. Thus we have to move back to the starting point. How did capitalism develop in its heartlands?

How can it begin again in its hinterlands, in a global conjuncture of qualitatively different hues – where huge amounts of capital are sloshing around the world, just like at the turn of the last century, begging to be attached to a labour force and to build up the forces of production instead of chasing currency exchange rates, but where so much of Africa seems unable to attract it, let alone keep its own capital inside its colonially misconstructed borders?

It is here where Mbeki tries to hit the nail on the head, but misses. One hopes he did not break a finger with the blow – but if applied incorrectly, his lessons could break a continent. He has come face to face with the question that hit Marx in the face, but that Adam Smith avoided. It is the problem of primary, or primitive accumulation: how did a subsistence producing peasantry in Europe, obliged to turn over most of its surplus to feudal lords, become two things? How did one part of this class become a group of small capitalist farmers (while the lords became big ones) and the other part a working class with nothing but its labour to sell?

The latter proletarians became, almost in spite of themselves, a prime force for capitalist development because they forced the bosses (some of them feudalists turned capitalists, others guild-masters turned entrepreneurs) to pay more wages and thus increase profit through innovation and productivity increases instead of cheap labour. The former small capitalist farmers diminished dramatically in size, as their more successful brethren bought them out.

In southern Africa, the story of settler colonialism is well-known: a strict Marxist would account for the pernicious combination of race and class formation in these societies as a story of only partial primitive accumulation. European settlers did not want competition from emerging capitalist peasants, nor for the wages of miners to rise, so the job of original capitalist development was only half-way completed. Even with liberation, racially distorted capitalism remains. Even after “fast-track” land reform, there seems to be no capitalist nirvana on the horizon.

Thus far, Mbeki might agree (aside from the time-frame, which, as with all market missionaries eludes him completely): but his hammer is only taking aim. It is with the vexed question of the peasantry where he misses the mark. Towards the end of his piece, however, he picks up the hammer and tries again. There, he gets closer to the target, but by then the work is almost ruined. In his focus on the “political elite” which is somehow able to manipulate the peasants, the multinationals and the international financial institutions all at once, he misses a little layer of functionaries and the relations of production and authority around them that have everybody in the above list – and probably themselves, too – confused. What about the “chiefs”?

When he first confronts the peasantry, Mbeki says they constitute “arguably (!) one of the largest private sectors in the world today … free to pursue their search for security and comfort … control the means of their objectives … (and) exchange what they produce”. He thus ignores the complex array of land tenure relations in the communal areas (constituting nearly half of Zimbabwe’s reach – and still relatively untouched by the heralded land reforms – and perhaps a third of South Africa’s) about which Marx, Smith, Hayek, and de Soto would sing in chorus: “not ‘free’, not ‘private'”. He also forgets about the fact that the “chiefs” – not feudal lords, not capitalists, not the state (although the state has nominal title, the fact that this class of colonially re-invented mediators is wooed so assiduously fictionalises that ownership) – are the social group hindering the “freedom” of the peasants assumed to be waiting for the freedom to truck, barter, and trade.

By the end of the London School of Business sermon, the preacher takes aim again, remembering that his peasants are not free. The “passive peasantry … must become the real owners of their primary asset, land … freehold must be introduced and the so-called land tenure system which in reality is state land ownership, must be abolished”. This is the phase of primary accumulation that Marx thought spelled the beginning of capitalism – and led to the blood coming out of its every pore – but that Smith and his disciples thought happened magically. This is the phase that takes a strong state to perform (think of Japan, South Korea, and even “primitive socialist accumulation” in China). What state can do this job now? Would it be the international one represented by the World Bank, or the US? This is the phase that countless land commissions in Zimbabwe have advised – but pull back from, even now, because they know that the chiefs will not go without a fight, and that if the “market” is created overnight only the rich will be able to buy into it. Would we just get more cellphone farmers, or will Waitrose and Anglo-American just buy the farms – with chiefs as junior partners – rather than contract for the fresh peas?

Even if a solid group of yeoman farmers emerged from the fray, where is the industry in the urban areas to soak up the ones short a plot and a hoe – let alone oxen or tractors? Will they all sell “juice” to the cellphone farmer-bureaucrats? No, they’ll be destined to a “semi-proletarian” condition – or migrate to England and South Africa to siya so there, perhaps buying some of the plantations’ produce. And let’s for the time being ignore the former large-scale commercial farmers, who so ingeniously mixed their capitalism with feudal farm-worker relations subsidised by communal modes of production: they are heading off to Zambia and Nigeria, where states think miracles can take-off beyond the stagnation that characterised Zimbabwe.

No, there’s no miraculous market formula, Mbeki. The new generation of Zimbabwean marketeers have made their fortunes with media and money, the magical commodities that can produce more of the same, but don’t break down the barriers of land beyond their reach. Hayek’s “information spontaneity” models have an affinity with their mode of production, but he completely forgot about the pre-capitalist conundrums facing Africa. Maybe it would be better for ex-Marxists to turn to Keynes when looking for a pantheon of advisors: he said something like “madmen in power simply echo the words of academic scribblers 25 years before”. Better to look again at the chroniclers of capitalism’s early phases more carefully. After that, another commission could be struck to see how the South Koreas of the world performed their tasks of primary accumulation. It would find no magic market, but a geo-politically informed statist project that will be very difficult to pull off today. In the meantime, we should be saved the spread of illusions.

* David Moore teaches economic history and development studies at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban.