The rights role of the labour movement

Terry Bell
Terry Bell

The discussion of socialism and nationalisation in this column last week has upset some trade unionists and at least one academic. They felt that the demands of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) of Julius Malema were equated with those of movements of the traditional Left.

But this column did not conflate the claimed socialism of Cosatu and the South African Communist Party let alone that of the Democratic Socialist Movement and the Democratic Left Front with that of the EFF. It merely pointed out that all these groups lay claim to the socialist brand and that all call for nationalisation of at least the commanding heights of the economy.

It is probably also correct, as a number of trade unionists have noted, that the EFF is no friend of the unions and the workers; that it belongs to a different and hostile tradition. And it is not only the presence of the grossly flamboyant nightclub czar Kenny Kunene as backer and executive member of the EFF that makes it so.

What is heartening is the fact that these matters now appear to be debated, especially within the labour movement. However, one point mentioned last week should be stressed: the mention of the Nazi (National Socialist) party of Germany. This raised the question of who takes up any particular policy, how it is wielded and in whose interests, a vital question for any trade union, let alone political party.

On a simple level it can be equated to taking up a hammer. One individual could take it up to knock in nails to help build a house; another to wield it as a weapon to bash in skulls. In other words, the instrument itself may not be at fault; only the way it is used. And that usually comes down to who uses it.

In this context, the mention of Nazi Germany is appropriate, although it tends, in most minds, to be regarded as a peculiar aberration. But the Nazi regime was an especially horrendous outgrowth of a fascist ideology that also lays claim to serving the workers and the poor, although from a top-down, paternalistic perspective.

And it is to this general fascist tradition that the EFF seems to belong. It may appear melodramatic to write this, but only because fascism is a little understood, ill-defined term.

There is considerable academic argument about what constitutes the ideology, but there are common characteristics that make for fascism and the fascist state. And such states, while authoritarian and intolerant of democratic norms, need not have torture chambers and gulags, let alone practice genocide.

Spain, under Franco, Portugal under Salazar and Italy under Mussolini, were authoritarian and brutal European regimes that did not have extermination camps for Jews, Gypsies and others classified “undesirable”. Yet they, too, may be categorised — and categorised themselves — as fascist.

This ideology is a form of political virus that exists in every society marked by inequality and exploitation. In times of economic growth, stability and general feelings of hope for the future, it is relatively dormant, often to the extent that it is barely noticed, a minor pimple on the backside of the body politic.

It tends to come into its own at times of economic crisis and when the existing political order — especially of the liberal, parliamentary variety — is seen widely to be failing; times when the traditional Left, professing to support rule by the majority, seems ideologically bankrupt, compromised or barely visible.

At the same time the wage and welfare gap and growing unemployment become more highly politicised. Trade unions are pushed into greater conflict with employers, while the army of the unemployed becomes increasingly desperate and angry.

This constitutes the “political vacuum” that the self-proclaimed EFF “commander in chief”, Julius Malema has promised to fill. But while the huge army of unemployed and often ill-educated youth provide his foot soldiers, Malema’s backers are those wealthy individuals and groups who feel most threatened by the economic climate.

Particularly threatened are smaller or emergent enterprises whose owners are probably as resentful of banks and big business as they are they are of trade unions. This alliance of elements of business, together with a clutch of political opportunists, tends to turn to a political group headed by a populist leader promoting an ethnic or “racial” ethos.

This is what seems to distinguish fascism from other would-be despotisms. So fascist-inclined groups set up convenient scapegoats, usually playing into popular prejudices.

At the core of this development lies nationalism and ethnicity; the idea of a single, defined, “national” group claimed to be suffering and denied its birthright as a result of external or corrupt forces. The underlying message: bury your differences, let all members of our specifically defined nation/race/religion/tribe, the rich and the poor, join together to vanquish those who would unsettle the national project.

At this time of economic crisis it is a similar message to that of the ANC and other liberal parliamentary regimes. The difference is that such governments promote the idea of “this country belongs to all who live in it”; that there should be no second-class citizens or scapegoats.

However, as ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe once admitted in this column, the promotion of nationalism can open the door to xenophobia. And when the door leads to a political vacuum it can result in a tightening of the authoritarian aspects of our present, limited, democratic order, albeit under the cloak of altruism.

However, as a former trade unionist, Mantashe admitted to being aware that a major shield against such dangers was legitimate trade unionism that organises workers as workers and so upholds the core value of equal rights for all. At this time of political contention this is a critical role for the labour movement.

Should it fail, the best we can probably hope for is more of the same, only with the removal of many concessions to democratic choice and individual rights we now enjoy.

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TOPICS:  Economic freedom fighters Economy Eff Fascism Nationalism

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