You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘evolutionary biology’ category.
By the way “deep blue” in the headline was not meant to be a riff on IBM’s chess playing supercomputer.
Rereading Part 1 I can see how someone might accuse me of being a little too certain about the shape of the future. I am not running “deep blue” regressions and algorithms, modelling South Africa and the world, generating predictions x of y % accuracy with z % error margins … South … Africa … will … be … peachy … in …2021 … bidledeebidledee beep.
I have no real idea of what is going to happen in the future – and only the bare bones of an idea of the internal processes I go through to develop the views I advance here.
From time to time I investigate how we predict outcomes, and how we asses risks. I am interested in how our evolved systems (honed against sabre-toothed tigers and uncertain rainfall patterns, for example) apply in the kind of technology driven mega-societies we now inhabit – or, specifically, don’t apply i.e. that our ‘instinctive systems’ need to be suppressed or countermanded if we hope to get it right in certain situations. But that is not what I am doing in these quick pre-Mangaung notes.
The “deep blue” of the headline was actually a reference to being bleak, sad, cold and lonely.
Which leads me to:
Who are the demagogic populist, proto-fascists* now?
The ANC will (initially) combat the threat of losing support by becoming more ‘demagogic populist’, rural conservative and based in the lumpen classes – basically, by drifting to the right
In December 2010 I wrote an article in GQ Magazine under the headline: “Can you hear the drums?” with a concluding paragraph that read:
In the year 2010, anger and resentment … bubbled over … The winners still have their stuff, but they are clutching it more tightly to their chests, and for the first time in 16 years they are straining for the hint, a sound or a smell, of what might be coming for them out of the night.
Read the whole story here.
Two ‘crises’ (or warnings) that occured this year are the equivalent of the scary sound of drums in the night for the incumbent ANC elite. The first warning is Marikana and the second, linked, warning is the traction Julius Malema’s manipulative populism was able to achieve amongst some sections of the disenfranchised youth.
I made some of these links in my coverage of Marikana here.
I think the ANC will ride out the gradually escalating social and industrial unrest by becoming the “proto-fascist” and “demogogic populist” movement that Zuma’s SACP ally accuses Malema of representing (here for the context of that). This ANC, under this president is being drawn inexorably, by the logic of its own politics, into the territory of rural patriarchy with its natural links to the fear and hatred of education and any form of gender equality. (I am not going to argue this out here … just take a glance at the saga around The Spear, the Traditional
Leaders Courts Bill and various comments about women and about “clever blacks” and appeals to African ways of doing things over foreign ways of the same – see TrustLaw’s Katy Migiro’s excellent takes here and here.)
Thus (forgive the leap) the ANC begins to lose the urban industrial working class (on the road to becoming much more like a classic middle class and deeply opposed to the looting of the state), the professional classes (already at that destination), the productive and rule based businesses, local and global, and it eventually begins to lose the pirates looking to launder their money and ‘go straight’ (as I argued in Part 1).
This leaves the ANC with the rural poor, the marginalised unemployed, a bureaucratic elite within the state (those last three dependent on state spending through the public sector wage bill and social grants) and global resource privateers who powerfully thrive in countries like this with leaders like these.
Initially the ANC might get even higher turnout at its rallies (especially with free food and t-shirts and sexy young people dancing between the rabble-rousing and the singing of Umshini wami). But eventually the class and demographic changes of the society impact upon the party – reformat it, split it, renew it … change the political ecology in which it moves and feeds.
You will see from my next post that I do not only think the ANC is a useless bubble of foul smelling gas buffeted on the sea of history. The ANC, in my analysis, has become a most significant and material influence for and against my upbeat scenario … a sort of deranged midwife at the happy birth.
* The term “demagogic populists, proto-fascist” is from various SACP documents and was code for Julius Malema (and, I suspect, in slightly early versions, a code for Tokyo Sexwale). This is what the SACP had to say about it:
The “new tendency”
It was the SACP at the 2009 Special National Congress that first identified clearly the ideological and underlying class character of what we called the “new tendency”. We described it as a populist, bourgeois nationalist ideological tendency, with deeply worrying demagogic, proto-fascist features. It was the SACP that pointed out the connections between the public face and pseudo-militant rhetoric of this tendency and its behind-the-scenes class backing. It was a tendency funded and resourced by narrow BEE elements still involved in a rabid primitive accumulation process, based on a parasitic access to state power. It was a bourgeois nationalist tendency that sought to mobilize a populist mass base, particularly amongst a disaffected youth, to act as the shock troops to advance personal accumulation agendas.
The SACP must feel free to pat itself on the back, but the reality is that party took on the straw man of Kebble/Malema/Sexwale and backed – to the hilt – the real demagogic, proto-fascist tendency – the one with real power … and the one with real patronage to dispense. (That last bit explaining why this SACP has backed the Nkandla Crew)
Think of the various interests of classes and groups in our society as constituting an ecology in which political parties and organisations find niches to graze, hunt and be sustained.
The system can change and niches shift, narrow or broaden – and in response the denizens that live in each niche must adapt or become extinct.
Alternatively, major fauna can begin to change for other systemic (or extra-systemic?) reasons and new spaces and niches close or open in response.
And a shockwave goes through the ecosystem and a number of species appear and/or
rabidly (oops) rapidly evolve, while others disappear.
Like all metaphors this one is going to break down the closer it gets to the real world, but I think something like this is happening to our political ecosystem – as the ANC’s DNA drifts towards the lumbering, complacent and patronage-networked side of the spectrum.
The gaps that are opening are in the middle classes, in the cities and amongst urban professionals – niches which (that?) are being vacated by the ANC as it settles its rump into the comfort of a sort of conservative, patriarchal, kleptocratic, bureaucratic and ethnic politico-ecological pouf-cushion.
I make this observation as I watch (on eNews channel) the DA marching on Cosatu’s head-office in Johannesburg in a historical reversal of roles that I am struggling to get my head around.
I saw a Twitter post from Ranjeni Munusamy last night in which she said: “After the
#DAmarch tomorrow, maybe nuclear powers will march to Greenpeace offices. Will make just as much sense”.
I get her dismay completely, but I suspect that is just my old assumptions about the shape of our political ecology dominating my brain.
Why shouldn’t the DA be going up directly against Cosatu?
They are, increasingly, competing for exactly the same constituency – the constituency recently, in effect, vacated by the ANC.
That is what all this business about Zille attempting to recruit Vavi into the DA has been about.
They have been flirting – because they feel how close they are to each other – and now they are fighting, for exactly the same reasons.
On Sunday Ferial Haffajee wrote an extremely interesting piece in her City Press, pointing out that Cosatu is increasingly dominated by public sector unions – and therefore increasingly represents “a middle”, rather than “a working” class.
The story uses this graphic:
… which I think comes from a Uasa Federation study by economist Mike Schussler that points out that the employed in south Africa enjoy relatively good living conditions with an average salary of R13 200 and further that public sector workers are significantly better off than their private sector counterparts.
Cosatu has created a middle class where one did not exist in the 18 years of democracy. That it is funded by the public purse (funded in turn by you and I, the taxpayers) is neither here nor there. What is remarkable is how a federation that started as decidedly blue collar has altered the identity and social position of its members so quickly and so effectively that it could turn the public policy of tolling on its head.
So what is happening right now?
There is an inevitable frisson in the relationship between Cosatu and the DA.
Cosatu and the Democratic Alliance border the niches vacated by the ANC, namely the unemployed and the middle classes. (The unemployed and the middle classes, perhaps more than any other groups, have the most to lose from the ANC’s, at best squandering, at worst looting, of societal resources available for growth and relief.)
As the opposing crowds gather in the streets of Johannesburg, the blue DA marchers versus the red Cosatu defenders – those for the youth wage subsidy and those against it – we might be expected to conclude that these are bitter class enemies.
I still think not – to my eyes I cannot distinguish them ethnically or class-wise … (but I accept that I might just not have cracked those codes).
The ANC – as well as agents of the state, I think – will strive mightily to prevent Cosatu from finding the DA – and vice versa.
As romantic literature suggests, love and hate lie alongside each other like geological strata – always in the process of metamorphosing, one into the other.
(Note – I think my various metaphors here don’t adequately take account of the differences in Cosatu – and ultimately break down on that point. I do think the public sector side of the federation is more middle-class and the private sector side more radical and competitive. However it is easier for the ANC to keep the public sector unions – the DA’s natural allies in class terms – on side because, ultimately, those unions are dependent on the state budget over which the ANC has control. Obviously there is a cost involved in the ANC buying off those middle class unions, and it is a cost ultimately borne by the unemployed … but that is an argument for another post. I am not sure if the DA will be able to capitalise on this contradiction, but it is not impossible that is precisely what the party is trying to do in Johannesburg as I write this.)
Once a week I take my mother to an audio book library.
My car radio only picks up SAFM and because the dreary worthiness of our national broadcaster occasionally tempts me into driving my car off a cliff, I sometimes pick something out for myself.
I have recently finished listening to (over and over again – at least eight times in a row) “About the Size Of It – the Common Sense Approach to Measuring Things” by Warwick Cairns.
Aside from being a charming, old-school, discourse on how our bodies and what we do with them have determined the various measuring systems humans have adopted, the book hints, to my mind, at deeper philosophical insights into the nature of society and history … and, ultimately, our evolving humanity.
The flow of “About The Size Of It” traces the use of feet, hands and thumbs in determining the measures that humans have used throughout Europe and Asia – right back to the builders of Stonehenge who appear to have used a “megalithic foot” as the basic unit of construction – i.e. one about as long as a man’s foot wrapped in a leather slipper, as opposed to the later “foot” of European and US measurement which is about as long as a workman’s boot.
Warwick Cairns sounds like an amiable old duffer – which is not entirely due to the fact that my consumption of the text was via the reading by clearly ‘amiable old duffer’ Christian Rodska. But you will see below that if anything Cairns looks like a young and clever Hobbit.
The charm of the book lies in its gentle admonishment of endless attempts to impose measuring systems (especially the metric system) on humans who inevitably revert back to methods and units that suit them and that are practically based on hands, feet, thumbs, how far we – and our horse or ox – can plough in one day, the amount of liquid we can comfortably drink (or hold in our bladders) and the weight of small rocks we can easily hold in each hand and compare.
The “deeper” implications of the book are revealed in a quaint cascading explanation that I had actually come across before in one of those awful “Isn’t this Amazing – PASS IT ON!!!” emails.
It goes something like this: the size of the rocket boosters on the space-shuttle are ultimately determined by the width of two horses’ backsides. The sweet – but I suspect not entirely accurate – explanation consists of describing the link between the rail system that carries the boosters, the carriage axle-makers who made the first axles for locomotives, the fact that their machinery was set up for horse carriages and that carriage tracks throughout Europe and the USA were precisely the width of two horses side-by-side … because that is the optimal configuration for drawing a carriage.
I am less interested in the accuracy of this illustrative example than I am in the idea that the structure and technology of our society – the momentum and trajectory of the complex system of human history – might be shaped by basic and natural limitations and potentials.
Jared Diamond’s 1997 “Guns, Germs and Steel – a short history of everybody for the last 13000 years” explores this matter more directly, although in a more difficult and in-depth way.
Diamond’s book deserves a full review of it’s own – it is a complex and extremely wide ranging explanation of why societies throughout the world had differential success – particularly competitively. He explores how climate and geography – down to the detail of which plants and animals where available for domestication – and how, for example, advantages get locked in through early urbanisation leading to the spread, and therefore growing immunity, to certain diseases – which in turn has led to the domination of some societies over others.
Both these books explore how our society and history is rooted in our nature and the nature of the physical world – and also how the momentum of our society and history resists change.
For me what is interesting is how our technologies are pushing at the boundary of the limitations imposed by our physical and natural being and by the complex ordering of our societies’ development – holding out the promise and threat that these might no longer determine what we could become.
I think both the DA and the ANC might be on the verge of an evolutionary spurt that will change what they are and thus see them shifting into new ecological niches in our political landscape.
I also think that the landscape itself changes much slower than we think or hope.
arism is a term for a species of political error – and I dredge this up from the gleaming days of my youthful involvement in the ‘mass democratic movement’ in South Africa. The taxonomic system we developed for naming and defining ‘mistaken beliefs’ was tiresomely thorough and self-righteous, but I have to confess that I still dip into that frame of reference and find there useful analogies and ways of understanding the world.
arism means believing that through pure force of will, cleverness of organisation, brilliance of strategy, accuracy of tactics and shear hope, anything could be achieved no matter what the inherent conditions.
I am convinced that the Democratic Alliance foray into the townships and squatter camps is either a form of volunt
arism or it will result in the DA becoming something else entirely – and ultimately something very similar to what the ANC has become.
This somewhat pessimistic view of politics is based on the assumption that politicians and political parties do not have a free hand to sell what they like to whoever (whomever?) they like.
The racial divide in South Africa and the racial solidarity of the groups which face each other across that divide is a deep structural phenomenon and not a casual consumer preference.
When Julius Malema talks about “the Madam and her tea girl” referring to DA chief Helen Zille and the DA MP and national spokesperson Lindiwe Mazibuko he finds a resonance.
This ‘resonance’ is not something created by clever marketing and it is also not something that can be got rid of like Vodacom changing its colours from blue to red.
Groups of people, their ideology, culture and attitudes can be changed – particularly in the powerfully denaturing environment of modern industrial cities. This is how an African peasantry became the urban proletariat of South Africa’s modern capitalism. And it was this process that created the possibility of an ANC that represented all black Africans in the country and not just specific tribal groups.
But do not overestimate the power and speed of this process. Think of the ethnic boroughs in New York; think of the Xhosa/Zulu tussle in the ANC and think of the unbridgeable divide between the black and white experience in South Africa.
South Africa’s history, including colonialism and Apartheid, has a powerful momentum in our lives today. I think this means that the hope that the DA with more black faces and branches (but essentially the same ideology , structure and principles) could make a serious electoral challenge will remain just that – a hope.
A party still called the Democratic Alliance could displace the ANC, but only by becoming something very similar to its foe i.e. led by black people with a history of opposition to Apartheid and primarily about redressing the past, directing state resources to benefit black people and channelling wealth towards the emerging black elite.
The “rump” of the DA are good old white liberals (in the best sense of the word) who have their ideological roots in the closing years of Apartheid.
A party with such a “rump” will never (in any time frame that could be relevant to us) represent a majority of black South Africans – even urban professionals, even a significant minority. To represent those people the DA would have to be of those people, run by those people and be an instrument to further the interests of those people.
I do think urban African professionals are in the process of defecting, with disgust, from the ANC.
But I will be looking for a Movement for Democratic Change lookalike (to the ANC’s ZANU-PF) to emerge from the South African political dynamic.
That ultimately means I am still looking for an organised defection by the industrial working class and their middle class allies that will emerge from a split in the Ruling Alliance – that would probably put Cosatu on one side and the ANC on another.
On this basis the ANC could lose control of the cities to a political formation like the MDC – although not one that could be portrayed, as the MDC has been by ZANU-PF and by the ANC (which can already sense the threat), as having been funded and set up by white farmers and other ‘enemies of national liberation’.
There is a part of me that hopes I am wrong … that we have it within ourselves to escape the awful gravity of our history; that we really are free to choose our future.
My view, however, is that the choices we do have are all within a narrow band of possibilities confined by the deep structural features of our past and present.
Thus the ecology of our society and our politics remains the same – or at least changes extremely slowly – but the creatures that inhabit the landscape are modified by natural selection and drift and displace each other in the niches that are available to them.
(My next post will deal with the question of what the ANC is becoming as it changes its niche as the party narrows and shifts – geographically, ideologically and socially.)
This added after publication:
The über-troll of South African political analysis R.W. Johnson added this gentle corrective to the version of the above article published on Politicsweb: “Am I the only person astonished by the fact that Mr Borain can’t spell voluntarism ?” He’s quite right about this – as he is about so much – although he is usually also interesting. He was, appropriately, hanging out with the racist bullies in Politicsweb’s comments section, so I shouldn’t be terribly surprised at his sneering tone.
The word is voluntarism (not volunterism, as I originally had it … I got it wrong because I mistakenly thought ‘we’ had made it up and I could therefore spell it as I pleased) and it means: “any theory that regards will as the fundamental agency or principle, in metaphysics, epistemology, or psychology” – from Dictionary.com.