Review: Zimbabwe’s Plunge – Exhausted Nationalism, Neoliberalism and the Search for Social Justice
Written by Jordi Martorell
Jordi Martorell reviews this new book by Patrick Bond and Masimba Manyanya. It traces the economic history of Zimbabwe over the last 100 years but pays special attention to the last 20 years since the coming to power of Zanu-PF. But while they make a damning condemnation of the IMF and their policies that have wrecked the Zimbabwean economy, the authors are proposing reformist solutions of tariff barriers and exchange controls, which will not solve the main problem which is the over-exploitation of the workforce. There is no way forward on a capitalist basis.
A Critical Review by Jordi Martorell
This new book was finished just before the recent presidential elections in Zimbabwe, but nevertheless provides the reader with all the necessary background information to analyse the election results.
Bond and Manyanya go through the economic history of Zimbabwe over the last one hundred years but concentrate mainly on the last twenty years since the coming to power of Zanu-PF in 1980. They make a damning and detailed condemnation of the IMF policies applied in Zimbabwe over this period, which have “left the currency in tatters, unemployment and inflation at record highs and per capita GDP at levels lower than they had been three decades earlier.” (p. 18)
The authors trace back the current collapse of the country’s economy to choices made at the time of winning independence when the country’s economic structures were left intact. A key factor was the decision of the Mugabe government at that time to accept the payment of the country’s foreign debt, which, the authors argue, should have been repudiated on the grounds that this is “Odious Debt”, which black Zimbabwean taxpayers had to pay twice, “first when loans were taken out to oppress them, and second when the lenders demanded their money back.” (p. 9)
The process by which the leadership of the national liberation struggle became the local agents of imperialism in the country, was predicted in advance by political scientist Rukodzo Murapa:
“After national liberation, the petit-bourgeois leadership can abandon its alliance with the workers and peasants and emerge as the new ruling class by gaining certain concessions from both foreign and local capital and, in fact, forming a new alliance with these forces which they need to stay in power. Of course, lip service commitment, a la Kenya, to the masses, will be made.” (quoted on p. 25)
In the case of Zimbabwe, Zanu-PF came to power through the Lancaster House agreements which ensured the capitalist structures of the country, particularly regarding the property of the land, were left intact. Soon, despite some radical rhetoric, Mugabe was faithfully following the structural adjustment plans dictated by the IMF.
Already in the early 1980s, when the “socialist” rhetoric of the regime was at its highest, a leading US banker is quoted as saying that: “The management of the more sophisticated large companies…seem to be impressed by and satisfied with Mugabe’s management and the increased level of understanding in government of commercial considerations…I felt it is a political pattern that Mugabe gives radical, anti-business speeches before government makes major pro-business decisions or announcements.” (quoted on p. 27)
The book goes on to explain how these policies alienated the urban and rural masses from the ruling Zanu-PF, and how this discontent exploded in mass action particularly in 1997-98. This is what they describe as “exhausted nationalism”.
On the other hand, that movement eventually resulted in the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on the part of the unions (ZCTU). But, as the authors explain in detail, the party was soon taken over by openly capitalist elements advocating precisely the same policies of the IMF, which had already clearly failed in Zimbabwe. This is what they call “looming neo-liberalism”. A key event in the alliance between MDC leader Tsvangirai and big business was “in February 2000, [when Eddie Cross,] a leading official of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) was appointed economic secretary of the MDC.” (p. 93)
The book quotes extensively from a speech Eddie Cross gave at Harare’s Book Café, in which he outlined the MDC’s economic policies. It is worth reproducing what he said:
“First of all, we believe in the free market. We do not support price control. We do not support government interfering in the way people manage their lives. We are in favour of reduced levels of taxation.”
Having made this crystal clear, he then proceeded to explain his hair-raising views on privatisation:
“We are going to fast track privatisation. All fifty government parastatals will be privatised within a two-year frame, but we are going far beyond that. We are going to privatise many of the functions of government. We are going to privatise the Central Statistical Office. We are going to privatise virtually the entire school delivery system. And you know, we have looked at the numbers and we think we can get government employment down from about 300,000 at the present time to about 75,000 in five years.” (quoted on p. 95)
It was at this point that, “in desperation, Mugabe resurrected Zanu’s most militant, often virulent strain of nationalist demagoguery, attempting as time ran out to simultaneously ‘solve’ the long standing land distribution problem, terrorise supporters of the opposition, and pass the buck for his own failings to the country’s small white population, foreign countries, imperialism in general and the IMF in particular.” (p. 75) He was largely successful in deactivating opposition in the countryside, precisely because of the capitalist policies of the MDC leadership, particularly regarding the land question.
The authors correctly reject both “exhausted nationalism” and “looming neoliberalism”, but what do they propose as a way forward? The repudiation of the foreign debt, the whittling down of “domestic debt through a rigorous, careful but very loose monetary policy,” foreign exchange controls, and in order for these policies not to hit the poor the redirection of “financial capital towards productive investment,” “protecting the pensions of ordinary workers” and “shielding the poor from inflation…through well-conceived subsidies on basic needs.” Basically their whole argument is that previous periods of economic growth in Zimbabwe took place when the country adopted protectionist policies and the economy was “deglobalised”.
The argument has several major flaws. One is that the authors do not seem to take into account the international and national conditions in which economic growth took place in Zimbabwe through the policies of protectionism. The first such period the authors identify is the one which roughly goes from 1933 to the end of the second world war. In this period there was heavy state intervention in the economy, through programmes of public works, the nationalisation of the railways and the creation of state-owned companies in the fields of iron, steel and cotton spinning.
The aim of the white settlers was to develop their own industry through protectionism and a certain welfare state (for whites only). But one of the bases of this system, which became known as “socialism for whites”, was precisely the overexploitation of black labour, as the authors admit when they say that “while profits were high, black workers’ conditions remained appalling.” (p. 5) At the same time the rapid industrialisation of the country created a black working class which started to organise. This led to a period of workers’ struggles which culminated in the 1948 general strike.
The second period of “deglobalisation” of the economy, which the book identifies is in the 1960s and up until 1974. This time the break with the world market was imposed on the country with Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) which was followed by international sanctions. Ian Smith replied by defaulting on the foreign debt and protecting local industry. But once again this was based on the overexploitation of the black working class, which in turn deprived Rhodesian industry of a mass consumer market. Thus “UDI-era manufacturers placed exorbitant emphasis on luxury goods for the domestic white market, rather than expanding into extensive low-cost basic consumer goods.” (p. 7)
We see how the two periods of economic growth described by Bond and Manyanya were based on the overexploitation of the black working class and the denial of any rights to the majority of the population. This eventually limited the possibilities for the expansion of the economy since it constrained the growth of the internal market. The authors are aware of this, but they do not seem to recognise that it was precisely this overexploitation which was a key factor of that economic growth.
Even if it were possible to apply the same kind of economic policies an “isolationist” Zimbabwe would have to get capital to invest in industry by extracting surplus value from the working class, and enough capital could only be found if the level of exploitation was high enough. Although this is not what the authors are suggesting, all the backward capitalist countries that have experienced rapid industrialisation and economic growth since the second world war have done so on the basis of massive exploitation of their workforce.
The most important objection however, is that closing the country’s economy would mean a major battle with imperialism which for the last two decades has been pushing the policies of “liberalisation” (i.e. the opening of the economies of all “third world” countries to imperialism). Bond and Manyanya argue that this battle can be won with the combination of the forces of those fighting against neoliberalism in Zimbabwe and the global movement for social justice.
That might be the case, but our question is: if the alternative is a major battle with imperialism and with its forces in Zimbabwe itself, why limit the aims to the establishment of some sort of “protected capitalism” in Zimbabwe which – as with all kinds of capitalism – would still be based on the exploitation of the workers and peasants? Would it not be clearer to pose the question of the struggle for socialism; that is the expropriation of industry, the banks and the land and to run them under democratic control of the workers and peasants for the benefit of the majority of the population?
In fact this is precisely the programme that the masses of workers have adopted in Argentina in the course of the massive revolutionary struggles that are shaking that country. Bond and Manyanya say that “Argentina’s mass movements have begun building on the preliminary work of their Jubilee South affiliate chapter, to demand not just debt cancellation but a redistributive, inward-oriented economic reconstruction strategy.” But far from this, both the National Workers’ Assembly and the national meeting of popular assemblies voted for a programme which included the repudiation of the foreign debt, the renationalisation of privatised utilities, the nationalisation under workers’ control of all factories in crisis, the nationalisation of the banks, and a workers’ government (see Resolution of the National Workers’ Assembly). This is not a programme based on the “rekindling of nation-state sovereignty” but rather a programme of workers’ power and socialism.
The authors say in their introduction that they stand on a tradition which includes both Keynes and Marx. The central contradiction in this statement is that Keynes wanted to regulate capitalism in order to save it, and Marx was fighting for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism. In their conclusions Bond and Manyanya opt for Keynes. We on our part are firmly committed to a Marxist solution.
This book is therefore an extremely useful tool in order to understand the current situation facing Zimbabwe, but we must disagree on the solutions proposed.
Zimbabwe’s Plunge – Exhausted Nationalism, Neoliberalism and the Search for Social Justice
By Patrick Bond and Masimba Manyanya