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Racism and moral superiority: Much of the world is embroiled in crises analysed and predicted by the left

By Jeff Rudin 

Richard Pithouse’s article, “The new racism: Moral superiority” (10 February 2024) is the latest of the left-confusions on race.  Pithouse, the former editor-in-chief of the now-defunct New Frame, won’t object to being assigned to the left. I, too, am on the left.  

While not claiming anything like a left monopoly as provider of the light, left insights can seldom easily be dispatched to the darkness.  Attributing moral superiority to seemingly universal “White arrogance” comes from the same mould as “White monopoly capital” and racial capitalism.  I capitalise White to indicate its political infusions rather than just being a (not very accurate) descriptive term about skin colour. 

By way of a reminder, a few words about the latter two before addressing White arrogance.

White monopoly capital

In 2017, the Guptas were increasingly and publicly being accused of state capture. Accusing their detractors of racism having failed, they turned to Bell Pottinger, Britain’s leading public relations company for sweetening unpopular politicians

To divert attention from the Guptas, Bell Pottinger came up with what they thought was the ideal enemy: White monopoly capital. Few people had the slightest idea what monopoly capital meant, but many knew about Whiteness. To give Whiteness a face, they made the mistake of selecting billionaire Anton Rupert as the symbol of what was supposed to be the cause of black poverty and unemployment, along with being the enemy of transformation.  

Strangely, Bell Pottinger seems to have forgotten that Rupert was one of their billionaire clients. He didn’t take kindly to being the poster boy of Bell Pottinger’s White monopoly capital campaign and immediately cancelled his contract with them. Worse was to follow.  

Responding to a complaint that Bell Pottinger tried to divide and conquer South Africans by abusing racial tensions, it was expelled from Britain’s Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), which found Bell Pottinger’s secret campaign to stir up racial tensions in South Africa to be the worst breach of ethics in its history. 

The PRCA said the Bell Pottinger campaign was “likely to inflame racial discord in South Africa”.  Both Bell and Pottinger resigned from the company they had founded to save the company.  But to no avail. The company closed down in September 2017.

White monopoly capital is indeed racist. What Bell Pottinger didn’t know was that the term was coined and spread by leading members of the left, with Whites being in the vanguard. Even Moeletsi Mbeki, who, in an article of February 2024, dismisses White monopoly capital as a fiction created by Bell Pottinger to create what he calls “scaremongering”. What Bell Pottinger couldn’t have known is that the term is still in vogue precisely because of its racist divisiveness.  Many groups promoting black economic empowerment (BEE) and black transformation rely heavily on it, as do sections of the left

Racial capitalism

Racial capitalism, a couplet first coined in the 1980s by the South African left academics, has become one of those globally fashionable terms that increasingly loses analytic meaning the more its use becomes de rigueur.  For practical purposes, I shall confine myself to its South African meanings, where the concept is essential to an understanding of South Africa, in both its colonial/apartheid period and the period since 1994, when it has a very different though still largely unrecognised meaning.

I can think of no better two-word analysis and description than racial capitalism to cover the period from the beginning of South African capitalism and ending with the apartheid years of 1948 to 1994. The original capital accumulation, stretching from the discovery of diamonds and gold and consolidated during the consequent industrialisation of South Africa, required the most vicious of racism to legitimate, first, the forced creation of a black working class and, second, an entire society in which black people were an unwanted presence, other than as the cheapest of labour upon which white wealth was based.  This whole period is the gold-standard of racial capitalism, and, in my view, serves as the appropriate measure of racial capitalism worldwide.  

The people who the then president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, called the “black bourgeoisie”, have been using the White Supremacy of South Africa pre-1994 as a post-1994 racist battle-ram to force open the enormous wealth of South Africa, but only for their own exclusive benefit. This using of race against the former oppressors to promote their class interests within the stark inequalities of an unchallenged — and still unchanged –— capitalism is what I mean by today’s South Africa being a modern and inverted form of racial capitalism. 

Post-1994 South Africa is commonly characterised as racialised poverty, more specifically of African poverty. For the left, among others, this poverty alone merits contemporary South Africa being seen as a modern form of racial capitalism.

But, among its many weaknesses are that there is (to my knowledge) no sustained analysis of how racialised poverty reproduces itself over almost 30 years in the face of a plethora of anti-discrimination legislation passed and enforced by an overwhelmingly African government subject to the oversight of an overwhelmingly African parliament and enforced by an overwhelmingly African civil service and so on. (I use “African” rather than “black” for two reasons.  First, notwithstanding our Constitution and the Employment Equity Act, South Africa remains locked in our still heavily racialised society, in which all official statistics still use the apartheid-manufactured “races” of African, coloured and Indian. Second “our people” refers in practice to Africans, whether implicitly or explicitly.)  

Moreover, racialised African poverty, along with notions of racial capitalism focusing on African exploitation and poverty, fail to address the obverse of African poverty: African wealth.  Indeed, they hardly recognise the abundance of highly successful legislative and other enormously expensive measures explicitly taken to create, sustain and grow wealth for an African elite.  The few that do recognise the African rich fail to integrate this wealth with the African poverty supposedly caused by their understanding of racial capitalism.

Thabo Mbeki’s “black bourgeoisie” promote their class interests in two mutually supporting ways: first, by using the colonial/apartheid-derived illegitimacy of Whiteness and, second, by using the poverty capitalism reproduces naturally everywhere and which, in South Africa, gives poverty a most convenient “black” face (80% of the population being African means that most Africans belong to the working class, including the unemployed and those who live on welfare).  This poverty is then used not only to shout the failure of “transformation”, but that BEE and affirmative action needs to be considerably strengthened and quickened.

It is painful to say that implicit in my critique of the use of race to promote the class interests of a section of the bourgeoisie is the failure of the left. The very idea that BEE can empower most — let alone all — Africans in a capitalist country is a nonsense that ought to have been subject to instant and constant exposure by the left.  Instead, the left has played a major role in creating and spreading the idea of racialised capitalism and African monopoly capital. 

And, so, to Richard Pithouse. Let me emphasise: he is mentioned by name not to personalise matters but rather to illustrate the pattern of the confusions caused and/or supported by the left.

The new racism: moral superiority

Pithouse might be onto something. Moral superiority might indeed be a form of metamorphosed racism. Or, as he puts it: “[R]acism is … a dynamic phenomenon. The ways in which people are divided into races, the ideas projected onto these races and the mechanisms by which race is economically, politically and socially operationalised are all malleable. Racism updates and renews itself. It finds new guises.”

The trouble with his article is that it leaves us with nothing more than his say-so. He never returns to “the mechanisms by which race is economically, politically and socially operationalised”.  

This omission leaves his article, with its countless references to “white” people, with no supporting evidence that Whiteness, in his view, is considerably more than the accidental colour of one’s skin. Hence, he seems to think that it is sufficient merely to assert his opinion about “white-dominated nodes in the media, a set of similarly white-dominated NGOs and research institutes that seek to use this media to advance their political projects, and a group of public white figures”.

He similarly refers to “people racialised as white” but without saying who, when or where, or whether there is ever any escape from this condition and, if so, how.  He does indeed allow for exceptions — but all of them are left unexplained.  Towards the end of the article, there is mention of three of these exceptions.  Thus, it is only “the majority of white people” who had supported apartheid and only “some white[s]” who have “the renewed sense of moral superiority”.  The article’s final paragraph implicates only “a good number of white people” for having this renewed sense of moral superiority.  But, again, why this moral superiority should not afflict all whites is left unexplained. 

The most astute critique of Pithouse’s article comes from the article itself.  It warns that the media “frenzy” around Ukraine and Israel “has at times overtaken evidence” and that this has led to people who “confidently make statements for which there is no public evidence”.  Had he heeded his own complaint, his article would not contain assertions such as: “The contortions of history, logic and decency required to legitimate the ongoing mass murder of civilians in Gaza — along with the wholesale destruction of its infrastructure including homes, hospitals, schools, universities, mosques and churches — are also imported from the wider white world.”

This is not to deny that it helps Israel get away with its genocide, when its victims are Arabs. However, seeing the world in black and white is as easy as it is unhelpful.  Let’s not forget that South Africa was compelled to refer the genocide complaint to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) only because none of the Arab countries would do so, most particularly the Palestine Authority. 

This failure reflects the increasing number of Arab countries happy to be “friends” of Israel only a short while ago.  Let’s not forget that Egypt is Israel’s accomplice in making Gaza the world’s largest open-air prison. Let’s not further forget the African Union’s invitation to Israel to have observer status at its meetings or of the many African countries waiting to renew their friendship with Israel once hostilities have ended. 

It’s taken some two and a half weeks of Israel’s open contempt of the ICJ’s orders for Algeria to submit an unambiguous call on the United Nations Security Council to order Israel to honour an immediate ceasefire. Finally, let’s not forget that the only judge who consistently sided with Israel at the recent ICJ hearings was from Africa.   What these reminders do is to alert us to the tendentious use of colour coding, and its egregious stereotyping.   

The left is and has been in disarray for some 50 years worldwide. The space it once enjoyed both locally and internationally has been filled by the Right.  And all the while, much of the world is embroiled in economic crises, analysed and predicted by the left. China is but the latest country having to face the contradictions of the capitalism it has embraced.

It is these contradictions that allow me to say that our time will come again.  But we don’t help our cause when we’re often in the vanguard of confusion.


Jeff Rudin is with the Alternative Information Development Centre in Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.

*This Opinion Piece was first published by the Mail & Guardian

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