Ruling Class Strategies in the Region And the Tasks of Social Movements

KC JOURNAL NO 4 June 2003

* Ram Seegobin analyses ruling class strategies in theSADC region, and argues for the need to coordinate the response of the social movement on a region-wide basis.

The aim of this paper is to open up a debate that will enable us to analyse the strategies being elaborated by the ruling classes and their ideologues in the region, in the broader context of neo-liberal globalisation. We will need to try and understand the overall agenda of the international and national bourgeoisies and the political forces that express their interests: we will become aware of the common trends within our region. These ruling class strategies are obviously having a disastrous impact on the everyday life of working people and are preparing very hard days ahead for young people. But this is not all happening without resistance: there are social and political movements that are gradually organising to oppose the destructive agenda of the ruling classes. The ruling classes are telling us that we should: “Adapt or Perish”; the people are saying: “ Resist or Perish”. The task before us is to understand how to organise the resistance amongst the masses, how to go further than mere solidarity networks within our region and internationally, and finally to elaborate an internationalist socialist alternative to neo-liberal globalisation.

The context

To understand the strategies of the ruling classes in our region, we need to analyse these strategies in the overall context of globalisation.

The new “scramble for Africa” between the USA, on the one hand, and Europe, led by France, on the other, is being waged through trade treaties like the ACP-EU (Cotonou) Convention, the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act, and various Free Trade Agreements. The Euro/Dollar war is being waged not only around the oil fields of Iraq, but in Africa as well. The regional ruling classes have to tailor their strategies to adapt to that situation of inter- imperialist rivalry as well. The US drive to establish its economic, political and military hegemony is being felt more and more in our region; but like all hegemony, it is paradoxically very fragile, and relies heavily on “imposing consent”, as we saw in the context of the formation of a “coalition of the willing” to launch the military invasion of Iraq.

The economic downturn and recession in the northern centers of Europe, the USA, and Japan are becoming more and more marked: as the regional ruling class strategies push harder towards the further integration of the region into the global market, there can be no doubt whatsoever as to who they intend to carry the burden for the decline in the rate of profit of American, European, and Japanese companies: it will be the working masses.

The features of Globalisation

Neo-liberal globalisation represents today the imposition of a global market for goods, services, and capital; but a global market that is totally unequal in the sense that capital accumulation is increasingly happening in the industrialised economies of the G7 (rather than G8) countries. Multinational Corporations (MNCs) are increasingly in a position to impose their rule on all the peoples of the world. On the other hand, another central feature of present globalisation is the dominance of finance capital over productive capital. In the early 1970s, the key element was the mobility of productive capital towards areas of cheap labour and raw materials. Today, however, the key feature has become speculative forms of accumulation where finance capital roams around the globe, looking for quick high-return investments. This “casino capitalism” is riddled with black and dirty money, and its penetration into stock markets and into off-shore operations very often draws the regional ruling classes and their institutions into a scale of economic criminality that they have not been accustomed to.

The second important feature of neo-liberal globalisation is the generalised strategy of privatisation and liberalisation: this is certainly the cutting edge of the ruling class strategy. The State is being pressurised into withdrawing from all economic activities, and even into withdrawing from the provision of essential services like education, health, electricity, water, housing, and pensions. As these utilities and services are privatised, the bourgeoisie sees investments in such areas as very profitable since they obtain monopolistic control over a captive market. More often than not privatisation of services involves strategic partnerships between regional private capital and MNCs. These MNCs thus find easy entry into the region, and very often under terms where profit rates are guaranteed under “concession project” legislation. The regional bourgeoisie thus increases its “compradore” role, or its subservient position to international capital, while at the same time it acquires new economic muscles in its dealings with the national state or in conflicts with the users of essential services.

The changing nature of the regional ruling class

Before we look at the agenda as such, it may be useful to briefly consider the mutations in the structure and functioning of the ruling classes themselves. Many of the countries in our region have based their past capitalistic development on economic sectors that rely heavily on “protected markets” that guarantee export quotas and/or prices. The African/Caribbean/Pacific Countries –European Union (Cotonou) Convention, as one such treaty among others, provided for free entry of goods into Europe from ex-colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific regions. This was the mechanism under which sugar production, the textile and the garment industries developed. Trade treaties like these pushed in the direction of the formation of regional blocks like the SADC and COMESA: within these economic blocks the ruling classes of different countries in the region have attempted to coordinate and homogenize their strategies. It is a striking feature of the functioning of these regional blocks that there is an almost total identification between the state institutions, the political regimes, and the bourgeoisie of each member country. The intensification of neoliberal policies, especially the ‘free trade’ regime promoted by the WTO, is changing the situation and is also triggering a transformation of the regional ruling classes.

With the application of neoliberal economic policies, there are changes in the balance of forces between different sections of the ruling classes. If we take the example of Mauritius, and I believe that there are striking similarities with the situation here in South Africa, there is a particular section of the bourgeoisie that has depended heavily on the support of the political regime: what we call the “State bourgeoisie”, as opposed to the “historical bourgeoisie” which was already well developed, powerful and with regional and international links in pre-independence days. As “state intervention” in the economic field decreased under neo-liberal ideology and direct pressure of institutions like the IMF, the capacity of the “state bourgeoisie” to expand economically became increasingly limited as compared to that of the “historical bourgeoisie”, with its greater access to loans and financial partnerships with foreign capital.

But perhaps the most important change that has occurred in the ruling class camp under globalisation has been the role of the middle class intelligentsia. As neo-liberal ideology approached near-hegemonic levels, a major section of the middle classes rallied to that ideology, and started to actively propagate it, whether in educational institutions, in the press, or through “service clubs” like the Rotary and Lions Clubs. At the level of actual language this is very obvious: here are some examples of what they say: “Globalisation is opportunities and challenges”; “liberal is synonymous with freedom”; “liberal multi-party democracy is the solution to one-party dictatorship”; the capitalist of yesterday has become the entrepreneur of today; “globalisation is inevitable, so we may as well make the most of it”; privatisation and deregulation are described as reforms, so anybody resisting them is a conservative defending corporatist interests; and so on. Technological advances are equally being used to mystify and create new class differentiations: being “computer illiterate” today condemns you to casual low paid jobs or to the unemployable. Through a deliberate distortion of language, the ruling classes, and their agents in the middle class intelligentsia, are trying to modify the way we see our world.

Alongside the ideologues from our regional middle classes, there is now an army of briefcase carrying bureaucrats from the International Financial Institutions, like the IMF, WB, and WTO, who from time to time descend into a country to see whether the prescriptions are being followed, or to advise on how to draft new anti- labour legislation, how to reform pension schemes and privatise infrastructure and services. There are even some of those faceless bureaucrats who are resident in various ministries and government departments. Trade negotiations at the WTO are also entirely under the control of those bureaucrats without a democratic mandate: the Trade rules then become mandatory after being approved by governments whose elected members have not even studied and understood the contents of new WTO Trade Rules.

The ruling classes are increasingly hiding behind, and using that army of bureaucrats to impose their agenda.

The Regional Ruling Class Agenda

When we look at the actual agenda of the regional ruling class, there are some obvious common trends that correspond to the dominant neo-liberal ideology. But there are also occasional areas of conflict between different sections and different countries that we will examine later on.

The attack on the state

The main pressure from the ruling classes is to shift capital from government spending to the private sector sphere. This involves raising the cost of borrowing by government, pushing for lower and lower income and corporate tax, campaigning against universal pension rights, against free health care and education. The propaganda of the bourgeoisie is that if the private sector is “crowded out” of the available credit and loans from commercial banks, they can no longer invest and create employment. But at the same time it is obvious to everybody that most new investments are in fact used either to reduce production costs through retrenchments, the so-called “jobless (or job loss) growth”, or to invest in the privatisation of public utilities, again with the result of job losses. At best, the workers are offered casual work, with little or not social security.

Casualisation and relocation of production

The ruling class drive to reduce the cost of production is not only creating massive unemployment, but it is also attacking security of employment: more and more short term contract labour is being used, more and more contract labour is being brought in from other countries. In the Mauritian textile and garment industry, nearly one fifth of the workforce is made up of 2-year contract workers from China, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. In addition to importing contract labour from other countries, the ruling classes are de-localising production into other countries in the region where labour is cheaper because of unemployment or because of lack of trade union organisation, and where they may enjoy more favourable tax-holidays. So within the confines of our region, the ruling classes are organising their own “Regional Division of Labour”, a sort of sub-imperialism. But de-localisation of production and contract labour are in fact creating a terrible downward pressure on wages and work conditions for all workers throughout the region.


The privatisation agenda of the ruling classes is multi-facetted: buying up public utilities after these have been made profitable by the state, going into joint ventures with multinational or regional companies to invest in new sectors, trying as far as is possible to obtain “Concession Project” conditions to guarantee profits, and finally to “safely” share risks by going into Public-Private Sector Partnerships. We can expect that in time there will be regional consortiums investing in a variety of economic sectors, including highly speculative ones. At present the Mauritian government has opened the way for the Sugar Barons to parcel and convert agricultural lands, build luxury bungalows to sell to anybody in the whole world who can afford to buy, and they will then get permanent resident status. The same thing is happening with the coastal lands which are fast being snapped up by tourist hotel companies which are usually joint local-foreign ventures; there is every indication that the same thing will be happening in several countries in the region.

Export-led ‘growth’

Over the past 30 years or so, the IMF-WB have pressurised most African countries into export-led industrial development strategies: the regional bourgeoisie is still stuck with that strategy, even at a time when European and American markets are shrinking and when the competition from large scale producers like China and India is posing a direct threat for the very survival of those export industries. For the masses of the people, export industries represent a constant threat: they very often maintain their profitability through constant depreciation of the local currency which in turn fuels inflation and loss of purchasing power, and lowering of the standard of living for workers and the unemployed.


The attitude of the regional bourgeoisie towards NEPAD is also quite instructive: all governmental measures that will aim at attracting foreign direct investment will necessarily establish a business- friendly economic, social and political environment. This will include further deregulation of labour legislation and foreign currency movements, and, in general, measures that guarantee investments and rate of profits. Whether NEPAD does or does not attract foreign direct investments in these days of global economic stagnation, the regional ruling classes still stand to benefit from the measures taken by regional governments under NEPAD.

Conflicts within the regional ruling classes

As mentioned earlier, the agenda of the regional ruling classes is not monolithic and homogenous: recent developments in two important economic sectors have brought to the surface conflicts and contradictions that could have far-reaching effects on the future structure of regional alignments.

A number of countries in the region have a preferential sugar market in Europe and in the US: this is in the form of a guaranteed quota at a guaranteed price, which although it is constantly decreasing, is still a good deal higher than the price of sugar on the open world market. Mauritius is one of those countries that has a relatively high sugar quota under the Cotonou (ACP-EU) Convention. South Africa, on the other hand, also a big producer and exporter of sugar, has to sell most of its sugar exports on the world market. South Africa belongs to the Cairns Group, along with Australia, Brazil, and Thailand, all big sugar producers. The Cairns Group have for a long time now been challenging the arrangements under the Cotonou Convention which have artificially kept the world market price of sugar low through farm subsidies in the European Union. Although the conflict of interest between the sugar barons of Natal and Mauritius has so far been carefully camouflaged, there is a case that has been lodged by Brazil at the WTO on this issue that could make the camouflage wear thin in the near future.

At the Africa Growth and Opportunities Forum that took place in Mauritius in January of this year, another area of conflict within the regional bourgeoisie was exposed, this time in the Textile and Garment Export industry. The Africa Growth and Opportunities Act, another piece of legislation supposedly dealing with development in Africa, but voted in the USA Congress in Washington, allows for unrestricted access into the American market for goods manufactured in the sub-saharan countries. This law lays down as condition for this unrestricted entry into the American market, that the garments should be made from fabric produced either in an eligible African country, or in the USA itself. This condition, however, does not apply to very poor countries in the region. Countries with a per capita GDP of less than 1,500 $ can utilise third country fabrics. Third country fabrics that are very often used are from Asian countries and are much cheaper, and this arrangement was supposed to last only until 2004. At the AGOA Forum in Mauritius in January this year, we were live (on TV) witnesses to an ugly confrontation between, on the one side, Mauritian and South African textile industry bosses who virulently objected to that particular arrangement being extended beyond 2004, and on the other side, Kenyan bosses who were militating for the extension. The resolution to this conflict is now entirely in the hands of George W.!

But in fact those conflicts are of a secondary nature, however irreducible they may seem at the time: conflicts within the ruling classes have a way of getting sorted out, for the greater benefit of the class. In any case, these conflicts over preferential access to markets will all get sorted out as the WTO rules as “off-side” all these preferential market conventions and arrangements.

Resistance, Repression and Democracy

If it is essential that we analyse regional ruling class strategies in the context of globalisation, we need to also bear in mind that there is mounting resistance to the orientation that globalisation has taken. Starting in Seattle in 1999 with the mass demonstrations against the WTO, moving to the World Economic Forum of Davos, to Washington, Quebec, Gothenburg, Barcelona, and Genoa. These mass demonstrations served to challenge the ideological basis of neo-liberal globalisation as imposed by the WTO, the IMF/WB, and the ruling classes of the G7 countries. The ruling classes of the poorer countries, although they submitted willingly to that same liberal ideology, saw the mass resistance as an opportunity to negotiate bigger and more “crumbs” from the banquet table.

But parallel to the mass resistance that manifested itself on the streets outside the venues of the Neo-Liberal Globalisation Conferences, there was equally an organised resistance that was taking shape as the World Social Forum of Porto Alegre in Jan/Feb 2001, with 20,000 activists from all over the world. A year later twice that number of participants attended the meetings of the World Social Forum, which were now preceded by a gathering of the African Social Forum, starting in Bamako in January 2002.

The world- wide resistance that is building up against globalisation, and role of these international struggles in reinforcing the various struggles at our regional level, is forcing the ruling classes to abandon their previous arrogant defiance in the face of the rapid impoverishment of the masses. Their privatisation agenda, for example, has definitely been slowed down where the resistance has built up more effectively.

But resistance through traditional bourgeois democratic means is fast becoming even more meaningless than it has so far been: the central problem these days is that formal democracy, if it has any effect at all, only functions within national boundaries. The threats are today from a regional and international ruling class agenda: how do we, through formal democratic procedures at a national level, resist the conditionalities of AGOA, a legislation that was voted in the US Congress in Washington? How do we fight against the underlying philosophy of NEPAD, based on a document drafted by faceless bureaucrats whose only allegiance seems to be to the tenets of neo- liberal globalisation?

Even liberal democracy is seen by the ruling classes as an impediment to their agenda: there are moves to make it even more responsive to national, regional and international ruling class strategies, and less under pressure from the voting masses.

Recently we received, in Mauritius, a visit from somebody South Africans know very well: Albie Sachs. His mission was to chair a committee to make recommendations for electoral reforms in Mauritius: amongst the recommendations of his committee feature such measures as an astronomical increase in the money deposits required from candidates at general and municipal elections; government funding for the larger parties with procedures that would bring about unacceptable state control over the functioning of political parties; a system of proportional representation that will heavily penalise small parties, while at the same time provide for the entry into the National Assembly and ministerial cabinet, of unknown technocrats who have been unwilling to face the electorate in an electoral campaign. In general, the recommendations of the Sachs Commission will introduce dynamics into the electoral system that will decrease its democratic content, while exposing future elected governments to more pressure from bureaucracies and from the powerful lobbies of the ruling classes.

In general, resistance to the agenda of the ruling classes and to the threats of neoliberal globalisation has been piecemeal, and of mainly defensive nature. There has been a lack of the development of an overall alternative, an alternative that can no longer be purely national: it has, at least, to be regional, if not international. This relative lack of a search for an economic, social and political alternative, means that even our defensive battles lack credibility and effectiveness.

Political Tasks of Social Movements

In conclusion, it is certainly not my intention to come up with ready- made recipes: it will be far more useful to ask new questions and open up avenues for debate. Social movements must pose political questions regarding the role of the ruling classes in the impoverishment of our populations, the role of national states and international institutions in the implementation of regional and international ruling class strategies. What is the class nature of the political parties that make up present day governments in our region? Unless those questions are posed, the social movements will drift in the direction of poverty alleviation NGO’s, whose actions actually serve to “legitimise” the neoliberal agenda.

Ideological struggle

We must expose the concept of Neo-liberal Globalisation as “moral rehabilitation of imperialism”, to then see whether the middle-class intelligentsia will take up the slogan “Imperialism is inevitable”. Earlier in my presentation I spoke about the power of words, how words and verbal concepts can be used and abused to justify the unjustifiable, to convert things into their opposite. We do not operate in a vacuum: ruling class ideology is today dominant in our region, and indeed in the world; perhaps not with the same arrogance and triumphalism as when the “End of History” was announced some years ago. Perhaps the central political task is to expose that ideology for what it is.

We need to also rehabilitate the concept of class: bourgeois ideology is constantly drawing us into the terrain of different communities, different religions, different races, different nationalities, while at the same time pretending that the factory owner, the manager and the worker are all in the same boat. As de-localisation and migrant workers become more and more common in our region, there will be a tendency for xenophobia to develop and spread: unless resisted, this could represent a great set-back in the struggle of poor people everywhere.

The need for coordination

There should not be any doubt in our minds as to the development of a common agenda for the regional ruling classes, and unless we can co-ordinate our own efforts of analysis and action throughout the region, we are going to be constantly one or even two steps behind in our reactions. Considerable work has already been done towards that regional co-ordination: in terms of exchanges, mutual support for actions and events, bringing together and sharing information about struggles in different countries. Perhaps the time has come to organise that co-ordination in a more conscious way, to develop a “common understanding” of the tasks that face us at regional level, as well as at international level. After all we must not avoid the pitfall of nationalism, only to fall into the trap of “regionalism”. Having said that, a region that is fast becoming an economic entity with a common ruling class strategy, should be a building block for us too.

Social movements and political parties

There is an urgent necessity to deepen the debate on the relationship between social movements and revolutionary socialist political parties. There is no doubt that with the collapse or utter deviation of old-style communist parties of the Stalinist mould, and the bankruptcy of traditional social democrat parties, the whole concept of democratic mass parties or movements need to be re-examined. For too long now there has been a “false dichotomy” between political organisations and social movements.

But the nature of the recent development of the anti-globalisation movement has to some extent forced political organisations to be on the same battlefield as social movements, while the search for alternatives at the World and African Social Forums have led Social Movements to think in more programmatic terms.

But perhaps the problems caused by this “false dichotomy” will start to disappear once the masses come out of the defensive stage and rise up to attack the foundations of bourgeois society. In the meantime, the task before us all is to expose the agenda of the ruling classes and struggle against the disastrous effects it is having on working people.

At the same time we must work together towards the elaboration of an alternative to neoliberal globalisation, and commit ourselves to struggle towards a classless society where justice and equality will prevail.

* Ram Seegobin is a member of LALIT, a left party in Mauritius. He is also active in the social movements in Mauritius.


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