Do Party Manifestos mean anything?

by Apr 6, 2009All Articles

At least when Marx and Engels wrote the communist Manifesto, they provided for inspired analysis and call for action. they knew that the call for action had to have a context otherwise nothing they proposed would have meaning. It had to be embedded in both theory and the experiences of class conflict.

The Communist Manifesto was the first statement on globalisation and the infectious way in which capitalism’s paradigm and assault on workers led to the commodification of labour and decapitation of society.
The ills of society had a particular origin – for Marx and Engels it was all rooted in the way the political-economy was run. If you didn’t understand this you understood nothing.

The Communist Manifesto was far-reaching and revolutionary for it contained in brief the congealing of years of hard analysis of the workings of capitalism and the deep under-belly of mercantile political-economy. Theory followed experience and theory informed action as much as action informed theory again.

Every party now has put out its election manifesto, trying to woo the voting public their way. Manifestos are meant to differentiate one party from the other. They are marketing and PR tools. Corporate brand culture has infiltrated party imaging.

You can be sure, then, that the ad agencies and spin-doctors have been spending long hours deliberating party positioning, messaging and how to defeat their opponents with the finesse of words and images. This is exactly what it is: the finesse of words and images, not critical analysis of the conditions that affect human life.

Manifestos are meant to contain an ensemble of actions that parties promise to deliver on if they come into power. They should take stock of progress and not dish out repeated hollow promises. They should be tools for mobilisation. They are meant to be visionary. But all the manifestos have nothing to do with the analysis of our time and political-economy; they are mere words lodged to make one party look more handsome or prettier than the other.

Parties, as result, do not end up providing leadership but try to tailor words so as to build a wall of deflection and deception rather than honest appraisals of their track record. They are adept at rubbishing the track record of other parties but on their own record they don’t exactly have much to say. Which in many respects amounts to a disdain towards the electorate. Rather than walking the talk, so to speak, they want voters to walk the illusion.

Dull reading abounds,  ranging from the DA’s vacuous call for a ‘Winning Nation’ to COPE’s lazy pirating of the ANC’s programme of action. COPE’s manifesto is even more appalling in another respect its incoherence and lack of a clear thesis. It looks as if COPE called on its constituency to send a few emails and SMSes which were cut and pasted into the manifesto document. Some of the manifestos sections simply don’t make sense. Try reading COPE’s take on sustainable development it is incomprehensible. The DA and the ID do much better on this score because they have dedicated specialists in the field. They are decisive and bold about environmental issues.

Then there is the ANC’s take on the world. It is the same-old-same-old stuff – hardly close to the revolutionary talk of the ANC’s alliance partners. A lot of it is meandering and approaches the middle ground the ANC is playing its own game of consensus politics. There is a radical bit here and then a soft touch there.

As there is more evidence, now than ever, that none of the parties differ much on issues because they pretty much say the standard thing about crime, corruption, education, health, etc., this election is clearly not about principles, values or change; it is a beauty contest.
The range of parties also demonstrates most starkly that there is no left politics to speak of; rather, there is a rapid convergence of right and left. In this respect the meagre outputs from various parties are a disappointment or, worse, an indication of the extent to which party politics and thinking has degraded since 1994. But none of that will come without a critical analysis of the political-economy.

Therefore many parties are happy to subscribe to the rhetoric or catch-phrases as a way to capture the moment. They have pretty much accepted the status quo.
The lack of critical engagement with reality – both the crisis of unemployment in South Africa and the global crisis of leadership around the global political-economy – may be a result of the following. Either voters themselves are not serious about analysis or parties believe that voters should not be burdened with critical thought because this is the realm of experts and party loud-mouths. Voters should be fed sound-bites and the illusion of change and promise.

There may well be some truth in this if one looks at letters in the newspapers, comments on blogs and other sources of public information – voters are interested in a beauty contest. Some don’t want Zuma and others want Zille because of their race or ethnicity.

But as to why this is so, well, that question will demonstrate the extent to which public debate and critical analysis has degraded in South Africa’s young political life. This reduction of politics into a beauty contest about the likes and dislikes of individual candidates or a discussion about how many wives and girlfriends they sleep with is the centrepiece of public opinion-making and not election manifestos. Sex, lies, and videos have displaced the substance of politics.
This may go some way to explain why the manifestos resemble rushed ‘cut-and-paste’ jobs rather than a serious engagement of the electorate. Parties know they need not bother. This is not to dismiss the electorate as stupid or uninterested but more factual about the state of public space and opinion within the mass media networks where they have turned politics into a sit-com.

This is where commentary is herded away from reality and serious politics to gossip. This should not blur the obvious – our descent into anti-intellectualism or what Susan Jacoby in a recent book about American politics called ours The Age of Unreason. Jacoby characterises this shift from politics to gossip as ‘Junk thought’ often falsely portrayed as serious thinking by citizens and politicians.

One of the characteristics of junk thought is that opinion is made into fact without evidence, masking its blatant roots in partisan sentiment, prejudice or bigotry. There is no ideology, weighing up of various arguments or toleration of alternative views. It is just junk – as simple as that.

But intellectualism should not be about highbrow pontifications. It should be about the encouragement of natural curiosity about the workings of political and economic life. Commentators have killed this public search for answers by providing commentary and not critical analysis.

One does not also want to make intellectualism an elitist pre-occupation. Nor should the fear of intellectualism mean one must disband the project of ideas and be comfortable with anti-intellectualism.
This widespread culture amongst the electorate, which is often promoted by parties and the mass media, only reinforces the idea that intellectualism should be the domain of a few experts.

But we have a responsibility to foster debate, intelligent discussion and ensure the distribution of different ideas of what the nature of our society is and what future is best for all South Africans.
Parties have a responsibility to educate even if they disagree with their opponents
– they have a responsibility to encourage intelligent conversation.
The fact that manifestos differ very little from each other marks a crisis in critical thought and debate. Everything from crime to the dismal record in our education system is rooted in the lack of a critical evaluation of our political-economy.

Ordinary people are reluctant to say they are against thought and culture. It just that, as the writer Waldo Emerson once noted about America, the public mind of a country can be ‘taught to aim at low objects’ which then ‘eats upon itself’.

But often, and as it has happened here, corrupt power rots the base and reduces the culture of public politics as needing a mere art of illusion, while serious intellectualism and praxis is about avoiding change and constantly churning out half-truths and often outright lies for the public.

One should be mindful of the words of Max Horkheimer, a social theorist, who in studying mass propaganda and mass communication noted in 1941 that ‘the media of public communication … constantly profess their adherence to the individual’s ultimate value and his
inalienable freedom, but they tend to forswear such values by fettering the individual to prescribed attitudes, thoughts and buying habits’.

One can make big things out of manifestos but in this election they will not matter. The dog and pony show is already well on the road. Voters have long been herded to take sides before the promises came out.
They are being asked to vote for the nicest of people, Helen Zille’s hair-do, and not the party that will defend us on the most important values and ideas.

Saliem Fakir is an independent writer based in Stellenbosch.

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