Socialist Worker

The global opposition

by Alex Callinicos
Issue No. 1730

There is a growing sense that different struggles around the world are closely connected. The Palestinian intellectual Edward Said recently wrote that the new intifada against Israel 'is another example of the general discontent with the post Cold War order (economic and political) displayed in the events of Seattle and Prague'.

The drive since 1989 to impose what is called neo-liberalism-free market policies that favour the big multinational corporations-is increasingly provoking mass opposition around the world. But if the causes of what Said calls 'the general discontent' are fundamentally the same, the form that it takes in different countries varies quite considerably. Take the case of Zimbabwe.

This is a country experiencing profound political crisis. The 20 year old regime of president Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party has been challenged by a new opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which nearly won last June's parliamentary elections. Mugabe was only able to hang on to power by taking up the land question. A few thousand mainly white commercial farmers still control most of the best land. This was a cynical ploy. Mugabe had ignored the issue for most of his time in office. But the tactic-in combination with a campaign of ruthless intimidation-brought ZANU-PF enough rural votes to stay in office.

Superficially, then, the dominant issues in Zimbabwean politics are democracy and race. But there are much deeper forces at work. During the 1980s and early 1990s the leading international capitalist institutions-the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank-used the massive debts run up by Third World countries as a lever to transform their economies.

In exchange for financial aid these countries had to adopt programmes of 'structural adjustment'-standard neo-liberal policies such as privatisation, cuts in public spending, and the scrapping of consumer subsidies. In Africa a vanguard role was played by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, the military ruler of Ghana. He seized power at the end of the 1970s on a vaguely left wing programme.

But in the mid-1980s he turned to the IMF and World Bank. Rawlings became the West's darling in Africa, receiving more than £3 billion worth of aid. This helped him to adopt the trappings of a civilian ruler and win presidential elections in 1992 and 1996.

Mugabe also implemented structural adjustment-known in Zimbabwe as ESAP. The result was a massive increase in poverty and a growing gap between rich (black as well as white) and poor. Corruption flourished as the ZANU-PF chefs (bosses) and their cronies grabbed all they could. The reaction to ESAP came with growing mass discontent, culminating in a wave of strikes and food riots three years ago, in January 1998. The Zimbabwean Confederation of Trade Unions and its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, became the focus of this discontent.

Tsvangirai now heads the MDC and will challenge Mugabe in next year's presidential elections. In the capital, Harare, Mugabe presides over a city where everyone hates him, from the rich whites of the northern suburbs to the working class people packed into townships like Highfields and Glen View that have changed very little since independence.

This means that politically the MDC is pulled between the white bosses and Western governments that heavily influence the party leadership, and the working class base from which it emerged.

After touring Western capitals Tsvangirai returned to Zimbabwe in early December to call off a planned campaign of mass action to drive Mugabe out. The result is that ZANU-PF has regained the initiative. Leaving aside the complicating factor of the Zimbabwean whites, we see a very similar pattern in Ghana. There, discontent over structural adjustment and government corruption has just allowed John Kufuor to defeat Rawlings's anointed successor in the presidential elections.

The fundamental causes of these political upsets are the same as those driving people to protest in the rich countries-the dominance of global capitalism and its inhuman priorities. But because neo-liberal policies were implemented in Africa usually under what amounted to one-party states, the struggle against them has taken the form of movements for democracy. These movements will only be able to break out of the old cycle of repression and corruption if they attack the system itself.

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Sat 13 Jan 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1730
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