Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Working class hero

If one takes a good look at John Lennon’s song Working Class Hero it must dawn on you sooner or later that, just like the song Imagine, it is powerfully revolutionary. In addition to targeting the family, school, college or university (Althusser’s apparatuses where ideology is inculcated in subjects), and the class structure of society, it unabashedly promotes the best kind of anarchism. By this I mean anarchism in the philosophical sense of the unavoidably iconoclastic will to practice a mode of living that rejects the need for “government” of any kind, and to live in a manner where all can live and work together in peace, without all the hierarchies that cause pain and personal dysfunction.

I can just hear some readers exclaim: “What a dreamer!” Lennon recognised this, as Imagine testifies, but he adds immediately, “But I’m not the only one … ” Indeed, he is/was not the only one. Many people, myself included, are so sick of exploitative corporations and governments — there is hardly a distinction between them these days — that we would gladly “follow” Lennon, as he exhorts us to do in the last line of this song:

As soon as you’re born they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all
A working class hero is something to be

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school
They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool
Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules
A working class hero is something to be

When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see
A working class hero is something to be

There’s room at the top they’re telling you still
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
If you want to be like the folks on the hill

A working class hero is something to be
If you want to be a hero well just follow me…

What has led me to reflecting on this forceful song is, first, listening to Jacob Zuma appealing to South Africans to accept e-tolls, and second, watching the truly shocking documentary on the 2008 financial crisis directed by Charles Ferguson and narrated by Matt Damon, Inside Job (2010). Both were sickening to hear and see. How Zuma can expect all the South Africans who use Gauteng’s roads to cough up the additional amounts of money that e-tolls would require, is beyond me. Just as it is beyond me that the ANC is willing to sacrifice the beautiful Karoo to the fracking oil companies. Skills development and our energy needs just don’t cut it at a time when pursuing alternative energy sources should be imperative, especially when they are available to those who would develop the requisite technology to harness something like sun energy.

Not everyone has a business executive’s free fuel and/or expense account, or a government official, minister or president’s mostly free transportation (blue lights and all). Judging by the exorbitant amount of tax we pay in this country, these roads should be funded through all the forms of tax we have to fork out — PAYE, VAT, levies built into the petrol price, import tax and so on. Just this morning I paid for repairs on my partner’s car, and the amount added to the workshop bill in the shape of VAT was staggering. I would bet the proverbial farm that NOT all the tax flowing into the government’s coffers is used on truly essential things like roads (many of which are already funded by tolls).

And judging by the condition of some “national” roads, which I travelled recently, Zuma’s gratuitous remark during his e-toll apologist effort — to the effect that we should not compare ourselves to African countries like Malawi (implying, no doubt, that they are backward compared to our “magnificent” economy) — was not only in extremely poor taste, but also disingenuous: many of our roads are every bit as bad as anywhere in the world.

But I am not at all surprised — the present top echelon of ANC leaders have clearly completely forgotten what their organisation stood for while engaged in the liberation struggle. Chris Hani would be ashamed of them, given their crass materialism, their unashamed pursuit of material wealth above all, with scant regard for their people, many of who are still languishing in poverty. (Just think of Marikana.)

Our political “leaders” seem to be modelling themselves on the likes of the business executives so soundly unmasked as unscrupulously exploitative in the award-winning documentary Inside Job. The film has been described as bristling with restrained anger, which is a recommendation in my book, if one recalls that, in Plato’s anthropology, anger was regarded as a manifestation of spirit, one of the three components of the human soul (the other two being passion and reason).

And indeed, anyone who can view this film about the brazen, reckless, self-enriching (but ordinary people-destroying) actions of investment bankers in the US and NOT get angry, has no spirit in the Platonic sense (which entails its harmonious functioning in conjunction with reason and passion). The film, which has also won accolades for its thorough research of the complex intertwinement of many economic and political strands in the aetiology of a crisis which has not, to this day, run its course, exposes the “systemic corruption” of America’s economy by an out-of-control, self-serving “financial services” industry.

It is telling that nothing like this happened during the 40 years, until 1980, when the American financial industry was regulated. With exquisite pacing, the film uncovers the incremental undermining of financial-economic stability by investment banks such as Goldman-Sachs and Morgan Stanley, as their financial adventurousness, enabled by deregulation, turned into recklessness for the sake of multiplying their profits.

The whole complicated process, involving a system of CDOs (collateralised debt obligations) and CDSs (credit default swaps) cannot be reconstructed here; suffice it to say that what started with the subprime housing crisis eventually spread to the banks, when the market for CDOs collapsed — unsurprisingly, given that many people were given loans they could not repay, while banks continued speculating for profit, betting against the very CDOs they sold to investors by buying CDSs as insurance.

To cut a long story short, the lines from Lennon’s song, “There’s room at the top they’re telling you still, But first you must learn how to smile as you kill … if you want to be like the folks on the hill” seem chillingly appropriate when Matt Damon’s voice informs you that, despite the earnings of investment bank executives, as well as of people like Hank Paulsen of the Federal Reserve Bank amounting to millions every year, they got off with their earnings intact.

Ordinary Americans were not that fortunate, though. Millions of them lost their homes and ended up, if they were lucky, living in tent towns. Moreover, of the $700 billion taxpayers’ funds that George Bush Jr handed to the banks as bail-out money, millions were given to top executives as bonuses. And to date — even during Barack Obama’s presidency — none of these individuals have been prosecuted. It is truly time to “follow” John Lennon, and rid the world of cynical rulers and businessmen. It is within the democratic power of people, but what would it take for them to realise this?

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    • Garg Unzola

      Oddly, the etoll system with its etags was devised by Jeremy Cronin and his cronies who tried to convince themselves (and now us) that it’s based on a Robin Hood idea. Just tax those rich folks, or middle class folks, in order to build this beautiful road for the working class. We’re going to absolve the working class from paying, so ultimately it’s robbing from the rich to give to the poor.

      The longer in the tooth their story gets, the more poor and defenceless groups of people are chosen to be absolved from paying, because ultimately, their ideology has led them to believe there are some extremely wealthy people using the roads every day who won’t feel the pinch to pay for the road infrastructure development that should have been and could have been paid from fuel levies already collected.

      Note that the regulations here are completely in favour of the etolling system. It’s legal.

      Also worth noting – for a balanced view on regulation in general – how regulations lead to the mid 80s savings and loans crisis.

      John Lennon’s lyrics here are open to interpretation – more so than Imagine’s lyrics. I much prefer Frank Zappa, who not only lamented what society did to people, but advocated that people go to libraries instead.

    • Daniel from Bolo’bolo

      Hi Prof. Olivier

      I’m part of a group of those best sort of anarchists that run a non-profit infoshop in Observatory, Cape Town.

      One of the things we do is print our own independent anarchist newspaper. We started this up recently and it’s going well so far. Here’s a link to our first edition, for your interest:

      If you’re interested at all in writing something for us, while we won’t be able to put you in the next edition which is going to the presses sometime this week, we’d love for you to write something for the following edition.

      So please contact me: [email protected]

    • http://none Richard Becker

      The money sent to Austria to pay for the e-toll collection system will be out of sight and out of mind, but part of it will, for sure, go into some South African fat cats’ Swiss bank accounts. That is the only reason a levy is not put on petrol.

    • J9

      Zuma’s support and approval of e-tolls does not surprise me, because us “working class heros ” will only reap the effects of their financial greed. I am also “sick of exploitative corporations and governments”, as you stated. Although I am not “languishing in poverty”, I am aware of and feel the financial pressure, because of “fat cats” exploiting us. My reason being:
      I am a teacher, currently employed by the Department of Education. I did not recieve ONE CENT for last year’s work and I am not going to get that money, apparently…… I am currently a relieve-teacher (at a different school) for a lady who went on maternity leave.I started in Jan and my contract ends in less than a month i.e. 15 November. I have still not recieved ANY remuneration for my services this year. There are always a million and one reasons as to why I have not been payed yet.
      I am just wondering how the “fat cats” in the Department will “survive” without a salary for 10 months??!! Not to mention last year’s money….. No fancy dinners, transport and over-seas’ trpis……. I wish that we, as the “working class heros” can stand up against exploitation!!!!

    • Paul Whelan

      The trouble with Mr Lennon’s ‘Imagine … It isn’t hard to do …’ is exactly that: it is very hard to do unless you are prepared to suspend reason and depend on imagination alone. That, of course, is the privilege and one of the contributions of artists and art.

    • Maria

      @ Daniel and J9: Welcome to the fastest-growing fraternity in the world – more or less corresponding to what Hardt and Negri have dubbed “multitude” – those whose solidarity lies in their “common” resistance to the forces of Empire, or the capitalist states (the unholy alliance between corporations and the world’s ruling political elites). As Keith Hart observes in the book Bert discussed in his earlier post, the present global situation resembles the one in pre-revolutionary France of the 18th century, where discontent on the part of the people eventually triggered the French revolution. No one wants a bloody revolution today; instead, if a revolution would occur in the hearts and minds of incrementally more and more people, the sheer force of democracy would rid the world of those who use money and technology (think NSA) to exploit and oppress the masses. As my favourite Slovenian philosopher said recently, people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are the new heroes.

    • Paul Whelan

      Maria – Everyone will draw their own conclusions from history, but it is worth pointing out that the ‘trigger’ of the French Revolution was not some spontaneous movement among ‘the people’, who one can confidently say had always been discontented or not, depending on the harvest and other mundane bounties or hardships in any given year.

      It was the calling of the States General, a body that had not met for well over 150 years. The monarchy was bust and needed to call in other interests in society that had been sidelined during a century and a half of ‘absolutism’. That naturally gave those (and other) interests huge and newfound leverage in a volatile situation. It is impossible to draw parallels, of course, but calling the SG would have been somewhat similar perhaps to de Klerk unbanning the ANC when he did, the trigger of SA’s ‘revolution’. Things then took their course from there.

      I would mention also that there is no reason to trust that ‘the multitude’ exists because some theorists say it does. All abstractions, like ‘class’, ‘proletariat’, ‘Jewish influence’ and fairies at the bottom of the garden are no more likely to be causative than unlikely.

      We are surrounded by such claims. The most popular today is that the cellphone and social media have ‘transformed democracy’. Well, have they? Or simply moved it on?

      I feel this won’t be of interest, but here it is anyway: http://paulwhelanwriting.blogspot

    • Paul Whelan
    • Rene

      Bravo, Maria! Encore!

    • Maria

      Paul, read Hardt and Negri’s Multitude, if you have not; they reconstruct the situation in pre-revolutionary France very clearly, and draw the parallels with today in a persuasive manner. Their notion of “multitude” differs from the “proletariat”, the “masses”, the “workers”, etc., and cuts across classes, cultures, races, gender, countries, and professions. It is a properly poststructuralist concept, in that it accommodates the particular and the universal at the same time, making room for the “singular” and the “common”. That’s where their originality lies; they are no ordinary theorists.

    • Gary Koekemoer

      Imagine all the people just said “no”?

    • Garg Unzola

      Certainly, Snowden and Madding are heroes, but their doings are perfectly in line with transparency and accountability. They only managed to be heroes as a result of their technological skills. The only way to prevent being ruled by the NSA and the like is by employing similar technical skills. Globalisation at work, setting information free and in tune with those enlightenment values that brought us the rise of the Industrial Revolution and such indefensible capitalist values such as the private ownership of labour and property and the sovereignty of the individual.

      It is also worth nothing what eventually became of the French Revolution and how it set the stage for Napoleon’s imperial monarchy. A happening where primates exchanging excrement missiles for more potent ones is hardly a cause for celebration, as intoxicating as it may be. Revolutions hardly ever achieve their ideals.

    • Paul Whelan

      Maria – I do intend to get round to H&N one day – it’s a matter of finding time – and I am sure you and I would have many spirited discussions. But I fear we would never agree. I can no more be a Marxist than I would be, or have been, a Rosicrucian, Latitudinarian, Anabaptist, Scholastic, Stoic or follower of Akhenaten – given the choice, that is. (Well, no, actually, I might have managed Stoicism.)

      Ideology really is not my thing. Though I am too sceptical to be entirely convinced about it, still I feel ideas explain history a good deal less than the other way around.

    • Paul Whelan

      ‘spirited’ discussions, Maria, rather than ‘spinted’ ones. It’s impossible to correct all autocorrect’s corrections.

    • Paul Whelan

      @Garg – Actually, revolutions never achieve their ideals – you’ve put your finger on it.

      No revolution can achieve its ideals or clearly perfect social justice would also have been achieved and everyone would be content: no further change would be necessary or take place. Revolutions are just violent episodes amid a general process of evolution or, if you prefer, change.

    • Garg Unzola

      Change is good, but let’s not mince words:

      “Revolution is not a dinner party, nor an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” ~ Mao Zedong.

      The ends never justify the means. Revolutions are as you say violent episodes. The imminent threat of revolution is a poor substitute for an argument. It doesn’t legitimise the use of violence, nor does it bolster the arguments many may present in favour of change. And revolutions are not effective in meeting its ends anyway.

      So let’s stop reforming other people’s habits at the barrel of a gun and let’s see if we can do this cooperation thing within the monkeysphere.

    • Maria

      Sure change is good; like the change that the article linked here suggests: teach students DIFFERENT economics theories – not those flawed ones that led to the 2008 crash. And please note, the speakers referred to in this piece are no numbskulls. They are prominent economists, teaching at one of the revered academic institutions of the world.

    • Bert

      Here is an interesting article forwarded to me by a friend. It is related to what I’ve written here, albeit ‘indirectly’. I hope the writer is correct; if he/she is, the might of the banks may just decline significantly!

    • Garg Unzola

      Absolutely correct, though I won’t say that prominent economists aren’t necessarily numbskulls

    • Paul Whelan

      Maria, Garg and generally – It is arguable whether change is good: change may be bad.

      Change will only always be good if you believe there is a Purpose in history, if you take an evolutionary view of events. That Purpose would also need to be benevolent for all change to be good – ie contributing to some ultimately good outcome.

      That is why I drew a distinction between evolution and change above, though that too, of course, is arguable.

    • Gary Koekemoer

      At it’s very basic level revolutions serve to replace one dominant way of seeing the world with another, some do it with violence and noise, some do it with machines and technology, some do it quietly on the side. The French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, Computers, Family structures (the move away from the traditional) are all “revolutions”of a kind. They can never work, in the sense of “lived happily ever after”, rather they in turn impose their own new framework and must therefore in time be prone to failing and become subject to a new revolution. Thus the point of a “revolution” in my humble view is not that it solves all ills, but that it brings about change, for something to live it must be imperfect, as soon as it attains perfection it loses it’s will to live and dies…

    • Garg Unzola

      Good and bad are value judgements, they are subjective. Evolution is not directed. There’s no such thing as evolution with eugenic effect and devolution with dysgenic effect.

      But point taken: Change does not always lead to desired effects. And it’s quite possible to change from bad to worse too.

    • Bert

      The best way to understand revolution is in terms of Hegel’s dialectic, where one state of affairs reaches saturation, as it were – often accompanied by gross injustices – and provokes its own antithesis in the process. Then the antithesis-become-synthesis develops until it, too, reaches a point of saturation, provoking a new antithesis, etc. The interesting thing is that each ‘new’ position contains, in sublated (aufgehobene) form, everything that has gone before. The reason why a revolution is in the offing, today, is that the present dispensation is approaching saturation state, again, and must sooner or later be replaced by its antithesis, which will, for a time, at least, strive to bring justice where all the present injustices exist. It’s no use (although understandable) for the present ‘capitalist states’ to believe that it will not have to make way for something different; it WILL happen. If you look back at history, Hegel’s dialectical pattern fits. SA is a good example: The apartheid state was a racial, fascist oligarchy, which provoked its antithesis, namely a (supposedly) non-racial democracy, which happened in 1994. Now, SA’s democracy, which ‘sublated’ (cancelled, ‘uplifted’ and preserved) the preceding elements (under apartheid) in its new synthesis, is again provoking its own ‘democratic’ antithesis, because the ‘fascist’ elements in itself are calling a ‘new’ democracy into being.

    • Garg Unzola

      You say paradigm shift, I say ‘revolution’ is just a buzz word for the cool kids with their commodification of activism.

    • Paul Whelan

      Bert, Garg, Gary et al – The difficulty with Hegel’s dialectic is it implies a destination (which Hegel sets out, of course: the liberal state, or at least the state, being the highest expression of the Spirit or, if you like, Purpose).

      But, as with so many things in thought, there is a paradox, a contradiction here again. Why should any synthesis ever be final? And if it isn’t, in what sense can any ‘mechanism’ be said to be at work and how can there be a meaning or progression in change?

      Is all we are seeing simply random events forever – like life to Macbeth, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’?

      In which case, the long-predicted Revolution when it comes, can only be another (ultimately) meaningless interlude during which the previously disadvantaged take their brief turn.

    • Gary Koekemoer

      I think we wait in vain for the masses to rise up, for some bold sign of salvation, the revolution has arrived quietly, our “1stworld” young people simply live past politics and capital, they inhabit a virtual world in which their identity shifts with each new trend and in so doing the “real” world of poverty and environmental catastrophe is relegated to the realm of the insignificant. Our 3rd world youth, inhabit a very real world of daily subsistence in which hope of positive change does not feature, for to hope would be to believe in the possibility of something better and that distracts from the task of survival. With the youth having opted out or focused on bread crumbs who is left then to lead the next revolution.

    • Paul Whelan

      The idea that the Revolution is coming is not supported by a reading of history.

    • Maria

      @ Paul: Your last remark is not a very sophisticated one, coming from a “historian”. You should know, firstly, that history is not predictable, even if (as Bert pointed out) one can, retrospectively, discern a certain Hegelian dialectical pattern in it. Derrida has a nice phrase for history as it is unfolding, as it were: he calls it a “field of forces”, and every time a historiographer seizes these “forces” interpretively, she/he skews them in one or the other direction. Ever read accounts of a certain historical event that involved more than one nation, say, the American war of independence against Britain, written by US and British historians, respectively? You’d swear they were writing about different events. The reason is simply that historical events are “overdetermined” re their “meaning”. The same goes for the present historical arena – it is easy to make out a case for it bearing down on a revolution, and just as easy to adduce evidence, supposedly, of the absence of a revolution in our common future. You simply cannot predict what will happen, but you can highlight tendencies one way or another. In my reading of these tendencies I’d say that they point towards a “felt need” for revolution, which does not mean it will happen. The power stakes in the world point in a different direction – it would take a lot to upset those at this stage.

    • Paul Whelan

      Maria – I hoped I was pretty clear throughout here (and elsewhere) that history in my view is not predictable and that in that case it cannot be known, but only believed, that the Revolution (or any other event) is coming. Prophets, as we all know, are celebrated for the things they get right, not for those they get wrong, much as I, conversely, would be ‘proved wrong’ if revolution broke out tonight.

      However, if anything supports – note the word – the view that the Revolution is not coming as opposed to its being unavoidable, it is in fact a reading of history – not because history ‘predicts’ such things one way or the other, but because it records countless instances of all such predictions being false.

      One can choose and is entitled to ignore this, of course, as revolutionaries must and do.

    • Garg Unzola

      Perhaps if the focus was on bread crumbs then there would be no felt need for a revolution – imaginary or otherwise.

      This revolution rhetoric is in my mind based on two things: Middle class guilt and the tacit assumption that there is no hope to change one’s own lot by any other means than looting amongst the poor.

      If the revolution comes, I wonder if it will be the same as other revolutions we can speculate over from history: Ultimately just a bloodbath that doesn’t amount to much and a sideshow to the truly effective means of changing the world by means of evolution. Which is to say, slow, incremental change instead of putting your money on another Cambrian explosion.

    • Paul Whelan

      Garg & Gary – It would seem ‘revolution’ is part of life and society no less than ‘stability’ is. Man is a violent as well as social animal which, if Maria will allow me to say so, a reading of history also supports. We may be chasing a will-of-the-wisp trying to explain revolution in all instances and determine its ’causes’. This does not mean we should give up trying, of course.

      In the case of SA, it seems reasonable that a contributory ’cause’ to the current faith in imminent revolution is that the ANC have preached revolution ever since they became the democratically elected government of the country. Everyone is then quite indignant when opportunists like Malema feel licensed actually to take things further. Burning tyres, and worse people, has been going on for more than thirty years here and we wonder that the young pick up bad habits?

      As for your broader point about evolution and revolution, any distinction between them is conditioned by your time scale, both in the end being part of the ongoing process of change. This has been the view of many thinkers, as you know.