Ralph Horwitz: Political Economy of South Africa. Weidenfeld and Nicholson. 63s.

One of the most interesting features of South African capitalism is the ambiguous position of large-scale capital vis-à-vis the white nationalist regime and its ideology. In the book under review, massive evidence is presented to support the assumption of a conflict between the interests of large-scale capital, on the one hand, and those of the white workers and small-scale capital (operating mainly in agriculture) who form the power base of the regime, on the other. The former upholds the supremacy of market forces as a principle of resources allocation and income distribution, while the latter favour an administered capitalist economy directed to preserving their privileges relative to the African population and to improving their bargaining position in dealing with large-scale capital. An analogous situation was illustrated in my article on the Political Economy of Rhodesia (in nlr 39). and it is gratifying to find the assumption further corroborated.

Horwitz’s analysis, however, leaves much to be desired in two respects. In the first place, sufficient emphasis is not given to the fact that the conflict is ‘non-antagonistic’ in the sense that it is marginal to the main interests of the classes in question. These, of course, are centred upon retaining South Africa within the sphere of operation of international capitalism and perpetuating the exploitation of the weak political-economic position of the African majority. Only this marginal character of the conflict can explain the vital economic backing provided to the regime by international capitalism (partly South African based) in spite of the liberal protestations of its representatives.

But the main weakness of the analysis resides in the underlying theme that market mechanisms enhance ‘rationality’. This is questionable at least on two grounds. ‘Economic rationality’ and the rationality of a system are not the same thing. The latter has dimensions other than the ‘economic’. In particular, the rationality of a system must be defined from the standpoint of the various classes that can be defined within that system and their struggle for political-economic power. A more holistic approach would have shown that reliance on market forces can be expected to engender a structure of production, distribution and power that can hardly be defined as rational from the stand-point of the white working class and petty bourgeoisie, or, for that matter, of the semi-proletarianized African peasantry.

Even if we postulate the predominance of the ‘economic’ in defining rationality, it is still questionable whether the administrative impingements on market forces have normally reduced the development potential of the South African economy. From a static, short-time point of view, the assumption may have some validity. However, that the structural transformations of the South African economy, which made its long-term growth possible, would have occurred in the absence of those impingements is something that has to be proved and not taken for granted as Horwitz seems to imply.

These criticisms should not be taken as in any way detracting from the importance of this work. It is refreshing, in an era of alienated social science, to find non-marxist scholars discussing social problems in a historical perspective.