OP-ED

Writing the 2019 Election: Everyone look busy, the Capitalist Party is coming

By Ismail Lagardien 25 March 2019
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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The Capitalist Party of South Africa have tied their colours to an almost paleo-conservative ideological trend embodied mainly by the tea-party movement in the USA, by Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Viktor Orban of Hungary, and more extreme right-wing movements in Europe – to whom freedom has a very unique meaning.

Last week saw the launch of the Capitalist Party of South Africa (ZACP). Say that acronym fast and you may be forgiven for sounding as if you’re referring to the South African Communist Party. The Capitalist Party also registered with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), and would like to go to Parliament.

The launch of the ZACP is at once audacious and courageous (at least for its nomenclature), honest (for its unflinching ideological statement), curious (for its historical naiveté), irrelevant (everyone in Parliament does capitalism in some way or another – even the Economic Freedom Fighters), and a little amusing. Let us deal with the part that’s amusing first.

Anyone who has followed electoral politics, especially in the United States, may have heard persistent iterations of statements like “I am not a politician” which is usually followed by assinities like “I’m going to Washington to drain the swamp”. This is usually associated with more conservative or right-wing politicians and their followers. The claim draws on the idea that candidates who are “not politicians” have better “business sense” and would, therefore, deliver better outcomes. One Trump loyalist summed this up in the following way.

What appeals to me about …. Donald Trump, is the fact that he’s not part of the political system. He’s a businessman, like myself… I think it’s high time that we have someone in the White House that can understand the way the business world operates and make it part of the governmental part of our country to make it operate. We can operate our government like a business.”

This anti-establishment tendency (which has echoes on ersatz leftist parties like the EFF and the Black First Land First movement) defines populist rightist politicians like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Trump and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, who are “sent to Parliament to drain the swamp.”

We have the position, then, where leaders of the ZACP, notably the businessman Kanthan Pillay, are proud of the fact that they are not politicians, that they have no political baggage, but expect people to vote for them so that they can become politicians. Hard to figure that one out. It is amusing, though.

We’re capitalists and we’re proud of it

Extending the “we are not capitalist” (ergo we know better) meme, Pillay pointed out last week that “politicians have turned capitalism into a swearword. They make us guilty for working hard to improve our lives. And this guilt allows them to steal money from hard-working families and use the money for corruption.”

There are way too many EFF-isms (especially the logical fallacies and emotive appeals on behalf of “hard-working families”) in that expression. But, there is a skosh of truth in Pillay’s sentiment. Capitalism does tend to be something of a swearword for its association with greed, for its reproduction of inequality and for the way it has (historically) exploited labour, communities, biospheres, eco-systems and the environment, in general.

Capitalist innovation has, of course, given us great technological achievements. But let’s play with a counterfactual here. We cannot say, with absolute certainty, that we would not have had smartphones or satellite navigation systems in a non-capitalist society. Consider if only for amusement (but in all seriousness) the Soviet Union’s pioneering achievements in rocket and space exploration. (See the books, In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility. Into That Silent Sea, Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965 by Francis French and Colin Burgess). I make this point only to demonstrate that capitalism cannot make a totalising claim about progress – technological or otherwise. This is not an endorsement of Soviet Communism.

Capitalism Resuscitation, not the other CPR

The ZACP’s creation, and its apparent CPR (capitalism resuscitation, that is) comes at an interesting time in history. There are increasingly fewer scholars and thinkers around the world – those of note, anyway – who believe that capitalism, as we know it, has any future. You do not have to be a Marxist determinist to believe that capitalism is doomed. The only thing that remains uncertain is whether what will follow will be a Mary Shelley beast, a post-capitalist technology utopia, or a more dystopian world…. In the meantime, a great deal of work is going into preparing for whatever may come.

Capitalism as we know it is over…. We’re transitioning rapidly to a radically different global economy, due to our increasingly unsustainable exploitation of the planet’s environmental resources and the shift to less efficient energy sources,” Nafeez Ahmed explained in a report on how scientists at the United Nations are “preparing for the end of capitalism”.

That the ZACP wants to apply CPR to the dying monster is cute, though, and a little amusing. If only because everyone but the ZACP is preparing for a post-capitalism world.

We’re all capitalists, now

That sub-heading is misleading. It’s a reference, in part, to a statement, “we are all capitalists now”, by Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the central bank, to the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee in 2006. (If you have a subscription, see the report by Guy de Jonquières, “Comrades, set the renminbi free” published in the Financial Times on 15 May 2006). It is also an acknowledgement that everything in our lives in shaped by or dominated by capitalism. The following is an extract of a column published in Business Day on 26 September 2018.

Voluntarily or involuntarily, we are all complicit in sustaining capitalism. The clothes we wear. The food we eat. Our houses. Our children’s education. The books we read. The highlighter we use to mark those vital passages. The lipstick we wear. The stent in our artery. The bank where we save our money. The medication we buy to loosen that phlegm. The burial policy. The life insurance. The retirement annuity. The satellite TV that is piped into our homes. The microfibre that holds together the shirt of our favourite football team. The cigarettes we smoke. The ATM. Our social media platforms. Our new cellphone…. to deny all of this means we’re either blind or we’re deceiving ourselves.”

The ZACP should, therefore, have no problems in Parliament – should they get any seats in the legislature. There is, of course, the performance anti-capitalism that the EFF will, no doubt, provide. This, too, would be amusing if the EFF and BLF were not so very dangerous.

The Fallacies of Freedom

The ZACP have tied their colours to a paleo-conservative ideological trend embodied mainly by the tea-party movement, by Trump and Bolsonaro, and by the more extreme right-wing movement in Europe – to whom freedom has a very unique meaning. See, for instance, the American Freedom Defence Initiative led by Pamela Geller, recipient of the Guardian of Freedom award by Federation of Republican Women in the USA.

The ZACP glibly tosses into its gruel the phrase liberté, égalité, fraternité (French for liberty, equality and fraternity). The first point that can be made here is that liberty can come into confrontation with equality – especially in a country with extreme levels of inequality that are not “natural” outcomes. Liberty really means you can be as free as you wish, and free to be better or worse off than the next person, without any sense of compunction. Then there is the problem with knowing very little about big things…. Liberté, égalité, fraternité is the national motto of France, a fairly democratic republic with high levels of prosperity, democracy and trust (though imperfect), but it is also the motto of Haiti.

If you will indulge the diversion, dear reader, the following passage sums up just how desperate life in Haiti is, and how the best of mottos and slogans mean very little in the face of natural or human disasters.

Haiti has had slavery, revolution, debt, deforestation, corruption, exploitation and violence… Now it has poverty, illiteracy, overcrowding, no infrastructure, environmental disaster and large areas without the rule of law.”

I guess the point that needs to be raised is that you cannot wish freedom into existence. And then there is the ZACP’s economic policy, or what is apparent. It rests on things like “free markets” and free trade, limited government and deregulation. Here one wants to remain distant, but intellectually honest (without pretending to be “objective”). The ZACP, like the Free Market Foundation and other liberals, “classic” or otherwise, would help their case if they provided evidence of where or when over the past, say, 120 years there has been a place or time when markets and trade were absolutely free. The last time I recall the only country that had near complete free markets and no government intervention was Somalia.

In sum, then, the Capitalists Party is coming. Everyone in Parliament should probably pretend to be busy, because non-politicians want to become politicians and bring fully costed practical solutions to South Africa’s myriad problems. DM

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