For many people, the current system of global capitalism is not only here to stay, but they might ask why would we want anything else. Capitalism has brought amazing advances in technology that many enjoy every day – smart phones, laptop computers, smart TVs, driverless cars, high speed trains, mega airplanes, medical technologies that save lives, and so on – and has made the world one big marketplace. Life expectancy in many countries, especially advanced capitalist countries, has increased dramatically. Access to basic and tertiary education are hallmarks of the 20th century with the growth in public schools and the spread of universities, funded through taxes. With so many obvious benefits to capitalism, why are we complaining?
This is one side of the story. There is another, darker, side. With the extraordinary accomplishments of advanced capitalism have also come extraordinary negative consequences for the vast majority of people. Poverty, environmental destruction, political instability, increasing unhappiness and loneliness, “surplus populations” eking out lives on the margins, unresponsive governments, and economic uncertainty are all marked features of today’s world. Indeed, large numbers of the world’s population do not enjoy the benefits of the technological advances or have access to the many consumer goods only available to those who can afford them. Instead the world’s poorest regions and poorest peoples bear a disproportionate burden of capitalism’s negative externalities such as the destruction of their habitats and environments through extractive industries, the enclosure of public goods such as land and water through privatisation, and lack of access to the essentials of life such as food, safety, and a home.
The myth of 20th century capitalism – that increasing wealth creation, spreading capitalism to all regions of the globe, and the commodification of everything would lead to rising material conditions of life for everyone – has led to perverse outcomes most vividly registered in extreme forms of inequality seen in every corner of the globe. Indeed, one of the most vexing realities of this system is the persistent inequality that it generates.
South Africa reflects the global trends in the extreme. According to the World Bank, in 2017 South Africa’s economy was the 29th largest in the world with a per capita GDP rate of $6,151.10 (current $ rate), placing it among middle-income economies. At the same time, it registers among the highest inequality rates in the world at .63 in 2015, has seen consistently high unemployment (from 22% in 2008 to 27% in 2018 and a youth unemployment rate of 55% in 2019), and according to Statistics South Africa, approximately half the population lives below the poverty line.
This rising inequality has become one of the central concerns of scholars analysing the causes and consequences of inequality and how current structures of power reproduce inequality. With the focus on causes and consequences, there is less scholarly attention to pathways out of inequality, on the need to develop realistic alternatives and strategies on how to achieve alternative possible futures.
In September 2019 a special issue of the journal Globalizations was dedicated to a collection of essays, written by South African academics and activists, and edited by Wits University Professor of Sociology Michelle Williams that focus on pathways out of inequality, what we call “Transitional Compass”, that look at alternatives and how to reach them. Each essay looks at concrete empirical examples in South Africa.
- Eddie Webster analyses the changing role and power of organised labour particularly in the light of the rise of an informal workforce.
- Hein Marais relooks at the liberatory possibilities of the idea of a Universal Basic Income Grant in an era of permanent unemployment.
- Vishwas Satgar and Jane Cherry argue for new approaches to food sovereignty in the context of the climate crisis.
- Michelle Williams compares the experience of participatory democracy in women’s organising in South Africa and Kerala, India.
- Mark Heywood looks at the transformative power, but also the fault-lines of social justice movements in South Africa.
- Devan Pillay urges activists to think outside the traditional ideologies of the left and advocate for new systems and schemes for measuring human development based on well-being and happiness, rather than narrow economic “values” such as gross domestic product (GDP).
The basic assumption of the transitional compass is that inequality and the other negative consequences of advanced capitalism require anti-capitalist politics, practices, and vision. However, to envision a post-capitalist world requires ideas about how to get there. We argue that any anti-capitalist alternative will be built within, alongside, and beyond capitalism. Fundamental to building these alternatives is building counter-power that is able to challenge the formidable concentration of power within corporations and their states.
Based on their case studies, the Transitional Compass research group converges around a few key themes: new organising methods, innovative organisational forms, the importance of the state and legal framework, and the importance of utopian visions. The last of these refers to imaginings grounded in lived experience and actual struggles expressing a desire for alternative ways of sustaining life. Through these four axes, the cases seek to engender, exercise and engage various forms of power. Together the cases provide a transitional compass(es) that highlight humanistic principles, egalitarian values, democratic practices, and a belief in human solidarity. In a world that sees so much misery, the metaphor of compass seems especially appropriate as an instrument to help us find our direction.
Finding a transitional compass requires looking at movements, initiatives, and politics that move beyond protest politics to what we call generative politics, a politics that focuses its energy on building the alternatives in what we call the “interstitial spaces” (an interstice is a small or narrow space between things) in and around capitalism.
Central to this focus is the issue of power. While power underpins all social relations, it is often taken for granted or completely overlooked as it is often hidden behind other social relations. The essays locate the sources of alternative forms of power found in resistance to dominant forms of power. In looking for pathways out of inequality, the writers highlight a number of cases that are pioneering innovative practices, novel visions, and fundamental rethinking of old ways in the various attempts to move beyond the messy reality of today’s conditions. The cases that they describe demonstrate attempts to create forms of power in the interest of the poor and working class (sometimes called the “subaltern classes”).
Transitional compass: lessons to draw
There are a few important lessons that we can draw from the various experiments in and proposals for challenging inequality.
First, many of the experiences are pioneering new organisational forms. The era of monolithic mass movements is over, and new organisational forms from worker advice centres, to NGO and community-based organising, to networks of small organisations demonstrate that there are new forms emerging each with its strengths and weaknesses.
Second, many of the cases demonstrate new forms of creative organising that builds associational and movement power through symbolic struggles over defining legitimate social interests. A number of the organising activities in our cases have looked to the legal system to creatively build new forms of power, demonstrating the importance of pushing the state in progressive directions through legal legitimacy. Tied to these organising methods is the concerted effort to use media creatively in order to get the counter-narratives into the public realm.
Third, the experiments demonstrate the importance of the state. While corporations have been able to influence the state to pursue their interests, any challenge to inequality must also move the state to act in ways that protect society. The efforts to reshape or refocus the state to create policy, laws, and plans that ensure public goods, society-centred food regimes, protecting the environment, and workers’ rights to better, more secure, well-remunerated jobs are central in finding a transitional compass. Democratic systemic reforms are central for generative alternatives, transformative justice, and institutionalising new systemic logics that transform state, economy, society, and ecological relations.
Finally, the importance of envisioning a future beyond the present cannot be understated. Utopian imaginations are vital to begin to build the future we hope to create that moves beyond capitalism that depends on environmentally destructive fossil fuels. It requires us to rethink our fundamental organising principles and to value human life, dignity and equality as the place where social relations must begin. The South African philosopher and activist Rick Turner who was murdered by apartheid police in 1977 was right: utopian thinking is a necessity. It is the first step to building the future we hope to one day live in.
The full essay is available here. MC
Michelle Williams is Professor of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Johannesburg, South Africa and is chairperson of the Global Labour University Programme (GLU) at Wits (2010 to present). She has published widely on democracy, development, gender and South-South comparisons.
Vishwas Satgar is an associate professor of international relations and principal investigator for emancipatory futures studies at Wits. He edits the Democratic Marxism series, chairs the board of the Cooperative and Policy Alternative Centre and is a co-founder of the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and the Climate Justice Charter process.