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NO MOVEMENT FOR CHANGE OP-ED

A better future for all has been stunted by impoverished options (Part 1)

A better future for all has been stunted by impoverished options (Part 1)
If we want to combat poverty, climate change, social insecurity etc, we need to change the system. Neoliberal capitalism has failed society, writes the author. (Illustration: Freepik)

All those contesting the May elections agree that the ‘better future’ must be ANC-free. Yet they are all wedded, in various ways, to the current economic status quo. No one addresses the call for ‘system change’ that is growing in global popularity as the only alternative to climate change.

Part 1 in a three-part series.

Many a Daily Maverick reader would have been stirred by the optimism of Jon Cherry’s recent Opinionista. “Politics” he writes:

“is no longer the stale domain of old men… It has been transformed into a dynamic landscape of relevant discourse where the true dreams, needs and ideas of young people carry weight and where new images of the future that resonate with the world’s forward trajectory are fit for purpose and worthy of support.”

“What we need,” he notes:

“are … options … grounded in a worldview that thinks about the future in a fresh, creative way. A party that is excited about ‘what could be’ and aims to create the conditions under which we can explore those possibilities”.

I suspect many a reader would have responded to this with their variation of “amandla!”

There is unfortunately a “but”. His prime role model is Barack Obama, who promised much but delivered little from those before and after him.

Impoverished options

There is a striking unanimity among South African commentators about a “melange of manifestos, but no easy walk to economic freedom”, as one of them, Abba Omar, put it. He drew attention to the promise of millions of new jobs featuring in many of the party promises. These varied from two million (DA), to 2.5 million work opportunities (ANC). ActionSA promised 4.8 million, the MK party five million, and the EFF topped the numbers game with 5.2 million.

In keeping with what Omar calls all these “fantastical” claims, Stephen Grootes predicts that the May elections won’t offer much that is new because “our society is resilient to quick changes”.

With a focus on the May elections, GroundUp has published a series of articles about the various policies of the major political parties beginning with social grants. It sent a selection of pertinent questions to the ANC, DA, EFF, IFP, FF Plus, ActionSA, PA, MK party and Rise Mzansi. There was no response from the ANC, EFF, IFP and MK.

The answers given by the other parties were linked by a common theme: economic growth was a prerequisite to making the social grants affordable and sustainable. Corruption figured as a common obstacle to meeting welfare needs. So, too, was the need to cut waste, generate savings and replace the ANC.

Rise Mzansi presents itself as being different from all the others. Yet it would means-test the basic income grant rather than making it a universal one. It rejected the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant of R350 per month as being insufficient and “unsustainable”, while also being “a poor substitute for meaningful jobs”. It pledged its government would “actively work to develop and implement changes necessary to grow the economy” but without any analysis of what those changes might be or why the economy is stuck in its present plight (see here and here).

A recent survey of voters found that respondents placed rolling blackouts (85.5%), corruption (83%) and crime (79.8%) as their main concerns. All political parties pledge themselves to addressing these issues and, to do so, in much the same way.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections hub

It is with good reason that Jon Cherry laments:

“Nothing has changed; it’s the same tired rhetoric as before. … It’s unclear as to why the various political parties even exist as separate options …. All of them have the same offering; a dramatic promise to unseat ‘the painfully flawed incumbent’. The only discernible differentiator between them is a different old face.”

“How is it”, he asks, “that a country … so blessed with human creativity; … an inspiring history bristling with pioneering leaders, who against all odds, envisaged and created better futures, doesn’t appear to have what it takes to put together a picture of the future that we can all believe in… and vote to bring into existence?”

All the many political parties and independents contesting the May elections, along with their media supporters, agree that the “better future” must be ANC-free. Yet they are all wedded, in various ways, to the current economic status quo. No one addresses the call for “system change” that is growing in global popularity as the only alternative to climate change.

Stephen Grootes pertinently asks: “Why is the unbearable cost of living not an obvious political weapon for 2024 election campaigns?” He will probably be pleased to know that the “system” needing change is at least amenable to reform.

Immediate reform, not revolution

(The constraints on this article, despite Daily Maverick’s generosity in allowing for longer than usual contributions, precludes elaboration of many of the issues to be covered.)

Grootes answers his own question about why the cost of living hasn’t been politicised, with the suggestion that “because no single party has a comprehensive workable solution to our (economic] crisis”.

There is a simple solution, however: Abolish neoliberalism. “Neo” what you may well ask?

The nameless thing that shapes all our lives

In an article in The Guardian, which merits reading in full, George Monbiot notes:

“The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. … Even if you… have heard the term before, (you) will struggle to define it. … Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power… the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has — or had — a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly? … The anonymity of neoliberalism is fiercely guarded. Those who are influenced by (its theoreticians) tend to reject the term, maintaining — with some justice — that it is used today only pejoratively. But they offer us no substitute.”

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan first brought this nameless ideology to global attention in 1979 and 1980 respectively. But it didn’t miraculously drop from the sky.

The post-World War 2 period, mainly in Europe, was an electoral high mark for the left. This resulted in hitherto unimagined concessions to the lives of most people, workers as well as non-workers. It also coincided with the most prosperous time in US history, and other developed European countries.

We are all Keynesians now”, President Richard Nixon famously declared after his New Economic Plan was unveiled in 1971. (Keynes advocated government intervention to stimulate the demand not being produced by the “market”.)

The oil crisis of 1973 brought this prosperity to an abrupt end. The guaranteed economic demand — created by both the reconstruction of war-damaged Europe and US dollars — came to an end. The nanny state, along with its strangulation of the mysterious market and excessive power of trade unions in Britain, were held responsible for this economic downturn.

It was time to draw back the concessions won by the trade unions. It was time to give back to capital and “the market” their previously enjoyed freedom. No longer would a Tory prime minister speak of the “unacceptable face of capitalism”, as Edward Heath did in 1973.

Neoliberalism is now capitalism’s acceptable face. Its anonymity allows it to be capitalism on steroids. Further facilitating this unrestrained capitalism is that it’s a capitalism free of the shackles of both an external challenge by the Soviet Union and China and an internal challenge by any meaningful socialist party or militant trade unions. Being the latest, and dominant, though unrecognised, form of capitalism allows for the survival of a capitalism, shorn of its neoliberal baggage. Hence the possibility of (limited) capitalist reform.

Neoliberalism’s defining features

Neoliberalism — as used almost exclusively by the left — includes as its main characteristics, the following: (They are in no particular order, since they all interact with each other):

  • Competition, allegedly being a defining feature of human behaviour, thus shapes economic activity;
  • The “market” is supreme and ensures that everyone gets what they deserve;
  • Tax reductions to facilitate economic growth;
  • Wealth creation benefits everyone as it “trickles down” to the benefit of everybody;
  • The free movement of capital to enter and leave all countries worldwide;
  • Free trade benefits all countries because it is a universal good;
  • Trade unions and collective bargaining are market distortions because they interfere with free competition;
  • Privatisation and outsourcing of, ideally, all public services provided by all levels of the state, from national to municipal and everything in between, including services covering energy, water, health, education, transport, roads, prisons, and, in the US, some war functions;
  • De-regulation as an essential part of a free market;
  • Export-led growth, particularly in the so-called developing countries;
  • Market dominance (otherwise known as monopolies) seen as a reward for efficiency and management excellence in a competitive market;
  • A small state, as a consequence of privatisation and privileging the market; and
  • Financialisation — when investing in money is more profitable than investing in production, usually referred to as the “real economy”.

Two additional points must be added to these 13 characteristics. One is a consequence; the other a precondition, warranting being covered on its own: Internalisation and reproduction of neoliberalism’s creeds.

Monbiot observes:

The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit. … The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances. … In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers”.

Neoliberalism’s creeds apply to both winners and losers when it comes to contributing to “epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia”.

As a reminder of neoliberalism’s pre-1979 capitalist aetiology, recall that it was Scottish historian, Thomas Carlyle, who, in 1840, wrote about human relationships giving way to the “cash payment (as) the sole nexus between man and man” and that it was in 1966 that the song “Money makes the world go round” became a mass hit in various parts of the world.

The precondition of the political economy of capitalism

Such is the worldwide closeness between oil and gas companies that The Guardian’s global Environment Editor, Jonathan Watts, attributed that closeness to government capture. He says nothing further about how this supposed capture came about worldwide or how and why it has endured for centuries.

More accurate than capture, in my view, would be to describe the relationship between business and politicians as a political-economy marriage found in all capitalist societies. The more the couple support and protect each other, the more stable the society.

This symbiosis is well illustrated in a recent headline: “Polluting Sasol off the hook”, thanks to Environment Minister Barabara Creecy upholding Sasol’s appeal on how its plant emissions are measured.

Despite Secunda’s reputation as the world’s largest single-point emitter of greenhouse gas and the emissions now being far above minimum legal limits, Creecy’s decision resulted in the greatest surge in Sasol shares in the 18 months since November 2022.

A specific form of the marriage in South Africa arises from the apartheid background of today’s nouveau riche — Nelson Mandela’s “non-European bourgeois class” and former President Thabo Mbeki’s black bourgeoisie. Mbeki noted, in 1999, that:

“Personal wealth and the public communication of the message that we are people of wealth… communicate[s] the message that we are worthy citizens of our community, the very exemplars of what defines the product of a liberated South Africa …. (For the black bourgeoisie) personal success and fulfilment means personal enrichment at all costs and the most theatrical and striking public display of that wealth (is needed to prove that) each one of us is as excellent a human being as our demonstrated wealth suggests!”

Daily Maverick’s writers, Ferial Haffajee and Vincent Cruywagen, were both understandably horrified by cash-strapped City of Johannesburg splurging on bodyguards and luxury cars for its VIPs. But these VIPs have merely embraced the black national creed of wealth being the measure of success, as the antidote to the apartheid idea of black inferiority. (This is lost on Marius Oosthuizen who attributes the compulsion for wealth to greed in a recent Daily Maverick article.)

Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the corruption-accused and recently resigned Speaker of the House of Assembly highlights the chasm between the new black bourgeoisie and the people they claim to represent. When applying for bail, she didn’t hesitate to damn South African prisons as being an unsafe and unhealthy place for (by implication) a person of her standing. She could say this with a straight face despite having been the minister of correctional services for some three years; being a member of the Cabinet from 2004 to 2021 and the Speaker since August 2021.

Finally, Cabinet members being well-entrenched members of the rich, naturally identify with the rich and its class interests. Hence, Malema not knowing the price of white bread, the staple of the poor.

African representivity is no longer of “our people” but of the multi-racial privileged. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    “But these VIPs have merely embraced the black national creed of wealth being the measure of success, as the antidote to the apartheid idea of black inferiority.”

    This statement makes it sound like our politicians had no choice but to become corrupt, that the current corruption is a natural progression due to apartheid and that the poor ANC cadres are not to blame for their greed. This is exactly the kind of bad excuse we need to push against.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      I’d rather say it’s a measure of their tribal backgrounds, where they all want to be kings or chiefs, while the rest of the rabble live in poverty. But of course you’re not allowed to say that are you. It’s always ‘apartheid’ isn’t it, not barefaced greed.

    • Sihle Sigwebela says:

      It’s more saying that their corrupt actions are the result of societal expectations being pursued in immoral ways.

      Rudin neither absolves nor blames corrupt politicians for their actions

  • Skinyela Skinyela says:

    The late Professor Sampie Terreblanche was ahead of his time.

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