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The libertarians have won a battle – but death will win the war


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

There is no example, anywhere in the world or in the history of the past 100 years, of what South Africa, or any other country faces with the Covid-19 pandemic. This is what is so hard for the economy-first brigadistas to understand. When the deaths pile up, they won’t have to pick up the bill.

The Democratic Alliance, and the libertarians have won a battle, in the sense that they have effected a de-escalation of the government’s war against the Covid-19 pandemic. However, their victory may result in a compulsory escalation of this war on the virus in the coming weeks and months. That is when the DA and libertarians – fellow travellers – will pivot, and blame government for the inevitable devastation. In short, government has capitulated, given in to the DA, its acolytes and those who pray at Gareth Cliff’s shrine

I use libertarians as a portmanteau concept to include institutions like the Free Market Foundation, the South African Institute of Race Relations, and the functional intellectuals around Gareth Cliff, South Africa’s version of Rush Limbaugh, (here’s a sample of Limbaugh’s followers on the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown) who have created a reality that effectively places profit before people. So, they’ve won in the sense that “the economy” is starting to open (it’s “commonsensical” because nobody can contest the idea that people need to put food on the table), and parts of the lockdown have been lifted, and people may now be able to take their poodles to parlours or show off their Chihuahua’s new jersey. They have their “freedom” and “liberty” back.  

On functional intellectuals

The functional intellectuals are, probably, the most dangerous. Charles Wright Mills, the US academic who died in the early 1960s, referred to them as a type of “consultant” to people of dubious character, as being neither “king-like” nor “philosophical”, (a reference to Plato’s ideal leaders). But let’s not get too philosophical. The problem with functional intellects is their scientism, loyalty to economics orthodoxy, and obeisance to “rationalism” – which is usually a fig leaf for the worst type of social Darwinist governance. This was expressed by the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, in defence of Donald Trump’s appeal to open the economy and reopen businesses – despite dire warnings from public health officials, and said the elderly should sacrifice themselves (by ignoring lockdown and personal distancing regulations) in order to save the country and the economy. In response, New York State Governor, Andrew Cuomo replied: “No one should be talking about social Darwinism for the sake of the stock market.” 

In its original conception, the functional intellectuals are drawn from the dominant group in society – in the case of South Africa it may well be the group that has yet to come to terms with their loss of dominance – that are embedded in the media, educational institutions or corporate bodies, and present themselves as autonomous and independent.

The very idea of “common sense” (with reference to opening the economy) is drawn from the Italian senso comune, and read literally to denote something as reasonable, sensible, and undeniably true. In presenting the idea of “opening the economy” as commonsensical the intellectuals overlook the baggage of that which is commonsense, and that which conceals injustices that lie below the surface, or is accepted as inevitable. Remember, somewhere in the Bible, I think in Matthew, Jesus or someone in his posse said something like, the poor will always be with us. In a stroke, by presenting “the economy” as commonsensical, the libertarians invalidate any critical scrutiny. 

The people or the economy – a false binary

I am not suggesting, not for a moment, that people, from their naked early hominid selves, more than 200,000 years ago, do not need as a first-order set of priorities to feed, clothe and house themselves, which in the early 21st century means having some source of income (a job). What I am saying is actually quite simple. There is no example, anywhere in the world, or in the history of the past 100 years, for what South Africa, or any country in the world, for that matter, faces with the Covid-19 pandemic. This is what is so hard for the economy-first brigadistas to understand. Let each one of them present evidence of where this pandemic has been stopped in its path. Anyone’s first response to such a catastrophe may reveal a lot about the respondent.

In my secret life (yes, really), I pretend to be a physicist with a deep interest in cosmology, astronomy and astrophysics. Recently, one of my secret-life colleagues sent me a meme on social media. It was a photograph of an astronaut standing on the moon witnessing the Earth destroyed by some astronomical body. Above the photograph is a question: “If you were this astronaut what would be your last words?”

While many commentators made jokes (“I hope I brought enough toilet paper”) or raised serious scientific questions about the Kuiper Belt, one wiseacre said (something like), “OMG. The economy”. This, then, is the problem with what Peter Flemming, Professor of Business and Society at Cass Business School, at the University of London, described as “homo economicus”. Obsessed as they are with “the market” and the “stock exchange” they are, at the best of times, too vacuous to warrant much reflection, Flemming suggests. 

If I were to run a comparison between the 2007/08 global crisis and the pandemic, I would, as Flemming did, explain that the worst is yet to come (my words), those who survive this pandemic, especially the crusty neo-liberals, who reduce “all social life to the logic of profit-seeking behaviour” will witness the devastation among the poor, the weak, the marginalised – the precariat. And take no responsibility. That’s the market fundamentalism at the base of libertarians or classical liberals.

The libertarians want the lockdown to be lifted (some of them quite seriously, and unashamedly produce moral equivalence between restrictions on walking their dogs, and apartheid’s oppression or historical dictatorships), but those countries that have relaxed lockdown measures, have seen a spike in infections. In the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, local lockdown measures are brought back after a new coronavirus outbreak. More than 1,500 employees of the Tönnies meat packing plant have tested positive. 

There have been new outbreaks in South Korea with the country experiencing a second wave of the coronavirus in and around Seoul. The government warned that stronger physical-distancing measures would be reimposed if the daily increase in infections does not come down. In Israel, the government announced that a lockdown could be reintroduced amid a sharp rise in cases. At the same time, a team of contact tracing experts has been prepared to be deployed to the Australian state of Victoria to tackle a new outbreak in the city of Melbourne.

In South Africa, the libertarians would insist, not without evidence, it should be said, that children should return to school. Yet, health authorities in the Eastern Cape are scrambling to contain a coronavirus outbreak at Makaula Senior Secondary School after about 180 pupils tested positive. Earlier in June, it was reported that more than 30 schools – mostly in Eastern Cape’s Buffalo City – closed after more than 20 people tested positive for Covid-19. The Eastern Cape has 16,895 confirmed Covid-19 cases, and 303 people have died from Covid-19. In response to these infections a legal expert, Saber Ahmed Jazbhay, said parents who will send their children back to school will be able to sue the state in the event that a child contracts Covid-19 while at school. He said the state would have to take responsibility.

Herein lies the key. The virus is spreading fast among the poorest communities in the country. While the libertarians and their fellow travellers have effected some kind of rolling back of the lockdown regulations – not a single member of the DA, nor popular radio hosts or any of their acolytes: the alt-right, libertarians, liberty lovers, surfers, rationalists or classical liberals – will pick up the bill. 

In this sense my somewhat wasted analogy of compulsory escalation of war will be the government’s responsibility. Rosebank, Claremont, Constantia, Sea Point, Melrose Arch, Sandton Mall and other places where you can take your poodle for a public piddle are open. The people who called for this, are a whisper away from Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro’s approach to the virus.

In a couple of months from now, we will count the bodies and show them to the libertarians. Remind them that they called for lifting the lockdown, opening the economy (some of it has to function, to be sure, but not at the cost of human lives) and find ways to pay for the catastrophe. Popular talk show hosts should probably cancel all their guests because we already know their arguments. It’s the government’s fault. DM 


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