Defend Truth

Opinionista

Repeating a slogan over and again does not make it true

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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.

You can repeat claims of neo-liberalism as much as you like, that would not bring it into being. As much as real competence only comes with extensive practice, truth does not emerge from repeating falsehoods or convenient fictions.

There’s a terrible tedium in commentaries and opinion pieces by politicians and purveyors of grand capitalist conspiracies about neo-liberalism. Much of their blather is either unsupported by evidence, or really just utterly lacking in cogitation. This is not to suggest, as Paul Krugman once did “in praise of cheap labour,”  that if everyone thought long and hard enough we would all agree with him. It’s simply to say that when you state a theory, or postulate something, it often helps to weigh it up against evidence, or test its logical coherence. Or, if you have run out of ideas, it’s rather disingenuous to rehash rhetoric and bumper-sticker philosophies, and present them as eternal truths – as a means, especially, to hide your own shortcomings. 

One such claim is that between 1996 and 2009, South Africa was dominated by neo-liberalism. This is one of those claims for which no evidence to the contrary would convince the claimants otherwise, because then they will have nothing to suck on when they get sleepy or grumpy. To them you want to say: you can repeat claims of neo-liberalism as much as you like, that would not bring it into being. As much as real competence only comes with extensive practice, truth does not emerge from repeating falsehoods or convenient fictions.

How do you explain historically unprecedented social spending?

The most recent of this wash-rinse-repeat trope about neoliberalism was in an opinion piece, by Jeremy Cronin, in which he correctly explained that: “A key pillar of neoliberalism was the re-purposing of the state to roll back the public provision of welfare, to privatise publicly owned utilities, and to generally act as an aggressive hand-maiden to the interests of the globalised financial sector.”

Then, without any sense of self-contradiction, he lays that theory on the government from 1997 to about 2009. In those 12 years or so, Cronin would have us believe that the government was “neo-liberal”. My understanding of neo-liberalism is consistent with what Cronin wrote (above), but I would focus more sharply on its “demand” to cut social spending (especially on welfare), and let the market allocate resources. 

Here’s the nub. Over the first 15 years of democratic South Africa, the government spent more on “social” issues than ever before in the history of the country. The National Treasury (the useful target of many an ideologue and populist), allocated vast amounts of money to education, health, housing, utilities, social welfare and land reform. Again, it is necessary to repeat this. Neo-liberalism means lowering social spending, and letting “market forces” allocate resources, yet, during the first 15 years of democracy, the state allocated unprecedented amounts of money for social and political reasons. This was necessary to overcome the legacy of apartheid’s separate development. On the basis of that evidence, it is clear that the state was not “neo-liberal”. But wait, there is more.

Another demand of neo-liberal orthodoxy, or the Washington Consensus, is the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. It should be clear to everyone by now that large-scale state-owned enterprises, like Eskom, continue to be dominated and controlled by the state for the specific (social and political) purposes of addressing the iniquities inherited from the previous order. Or so they say… I cannot, for the life of me, understand why the state holds on to the national airline. A truly neo-liberal state, or one under the jackboot of the Washington Consensus, does not spend as much money (as the democratic government has) on social services, housing, health care, education or water and electricity supply for the poor.

I will not do Cronin’s homework, but the data on social spending over the first 15 years of democracy is available from the National Treasury and the South African Reserve Bank. A slight measure of didacticism is permissible: Look at the evidence of social spending, and then come back, and make the case that South Africa was “neo-liberal” over the first 15 years. Just by the way, the same should be said about land reform. See how much money treasury has allocated to land reform over the past 25 years. 

Convenient oversights and hiding in plain sight

A most elementary understanding of government is that it is like a machine. Each part does what it has to. And when all the parts do what they are designed to do, the machine runs smoothly. Let me get straight to the point. National Treasury allocated funds towards the provision of social services, like, say electricity. National Treasury did its job. The Department of Public Enterprises made sure that people who had been denied utilities for decades received access to goods and services that everyone in a normal democracy takes for granted.

These were social and political objectives to roll back historical injustices. Neo-Liberalism is based on a very austere, and often questionable economics orthodoxy. If you applied that orthodoxy to public spending between 1996 – 2009, you have a problem because expenditure was not based exclusively on “the market,” but on social and political objectives to address historical injustices. These objectives get short shrift in economics orthodoxy, because “the market” is presumed to be best at allocating resources. 

What Cronin and so many humourless Marxists refuse to acknowledge is that looting, cronyism, corruption and maladministration (total capture) have been found to be most rampant in state-owned enterprises. Of course, there is rent-seeking (looting, maladministration, under-reporting etc) in the private sector, but the point I am making is that Cronin and his mates need to aim straight, because they keep splashing over the rim.

But there is an interesting bit of gaslighting that flickered in Cronin’s commentary. In a clever bit of lexical legerdemain aimed at manipulating emotions (the cynosure of populist rhetoric) he slips a comment by Trevor Manuel, that “It’s not the job of government to create jobs” and weaves it into a line about “the hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 frontline public sector nurses, community health workers, municipal sanitation workers (those whose jobs have not yet been outsourced), policemen and women are not currently performing absolutely essential work”.

It would be rather cruel and callous if Manuel did actually approach frontline workers in the battle against the Covid-19 virus in the manner that Cronin stated. Unless, of course, Cronin took a statement made a long time ago, and bent it to throw shade on Manuel during the Covid-19 pandemic. I have not called Manuel to find out if he said that, but my instincts tell me that Cronin was disingenuous and that he has simply run out of ideas.

Let’s face it, the South African Communist Party did not present a coherent (complete) programme of action to address the legacy of apartheid, other than maybe the Communist Manifesto, which had resonance in 19th century Europe – especially in the English Midlands. In short, Cronin’s attempts to gaslight Manuel, and his wilful misrepresentation of the first 15 years of government policy – a government that he was part of – are cheap shots. 

Trevor Manuel can defend himself. We, intellectuals (in the Gramscian sense), have an obligation to expose immanent contradictions in the claims and statements of politicians, and by people in power. Now, all of that may sound philosophical – and it is. To which I would respond, the point of public discussions is to change the world. I am convinced that a good departure point for true social change and transformation, to achieve economic justice, would be to continue to search out the meaningful simplicity in the midst of disorderly complexity that besets the world. In other words, don’t make up stories only to make yourself feel good. The world is befuddling enough without the pony of politicians. DM

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