“Our greatest political problem is lack of imagination.” –Michel Foucault
Por Howard Richards
The markets loved election results that left the party of Nelson Mandela quaking in its boots. The African National Congress (ANC) allied with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) have been continually in office since the beginning of democracy in 1994. In nationwide municipal elections held August 3, 2016, for the first time ever the ANC alliance won less than 60% of the vote. In nationwide totals the ANC scored 54%, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) 27%, andthe self-styled “Leninist” Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) 8%, while numerous smaller parties shared the remaining 11%. The DA took the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality including Port Elizabeth from the ANC. The Democratic Alliance added to the dominant position it has long heldin Cape Town and in over a dozen smaller cities near Cape Town. In 26 cities, including the big onesJohannesburg and Pretoria, coalition government will be the name of the game. In those cities nobody won a majority of the council seats which means under South African rules that the smaller parties will tip the balance between an ANC mayor and a DA mayor. Although the Economic Freedom Fighters did not win any municipalities, in some cities (like Joburg where they got 11%) theyare on track to be kingmakers and sharers in the spoils of victory. For the first time EFF militants will hold executive offices in cities. All signs point to the EFF forming pragmatic alliances with the free market liberals of the DA who are in theory their ideological enemies.
The markets loved the elections. The South African rand strengthened against the US dollar rising to 13.8 rands per dollar, reversing a downward slide that had seen it fall from 7.5 per dollar in 2012 to nearly 15 per dollar in July of 2016. Shares rose on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The website of the United States Council on Foreign Relations echoed the markets with the headline “It’s Morning in South Africa.” Bloomberg News explained why: The election results are a sign that South Africa will enact the long overdue economic reforms needed to address the deep poverty of the majority and a staggering 27% rate of unemployment. The elections are a sign that President Jacob Zuma (who put a cheerful spin on his party’s setbacks declaring them to be proof that “South Africa is a thriving democracy”) may be forced to resign before his term is up in 2019. If he resigns, he will probablybe replaced by someone less corrupt and more investor-friendly like Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa or former president Thabo Mbeki. Zuma himself might see the light and change course. The ANC itself might unseat Zuma at its party convention in 2017. (Under South African rules the president of the party with the most seats in Parliament becomes the president of the country, which means that President Zuma could be voted out of office by his own party even before the next parliamentary elections.) In a few years the Democratic Alliance with or without coalition partners may be the party electing the majority of the MPs and forming the government. In short, all winds are blowing Bloomberg’s way, blowing to the right.
Blowing Bloomberg’s way, the winds of change will bringwhat Bloomberg calls the long overdue economic reforms needed to make doing business more secure, easier, and more profitable. Sensing the direction of the wind, the markets registered growing investor confidence after the election.
One can agree that Bloomberg interpreted correctly the reaction of the markets to the election, and even agree that some of the DA’s proposed neoliberal economic reforms would be on balance desirable, without agreeing with the overall philosophy that shapes its reporting. Bloomberg frames the expected reforms as the efficient causes that will generate prosperity and employment. That investors are already expecting higher profits is framed as goodnews for the poor. The proposition that more investor-friendly reforms (on top of the many South Africa has already had) will serve the common good is treated as a given needing no proof; as if it were a joke that had already been told; as if those who did not understand the joke and did not know when to laugh, or did not know whether to laugh or cry, were not so much mistaken as left out of the conversation, deprived of voice.
At this point in history,the major media, owned by investors and run by investors for investors,have been transmitting the pro-investor philosophies of political and economic liberalism for a little longer than two centuries. In many minds, it is at this point in history not a conscious assumption –it is more like a subconscious presupposition shared by the media sendingthe messages and the public receiving them– that the one thing the elected officials of any government must do, whatever else they do,and the one thing everyone else must do, is to please us, the investors. The voice of the investors has saidso often that what it says passes for common sense, “please investors.” Attract us. Woo us. If we investors invest, then all is well. Then there is employment, then people rise out of poverty, then more tax money flows into public coffers. If we investors do not invest, then all is lost: then there is unemployment, in the extreme case of SA there is 27% unemployment; then there is poverty, in the extreme case of SA there is the world’s highest Gini coefficient; then there is desperation, crime, insanity, social chaos and violence.
Some see the whole problematique differently. They see as a duck the same sketchthe mass media see as a rabbit. The rabbit: the question, the first question, the question whose answer is the key to solving so many problems, is how to attract investment?The duck: the question, the first question, the question whose answer is the key to solving so many problems, is how to make democracy real? In other words, how to make modern societies governable. In other words, how to liberate humanity (and the biosphere) from an overriding imperative that when push comes to shove trumps all other imperatives, that imperiously commands that money must continually and forever morph into more money.The necessity of doing whatever it takes to attract investment is the problem, not the solution.
Those who see the duck, those who feel deprived of voice in a culture saturated everywhere with messages endlessly repeating “rabbit-rabbit-rabbit-rabbit”; those who are looking for guidance to help them to articulate what they would say if they had a voice; those who seek an alternative to hyper-liberal public discourses like those in South Africa today that feature the ANC and the DA vying in a beauty contest to see who looks most business-friendly –with the DA currently looking better and the ANC poised to improve its image by changing leaders—have for nearly two centuries been going to libraries –and more recently to Websites– to read the works of Karl Marx. It should not be overlooked, however, that in essence a mainstream liberal analysis of how capitalism works and Karl Marx’s analysis of how capitalism works are almost exactly the same.
Consider the analyses of Dani Rodrik and Ricardo Haussmann, two mainstream liberal economists who have been advisors to the government of South Africa, and whose views have influenced its National Development Plan. Although they acknowledge that development has other dimensions, their focus is on economic growth. What economic growth requires, they say, is getting entrepreneurs excited about investing. Exciting entrepreneurs in turn requires favourable (low) wages paid to a high quality work force, the availability of credit and infrastructure, favourable (low) taxes, no obstacles to taking profits out of the country after they have accrued, and in general doing whatever it takes to attract investors. Nothing separates their analyses from Marx’s view that where there is accumulation of capital there is capitalism, and where there is capitalism there is accumulation of capital; or Marx’s view that the production process begins with investing money to buy means of production, continues with producing for the purpose of sale, and concludes a cycle by selling for the purpose of profit. Something does separate contemporary mainstream economists from Marx’s (mistaken) thesis that capitalists can only make profits by exploiting labour, but nothing separates them from his thesis that the dynamic that drives capitalism is profit.
There is a reason why liberals and Marxists have superficially different but essentially similar views. The reason is that it is true that capital accumulation drives capitalism. Both are correct. The liberals are more grateful to entrepreneurs who organize the factors of production and generate a surplus (“surplus value”) and rightly so, for a modern society cannot function without organizers who organize the accumulation of a social surplus. The Marxists are more worried that the path we are on (“growth”) issocially and ecologically unsustainable, again rightly so. Both are correct.
Michel Foucault is also correct. There is proof that Foucault is correct in the responses of the leaders of the nations of the world to the global financial crisis of 2008 and its ongoing aftermaths. Their lack of imagination has been cosmic, breath-taking. When the capital accumulation machine broke down –as sooner or later it always does– business and political leaders remained and still today remain in the grip ofeconomic thinking confined to aproduction modelthat begins with investing money to buy means of production, continues with producing for the purpose of sale, and concludes a cycle by selling for the purpose of profit. Thousands of otherwise intelligent leaders have been unable to think of anything better to do when financial bubbles burst, debts become unpayable, workers are thrown out of work, and production slows down than to impose austerity on an innocent public that never did anything to cause the crisis, to bail out banks, and to try to shore up sagging investments and sales by inundating markets with more and more money at zero percent or even negative interest rates.Political leaders and the citizens they represent fail to see realities in plain sight. For example, the reality that buying and selling is only of the ways that human beings get the work of the world done and meet their needs. For example, the reality that within the general category of buying and selling, only a subset of all the haggling and trading people do in marketplaces around the world is motivated by or leads to private capital accumulation.
Thinking more broadly: If “African Renaissance” means anything it must mean remembering that in the territory now occupied by the Republic of South Africa people lived and raised children and carried out all the normal human functions for thousands of years without unemployment or inflation. As Julius Nyerere often pointed out, the historical conditions of the possibility of unemployment did not exist until Africa was conquered by Europeans. Nyerere liked to quote a Swahili proverb: Feed your guest for two days, on the third day give him a hoe. The Argentine economist José Luis Coraggio has demonstrated that in most Latin American and African countries today far more people make their livings in what Coraggio calls the “people’s economy,” i.e. in economic activities where little or no capital is accumulated, than in the capitalist firms that get so much more than their fair share of academic and political attention. As Karl Polanyi and many others have documented the principle of reciprocity and the principle of sharing the surplustypical of many indigenous knowledge systems have organized labour to meet human needs for many centuries. They have stood the test of time. And these are only three samples suggesting the infinite number of non-capitalist and mixed (i.e. part capitalist) solutions to the challenges of life that are practiced today and have been practiced in the past. They do not even begin to imagine the unbounded organizinghumans will do in the future.
If it is indeed “morning in South Africa” let us hope morning will bring light with its heat.If the DA and the EFF form pragmatic alliances to govern cities, let us hope they also talk to each other about their deepest beliefs. If they share ideas as well as power, they will learn from each other. Let us also hope that the inevitable repositioning of the ANC will be an occasion for necessary conversations about how to build a fully nurturant society. Let us hope that the people of good will who are willing to live and die for the cause of justice will also like be willing to read and think for the cause of justice.
Gavin Andersson and Howard Richards (2015), Unbounded Organizing in Community. Lake Oswego: Dignity Press.
Roy Bhaskar (1986), Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. London: Verso.
Hein Marais (2013), South Africa Pushed to the Limit. London: Zed Books.
Karl Polanyi (1944), The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.
Howard Richards (2016), The Impossibility of Politics and How to Make Politics Possible (search under this title on Google)
Dani Rodrik (with Ricardo Haussmann and Andres Velasco) (2007), One Economics, Many Recipes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.