Liberalism’s ideologues & their coalfaced discontents


IT WAS the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald who said: “No grand idea was ever born in a conference, but a lot of foolish ideas have died there.” While the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche remarked: “We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the tone of voice in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us” and still Thomas Mann opined: “If you are possessed by an idea, you find it expressed everywhere, you even smell it.”

The reason I take the opportunity to provide readers with some philosophizing on the ‘history of ideas’, rather than the ‘idea of history’, is that there has been a lot of solipsising lately on the issue of liberalism and its purported antithesis, socialism, in the runup to and aftermath of the DA federal conference, billed as the ‘greatest opposition event ever’.

For those who might not already know, a solipsism (or circular logic) according to the urban dictionary is also “the belief that the person holding the belief is the only real thing in the universe. All other persons and things are merely ornaments or impediments to his or her happiness.”

Just how this applies to South African politics will become clearer. To begin, there has thus been a plethora of verbiage surrounding a relatively new idea in popular discourse, that of ‘black liberalism” with equal bouts of critique from humdingers, curmudgeons and opinion-makers on the left, schooled in dialectical materialism and political economy.

Thus Eusebius McKaiser’s A black liberal is not an oxymoron was followed by Mazibuko K Jara Black liberalism is an apology for capitalism  and Richard Pithouse The liberal licence to kill and more recently, Mmusi Maimane’s Building an African liberal agenda.

Jara opines that McKaiser’s “reclaiming of liberalism is ultimately flawed because it does not question capitalism’s core logic — the rights, freedoms and power of capitalists to maximise profits on the basis of appropriating the commons through the private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the exploitation of labour and natural resources.”

Pithouse on the other hand raised an awkward caveat whilst attacking liberalism at its historical core, by listing its alleged policy sins. Despite its many problems, and yes, there are some positives, there is at the face of it, a common dilemma of seeing everything one disagrees with as mere “ornaments or impediments to happiness.” In South Africa,” writes Pithouse ” a high price has been paid for the ease and frequency with which attempts to assert principle in struggle — including commitments to feminism, democracy and, on occasion, even basic honesty — have been denigrated and dismissed as “liberal”.”

All this was water off a duck’s back so far as Maimane was concerned. A rallying speech by the leader of the old “Liberal Party” was big on building liberal sound-bites but short on substance: “As African liberals, ” he said “we have chosen a hard road. We have chosen to stand up to dictators and bullies of all stripes, even when it is politically incorrect to do so. We have chosen to defend the free expression of ideas, even for people with whom we disagree and whose views make us angry.”

One invariably gets the same point though.

Hence one of the reasons for writing this piece, partly out of respect for Pithouse, who defends civil liberties in the same way that Maimane does, but does so without suggesting any alternatives to the two dominant poles in South African politics, nor bothering himself with a critique of the abysmal track-record of the dominant political movement, is to provide readers with some all important context. That’s the ruling party whose ideological framework is abundantly socialist versus the avowed liberalism of the major opposition,

Please feel free to arrive at your own conclusions.

As “bookish revolutionaries” to use Julius Malema’s phrase were debating the pros and cons of liberalism viz. vi. historical materialism and its view of all history being the result of ‘a dialectical clash, of opposing forces’, South Africans were being entertained by the spectacle of the National Mineworkers Union (NUM) threatening to end its support for the African National Congress (ANC): “if government continues with its renewable energy programme,” said NUM, “clean power would “destroy jobs and create ghost towns in coal mining areas.” Please bear with me.

Earlier last month the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) along with Transform RSA, and the coal-truckers industry, had attempted to interdict the Dept of Energy from signing a raft of IPP renewable contracts to no avail. That ripe Marxist language and dialectical critique emanating from our unions, was geared towards a previous era of the steam engine, coal factories, fossil fuel barons, and coal-faced workers suffering under the whip of capital, and not the emerging 4th industrial revolution predicated as it is on digital innovation, open source electronics, and abundant energy distributed amongst the commons, in a dematerialised world in which the unions too, own shares, was becoming clear.

The trouble with soviet-style super-socialism and its advocates in the unions, many of whose members appeared outfitted in fatigues and whose leaders, some of whom bore a close resemblance to Fidel Castro, began with the protagonists wanting to ‘monkey-wrench the entire system’, the self-same mixed ‘market socialist’ economy which taxes and hands out benefits, and whose state owned utility Eskom and its mega-coal projects, meant that these very same unions derived further benefits from any extension of coal-contracts that were also part and parcel of the Gupta corruption schemes. It is important to note as Min Radebe did, there was no direct connection between the threatened closure of some coal powered utilities ending their life-cycle and the IPP programme.

One can see an emerging pattern here, a similar problem experienced during the Cold War 1950s, the problematic Marxist vision of ‘willing workers of the world’ uniting under a shared common cause to fight off the bosses and shareholders in any country, in order to become, what exactly?

The Soviet Union?

Here in the South Africa of 2018, a period no longer marked by communism and the Cold War, the unions were essentially complaining about the potential loss of a paltry 30 000 jobs, whilst jeopardising the creation of 60 000 new jobs in the economy, and more to boot. The unions was prepared to compromise air quality, emissions, the health and safety of millions, while ransoming the entire country with regard to climate change. One could not get more solipsistic and obstinate if one tried. In the eyes of union bosses, what mattered most in this struggle, was happy workers. The poor seeking jobs and thus a growing and sustainable economy, in which economic models were not based upon annual bailouts, but upon reality, the facts behind an economic model which worked, for these persons, the poor for all intents and purposes, did not exist.

So let’s give a bash at answering the moot question left unanswered by our nation’s critics. What are the alternatives to the liberal market economy, if any? And since I am not a liberal as such, let me explain briefly, as economic scholer Zhang Weiwei does, one such model, the China Model, significant in that it has pulled millions out of poverty and unlike the West, has not experienced successive periods of boom and bust. And before I do, let me place my civil rights cards on the table, since I don’t support many of the authoritarian elements still at play within the China of today.

The guiding philosophy behind the ‘China Model’, according to Weiwei can be summarised as  “Seeking Truth from Facts not from Dogmas, whether East or West.”

Weiwei goes on to say: “From examining the facts, leader Deng Xiaoping found that neither the Soviet Model nor the Western Model really worked, hence Beijing decided to explore its own way of development appropriate to China’s own national conditions.”

The system he says is oriented towards people’s livelihood. “Whether economic, social or political reforms, they must all be down-to-earth and produce tangible benefits … in material, cultural and other terms. This is why China has succeeded in lifting over 700 million people out of poverty, accounting for nearly 80 percent poverty eradication in the world.”

Special economic zones in which economic experiments are allowed to prove themselves first before being adopted by the broader system, are another factor attributed to China’s success.

Food for thought in a country which, despite its ideological stance, is still top of the list of the Gini coefficient marking ours the most unequal society in the world.

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