Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The allure of popularist socialism

In an interesting, albeit entirely dismissive, article on “The Financial crisis and the rise of pseudo-socialists” published on Thought Leader, Sentletse Diakanyo starts by mapping the fall of World Communism, and continues with the situation at present, wherein a few countries – Cuba, North Korea and China - hold onto what he calls “the remnants of Communism”, while some Latin American countries have gravitated towards the left because of their Leader’s “desperate attempts to keep their filthy hands in the cookie jar”. In these countries, he argues, there is a growing realisation that “even misplaced nationalism can never make communism a logical and viable proposition.”

He then makes another point, which is probably correct : “The grand posturings of the pseudo-socialists in government impedes its capacity to resist the temptation to be caught up in the vicious cycle of populist rhetoric at a time when the economic circumstances demand a decisive response. There needs to be a concerted effort towards greater political alignment and economic integration [with the rest of the world] if Africa is to emerge from the rubbles of this economic meltdown prosperous.”

He continues: “Economic populism threatens the sustainable, long-term prosperity of the continent, in particular here in South Africa. Populists have already begun pitting the poor against the economic elites who are portrayed as the architects of the poor’s misery. History teaches us that we cannot afford to have laissez-faire capitalism reign supreme nor a paternalistic state that is out of touch with the economic realities of our country.”

Now, while this is all probably true, there is one element which the author does not deal with, but which to my mind, is the nub of the matter. It remains an outstanding element in the general arena of contestation for language and symbol. This is, after all, the arena on which the political game is played. It lies in the actual power which socialist language, concepts and symbols still retain within the South African context. And they do so for very good reason.

The words and concepts of the "left" still retain considerable power, because of the patently evident lack of actual content (and indeed delivery of basics) to the poor, by any previous government - capitalist (including racial capitalist) and smiling capitalist (which Diakanyo would term pseudo-socialist). That is not, as he would have it, a cynical pitting of the poor against the economic elites. It is just a fact of life, which one doesn’t have to play up or decorate in any way to make the issues representative of the experience of most people.

In the mind of the majority of poor people, there has got to be something in it for them, somewhere. That is the reason why the unashamed trumpeting rhetoric of the left , proves to be so enduringly popular. And it is not to say that these ideas are necessarily bad in themselves - they are usually obvious - it is rather the cynical use of them, while at the same time maintaining and promoting something so diametrically opposed to them, which is the worrying and disturbing element in our political framework at present.

Capitalism is really the only game in town, at the moment. But it would be very silly indeed to imagine that, therefore, Capitalism provides us with the answer to the problem. The problem was indeed caused by Capitalism, in its explicitly racial incarnation. The problem which it caused, in this neck of the woods, is still not fixed and there is no guarantee that it ever will be fixed, for once and for all, to the benefit of those who have suffered most under it. I have no doubt that we will plod on and that gradually, we will build more houses and put in more taps – but that is very unlikely to provide a quick enough fix to deal with the seemingly unstoppable problem of increasing poverty.

The poor are bound to notice 16,17,18 years from freedom, that either things are getting worse for them, or they are staying much the same. It is only the rich who may fail to make the connection. And that is essentially the problem, because an automatic binary relationship gets set up – essentially the insiders and the outsiders – and it is that context that the language and vocabulary of socialism (pseudo or otherwise) becomes a very suitable option for those who have nothing, and a very obvious means of whipping up support, by those who are, in fact, providing very little. Other than for themselves, of course.

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