Where will neoliberalism end?

The question is not how, or where, or when neoliberalism will end, but if it will, and what the left will do about it. The case of South Africa is instructive.

The old derelict beach pavillion at Macassar, South Africa. Image credit Steve Crane via Flickr CC.

As the world was overtaken by upheaval last year, one photo emerging from the uprisings depicts a protestor bearing a promise: “Neoliberalism was born in Chile and will die in Chile.” Spilling over into the new year, the revolts in Chile, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Hong Kong, Algeria, Uganda, France and elsewhere have led many to believe that the present insurgency spells the definitive end of the neoliberal consensus that has unraveled since the 2008 financial crisis. In particular, the outbreak of resistance in Chile was a watershed moment for some, a symbolic requital for the suffering endured by it as the “birthplace” of neoliberalism. With the close counsel of The Chicago Boys, General Pinochet imposed the doctrine through a brutal dictatorial regime from 1973 onwards and spurred more than 30 years of orthodoxy based on trade liberalization, financial deregulation and privatization that fundamentally transformed the world economic order.

A notable absentee from the recent flare-ups is South Africa, especially when considering how plagued by turmoil it had been in the months prior to the “season of discontent” that erupted in October 2019. It is no overstatement to say that around that time, things looked miserably bad. In September, the country experienced a surge in xenophobic attacks helped along by the state’s targeting of informal traders in Johannesburg’s inner city, as well as nation-wide demonstrations against rampant gender-based violence precipitated after a university student was horrifically raped and murdered at a post-office in Cape Town. Anger and outrage, both reactionary and righteous, brought the country to a standstill.

Handed a fleeting piece of supposedly good fortune, this powder keg of disaffection was disarmed by South Africa’s triumph in the Rugby World Cup held in Japan. After that, the mood of most South Africans was a mix of genuine jubilation and uneasy relief, the shared sentiment being that “we needed this.” This was even understood by the rugby team itself, with captain Siya Kolisi and coach Rassie Erasmus talking frankly after the tournament about the extent of hardship at home which fueled the team’s thirst for glory, and Siya’s own background of personal adversity functioning as a feel-good story of black uplift. Indeed, one doesn’t have to search too deeply to find evidence for the scale of problems. With inequality framed as a key trigger for the worldwide unrest comes the circulation of literature breaking down the disparities between rich and poor—in Chile and Lebanon, they are frighteningly high. But in this respect too, South Africa unfortunately comes out on top, consistently crowned the world’s most unequal country.

And so, we should not be deceived by the additional respite provided by the just-passed festive period—things are still miserably bad, they have been for a long time. Unemployment sits appallingly at 40%, leaving 55% of the population mired in poverty. The most recent research indicates that 10% of the country owns 90% its wealth, and carrying the legacy of Apartheid, these disparities are highly racialized. Unable to meet energy demands, the national power utility regularly implements rolling blackouts, prompting flirts with privatization as a strategy to save it from collapse. All the while, a spate of freak weather incidents brought the incontrovertible fact of climate change to the lives of ordinary South Africans. Any calm is just a reckoning postponed.

A brief glimpse into the historical record suggests that things did not have to turn out this way. South Africa’s economic future came to the fore in the early 1990s at a crossroads where, tasked with devising a suitable post-apartheid political settlement the question of how to integrate South Africa into the world capitalist system while rapidly improving living standards also lingered. We came depressingly close to charting a redistributive alternative that envisioned a central role for the state in promoting development. Persuaded by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, one of its key alliance partners, the African National Congress, in 1990 circulated a discussion document pushing forward a “growth by redistribution” approach to economic policy through its nascent economic research arm, the Department of Economic Policy.

Efforts to assert a progressive economic agenda culminated with The Macro-Economic Research Group’s report, “Making Democracy Work” in 1993. Set up by the ANC in 1991, MERG established a neo-Keynesian policy framework combining a “strong private sector interacting with a strong public sector” undergirded by public-investment led growth. By the time it was published, however, the situation had dramatically changed. The ANC came under enormous pressure to clarify its economic strategy, further strained by its long-standing neglect of developing sound economic policies of its own. A great variety of corporate-sponsored scenario planning exercises gained momentum looking to enlighten the ANC of “the economic realities of the world.” South Africa’s future Finance Minister and Reserve Bank governor, Tito Mboweni and Lesetja Kganyago, even underwent training at Goldman Sachs—Mboweni at the time headed the ANC’s department of economic planning. By the mid-1990s the MERG’s report was sidelined, and in the words of journalist Hein Marais in his acclaimed study of the transition “the embrace of orthodoxy would be unnervingly swift and emphatic.”

On May Day in 1994, a few days after being elected South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela declared to domestic and international capital: “In our economic policies, there is not a single reference to things like nationalization, and this is not accidental. There is not a single slogan that will connect us with any Marxist ideology.” The volte face was complete. The story of the triumph of market dogma in South Africa is the subject of many a book and all too familiar. It begins with the infamous lifting of decades old capital controls in 1995, and develops to South Africa becoming the most financialized economy in the Global South excluding Asia. If neoliberalism was born kicking and screaming in a Chile, it confidently strode into maturity in South Africa.

The ANC’s economic leadership has mostly brought about rapid deindustrialization, the consolidation of an extractive and financialized minerals energy complex, and the creation of a black bourgeoisie whose poster boy and billionaire mining magnate Ramaphosa, is now president. This is not to deny that significant changes have happened for the poor, especially in basic service delivery. Yet these have been motivated by the goal of minimum provision and sufficiency rather than equality, and are proving in fact, insufficient. The decay of this social compact has been obvious. Since former president Jacob Zuma’s corruption-ridden regime came to power a year after the global financial crisis, South Africa has been in permanent crisis: from the state’s murder of miners at Marikana in 2012 to the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests in 2015 and 2016. Service delivery protests are a daily routine, and escalating gang wars in some parts, especially the Western Cape, make obscene violence a daily reality. The students were right to demand that “everything must fall.” But if so, what will rise in its wake?

Last year’s general elections are a poor indicator of things to come. The leading story of that was low turnout, with only two-thirds of registered voters pitching up, and another ten million eligible to vote not registering at all. The center held nevertheless, with the ANC prevailing and the center-right Democratic Alliance maintaining its role as official opposition–although both parties fielded their weakest electoral performances to date, and are caught in a global pattern witnessing the erosion of the political center. So, for good reason in these unsettled times, it has become vogue to invoke the words of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who, writing of the fall of the laissez-faire liberal order after World War I, warned that “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying but the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

One of the first casualties in these moments of disequilibrium is the left-right axis along which politics is traditionally mapped, as ruling coalitions start to wither and lose internal coherence. For the last couple of years, the ANC and DA have been hotbeds of dysfunction. Factional battles in the ANC are playing out between Ramaphosa and forces loyal to the embattled Zuma (the latest is that Ramaphosa will be out as president before the end of the month), including politicians implicated in wrongdoing during Zuma’s reign of “state capture.” That this is happening is not simply incidental or motivated by personal grievances, but expresses serious disagreement between state officials and business elites about which accumulation strategy should rule the day. Zuma’s repeated calls for “radical economic transformation” were a pushback against the perceived privileging of white and foreign capital in South Africa’s private sector. His crony-capitalist alternative offered routes for accumulation to the “excluded” in state-owned enterprises. Ramaphosa and his acolytes are best understood as longing for what can only be called, in their view, a more “civilized” or pure model of accumulation, one premised on the outdated assumption that markets and the state can be disentangled.

The DA has been imploding too. Styling itself as distinct from the ANC for its “classically liberal” values, in truth, it has always lacked any sophisticated ideological commitments. Instead, it relies on flimsy signifiers of what it is not—and for the most part, all they had to be was not the corrupt ANC to get enough votes. This method especially worked during Zuma’s presidency, and when the DA elected Mmusi Maimane as its first black leader in an ostensibly earnest attempt at racial transformation, his platitudinous charm and appeal to the Black middle class added to the flourish. Now, Maimane has unceremoniously resigned from that role, only after the anti-poor, anti-immigrant and Michael Bloombergesque Mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, did the same. Their complaint? The return of the repressed in the person of former DA leader and strongwoman, Helen Zille. Having reinserted herself as the locus of power, she’s leading a crusade to remake the DA into a culture-war fighting force, using old rightwing dog whistles as new tricks—the DA is now not the ANC, not corrupt, and crucially, not Black.

Make no mistake, both of these parties are the faces of the neoliberal establishment. Their differences on affirmative action and land reform, which increasingly harden as a tepid distinguishing tool, are nothing more than a recourse to the realm of culture and identity as a smokescreen for their lack of political legitimacy. Like most center parties staring down political unviability, instead of breaking with the status quo, they are opting to present more of the same by hustling together shaky alliances with otherwise hostile political forces. The DA started with the seemingly left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters to take power in Johannesburg and Pretoria—this alliance has collapsed, and since the Afrikaner Nationalist Freedom Front Plus’ minor-but-not-insignificant increase in vote share last year, the DA has been making overtures to them. The ANC has tried with the EFF, but they remain intransigent. Ramaphosa reportedly set out to assemble a “government of national unity” with some of their high profile members in key cabinet positions, but had to settle for Patricia de Lille, a former DA member with a controversial floor-crossing past who scraped two seats in Parliament with her new feeble formation, “GOOD.”

Otherwise, where it matters, both the ANC and DA are marching stubbornly with an austerity neoliberalism future. The DA praised Tito Mboweni’s Medium Term Budget Policy Statement in October which announced sweeping spending cuts—Mboweni quoted from the Bible, and preached that “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”

Where is the South African Left in all this? First, the notion that the EFF is left-wing must at last be firmly dispelled. For some time, the EFF captured the imagination of the South African Left. After being expelled from the ANC and formerly leading its Youth League, Julius Malema launched the party in 2013, on the site of the Marikana massacre. An outgrowth of the ANC’s disappearing hegemony, the EFF’s vibrant and combative energy in Parliament was initially commended as a useful way of bringing Zuma to book over his use of state funds to upgrade his personal homestead. Their radical posture—officially being “Marxist-Leninist-Fanonian”—has attracted scores of admirers, including small portions of the working class and disgruntled youth, particularly university students (the EFF controls the Student Representative Council’s on a number of campuses) and young, downwardly-mobile members of the professional managerial class. Thus, since its inception, it is the only major political party that has exhibited growth in electoral support, and as noted above, has played the role of kingmaker where the DA or ANC have been unable to secure parliamentary majorities.

Presently in its early maturity, the party has become too loaded with contradictions for it to be considered left-wing in any credible sense, both in ideology and practice. Besides its lack of internal democracy and the cult of personality surrounding Malema, some of the EFF’s lead figures have been embroiled in various financial scandals including municipal tender fraud and the ransacking of a mutual bank primarily serving informal friendly societies. Additionally, the party’s advent was funded by notorious South African cigarette smugglers who enjoy a close relationship to Malema; this, despite him disparaging the influence of “white monopoly capital” in South African politics. Displeased with the media’s interest in its dodgy dealings, the EFF prohibited a group of investigative journalists from attending and covering its most recent elective congress in December.

Although breaking with the tenets of neoliberalism, the EFF are more of an economic nationalist front than left. Suspicious of globalization and the dominance of foreign capital, it seeks to lead an industrial revival that generates capital formation opportunities for local business elites and jobs for the domestic working class through initiatives like special economic zones—in so doing, establishing their own version of a state-led, indigenous capitalism. Their politics are driven more by retribution than redistribution, evident in their fetish of “the land question” as being the most decisive in South African politics. For them, land expropriation is not chiefly a means to advance an egalitarian politics to empower South Africa’s rural population (the EFF still supports mineral extractivism), but to divide the country into historically dispossessed “African natives,” versus everyone else who are “settlers,” in order to set the record straight of who does and doesn’t belong.

The EFF’s crude nativism and race essentialism make a mockery of the radical, anti-racist thinkers it cynically deploys, from Marx to Fanon. Underneath all that revolutionary chic, the EFF project is not about deepening democracy, but about reclaiming a perceived loss of national sovereignty against what are deemed culturally foreign forces—almost as if to say, in lockstep with Zuma’s RET bloc that, “We don’t actually mind that capitalism inevitably concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, but we do mind that this few are predominantly White and Indian.”

No truly class-rooted political force exists in South Africa today. Politics in the interregnum are located at an awkward place where as parties decline, the evisceration of other sites of political struggle and mass collective organizations such as trade unions, nonetheless make them important avenues of struggle, if not as shadows of their former selves. This is the void that recent experiments in left populism aim to fill, from Corbynism in the Labour Party, Podemos in Spain and the Sanders moment in the States. There is no such equivalent in South Africa today, and where anything came close, it failed so disastrously in ways that gesture towards the limits of a politics that is class-focused, but not class-rooted. As the British trade unionist Andrew Murray explains, this means a politics that, “While it places issues of social inequality and global economic power front and center, it neither emerges from the organic institutions of the class-in-itself nor advances the socialist perspective of the class-for-itself.”

In 2013, the largest union in South Africa, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) broke away from the ANC’s Tripartite Alliance, of which COSATU and the moribund South African Communist Party are a part. At once, it resolved to form a new working class party. It spearheaded the formation of the United Front, a wide coalition of workers, the unemployed, rural people, civic organizations, academics and activists that would unite workplace and community struggles and lay the groundwork for a worker’s party. The project stalled, and feeling that it had been taken over by NGOs, NUMSA left, throwing the UF into quiet death. In 2017, NUMSA then also played a hand in the creation of the South African Federation of Trade Unions so as to displace COSATU as South Africa’s largest trade union confederation. Right then, the sense that a new party was on the horizon began to lift a second time, and at the end of 2018, the Socialist and Revolutionary Workers Party held its pre-launch convention with delegates drawn primarily from SAFTU.

Inexplicably, its official launch only happened in March 2019—two months before the May general election. Foreseeably, charismatic NUMSA general-secretary Irvin Jim was paraded forward as its leader, and it began the rushed work of campaigning to contest the elections. To be honest, the SRWP didn’t work all that hard. It advanced its campaign mainly on social media and quickly put together a threadbare manifesto of outdated, Bolshevik-inspired slogans. Yet, unlike the many “pop-up populisms” faltering today, the SRWP saw itself as a party operating with a concrete base by having links to NUMSA’s 339,000 members. In addition, it won the endorsement of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shack-dweller’s movement fighting against evictions and for public housing based in KwaZulu Natal and with 50 000 members. In the end, SAFTU would not support the SRWP, with general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi citing that the party’s decision to contest the elections was not discussed with them. Yet, this did not deter the SRWP, and a mood of triumph punctuated its online posts in the days before the election.

The defeat was nothing short of humiliating. The SRWP only amassed 25,000 votes, below the threshold required to obtain at least one seat Parliament. In the embarrassment of defeat, the SRWP was quick to absolve itself of blame, instead alleging electoral fraud and pointing to the rise of the conservative right. Ultimately, the SRWP’s character was more vanguardist than left populist. Its top-down treatment of the working class starved them of agency and reduced them to instruments to be shepherded towards an electoral objective that never took seriously the difficulty of state transformation, and unwilling to confront the extent of disorganization haunting the working class today. Ignorantly, it stuck to an exhausted party form made obsolete by 30 years of neoliberal onslaught. Unlike during Apartheid, where masses were active and organized, today’s politics are that of a swarm—and as political theorist Anton Jager puts it: “Swarms roam, rage, scream, only to end in monotonous drones.” It is a phenomenon of party politics without parties, of politicization without the political.

Political scientist Rune Møller Stahl predicts that in periods of interregnum, the space for democratic politics and contestation will only be further crowded out by forces wanting to continue the neoliberal program. Late last year, Ramaphosa signed into law the Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Act, which places rural South Africans, who are the two-thirds of the population, under tighter control by traditional leaders, allowing them to enter into commercial agreements with third parties without first acquiring the consent of the communities whose land and livelihoods will be affected. It’ll undoubtedly be challenged, but the move’s embrace of colonial vestiges is striking for its bold-faced disregard for the enormous strides rural South Africans have made in resisting destructive mining projects in their communities.

The trouble with periods of crisis and confusion is that they can also devolve into a regressive actionism that goes for quick fix solutions in addressing deep-seated problems. The Marxist culture critic Theodor Adorno viewed this as “incomparably closer to oppression than the thought that catches its breath.” This was the case when the military rolled into the Cape Flats to curb the tyranny of organized crime and gang violence, and as South Africans started to call for a state of emergency to deal with gender-based violence. Recently, a new common sense is developing that insists key sectors should be declared essential and workers within them prevented from disruptive strike action. This catastrophism only serves as a handmaiden for more authoritarianism. Meanwhile, core institutions of representative democracy here have become increasingly incapable of fulfilling their functions. Once praised for its fearless investigations into state-wide corruption, the Office of the Public Protector is regularly in the news for the wrong reasons. Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s tenure has been marred by controversy for court judgments handed against her after investigations into many high ranking politicians, including Ramaphosa, were done sloppily—prompting many to these disputes as nothing more than a microcosm of the ANC’s factional battles.

In these moments of profound despair and disorganization, the South African left has no Sanders or Corbyn to rally behind and provide a desperately needed awakening. But, Corbyn’s recent defeat and the political wilderness that its thrown the Labour Party into perhaps indicates that this is not so terrible a lack. In fact, we’ve been roaming the wilderness for a long time now, and the left has no option but to make an intrinsic transformation if it has any hopes of rebuilding.

South African writer and historian (and Africa Is a Country Contributing Editor) Benjamin Fogel correctly points out two components to this. First, doing the intellectual labour of crafting a new vision for South Africa’s future that confronts the political, social and ecological crises before us. This vision has to champion what philosopher Andre Gorz called a “socialist strategy of progressive reforms” which have the effect of restructuring social life by democratizing the workplace, creating non-marketized forms of social production and reproduction, and enlarging the room for more class politics, not less. In this regard there are plenty of historical precedents from which to draw inspiration and extend, including the findings of the MERG.

However, this all depends on having a strong enough social movement capable of not only seizing power, but ensuring that despite also having to manage a capitalist state in crisis if successful, its strong connection to popular forces maintains a transformative agenda with an eye to transcending capitalism. Working class hegemony of the most expansive kind has to be built from below, and this is in the form of both a new organization and an organization of a new type, one beyond the anachronistic organizational forms of the old left, and the leaderless and horizontalist ones of the new. What this looks like is difficult to prescribe. It suffices to say that either way, the task of reviving sorely lacking institutions that are entrenched in working class life, such as mass worker education programs and socialist schools, is integral. Admittedly, this has been happening in pockets in some places. But, they are largely NGO-led, fractured and confined to special interest projects at the behest of donors and budget constraints, geared towards creating new legions of professional activists to sustain the legacy of this or that organization instead of constructing broader class hegemony. This, and the gatekeeping tendencies that come with it, have to be overcome.

The world is in no revolutionary situation, but it is one that presents many prospects for the left. Chileans are in the streets chanting: “Chile has woken and it will not sleep again.” A latecomer once more, it is time for South Africa to wake up as well. The final question then, is not how, or where, or when neoliberalism will end, but if it will. As Stahl reminds us, “If we should draw one lesson from history, it is the astonishing ability of capitalism to overcome crisis, transform itself and emerge in new institutional forms.” On the other hand, capitalism has no natural tendency towards stability, and so interregnums can last indefinitely without resolution. In circumstances not of our own choosing, history can still be made, but it is up to us to birth the new.

Before his passing, on August 31 last year, the radical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein wrote his final commentary in July. Titled “This is the end; this is the beginning,” it ends with a passage that bears constant repeating in the new decade:

So, the world might go down further by-paths. Or it may not. I have indicated in the past that I thought the crucial struggle was a class struggle, using class in a very broadly defined sense. What those who will be alive in the future can do is struggle with themselves so this change may be a real one. I still think that and therefore I think there is a 50-50 chance that we’ll make it to transformatory change, but only 50-50.

The time for defeatism is over. The left must take its chances.

Further Reading