Marx­ism no magic bul­let

Sin­gle cure will not fix South Africa’s li­tany of prob­lems in one shot

Weekend Post (South Africa) - - OPINION -

WHEN I was at uni­ver­sity in Dur­ban in the early 1980s, al­most all of the most in­ter­est­ing lec­tur­ers were Marx­ists.

This wasn’t just in the so­ci­ol­ogy depart­ment ei­ther – though that was, of course, Marx­ist cen­tral.

My favourite English lec­turer was a Marx­ist, my African stud­ies lec­tur­ers were Marx­ists (ob­vi­ously), and even the eco­nom­ics depart­ment was kind of Marx­ist.

My won­der­ful mu­sic pro­fes­sor was, you guessed it, Marx­ist.

The very real fight against apartheid needed an in­tel­lec­tual foun­da­tion that could elu­ci­date the frac­tious so­cial predica­ment in which we found our­selves, and hold out a prom­ise for the fu­ture. Rather like now. All of this old his­tory came rush­ing back to me on the 200th an­niver­sary of Karl Marx’s death last week­end.

By the 1990s the su­pe­ri­or­ity of free-mar­ket coun­tries, not just for the rich but for the poor, was be­com­ing un­de­ni­able.

By a fluke the global ar­gu­ment had turned into a so­cial ex­per­i­ment – two coun­tries, one in the East, one in the West, had been di­vided in two.

One half of both Ger­many and Korea had de­cided to go cap­i­tal­ist, the other half com­mu­nist, just as you would if you were con­duct­ing a sci­en­tific study.

The re­sult was not just grind­ing poverty on the com­mu­nist side but also au­toc­racy, cruel re­pres­sion, queues for ev­ery­thing, lim­i­ta­tions on thought and cre­ativ­ity and end­less lies.

There were some so­cial im­prove­ments, but they were oblit­er­ated by deathly fail­ure, famines and jails ev­ery­where.

On the other side of the wall there were plenty of prob­lems, but free­dom and cre­ativ­ity bloomed in the di­ver­sity.

Ev­ery­where – in science, tech­nol­ogy, the arts, and, im­por­tantly, busi­ness.

Marx’s world seemed then a dis­as­trous and hor­ri­ble mis­take.

And yet Marx­ism has made a come­back, par­tic­u­larly in SA.

The prom­ise of a glo­ri­ous rev­o­lu­tion that solves all so­cial ills is too tan­ta­lis­ing to pass up.

Even if it isn’t called Marx­ism, you can see it heav­ily in­flu­enc­ing EFF poli­cies, many ANC politi­cians and not a few who call them­selves lib­er­als.

They sup­port state banks, heav­ily state-owned mines and the ridicu­lous idea of a sov­er­eign wealth fund. (How can a gov­ern­ment that bor­rows R500-mil­lion a day sud­denly start what is in ef­fect a na­tional sav­ings fund? It’s just ab­surd).

The guid­ing light here is Marx­ism, or per­haps more ac­cu­rately Marx­ist-Lenin­ism; a su­per-pow­er­ful state dom­i­nat­ing the econ­omy, glo­ri­ously push­ing parts of it around as if they are chess pieces, pro­vid­ing end­less jobs against a ra­tio­nal plan.

“Let the rul­ing classes trem­ble at a com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion.

“The pro­le­tar­i­ans have noth­ing to lose but their chains.” Heady stuff. Yet, all wrong.

Marx’s big­gest fail­ure was tech­ni­cal; he pre­dicted that the rate of profit would con­tin­u­ally fall since com­pa­nies would com­pete each other out of ex­is­tence, and it would all come crash­ing down in dev­as­ta­tion.

In­stead, Adam Smith’s con­trary vi­sion of in­di­vid­u­als seek­ing their own ben­e­fit, in­ad­ver­tently help­ing each other move for­ward to­wards a bet­ter and, im­por­tantly, more moral uni­verse proved true.

The rate of profit did fall, but popped up again some­where else, and some­one else took ad­van­tage of that, and so on.

Cap­i­tal­ism turned out to be a bub­bling stew, its ex­cesses re­formed by demo­cratic con­sen­sus and leg­isla­tive in­ter­ven­tions. Yet, Marx­ism has re­mained. As an ar­ti­cle in The Econ­o­mist pointed out re­cently, his ideas are now more rel­e­vant than they have been for decades.

The post-war con­sen­sus that shifted power from cap­i­tal to labour and pro­duced a “great com­pres­sion” in liv­ing stan­dards is fad­ing.

Glob­al­i­sa­tion and the rise of a vir­tual econ­omy are pro­duc­ing a ver­sion of cap­i­tal­ism that once more seems to be out of con­trol, the mag­a­zine noted.

Marx’s ar­gu­ment that cap­i­tal­ism is es­sen­tially rent-seek­ing doesn’t seem to­tally out of place in a world in which many man­agers get paid enor­mous amounts for do­ing very lit­tle, where politi­cians get end­less back-han­ders, where bankers and lawyers de­vise schemes to insert them­selves into ev­ery kind of money flow.

For South African politi­cians, the pull of these ideas leads them into a ter­ri­ble trap: the no­tion that there is a magic bul­let out there that can fix all our prob­lems in one shot.

But there is no magic bul­let. We all want what is best for us all.

South Africans need to gen­er­ate some con­fi­dence, self-be­lief and joy in their bub­bling stew, as unique and dif­fi­cult as it is.

ý Tim Co­hen is the Busi­ness Day se­nior ed­i­tor. This ar­ti­cle was first pub­lished in the Busi­ness Day.

TIM CO­HEN

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