Economic Thoughts: The Zuma era Reinterpreted

In our never-ending quest to understand our times and be better prepared for what might still be coming, if at all feasible (forewarned being forearmed?), we sometimes have to dig deep.


Complex behaviour at variance with common sense assumptions makes it so. Why certain political paradigms, policy choices, personal behaviour that seem to be in conflict with our inherited governance structures, yielding adverse results rather than smooth functioning and high performance presumably craved by all? Our young South African condition is certainly complex enough to merit such digging, for just where do we think we are heading?


Our origins are strange, to say the least. Geographically from all over the African continent & from far beyond the seas these past few centuries, even millennia, displacing or absorbing what had gone before. And our methods of governance have even more complex origins, mostly of very recent vintage.


Our modern governance, strange to say, had its origin in a bitter distant civil war (England’s in the mid-1600s) and in the revolutionary changes that came in her wake, taking over half a century to be fully completed.


Quoting Russell throughout:


“This period saw the flowering of early liberalism, a product of England and Holland of the 17th century. Characterized by religious toleration, it was Protestant but not of the fanatical kind. It valued commerce & industry, and favoured the rising middle class rather than the monarchy and the aristocracy; it had immense respect for the rights of property, especially when accumulated by the labours of the individual possessor. The hereditary principle was restricted in scope; in particular, the divine right of kings was rejected. Implicitly, the tendency was towards democracy tempered by the rights of property.


It was believed that all men are born equal, and that their subsequent inequality is a product of circumstances, emphasizing the importance of education. There was a certain bias against government, because governments almost everywhere were in the hands of kings or aristocracies, who seldom either understood or respected the needs of merchants, but this bias was held in check by the hope that the necessary understanding and respect would be won before long”.


If this sounds very modern, indeed very South African, we have stayed true to some very deep roots.


“The general pattern of the liberal movements from the 17th to the 19th century was at first simple but grew gradually more complex. Distinctive of the whole movement is individualism, with its main origin in Protestantism, questioning the tenets of the Church, determining truth no longer a social but becoming an individual enterprise. Individual conclusions varied, resulting in strife, with theological decisions no longer sought from assemblies of bishops but on battlefields. With opposing views not able to extirpate each other, fighting each other to a standstill, a method was sought of reconciling intellectual & ethical individualism with ordered social life, something early liberalism attempted to solve.”


Opposing views? Fighting each other to a standstill? A new synthesis unfolding? Could that be us, too, a mere 300 years later (and by now also very tired after 70 years of fanatical nationalism….)?


“Early liberalism was individualistic in intellectual matters and in economics, but wasn’t emotionally or ethically self-assertive. It shaped the English 18th century, dominated the founders of the American Constitution, and spread to France.


Following the interruptions of the French Revolution & Napoleonic wars, it again became influential throughout the 19th century. Its greatest success can be observed in America, dominant there from 1776 to the present day”.


And of course such flowering even more widely globally following WW2. Also ultimately in SA, if very belatedly, for which reason our chaotic catchup, getting with only great difficulty to grips with proper governance stories, workable policy paradigms, corruption-free regimes?


“In the course of the 18th century, liberalism encountered competition from a new movement that gradually developed into the antithesis of liberalism. Beginning with Rousseau, it acquired strength from the romantic movements & nationality. Individualism was extended from the intellectual sphere to that of passions, anarchic aspects becoming explicit.


It was marked by dislike of early industrialism, hatred of the ugliness it produced and revulsion against its cruelties. There was nostalgia for the past, which was idealised owing to hatred of the modern world. There was an attempt to defend wage-earners against the tyranny of manufacturers. There was rebellion in the name of nationalism, and war in defence of ‘liberty’.


Such anarchism, and the cult of the hero, led to despotic government. Once established, such tyranny suppressed in others the self-assertive ethic by which it had risen to power, yielding a dictatorial State in which the individual is severely repressed.”


This brought us in the 20th century Stalin, Hitler and their many copycats, all so very different in their stifling state centralism & repression from early liberalism and its liberating freedom.


Examining modern South Africa, all these elements appear present today, with liberalism investing our Constitution, modern socialism present in powerful labour unions, and in certain government policies, with the communist party today contributing many leading members of government, injecting in recent years their collective thinking along a wide front into society.


Yet there is more, especially when going further back in time, preceding the onset of liberalism & and its governance tenets.


How much power should the State have? According to Hobbes, the powers of the State should be absolute. That view had historic origins.


“Every community is faced with two dangers, anarchy & despotism. Hobbes, having experienced the conflict of rival fanaticism (during the British civil war of the mid-1600s), was obsessed by the fear of anarchy. The Puritans during that same conflict were most taken by the danger of despotism.


The liberal philosophers who came after the English Restoration (in the late 1600s) realised both dangers. Locke favoured the doctrine of division of powers, and of checks & balances. In England there was a real division of powers so long as the King had influence; then Parliament became supreme, and ultimately the Cabinet. In America, there are still checks & balances in so far Congress and the Supreme Court can resist the Administration.”


These elements are also present in our SA Constitution.


“The reason that Hobbes gave for supporting the State, namely that it is the only alternative to anarchy, is in the main a valid one. A State may, however, be so bad that temporary anarchy seems preferable to its continuance. The tendency of every government towards tyranny cannot be kept in check unless governments have some fear of rebellion. Governments would be worse than they are if Hobbes’s submissive attitude were universally adopted.


This is true in the political sphere, where governments will try, if they can, to make themselves personally irremovable; it is true in the economic sphere, where they will try to enrich themselves and their friends at the public expense; it is true in the intellectual sphere, where they will suppress every new discovery or doctrine that seems to menace their power.


These are the reasons for not thinking only of the risk of anarchy, but also of the danger of injustice & ossification that is bound up with omnipotence in government.”


Having said all that, is our SA condition yet more complex?


Russell, in his introduction, makes a point about the Middle Ages, with reference to the late Roman Empire, that sounds vaguely familiar even to modern ears.


Discussing the conflicts of the European Middle Ages (1100-1500), he states:


“The conflict between Church & State was not only a conflict between clergy & laity; it was also a renewal of the conflict between the Mediterranean world & the northern barbarians.”


He goes on to say:


“The unity of the Church (in the Middle Ages) echoed the unity of the (earlier) Roman Empire; its liturgy was Latin, and its dominant men mostly Italian, Spanish or southern French. Their (reviving) education was classical; their conceptions of law and government would have been more intelligible to Marcus Aurelius than they were to contemporary monarchs. The Church represented at once continuity with the past and what was most civilized in the present.”


Think of our liberal Constitution, whose principles were also handed down to us from a very distant past, as discussed earlier.


“The secular power (in the Middle Ages), on the contrary, was in the hands of kings & barons of Teutonic descent, who endeavoured to preserve what they could of the institutions that they had brought out of the forests of Germany. Absolute power was alien to those institutions, and so was what appeared to these vigorous conquerors as a dull & spiritless legality. The king had to share his power with the feudal aristocracy, but all alike expected to be allowed occasional outbursts of passion in the form of war, murder, pillage or rape. Monarchs might repent, for they were sincerely pious. But the Church could never produce in them the quiet regularity of good behaviour which a modern employer demands, and usually obtains, of his employees.


What was the use of conquering the world if they could not drink and murder and love as the spirit moved them? And why should they, with their armies of proud knights, submit to the orders of bookish men?”


Though our modern mayhem today is on a more subdued scale, one does see the outline of our liberal governance structures colliding with the free spirits of the conquering multitude claiming its rightful inheritance, also in modern SA.


Another imperfect scrum tangling with incompatible strands, taking forever to get sorted.


These historic parallels seem to indicate that we, too, may have some distance to go in all fitting snugly into our modern governance strictures and more smoothly finding our collective way. Hope you have the time…