Patriotism is no answer to a flawed system

Posted on October 8, 2011


Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. So said the English writer and lexicographer, Samuel Johnson. But he was badly served by his biographer, James Boswell who quoted this dictum. Because Johnson actually distinguished between what he saw as true and false patriotism, the true being that which served the “common good”, the false that which served individual or sectarian goals.

This seems to be the same distinction made by the labour movement in its recent, regular, calls for patriotic action by business, workers and consumers. However, this is rarely spelled out and is further confused as both sides of the labour market coin, organised employers and organised employees, indulge equally in the patriotic fervour surrounding the Bokke.

This nationalistic and tribal tub thumping about sport is justified on the basis that it plays a role in “nation building”. Yet the employers and the sellers of labour once again differ as to what this actually means.

From a trade union perspective, it is imperative that workers unite as workers, irrespective of gender, language or any other differences while, at the same time, the inherent class divide between workers and bosses remains. This is not an opinion shared by bosses and many politicians, who tend to stress arguments devoid of class content.

Arguments from the employer side that “we’re all in the same boat” tend to be used to try to get workers to accept pay cuts, more flexible labour laws and austerity measures in order to maintain the profitability of business. From a labour viewpoint, this is false patriotism; it is designed to make the workers pay to maintain a system that makes a minority rich and the majority poor; that has increased greatly the wage and welfare gap.

On the other hand, what the unions see as truly patriotic actions would create decent jobs, all with a guaranteed “living wage” and put an end to casualisation and temporary work. These are admirable, probably wholly unachievable, goals, but totally contradictory to a fundamental principle of labour, that an injury to one is an injury to all — and that this includes workers the world over.

Having fallen prey to patriotism, the labour movement tends, by and large, to define the common good as extending only to the citizens — primarily the poor — of South Africa. It is a glaring contradiction that has surfaced more frequently in recent months as the effects the global economic crisis continue to impact locally.

However, patriotism, sometimes in the form of a narrow nationalism, is no new phenomenon within the international labour movement. And South Africa probably holds the record for the most bizarre version of this contradiction.

It arrived on the scene in Gauteng in 1922 during the strike and armed rebellion by white miners when the South African Air Force was called in to machine gun and bomb the strikers. The slogan then displayed was: Workers of the world unite — for a white South Africa. The slogan then displayed was: Workers of the world unite — for a white South Africa.

The Benoni trades hall that displayed that slogan was bombed, but not because of the sentiment expressed which, at the time, was widely shared by those in power. Today the call is for all South African workers to unite, which is an obvious improvement.

However, this demanded unity is aimed at encouraging the purchase of local products in order to boost local business and so maintain local jobs, presumably at the expense of other jobs in competing countries. Employers agree, which is why many of them, along with the unions, back the Proudly South African campaign.

But they know that most South Africans, however patriotic they may seem, see price as a critical factor; that consumers are unlikely to tax themselves in the name of patriotism. So employers use the same, buy local, argument as labour, but to demand pay cuts and relaxed labour laws in order to make local products more competitive.

Or, especially in the garment industry, to threaten to move to other countries, something labour cannot do. It was this mobility of capital that created the principle of an injury to one being an injury to all along with the dictum: act local, think global.

However, as the economic crisis deepens, there are now more talks, seminars and bosberade being staged as trade unions, employers, state bureaucrats, politicians and academics try to make sense of what is happening — and what to do about it. Unfortunately, the various macro remedies suggested seem, for the most part, to be repetitions of failed policies involving regulation or deregulation of the existing system.

But a common theme usually emerges in such talk shops: the need for South Africans to be better educated, skilled and efficient. The unions see this as a passage toward decent work and wages, the employers as a means to be more competitive.

In a world where supply did not exceed demand, both would be correct; in the present situation of gluts, debts and capital intensivity, the goals seem naive. However, on a local level, both are desirable and achievable. But this means questioning the whole basis of government policy, especially regarding the Skills Education and Training Authorities (Setas) that are financed by more than R2 billion in levies a year.

As Thapelo Molapo, a vice president at Toyota South Africa told a Chamber of Commerce symposium in Durban last week, Seta training has resulted in the production of “accelerated artisans”, young people who complete short courses that ill prepare them for the world of work. Professor Justin Barnes, a specialist in industrial best practice, agreed.

Barnes also pointed out that relatively high wages and more rigid labour laws did not necessarily affect competitiveness. He noted that labour laws in Turkey were more rigid and that wages, averaging some R6 000 a month, were much higher than in South Africa. Yet Turkey had a thriving garment industry employing a million workers.

Such comments hopefully will result in practical local steps, to an awareness that the global system is fatally flawed — and that patriotism is no answer.