Oh, when will they ever learn? It’s the last line in every stanza of a famous Pete Seeger anti-war song. And it was wholly appropriate in South Africa last week as we digested the latest GDP figures against a background of ongoing crisis especially in the steel, mining and manufacturing sectors. Along with, of course, the continuing collapse of the rand.
Readers of this column should not be surprised at what is happening. Because I have consistently echoed the work of a number of leading international economists who analysed the real economy and who looked at the facts without ideological blinkers.
As such, they recognised that a severe and long-term crisis was coming. What most did not foresee was the lunatic extension of credit to individuals, companies, corporations and governments. This delayed the onset of the crisis — and made it even worse when this credit bubble started deflating.
Belatedly, there is some recognition, especially by government and the labour movement in South Africa that, along with the rest of the world, we may be on the cusp of a disaster. So, locally, there are emergency bi and trilateral meetings that appear mainly to be looking at ad hoc measures to cushion looming blows; measures that, in many cases, should have been applied years ago.
Internationally, pressure from majorities groping for change has also seen the emergence of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales in South America, the politically messy Syriza coalition in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the prospect of long-time left winger, Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party in Britain.
Underlying it all is the simple fact that the world’s technological progress has outstripped the global economic and social system. This has resulted in the world entering an absurd period of over production and over capacity. Automation — which could liberate humanity from drudgery — is also rapidly making jobs across the board redundant.
China, very much in the news, has now entered a degree of crisis. This is because it is part and parcel of the same global economic system, one based on competition and the accumulation of profit.
Competition can be on a local, regional, national or transnational basis. In this system, surplus wealth should be accumulated in order, ideally, to invest to better compete. The greedy grab of massive executive pay and bonuses is, in effect, thieving from the system whether ownership is in private hands, is shareholder based or state controlled.
However, the mere redistribution of obscene levels of executive pay would not provide any answer either to the suffering of the unemployed and poorly paid or to the wellbeing of companies. And, in times of crisis and uncertainty about even executive jobs, those in any position to bolster their financial positions often readily do so.
But the huge and growing wage and welfare gap is an emotional factor that provides a clear example that the system is one of us and them; of those who sell their labour in order to survive and those who benefit from such labour. And both sides — the vast majority who are employed or unemployed and the small minority of real beneficiaries — are trapped within the system.
Looking at all the available evidence, it appears that the only way this system can survive is by making most of humanity redundant, causing a slide, already evident in several regions, into barbarism. At the same time, the pillage and plunder of the natural environment continues, with consequences we can only guess at.
Tinkering with policies is no answer although this can delay or cushion the onset of more severe effects. Nor does it seem that there is any answer in looking to individual saviours or the promises of political parties.
Since it is clearly in the interests of the majority that change should come, then let the majority decide within a human rights framework and after being given access to all available information. In South Africa, the framework exists in the Bill of Rights and, globally, the means of communication is readily to hand in cellular and computer technology.
The very developments that are currently causing suffering could become the means to collective — and truly democratic — decision making.