The global deficit is democracy

Posted on September 5, 2020


The stark, frightening reality of the consequences of Covid-19 and the reactions to it are becoming increasingly obvious. And no more so than in the estimates for the rate of unemployment in a country already recognised the world’s worst in the jobless stakes.

An official level of 50% – half the adult population between the ages of 15 and 60 – being out of work is projected in some quarters. But whether it be a post Covid 3 million or 1 million additional women and men losing their jobs is irrelevant: either way, the situation is critical.

And if we consider that – at a most conservative estimate – at least three to four individuals, many of them young children, rely on each wage earner, we face the horrific prospect of anywhere between 3 and 12 million more people facing hunger and probable homelessness.

The social fabric is already badly torn, resulting in more unrest, land invasions and more acts of desperation that add to soaring crime statistics. This causes not just the wealthy to panic; it can drive many of those who have a little into the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) laager, fearful of those who have nothing.

This, in turn raises the prospect of the majority welcoming authoritarianism: the police state, run by the same political class, backed by the same beneficiaries. In other words, the same system reset, although without any pretence at being equitable or just.

This prospect raises again the argument that it would be wrong – perhaps disastrous – to rely on the very beneficiaries of a broken system to try to repair it. Especially since it is a system designed, for all the protestations to the contrary, to benefit a minority.

Even the much hailed “father of free market capitalism”, Adam Smith, would probably recognise it as such. Because Smith, primarily a moral philosopher, thought inherent goodness – an “invisible hand – would bring supply and demand into equilibrium to the benefit of all. Which was one of the reasons he supported the effective ban on shareholder companies in 18th Century Britain.

Karl Marx developed his economic theories on the basis of the work done by Smith and another British economist, David Ricardo, both of whom developed the labour theory of value for which Marx is usually credited. However Marx argued that a system based on private ownership and competition would lead to the exploitation of the many by the few; that it was not morality, but democracy that would provide the answer to how the modern industrial economy could benefit the majority.

The answer therefore, lies with democracy, with rule by the majority to the benefit of the majority. Instead, what we have, within proclaimed democratic states – South Africa being an excellent example – are electoral systems, often heavily financed by the economic elite, in which the majority vote to hand over power to the bosses of a political party.

This promotes cadre deployment and nepotism, along with jobs and tenders for friends and family because elected representatives are not answerable to the voters. There is a growing feeling that this not only can, but must, be changed.

As Federation of Unions (Fedusa) president Masale Selematsela notes: “The political landscape must be changed, especially at local government level. And that should apply not only to councillors, but to officials and administrators.”

Across the board unions now tend to recognise that cadre deployment, based on what is, effectively, an undemocratic system, is largely responsible for the corruption, maladministration and incompetence in the majority of municipalities. But so far there has only been some talk about combining with community, religious and other organisations to establish “grassroots control” after next year’s local government elections.

Perhaps, given the seriousness of the situation and the level of disgruntlement with established political parties, attempts may be made in some areas, if not nationally, to elect councillors fully answerable to – and recallable by – the voters in their wards. However, for nearly 30 years, there have been practical suggestions put forward from within the labour movement that have simply fallen by the wayside.

At a national level, one of the most far-reaching was the proposal, put forward in 1993 by Moeletsi Mbeki and supported by the National Union of Metalworkers. This was that the unions put their massive pension and provident fund savings into a building society/bank that could buy up housing stock – Hillbtow in Johannesburg was mentioned at the time – for both sale and rental to workers.

It was argued that such a scheme would enable workers to be given a better deal and help to integrate society while also ensuring a decent return on investment without the level of exploitation implicit in the stock market. While it was turned down at the time as being”too capitalistic”, many of the unions subsequently went on the form decidedly capitalistic investment companies.

Then, of course, there were the redistributive macro economic policy proposals in the Social Equity and Job Creation document agreed by the combined labour movement. the 1996. These were simply ignored.

Many unions also supported the concept of labour intensive infrastructure development. They argued that all state projects should be awarded on the basis of the maximum use of labour; that the bulk of the cost of any project should go to workers and not to private companies, whether tenderpreneurs or otherwise.

Union involvement in the establishment of community vegetable gardens was also mooted 16 years ago, while schools as community hubs, governed and used on a collective basis, was a proposal that was shown to work. Sadly, the development of schools as educational, social and developmental hubs for the community was often opposed by elements within teacher unions.

However, this and a number of other concepts developed from workplaces and within unions have proved useful and workable. Given the crisis now confronting us, we should not only be discussing them, we should be deciding how best to implement those that we need right now.