Much ink has been spilt attempting to explain South Africa’s economic malaise, but there seems to me still far too little appreciation of the chronic ideological illness infecting every corner of state policy: Marxism.
Over the past 10-15 years, the South African economic system has ceased to be an environment of widespread economic betterment and now is better characterised as a fiefdom for legal and illegal plunder by state technocrats and opportunistic cronies at the expense of vigorous, organic, inclusive economic dynamism.
There are two kinds of denial in operation in South Africa whereby blaming Marxism is being avoided. The first kind is deliberately deceptive, where intellectual Marxists aim to deflect attention away from the radically collectivist agenda of the ANC’s National Democratic Revolution. “Marxism” and “socialism”, as ideological monikers, carry the baggage of great misery, so the ploy is to deepen socialism within South Africa without naming it as such to avert a loss of political and social credibility.
The second kind of Marxism denial among intellectual elites is naïve. It looks at present-day South Africa and sees nothing of what 1924 Russia must have been. There is no political dictatorship, no gulags, no ban on emigration, but rather ostensible constitutional democracy, private property and global financial and trade integration.
Like any ideology, Marxism and socialism have evolved with a very shrewd 21st Century facelift. I call it “technocratic socialism”, underpinned by “Marxism 2.0.”
By the 1960s, Marxism 1.0 had been thoroughly discredited by Joseph Stalin’s heinous body count. Meanwhile, living standards of the ordinary man in the much freer West had surged ahead in the post-War boom. Many formerly committed Western Marxists abandoned ship, but some dug in and recalibrated Marxist thought in such a way as to repackage it for a new, gullible audience. There seems to have been at least two key pivots that helped create Marxism 2.0. Firstly, it subordinated the idea of the class struggle in light of evidence from freer market systems of good class relations and unprecedented income, wealth and lifestyle upward mobility of the common man. So, instead, Marxist intellectuals promoted insurmountable social antagonisms and alienation – gender and race conflict as opposed to a surmountable class conflict. The supposedly dominant gender or racial identity group replaced the bourgeoisie, and the proletariat became all other identity groups who could claim disadvantage or oppression. Hierarchy of control over the means of production was arguably subordinated to the hierarchy of identity group oppression or power.
The second key pivot to Marxism 2.0 was that state ownership of the means of production was abandoned in favour of state control of the means of production. Socialists discovered that ownership is not a title deed but effective control. Rather than take on the arduous task of seizing and running whole industries, technocratic socialists leave this up to private owners and then swoop in with taxes and regulations to skim off the lucre after the hard work has been done.
This is the modus operandi of technocratic socialists derived from the intellectual base of Marxism 2.0. Technocratic socialism has many features of fascism, which similarly aimed at state economic control through regulation and suasion and too promulgated a social hierarchy, furthered and entrenched by overt state power. In this sense, technocratic socialism merges the most insidious aspects of socialism and fascism while discarding their most odious such as the doctrine of racial supremacy (fascism) or the doctrine of seizing all private property (Leninism).
Technocratic socialism is more marketable than old-style fascism and socialism, which has served to mask the true ideological goal and policy stance of the ANC. This ideology is fundamentally a form of totalitarian state control of the economy and society achieved patiently over a period of a few decades. We can see evidence of this totalitarianism in the roughly 220 pages of doctrine issued for the recent ANC policy conference in June/July 2017. These rambling documents envision the ANC as the sole ‘progressive force’ in South African society, on which the hopes and dreams of the majority naturally rest and around which all economic activity must coalesce. In its documents, the ANC speaks of South Africa as a “giant social laboratory”, and that ANC objectives are “informed by the strategic posture to build a new civilisation”.
The ANC does not see itself as occupying merely an impartial governance role within which free South Africans can pursue life, liberty, and happiness, but rather as the arbiter of first and last resort in economic, political, and social life. It cannot resist meddling in sport, arts, speech, hiring, firing, buying, selling, product standards, private schooling, private transactions, offshore transactions, personal consumption choices, charity, adoption, title deed, and sundry other things.
It is no surprise then that we see South Africa failing to advance up global economic freedom rankings, why labour markets are generally regarded as hopelessly unfree (and combative), and why the ease of doing business continues to decline each year. These and other indicators of too much state control and too little private enterprise are to be fully expected in a technocratic socialist state. Also to be fully expected are the results. South Africa’s economy is grossly underperforming its emerging market peers, all of whom also experienced the global financial crisis in 2008/09 and many of whom are also heavily exposed to the recent fall in commodity prices. The financial crisis and falling commodity prices are routinely trotted out by government policymakers as scapegoats for the economy’s woeful sclerosis over the past ten years, but this is shameless and spurious blame-mongering. The fact is that many global peers have managed to perform well despite these setbacks.
It is time to place front and centre a conversation about the destructiveness of ANC socialism disguised in new clothes: technocratic socialism. This ideology, intellectually underpinned by the cunning and insidious pivot of Marxism 2.0, is grinding the South African economy into the dust. A structural, long-term recession has set in, signified by the long term decline in the average South African’s global purchasing power. Moreover, this technocratic socialism is a feature of the ANC, not a bug. It is larger than President Jacob Zuma or any other individual or personality. It is the ANC’s essence, rooted in the Freedom Charter, emotionally bound up with Soviet support during Apartheid, entrenched by racial identity politics and a racial alienation narrative, and enlivened by its members who preach it, teach it, and believe it.
The spectre of a great and devastating economic calamity looms over South Africa. It is not inevitable, but, to avoid it, we need to expose and undermine a grave threat in our midst. That threat is not businesspeople, who provide valuable products and services at significant risk. It is not foreign investors, who provide the savings that South Africans are unable or unwilling to provide. It is not civil society, which shows the path toward peaceful, voluntary, organic community and social order. It is not the ‘informal sector’, the holes through which the hyper-regulated economy breathes. It is not workers marching for more pay, who are merely pawns of union thug leaders and government cronies. It is not poor, rural-dwelling South Africans on social welfare, who have been systematically marginalised, barred, and disempowered from participating in owning and using land, getting entry-level work, and gaining useful knowledge.
The grave threat is a small but powerful Marxist ruling class and its fawning bourgeois acolytes that wish to mould and shape South Africa according to their ideological image and whimsy. These totalitarians can do untold damage. Their ideology has no limiting principle and no regard for empirical feedback. It is a faith. A dogma. A religion. Their ousting or nullification would not only help avert a great disaster but would be a tremendous leap forward in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness on the southern tip of Africa.
Author Russell Lamberti is founder of and strategist at ETM Macro Advisors, and co-author of When Money Destroys Nations. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.