Capitalism in crisis

Capitalism is not dead. But it is severely ill and its chronic contagion is spreading through the economic and social fibres of the world. However, it can be saved and resurrected, but only at the cost of a massive transfusion of blood, sweat, suffering and destruction. Such is the nature of a system based on competition and where material profit is the over-riding priority.

Once before, when this illness struck severely in 1929, the system was able to revive only via the massive expansion of the production of arms and ammunition and the subsequent use of these in the destruction of large parts of the infrastructure of Europe and Asia. The rebuilding of much that had been destroyed saw crippled sections of the planet exhibit renewed economic vigour.

Capitalism was revived, both in the form of regulated free enterprise and centralised, state control. An era of phenomenal technical innovation dawned and, fuelled by increasingly tough competition, a globalised city, with a number of unevenly developed suburbs, of which South Africa is one, began to emerge.

At the same time, much more aware and confident populations in various parts of the world, horrified by war and inequality, demanded a better life and their rights as human beings. From Europe and the Americas to the colonial regimes in Africa and parts of Asia, the call was “never again” and for greater personal freedom and democratic control.

Faced with this reality, often accompanied by militant action, the financial elites and the governments that largely serve their interests, made concessions. Social welfare systems were introduced, colonies gained political independence and the world embarked on an unprecedented economic boom. Even as growth figures soared, with new markets opening up and new products appearing, there were voices warning of a future – and probably inevitable – collapse.

These voices were on the margins of the mainstream, and were largely ignored when they pointed out the competitive demands of the system, coupled with technical innovation, meant fewer people were being employed as greater surpluses were generated; that this contradiction spelled future crisis. But the global economy, the heart and soul of capitalism, continued to expand. It did so on the basis of a massive extension of credit that few – even among the doomsayers – had foreseen.

Now that credit bubble has burst and the tangled web of futures and derivatives that also helped, artificially, to keep capitalism on its feet, have become toxic, poisoning the system that gave them life. Even that leading praise singer of the system, the International Monetary Fund appears, perhaps belatedly, to acknowledge that tougher times lie ahead. This means, of course, more dislocation of social systems and the ongoing degradation of the biosphere as 2012 gets under way.

The response of the elites – the 1 per cent according to protesters in the US – has been to demand either more economic regulation or less, to focus on issues such as crime and, together with many politicians, to call for a return to mythical “traditional values” or for “moral regeneration”. The victims of the systemic disorder – the 99 percent in US protest terms – are therefore to blame because of a claimed loss of moral fibre. Or governments are accused of damaging an inherently sound system by applying policies that were either too free or not free enough.

But individuals and groups who possess great wealth and have an interest in preserving the status quo are also shoring up their financial positions against troubled times. This is evident in the huge remuneration packages executives are paying themselves, as well as in one of the shrewdest business sell-offs of last year – the retreat of the Oppenheimer family from the De Beers diamond cartel. In the present circumstances there seems little chance that the cartel will be able to restrict the flow of diamonds to the market as states, companies and individuals with access to the gems try to cash in on their own behalf and prices collapse.

Given this reality, the elites and the politicians provide no answers and instead apply often frantic ad hoc measures to shore up collapsing banks or national economies. However, the plethora of protest movements, ranging from the Arab Spring and the street battles in Athens to the Occupy Wall Street protests, have also not provided any clear way forward. They continue to concentrate on fragmented policy palliatives, such as demands for housing and service delivery to free elections in Egypt, halting carbon emissions the pillage of marine resources. But this does indicate that these often community-based mass movements want a greater say in decisions that affect them.

However, by concentrating on often single economic, environmental and social policies, appealing to and through the very structures that have overseen or acquiesced in the development of the present crisis, they stand little chance of achieving much. An holistic approach is needed, yet only a minority of the protest movements are demanding anything approximating comprehensive reform. Almost invariably, protest groups see the staffing of existing political structures with new faces and parties as the way forward.

We, in South Africa, saw a good example of this at Polokwane in 2007. And the thousands of “unrest incidents” reported by the police over recent years also provide good examples of the fragmented nature of the demands and the reliance on what is still widely thought of as a democratic political dispensation. It is not. Placing a cross on a ballot paper every five years in order to hand over political control to a party bureaucracy is democratic only in that voters willingly forgo the potential power they, collectively, have. A constituency system is marginally better, but unless the authority is vested, on an ongoing basis, with the majority of citizens, what we have, at best, is a partial democracy.

The interests of politicians, many of who move seamlessly from political office to the boardrooms of big business, lie not with the voters, but with party bureaucracies. And these bureaucracies rely for much of their funding on the financial elites whose fundamental interests are diametrically opposed to those of the majority of the population. They who pay the piper tend always to call the tune.

So, in order to have the best chance of achieving egalitarian goals such as those set out in the South African Bill of Rights, democracy should be realised to its fullest extent; rule by the people, the definition of the term given to the world by Athenian Greece, should be implemented.

The questions are: is this possible and, if so, how can it be achieved? Since systems of direct democracy have existed in the past, usually on a village level, in Africa and elsewhere, the possibility exists. Co-operative governance, without chiefs or hereditary rulers, has been practised in areas as diverse as the Eastern Cape and Iceland. Regular assemblies, in many cases admittedly only of men, would be called to discuss and decide on policies and actions to be taken by the community and for the community. Where necessary, representatives, wholly accountable to, and recallable by, the community would be elected to carry out specific functions.

Communication is the essence here and it is readily pointed out that millions can hardly be gathered together on a regular basis to discuss and make decisions; that the partial democracy we have, is the only answer. It is not. Courtesy of modern technology, it is feasible for every citizen to be kept informed, to discuss all issues and to decide on appropriate action. All this requires is organisation within an agreed framework of principles and goals, along with a programme of action aimed at achieving such goals. Such a framework and the broad goals are adequately provided for by the Bill of Rights.

Trade unions, religious, community and civic organisations already meet regularly to discuss, debate and decide on matters of parochial concern. A properly networked communications systems utilising internet and cellphone technology could mean they could be directly involved in – and make decisions about – all matters of concern to themselves as citizens. The principle that every individual should have the right to freedom of thought, deed and action provided that, in the exercise of such freedom, they do not impinge on the rights of anyone else, is already established in principle. Egalitarian goals regarding everything from food, shelter, water and health care to education are also outlined in the Bill of Rights.

We also have the material and human resources available to achieve these, but only if we are prepared to upend the existing system of minority control and if we are prepared to prioritise the rights of people rather than the pursuit of profit. It is possible. And it can be done through the existing system.

At the very least, at this time of global crisis, it is an idea that deserves the serious consideration of all who care about the future of humanity and of the planet.

l Terry Bell is a writer, editor and broadcaster specialising in political, economic and labour analysis.