Between decisiveness and compassion

By Ari Sitas

Decisive leadership is needed to balance the tension between ‘living rights’ –the right to ‘stay safe’– and ‘livelihoods’ – the right to earn the money– and to steer us towards a more just and equal society. Such leadership must take us beyond the dispensation created by conditions early on in our democracy that resulted in GEAR and foreign investment and redistribution upwards, leaving structural conditions untouched. We can’t go back to that normal and expect to progress. What we need is a new paradigm that involves the transformation of our enduring structural limitations, one that is based on compassion, the concept of ‘humanitude’ and above all on multilateral cooperation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into focus a serious tension between living rights and livelihoods. It need not be a contradictory tension, if managed properly: preferably self-managed by people in the community and the workplace with the support of the state.

What I mean by ‘living rights’ is the right, for example, to be protected from infection, the right not to be bombed, the right not to be violated, the right to live. In (primarily) black working class communities, the material compulsion is to try and achieve a balance between living rights and livelihoods, but under severe strains.

Most black working-class people understand lockdown and the need for protection but they need to earn money. They also understand the tension between living rights and livelihoods much better than any politician or funded person who speaks for them or uses them as an alibi.

Even if the compulsion to restore the livelihoods of the past is pressing, it would be a major setback if the post-Covid world returns to the conditions that made our macro-economic choices between 1994 and 1996 plausible.

Remember, we chose what we could call an ‘accumulation path’ because we believed that the structural conditions demanded an export-led growth and therefore GATT, and therefore WTO, and therefore GEAR.

What were those structural conditions? That our emergence as a mass-producing industrial society rode on the back of racial domination and the low consumption norms of a predominantly black working class. It made the cars it could not purchase and drive, it made the casspirs that chased it in the township. Mass production was achieved not only through the Iscors but also through local content programmes and tariffs. Right? Are we still in the same country? Yes. It was asserted that the structural constraint was that we were in perennial crises of overproduction.

The other school of thought said no, it was underconsumption. The debate will continue in seminar rooms for a while. The dominant answer though was: get lean and mean and join the world economy. I said we chose the path, although there were other options. The balance between living rights and livelihoods needs a decisive state to steer it towards another dispensation. I say ‘we’ for rhetorical purposes just to speed up the argument.

Well it was not only that.

There was a second reason punted, if my memory serves me well, that even if we stuck to growth through redistribution, the argument went – and here I am calling on all those who pushed hard for that insight to come clean ‑ that there was not enough money-capital around and we would need foreign investment.

So, we chose an accumulation path that made sure that redistribution happened upwards. Yes, lots of people were moved out of dire poverty through grants. We did not address the structural conditions; we modulated them.

We did everything by the dominant neo-classical book, didn’t we? The ‘unproductive’ state sector of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) were zero budgeted and were made accountable to the market. They had to be lean and mean and keep to state mandates: so many taps, so many plug points. (Here I am getting rather cautious: did they fail as market entities because failure is logical as long as they have a development mandate or did they fail as corrupt piratical points of capture? Or both?).

We went even further to please neo-liberal protocols: all knowledge, material goods and services in the government/public sector had to be outsourced and handled by market-linked entities. And we democratised such forms of procurement down to the last school desk in Musina or the Cape of Storms. We democratised the possibility of corruption and through the Public Finance Management Act and the various King Reports accountants and lawyers have inherited the earth whilst singing hallelujah to the heavens. This when criticism was mounting through calls for Black Economic Empowerment.

But there were some departures from the protocol: there was serious social spending, the wage/salary bill of all government and government debt was increasing which flouted orthodoxy. And, after some time, we dared put in place a minimum wage. And we do still recognise trade unions as an important social institution. And we are about to do some big social spending and we haven’t sold all bits of state when enter Moody’s to tell us to move from being a member of Donald Trump’s “shithole” countries to a junk status.

Let us put the brakes on please for a second. Global state expenditure has been increasing everywhere, despite the rhetoric in the USA and the EU of austerity and shrinkage. What has been cut are a bundle of serious social and public services ‑ the volume of money went elsewhere, to augment capital and key strategic sectors.

Yes, we need to re-awaken the economy and help it back onto its feet after quite a few years of total mismanagement, but unless we choose a different paradigm that involves the transformation of our enduring structural limitations, we will be going nowhere fast and the talk of reform will morph into a permanent riot. We do need alternative forms of economic thinking that put equality, freedom and to use a neologism, “eco-ality”, first before we talk of either structure or reform.

What do I mean by a ‘New Paradigm’? After my rage in social media against responses to our downgrade by rating agencies to junk, dozens of e-messages poured my way. Most people pushed hard for an answer: if indeed there was a need for a new paradigm, what should the paradigm be?

That is precisely the question that should be answered by serious networks of socio-economic thinkers and pundits who understand and start addressing systemic and polarising constraints whilst responding to major hazards and crises. It can never be achieved by one or two people or a politically crafted vanguard of praise singers.

What I can submit is that there should be principles underlining any new paradigm before we can even start talking about it. The pandemic demonstrated two facts clearly: we did need decisive leadership that combined science with compassion. By ‘science I mean the proximate know-how we can glean from our knowledge systems. By ‘compassion’, a moral core that prioritises human flourishing (not mere survival).

Decisive leadership: although I was and have been known to be a bottom-up, participatory democrat I submit that our enduring crises demand strong leadership. Even here I would insist on an inclusive ‘vanguardism’ (excuse the word, it is there merely to provoke.) Enduring crises ‑ there is the health crisis now, the climate and ecosystems crisis simmering below our radar, the inequality crisis that has become endemic ‑ all demand decisiveness and compassion.[2]

If compassion is important the methods used to act have to be about a moral ‘compass’ too. What the military and police have been enforcing within their scary powers could have been achieved by social movements, labour and community volunteers and, to use another military metaphor but one that has currency in social movements, ‘marshalls’, supported by our ‘enforcers’. What started well though in government’s response moved from science to sophistry and a pathetic rerun of the moralisms of a ’50s musical like King Kong. At least the musical was artful in its tensions between the bible and the shebeen and Miriam Makeba and Nathan Mdledle could sing and Hugh could play the trumpet. The minute we argued that that epidemiology was not sociology and that the virus moved between and across classes, races, genders and communities, instead of reflection there was capitulation to specific interests and their moralising advocates. Unless this is corrected, the bar that was raised in our initial response will be placed at a level that all of us could stoop under.

Compassion has to be based on a moral core not on moralising advocacies: a concept like ‘humanitude’ as articulated by our Malian friend and philosopher, Adama Samassekou: “I use this concept of humanitude to translate what, in Africa, we call maaya (in Bamanankan, the Bambara language), neddaaku (in Fulfulde, the Fula language), boroterey (in Songhay, the Songhay language), nite (in Wolof), ubuntu (in the Bantu languages), and many more. There are so many terms that literally mean ‘the quality of being human’.” [3]

I find marginal difference between it and Marx’s idea of a society where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. Or the kind of musings I subjected people to for some time: that in a post-imperial world where we all are ‘others’, the ethic I have been punting ‑ that the ‘other’ is not surplus and therefore non-eliminable, that the ‘other’ is not chattel and therefore non-exploitable and that the “other” is not a non-us and therefore non-excludable ‑ is very much their nephew. All such ideas prioritise human flourishing even if we disagree about its details.

At the epicentre of this discussion we need a concrete not an abstract working class: children, old age pensioners, women who are the home-makers and the core of the ignored care economy, wage earners, full-time or casual, informal sector workers collecting metal, paper, plastic, selling edibles at the ranks, spaza shop-owners, young people who hassle an income on the streets, community level volunteers, cultural or social activists in whatever settlement including hostels, it is them who need voice and protection.

The lass in distress for the chattering classes is ‘the’ economy ‑ the lass in distress works when they work and does not work when they don’t, subsisting at the moment as self-organising units with remarkable forms of agency … in poverty.

It consumes their entire energy to remain there. Even when they sacrifice to save the economy any demand (save full employment) keeps them within the poverty trap. On the other hand, it is not about capital in general but real economic units that are performing differentially with real constraints on profitability and debt. Some are doing extremely well even under low growth conditions, some badly, some are more about hedge funding and still on an investment strike, some profiteering, some extremely large and highly centralised and some extremely small, many with damaged value chains. Most will be highly resistant to any altering of the current patterns of distribution and wealth polarisation.

In short, the paradigm: although I would find it hard to live in China, I have to agree with Xi Jinping that the paradigm has to be about: “ecological progress, advances in science and technology and all-round innovation”. (I would add creativity.) They are the factors that will hold the key to the door of the future. And here, not all innovation, “but innovation based on research and technologies of public benefit”. Finally, although we have to start from the standpoint of a singular country, nothing can be achieved without multilateral cooperation.

If we agree with these principles, then we can move towards a critical dialogue about alternatives. If not, the delete button has been invented for your convenience.

The balance between living rights and livelihoods needs a decisive state to steer it towards another dispensation.

Emeritus Professor Ari Sitas, former Head of Department of Sociology at UCT, is a celebrated poet and cultural activist. He is now chairperson of, and South African representative on, the South African BRICS Think Tank. This is under the custodianship of the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences where Sitas is Board Chairperson. He has held prestigious positions at institutions in Europe, India and South Africa. He established a Master’s programme between Germany, South Africa and India on the African Diaspora and Migration. In 2019, Prof Sitas was awarded the Order of Mapungubwe, the highest honour for citizen contribution towards the advancement of democracy in South Africa.

[1] This is based on a social media series of exchanges and arguments on Facebook and eMail over the pandemic.

[2] The fact that the ecosystems crisis is mouthed but not understood and how the very pandemic has its emergence out of human callousness is noted but not internalised. It becomes so obvious in discussions on energy ‑ it is not about cost or megawatts nor about 1 or 10 Koebergs, or whether it is safe or not (of course it is dangerous) it is about the unsolvable and unmanageable problem of nuclear waste and what it does to our very prospects and the future of our species and the ecological underpinnings of existence.

[3] Adama Samassekou (2018) Humanitude or How to Quench the Thirst for Humanity, International Council for Philosophy and the Humanities, Liege World Congress Keynote; Ari Sitas (2008), The Ethic of Reconciliation, Durban: Madiba Press.

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