/ 25 January 2013

Democracy: The problem with the power of one

Many of Joe Slovo's writings were very contentious
Many of Joe Slovo's writings were very contentious

I feel honoured to be speaking on the 18th anniversary of Joe Slovo's death and at this first public event of the Chris Hani Institute since Eddie Webster was appointed as director. As I understand it, Eddie's vision is to build the institute as "an independent think-tank of the left", and I have been thinking about what "left" means.

For me, it involves a confidence in human beings: in our capacity to reason, to share, to learn from mistakes, to co-operate, to care for each other and, most importantly, a confidence in our capacity to work together to forge a more just and equal world. This is the basis for a commitment to principles such as participatory democracy, social justice and equality. Without this grounding, those principles can appear very abstract. This confidence also implies social relationships that are marked by solidarity, meaning a commitment to collective empowerment rather than individual advancement.

It is a strong contrast to the neoliberal ethic of intense, possessive individualism. It amounts to a much more optimistic view than we often hear from people on the right who may claim principles of democracy and equality but often doubt people's capacities to realise them. The left view claims we are not born selfish, greedy and competitive: these are qualities we learn under capitalism. The lives of Hani and Slovo demonstrated the opposite qualities and we have much to learn from them. As Zwelinzima Vavi said in his tribute on the anniversary of Slovo's death earlier this month, "Joe Slovo's life taught our generation the real meaning of the main principle of our movement, which is selflessness".

I want to start by emphasising two additional qualities of Slovo that I learned from reading the wonderful book Slovo – The Unfinished Autobiography that Helena Dolny put together. The first is his strong ethical commitment, his passion for values and moral principles, particularly with equality and justice. He contended that "there is a major convergence between the ethical content of Marxism and all that is best in the world's religions". It was his concern with social justice and "the wretched of the earth" that led him to socialism.

The second quality is Slovo's commitment to intellectual engagement. Many of his writings were very contentious, such as "Has Socialism failed?", but as Pallo Jordan has written: "Joe never allowed these [disagreements] to degenerate into personal animosities and always showed himself willing to engage with his critics". His approach, Jeremy Cronin observed earlier this month at his graveside anniversary, "would be at once passionately critical and responsibly measured … they were never displays of individualism … they were collectively self-critical – they assumed personal and collective responsibility for the organisations of which he was an active member".

"I hope that these two qualities – the commitment to ethical principles and to debate – can make this evening a conversation, a conversation around a very difficult question, namely: Can we have equality of opportunity without having equality of condition?

Neoliberal capitalism
In Slovo's spirit, to provoke debate and give us something to sharpen our ideas against, I suggest that equality of opportunity under neoliberal capitalism is a myth. But it is a powerful myth, a false promise – one of the two ideas that are propagated by the powerful and the privileged that help to maintain the present model of development. The other is the myth that no alternative to neoliberal capitalism is possible.

Overall, in South Africa in 2010, the directors of the 20 top JSE-listed companies, the overwhelming majority of whom are still white men, each earned an average of R59-million per year, about 1700 times the average income of a worker.

The 2010 PricewaterhouseCoopers report on executive pay in South Africa showed that more than half of executives in large JSE-listed companies earned more than R10-million per year. By contrast, the lowest-paid workers have monthly salaries of about R3500, or R42000 per year. At the same time, one in every four children under the age of six is showing signs of stunted growth (physical and intellectual) as a result of chronic malnutrition. The 2011 census shows that inequality remains racialised, with the average white household earning six times that of the average black household. This deep inequality is one reason many people, not only Marxists, argue that the present model of development, neoliberal capitalism, is not working.

We desperately need alternatives. Both the economic and ecological crises demand not only a shift in the distribution of wealth and power but also a dismantling of the current intense individualism, what the authors of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009) call a "kind of self-promoting, insecure egotism".

In the South African context, affirmative action in education and employment have attempted to promote equality of opportunity and level the playing field. But critics question whether affirmative action substantially challenges racist and sexist power or simply diversifies the small pool of people in positions of class privilege. Despite the achievement of constitutional democracy, racial, gender and class domination continue to be reproduced.

Inequality is a relational concept: poverty and wealth are closely connected. The apartheid regime is the classic historical expression of this relation, involving massive, systemic, structural violence. As [the "father of peace studies"] Johan Galtung says: "[This] violence is built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently unequal life chances". Our problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality are grounded in apartheid exploitation, but they have been intensified by the ANC government's measures to integrate South Africa into neoliberal global capitalism and to create a new black elite.

Class polarisation
Over the past few years we have seen increasing class polarisation, with the formation of new elite groupings and a growing underclass of the marginalised and excluded. "Exploitation" is the key word here: it indicates "the casual relationship between wealth and poverty", as Sampie Terreblanche puts it. In this context, the national development plan's (NDP's) focus on reducing poverty and inequality is encouraging. It recognises that "wealth and income disparities, both national and international, threaten economic development as well as social and political stability … Many are trapped in a cycle of poverty."

Among the targets of the plan is to "reduce the Gini coefficient from the current level of 0.7 to 0.6 by 2030", but it admits that, although "the proposed reduction would mark a significant shift, a high level of inequality would persist in 2030". Many view a Gini coefficient of 0.6 as unacceptably high. And the NDP is not going to end inequality: it puts its faith in a virtuous cycle of expanding opportunities but neglects questions of power and structural conditions. It does not present a substantial challenge to the neoliberal model of development. What documents such as the NDP do not recognise is that we cannot have substantive equality of opportunity without having a high degree of equality of condition.

I want to outline an alternative – for a new kind of socialism, a socialism that is ethical, ecological and democratic. As [the Marxist historian] Eric Hobsbawm pointed out: "Socialism, as applied in the USSR and the other 'centrally planned economies', that is to say theoretically marketless, state-owned and controlled command economies, has gone and will not be revived."

For me, socialism is a process rather than a stage of development, a process of building, of working together collectively to build a new kind of society – a good society. It allows people to develop to their full potential, capacities and capabilities, and they can only do this if they have the power to participate in decision-making and to co-operate with others in productive activities. In other words, the good society is democratic and participatory. It is marked not by exploitation but by social relations of respect and solidarity. This is different to capitalism, where people compete rather than co-operate and live as atomised individuals who care only about themselves and their immediate family.

Hugo Chavez said in 2005: "We have to reinvent socialism. It can't be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union … we must reclaim a new kind of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of every­thing." This socialism emphasises the development of human beings; it means workers' control and democratic, participatory forms of production, rather than bureaucratic authoritarianism.

Creating a new socialism means rethinking how we consume. As [the economist] EF Schumacher wrote: "We have to live simply so that others may simply live."

We have to rethink our relationship to nature. The old "productivist socialism" exploited nature carelessly. We have to call the new socialism by a different name: "ecosocialism". It means different social relations, with solidarity and caring, rather than competition and individualism. It means a different view of human nature – a view that acknowledges the power of collective action and the human capacity for sharing and solidarity.

The Freedom Charter provides a broad outline of a future built on real equality and solidarity. As Slovo wrote: "The wretched of this earth make up over 90% of humanity. They live either in capitalist or capitalist-oriented societies. For them, if socialism is not the answer, there is no answer at all."

Achieving this future requires the kind of selfless struggle Slovo personified. Earlier this month, at the graveside anniversary of Slovo's death, Vavi said: "One of the biggest challenges we face is the emergence of greed and self-centredness, which makes individuals pursue personal glory and wealth at the expense of the interests of the many." To meet this challenge, said Vavi, "we must build thousands more Slovos, who will not just mouth the principle of selflessness but will practise it daily".

Jacklyn Cock is professor emeritus of the University of the Witwaters­rand and an honorary research associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute. This is an edited extract from her speech at the Chris Hani Institute