Black liberalism is an apology for capitalism
Eusebius McKaiser’s important article (“A black liberal is not an oxymoron”, March 22) is a manifesto for black liberals to come out and reclaim liberalism from the racist Democratic Alliance, Free Market Foundation and South African Institute of Race Relations.
McKaiser’s well-argued project would be an interesting development in our body politic. It could connect with the many eloquent black members of the DA, sections of the black middle class, some of whom run liberal social justice nongovernmental organisations, and many poor and working people who want a decent life, services, accountability, the right to be heard and clean governance.
It is too early in the day to say whether McKaiser’s call can enthuse them to vitalise a black-centred liberal political project with full legitimacy among the oppressed and exploited. In McKaiser’s scheme, the DA and other mainstream liberal institutions have not adequately grappled with historical redress. Unlike this mainstream liberalism, McKaiser begrudgingly concedes some role to the state while still subordinating it to the liberal mythologies of freedom.
But McKaiser, a sophisticated, self-interested liberal, is prepared to go further than other liberals by more earnestly grappling with the terrible legacies of oppression and exploitation. Classical liberalism has historically not been prepared to go this far. Of course, his primary limit is being a disengaged armchair public commentator without a real organic connection to an organising social base.
Despite McKaiser’s genuine concern for redress, his reclaiming of liberalism is ultimately flawed because it does not question capitalism’s core logic — the rights, freedoms and power of capitalists to maximise profits on the basis of appropriating the commons through the private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the exploitation of labour and natural resources.
It is not as if he is blind to all this: his education enables him to understand the disaster that capitalism is for the majority of the people in all countries of the world. With this omission, he plays the classical role of liberalism: a faithful ideological lubricant legitimising and enabling capitalism throughout history.
Liberalism subordinates the meaning of freedom and individual liberty to the virtues of the “free market” of “freely contracting” individuals who are “born equal”, of buyers and sellers, of suppliers and consumers freely exchanging goods.
There is simply no place in the world where we are “born equal” —some are born into wealth, others are born into poverty and misery and are daily exploited by capitalist accumulation. We are not merely individuals but belong to different classes, races and genders, who are at opposite ends of slavery, genocide, colonialism, apartheid and accumulation.
With its fundamentalism, liberalism is unable to explain how the “free market” has consistently produced inequality, poverty and misery for the overwhelming majority across the world. It ignores that markets are not some “neutral” reality, merely reflecting the “free play” of supply and demand or the free will of buyers and sellers.
Present markets reflect the accumulated class power of capitalists. McKaiser’s scheme does not have a realistic agenda to really transform this reality of markets. He is far from imagining the need for collective social power to intervene in the markets to challenge and transform the power relations at play within them. For example, transformative measures such as the effective use of state subsidies, regulatory controls, community reinvestment legislation and prescribed assets would be seen by liberalism as the violations of individual freedom.
His other silence is how private property under capitalism amounts to theft, given the dispossession, appropriation and foreclosures of the past that continue today. Private property should not be confused with nonexploitative private goods.
The only way the capitalists of today own private property was to move from universal common ownership to individual private ownership. This individual appropriation of pieces of the earth out of the commons and into private ownership was to steal from everyone else. This was often done violently and is maintained as such by undemocratic impositions of private property institutions on society.
It is the same to this day, with the continued appropriation of the commons through patenting or overpricing innovations produced by socially necessary labour invested over millennia and which are usually publicly funded. This theft is the basis for the coercive power of capital, which McKaiser does not really question. This is why he is ambivalent about expropriation without compensation.
McKaiser punts liberalism’s core commitment as being “the idea that every individual should have maximum freedom to pursue their own individual projects that are an expression of their autonomy”. This liberal myth of the individual was taken to the extreme by Margaret Thatcher, who claimed that “there is no such thing as society — only individuals”.
This free-standing human individual is the logical conclusion of McKaiser’s core commitment as a liberal. With its immiseration of the overwhelming majority, capitalism greatly diminishes freedom and autonomy. Capitalism is not about freedom from poverty and hunger, freedom from indignity and illiteracy, from the fear of joblessness, and so on. It is capitalist marginalisation, commoditisation and inequality that stifle people’s individuality.
This argument challenges McKaiser’s claim that one can be liberal and be committed to egalitarianism. What is the content of that egalitarianism if it does not seek to abolish the huge differences in income, wealth, power and opportunity that characterise capitalist societies?
McKaiser’s repeat of liberalism’s mantra on the free individual is also at odds with our social being as humans as we develop within societies and cultures. In our African reality, the individualism of liberalism is banal. It ignores the structural and systemic determinants that shape the prospects and scope for maximum freedom and individual autonomy. In our African context, it is still important to remember liberalism’s complicity with colonialism, capitalist exploitation and imperialism.
Despite the 1990s wave of liberal-inspired democratisation across the continent, this wave still did not sanitise liberalism, because it was then connected to the neoliberal globalisation that has battered the continent. In any case, even his project still looks to Europe for ideological guidance. Other than acknowledging race, he does not exert a real effort to indigenise his project. This is crucial given the resilient but strained
communalism of African cultures.
His paternalistic protection of the individual from the state does not go far enough to consider how the neoliberal state in the era of globalisation undermined the very individual autonomy he proclaims. The neoliberal state privatised, deregulated, liberalised, imposed cost recovery and introduced labour market flexibility, and these ultimately confined individual and collective autonomy and the freedoms of the majority of the people in the world.
McKaiser knows that the real limit on freedom is the economic system that liberalism promotes: capitalism.
Selling labour requires foreclosure and dispossession. Capitalism requires the power to exploit, the power to own minerals and land, and the power of banks over society. This is all undemocratic and anti-freedom. It underlines how liberalism’s concern for human dignity is mythical and how even a renewed black-centred liberal project is contradictory.
Where human dignity has been sustainably achieved, there has had to be encroachment on the most hallowed pillars of liberalism: property rights and the rights and freedoms of capitalists to exploit.
McKaiser is correct to argue for limits to state power. But such limits should not be to service the interests of capital as liberals desire. Rather, it must be about expanding the realms of freedom and the deep democratic and collective social power of the majority, from below. This is not to dismiss the importance of democratic and transformative state power in our current society.
If his project could develop momentum it would face internal contradictions — the impossibility of maximum freedom, autonomy, historical redress and social justice (which are all genuinely dear to McKaiser) under capitalism. Thus it will very likely embrace populist social liberalism as we see in DA leader Mmusi Maimane, which also ultimately rejects thoroughgoing transformation — an impossible cul-de-sac.
Despite that, it could still have the effect to strengthen liberalism as a legitimate discourse, particularly by attracting the growing number of graduates who cannot associate with the rottenness of the ANC-South African Communist Party lot.
Even if he is critical of the DA, McKaiser’s liberal commitments objectively locate him on the side of labour exploitation, natural resource exploitation and perpetuating the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, whatever his personal commitments and morals are. But he is a good liberal to debate with and to have on board. He is bright enough to overcome the limits of liberalism.
Liberalism, at least in name, has never had a considerable legitimate space in the black community because of the colonial capitalism that liberalism promoted initially. Even after national liberation, liberalism’s tight connection with capitalism blinds it to the polarisation of global capitalism, which breeds inequality and poverty for the majority of humanity that is located in the Global South.
Liberation movements in Africa failed to effect meaningful social transformation that advances the development of the majority and overcomes inequality, mainly because they harboured bourgeois aspirations, thinking they could simply catch up with the West and build national capitalisms along the Western model.
The polarisation immanent in global capitalism, and which promotes accumulation in the Global North by dispossessing countries of the Global South, made liberation movements fail, just like the ANC.
So, in a way, liberation movements did integrate liberalism instead of integrating democratic socialism into their national liberation projects. McKaiser’s project does not offer anything better in this regard.
Ultimately, what South African society needs is something far more coherent. The maximum freedom and autonomy of individuals that animates McKaiser is not possible under capitalism. No such capitalist country has ever existed or exists. The former social democratic countries have always had and still have higher levels of autonomy than countries that approximate McKaiser’s liberal utopia. As an alternative to liberalism, the democratic socialist tradition has a more coherent and sound approach to freedom and autonomy.
Mazibuko Jara is a Marxist active in rural struggles in the Eastern Cape