Black-centred egalitarian liberalism cannot ignore capitalism

Leaving aside the distracting schoolroom-debate gymnastics that the radical liberal Eusebius McKaiser is wont to use, the core issue in the debate is what he adroitly avoids: his black-centred egalitarian liberal political project cannot wish away the relationship between liberalism and capitalism. In this rejoinder, we address this, together with McKaiser’s misunderstanding of the capitalist market and his mischaracterisation of our country’s Constitution as liberal. There is no need to waste time on his other misrepresentations in his impoverished response.

McKaiser claims that liberalism is not necessarily married to capitalism. Yet history tells us otherwise: liberalism has always been wedded to capitalism — from capitalism’s triumph during the industrial revolution in the 19th century, throughout the period of the post-World War II recovery, of the highest capitalist growth rates, through the age of neo-liberalism in the 1980s and 1990s, up to the 2008 Great Recession and even now, during contemporary efforts of the global liberal elite to revive capitalist growth on a new basis. That is quite a history to simply ignore!

McKaiser’s response also whines that Mazibuko Jara should not put liberalism on trial given that, in his view, the main problems of our society are the result to the failures of the ANC state project. No, Eusebius, liberalism cannot avoid being on trial: as the above historical summation shows, liberalism was the main ideological weapon for the forces that brought us capitalism, colonialism, slavery, apartheid, inequality and poverty.

Beyond this historical trial, the proclaimed commitment of his egalitarian liberalism to democracy and social justice means that he cannot avoid a critique of, and sustained struggle against capitalism. Short of that, his is a mere play with words of no social significance. Assuming his is a serious project, he has a few profound questions to answer: Can his conception of egalitarian liberalism pose an anti-capitalist dimension of social transformation? How far can it go in challenging the anti-rights exploitative foundations of capitalism? What is the alternative post-capitalist social formation that his egalitarian liberalism envisages?

Concretely, how will his egalitarian liberalism overcome liberalism’s historical ambiguities and ambivalences on such pressing matters as income inequality, wealth redistribution, a social wage, and expropriation of land without compensation? If his variant of liberalism can challenge capitalism’s inequality, then he must explain how. His response failed to do that. Given that there is nowhere in world history where any variant of liberalism challenged capitalism in a fundamental way, McKaiser must present a convincing case beyond talk-show jibes.

Similary, he must clearly demonstrate the validity of his claim against fetishising the free market as most liberals do. How does he differ from other variants of liberalism on free markets? His recognition that markets are not about justice is immediately undermined by his example on how the unit cost of labour is determined in the labour market.

In his impoverished explanation, the power of the capitalist employer is not necessarily a systemic problem as he glibly reduces it to a few nasty capitalists avoiding paying a living wage. This is to sanitise capitalist power relations and interests. This approach connects McKaiser with the proponents of the unexplainable magical hand of an amorphous free, rational and logical market. The moral question of a fair wage is not a starting point for him. This displays an appalling ignorance regarding how labour produces surplus and how capitalism steals that surplus away from labour. Thus the demand for a living wage is revolutionary, in that accumulation in our capitalism heavily relies on cheap labour. A crash course in the labour theory of value would be a good start in his re-education.

McKaiser argues that the market can be corrected only when it fails equality and fairness. The capitalist market is fundamentally unjust. It does not concern itself with equality, fairness or justice. How some liberal philosophers recognise the moral limits of markets does not address this systemic unjustness of capitalist markets. McKaiser’s remedy for after-effect state intervention in markets is simply insufficient and entrenches existing market power relations.

Further, to characterise the fate of individuals, social strata and classes under capitalism as circumstancial or genetic luck implies that the inequalities, poverty and misery produced by capitalism and its markets are only unusual failures which are not necessarily at the heart of the system. This minimises the centrality of of the structural, systematic and historic forces and dynamics that shape life opportunities under capitalism.

As a typical debate-room bully, McKaiser wrongly positions Jara as being against liberty. Liberty, freedom and autonomy are far richer and emancipatory than liberalism’s concepts and historical record. Under capitalism and liberal political regimes, these have structurally remained chimeras for the majority. Beyond his unsubstantiated claim, McKaiser will have to demonstrate how egalitarian liberalism provides the basis for thoroughgoing emancipation.

The worst of his debate-room falsifications is his incorrect assertion that the country’s Constitution is liberal. The Constitution we have was not gifted from above by liberalism. Democracy, the freedom of expression, the freedom of association, the universal right to vote, clean and accountable governance, the right to equality, and other such constitutional rights are often associated with liberalism. But this is to ignore the ambivalence of liberalism in momentous struggles for these rights across the former colonised countries. In South Africa and other former colonial countries, such rights and freedoms were a direct product of revolutionary working class struggles that drew from political theories that go beyond liberalism.

It is therefore ahistoric to reduce our Constitution to being liberal-democratic. The transformative essence of our constitutional rights, freedoms and values go beyond the historical limits of the canon of liberalism’s civic and political rights. As argued above, even these basic rights ultimately get limited by the capitalist economic system that liberalism supports. Our constitutional provisions limiting property rights, allowing expropriation and the application of the Bill of Rights to the state and private natural and juristic persons (including private companies) demonstrate how ours goes beyond liberal democracy.

This is why McKaiser then concedes that the Constitution is pro-poor, pro-redress, and promotes state intervention, yet he still characterises it as liberal-democratic. He would have been correct to say it draws from the liberal-democratic tradition. He would have been correct to admit that it goes beyond this tradition. To wrongly characterise the Constitution as liberal has already led to anti-transformation falsehoods such as the claim that the Constitution protects property rights or that the “willing-buyer, willing-seller” principle is sanctioned by the Bill of Rights. To use the ANC’s failing state project as a basis for concluding that the Constitution is liberal is a self-serving caricature.

Our main critiques of his core arguments for his nascent political project remain unanswered. Public debate is all the poorer for this. 

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Mazibuko Jara
South Africa is ours. The world too. Young people act & claim your future now. Women. Lesbians. All of us. Democracy from below. Creatively with fun. Our time! Mazibuko Jara has over 684 followers on Twitter.

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