/ 21 June 2024

Liberal delusions in full flower

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The liberal right needs to understand that the DA did not win the election and that it has no mandate to unilaterally impose its socially destructive policies on society. (Phill Magakoe/AFP)

Liberalism has always been the common sense of the English-speaking white part of the public sphere in South Africa. These days, it is a sea in which a much wider array of people swim. 

The ideology of a demographic minority has become culturally normalised across many parts of society. In journalism, business, think-tanks, NGOs and much of the academy, liberalism is often assumed to be common sense, rather than ideology. 

There are relatively pragmatic forms of liberalism willing to compromise on some issues, such as accepting the minimum wage and affirmative action. But on the right of the liberal spectrum a form of liberalism, sometimes termed “classical liberalism”, is understood as an ideological crusade. 

In the thriving network of public-facing think-tanks operating in this space there is an overweening sense of moral superiority perhaps enabled by a white revanchism driven by the collapse in the ANC’s moral standing and the open claims of civilisational superiority being made in the West as it drives a new cold war.

This arrogance frequently has a paranoid underside. It is often accompanied by a strong tendency to conspiracy theory. This includes hallucinating non-existent Marxist plots and sometimes extraordinary and wholly unevidenced claims about Russian, Chinese and Iranian conspiracies involving South Africa. This paranoia is very familiar to anyone who lived in South Africa during the last Cold War. 

The refusal to understand that ethics is not simply the moral expression of liberalism was evident in the way that leading public figures on the liberal right responded to the government’s decision to take Israel to the International Court of Justice. 

For Ray Hartley and Greg Mills South Africa’s “action at the International Criminal Court of Justice has exposed the African National Congress …The ruling party is clearly no friend of liberal values.”

James Myburgh, editor of Politicsweb, took a far more extreme position, declaring that “South Africa resurrected Hitlerism at The Hague”.

Frans Cronje, former head of the South African Institute of Race Relations, wrote that “opinion in Western-style liberal democracies” is insufficiently supportive of Israel and is “evolving to evade or even deny the unpleasant choices necessary for some free societies to endure”.

Nicholas Woode-Smith summarily dismissed South Africa’s case against Israel as “shameful” and “insincere”. He added that it made South Africa “a laughing stock among the nations that matter in the world”. For Woode-Smith, South African foreign policy is routinely shaped by bribery by foreign dictators and it is “most likely” that South Africa took this action because it was bribed to do so by Iran. He provided no evidence for his claim.

Liberalism has always been entwined with both whiteness and the claims to superiority by the West, by what Woode-Smith, writing with casual neo-Trumpian racism, calls “the nations that matter in the world”. It has never extended rights to all and has always had an outside beyond which certain nations and people do not matter. It is “the nations that matter in the world” that recently destroyed Iraq, Haiti and Palestine, nations that do not matter to the liberal West.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog was correct to say that the assault on Gaza is “intended — really, truly — to save Western civilization, to save the values of Western civilization”. Hartley and Mills were correct to describe the approach to the ICJ as contrary to liberal values because it was predicated on the principle that people outside of the West, people who are not white, and often not Christian, matter.

The liberalism espoused by organisations such as the Brenthurst Foundation and the Institute of Race Relations takes a hard right position on geopolitics. Liberal organisations such the Free Market Foundation and the Centre for Development and Enterprise take an equally hard right position on economic questions. They push for even more brutal forms of austerity than those currently imposed on our society and for undoing the limited forms of social protection introduced by the ANC. 

These kinds of economic policies have enabled elite enrichment at the cost of wider social devastation wherever they have been implemented, often producing forms of right-wing populism as a result. The sorry state of the UK under the Tories is a good example of this, one of many. 

In striking contrast, the progressive governments in Latin America, including Brazil under Lula da Silva, Bolivia under Evo Morales, and Mexico under Andrés Manuel López Obrador, have enabled simultaneous processes of democratisation and social progress for the worst off. 

They certainly have limits and contradictions but offer a vastly better model than the hard right formula of austerity, privatisation, abandoning the minimum wage, shrinking the state and so on, advanced by the ideologues on the liberal right. These ideologues are, to be clear, fundamentalists rather than pragmatists. In some cases it is no exaggeration to describe their views on economics as extremist.

Along with hard right positions on geopolitics and economics, the liberal right is also often marked by a bizarre and very American paranoia about “wokism” and “critical race theory” and a general refusal to take the lived and structural realities of race and racism seriously. Helen Zille is perhaps the most prominent example of the often-conspiratorial paranoia about “critical race theory” which, among other oddities, often bizarrely sees it, along with postmodernism, as a hidden form of Marxism.

Since it became clear that the ANC was open to some kind of deal with the Democratic Alliance (DA), the most right-wing liberal institutes and media projects have been hugely energised and excited, often seeming to assume that they will be able to swiftly impose their agenda on society. This excitement is on full display in the mainstream liberal media as well as smaller and more right-wing media projects such as BizNews and the Daily Friend. 

It is well captured in an article by Jonathan Katzenellenbogen in the Daily Friend.

He begins by declaring that “we have not experienced this sort of euphoria since 1994” and assumes that the new government has a mandate for the standard set of socially destructive neoliberal economic policies. He does not seem to care that the “we” he refers to in his opening line cannot refer to the South African people as a whole. 

Katzenellenbogen seems not to understand that, while the DA might have a mandate for neoliberal economic policies, that mandate only comes from a fifth of the votes cast in an election in which most people did not vote. By Lucien van der Walt’s calculation, the DA received the support of 8% of eligible voters.

In a move marked by a fairly extreme expression of liberal arrogance, he calls for neoliberalism to be swiftly imposed by a “shock-and-awe” programme. This is extraordinary. Shock and awe is a strategy of the US military particularly associated with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That invasion was an unlawful and criminal act, carried out by the leading powers of the West in the name of liberalism. It destroyed Iraq and appropriated its oil wealth at the cost of over a million lives. 

Katzenellenbogen’s choice of this militarised metaphor is irredeemably entwined with Western and white supremacy, with the assumption that not all people count as people. It can only be read as revealing a highly aggressive and colonial form of political desire, an anti-democratic form of political desire.

The overwhelmingly white, and often euphoric and frenzied, expressions of a will to power by the liberal right in the wake of the election are more an expression of fantasy, a fantasy grounded in an assumption of a right to rule, than reality. 

The DA did not win the election. If it follows the right flank of the liberal establishment, and tries to impose all its policies on the ANC, its relationship with the ANC is likely to swiftly collapse. 

If the ANC concedes too much to the DA it will face a revolt within its ranks, including from its left flank in the SACP and Cosatu, possibly supported by the left outside of the ANC. In the unlikely event that the ANC concedes to the agenda of the liberal right, and is not overcome by an internal revolt, it will lose the next election.

The liberal right is not a viable alternative to the authoritarian, violent, predatory, and deeply socially conservative politics of the uMkhonto weSizwe party. Neither the ANC, the organised left in and outside of the ANC nor South Africans in general will accept hard right economic policies or a slavish affiliation with the West.

The urgency to build a viable, socially orientated and democratising alternative rooted in popular organisation could hardly be greater.

Richard Pithouse is a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut.