Why is the word “liberal”a dirty word in South Africa? Why is the centrist conservative leader of the opposition Mmusi Maimane, who is also an Evangelical who believes sodomy to be an abomination, often wrongly accused of being a liberal as an insult? This is the country with Africa’s (and arguably the world’s) most liberal founding document, a somewhat liberal press, and court-sanctioned acceptance of various liberal ideals; yet the ruling elite view the term with villainous contempt .
The simplest, most likely flawed, conclusion I’ve reached is that the ire stems from an confusion of the ideas of classical liberalism and social liberalism. The first prioritises individual liberty over equality, which is promoted by social liberalism. It’s very easy to merge the two completely as one in the same, they don’t demand to be wholly removed but instead place one ideal over the other.
This came to mind when I read Marx’s Communist Manifesto in a longer than usual sojourn in an airport terminal. Marx very clearly detests the globalist free market, and in the latter chapters of the document he gushes a wave of vitriol towards “liberal” sympathisers. These are, in my view, the bourgeoisie who only join the movement with the desire to protect their interests in preemption of a shift in power.
I had read excerpts from Das Kapital before that, and my view is that Marx provides an adept diagnosis of the ills of Capitalism, however the command economy falls short of being an effective solution to the plight of the proletariat ( a conversation for another time, over coffee). I am not a Marxist, nor do I consider myself a liberal; I’ve embraced a pessimistic idealism as the only hope for a world that rejects ideology while it drowns in it.
Curse of the Invertebrate Liberal Jelly
I envy Marx’s art of analysis. It is very easy to draw parallels with South Africa’s own transition from Apartheid with his prophetic work on the rise of the proletariat. This is exactly why it so easily confused and why I need not be seduced by how one could equivocate the shopkeepers’ ambivalence towards the plight of the wage-labourer under a violent, and feudalistic regime with a similar air of apathy from the exclusively white electorate during apartheid.
Similar to the monarch’s waning power, as it became less possible to subdue the natives without the use of excessive force and disrupting the daily life of the favoured subject, the “liberal” jumps ship. When Marx’s liberal is embraced, he remains in the trappings of his previous life of luxury and suggests the proletariat find an alternative, non-violent solution to their plight. A book I suggest you read is Moeletsi Mbeki’s Architects of Poverty. He gives a much more enlightened analysis than my brief and unskillful mutterings.
The social liberal is easy to hate. While liberal ideals would see everyone living in harmony – liberals don’t seem to have a a willingness to pull, or at least acknowledge the need to pull, the levers of power necessary to start their Utopian machine . Like how many social democracies in Europe prefer not to speak of the horrors of colonialism which was functionally a transfer of their peasantry to colonial Africa, allowing their societies to benefit from the exploits of cheap labour. Supine invertebrate jellies.
They don’t do much wrong, problem is, they don’t do much at all to advance their liberal values, because achieving equality often demands infringements of personal liberties. I hold a particular ire toward politically correct leftist suburban liberals who like to play radical. Like how the abuse of women and patriarchy is an infringement on one’s liberty, but when it occurs in a non-Western country or culture it is deemed permissible as not to appear racist or intolerant. If you are a liberal, then involuntary genital mutilation of young men and women is abhorrent even if it is part of a dated ethnic tradition. The worst thing one does to already marginalised people is to take away their autonomy, that is their capacity to be good and equally be evil.
Oh, No here come the Evil Liberals!
The globalist, free-trade, laissez-faire liberal is vehemently denounced in Marx’s opposition to rampant capitalism. Socialists view liberated markets as an attempt to only invite competition within the lower classes, and greater cooperation among ruling elites. This is not what libertarians, who mostly believe in strict free-market ideals, intend in their pursuit of enhanced individual liberty.
This brand of free market liberalism has been embraced by the fat cat and industrialist alike, as unfettered entry into new markets allows them to protect their intellectual property across borders. Think of a big pharmaceutical that patents a drug that it only produces for the US market because consumers there can afford it at a high price point, if there are “free-trade agreements” between the US and another, say developing nation in dire need of the drug, it will prevent any entity in the poorer nation from supplying the drug as it infringes on the pharmaceuticals patent (even if the drug is not available in that poorer nation). Is this example a bit too extreme? This is a constant battle between the South African government and Big Pharma, more infamously in 2001 when a bloc of pharmaceuticals withdrew a lawsuit aimed at preventing the South African government from manufacturing and importing cheaper generic HIV drugs. It seems that Marx again very correctly posited that the liberal flank was open to being hijacked by fat cat elites.
This is “hands-off my junk” liberalism, a crude surmise of classical liberalism. Leading neo-liberal thinker Robert Nozick’s belief was that in the libertarian view, inequality is morally permissible if it is the result of fair trade between two entities. Here is the heart of why many in South Africa hate the liberal, and what makes the main opposition party toothless in its pursuit of a liberal electoral victory: it is that any attempt to make the argument that the levels of inequality in South Africa are morally permissible lives in a vast inanition.
The problem is many would like to believe the presence of a statute of limitations on claims of an unjust transfer of holdings. One can be divorced of guilt so long as they weren’t actively involved in the subjugation of a people. Marx’s realist liberals. The shopkeeper insists that without the transfer of his skills to the wage-labourer, if he’s dispossessed of his holdings he will move to Australia. Yet they love their country, and would hate to have to abandon it for their own self-interest.
‘Beware the Dirty Liberal’
We haven’t quite decomposed the liberal ideology into its many other parts. This is one criticism of Marx, his wholesale rejection of liberalism seems consequentialist. I titled this article “Beware the Dirty Liberal” sarcastically; I have a taste for cheap humour. To hastily dispel neo-liberalism or even liberalism after a first encounter with Marx, Engels and/or Fanon is not recommended. The very action of creating dirty words out of complex ideologies which in and of themselves have many interpretations is as ill-advised as assuming that the fall of Communism should mean the end of state intervention.
I think it critical to hold or be open to a diversity of views. In some way, Marxist dialectics permeate the less discerning reader; Marx writes with much conviction and makes an astute diagnosis of what can go wrong with capitalism, and really liberalism. I believe that a strong left is necessary for capitalism to work in the absence of better alternatives. Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who is a self-described “erratic Marxist”, in turn believes that capitalism, rather, needs to be saved from itself. When the self-interest of a few means restricting the liberties of the many, it will only lead to an implosion of capitalism; what comes after that, we have no assurances will be better than what we currently have.
So finally, in the spirit of the mess that is this article, it is my conservative opinion that we not toss out the dirty liberal just yet, but focus on fostering a stronger counterbalance to neo-liberalism and capitalism through rejuvenating the left. The left isn’t a single party, it is definitely not the ANC nor is it the DA. South Africa has had a complicated history and its political, economic and social landscape is a patchwork of competing ideologies – some loonier than others. The questions that lie ahead are not going to be any easier, and the quality of the dialogue can only improve with a vibrant, dare I say liberal, marketplace of ideas. I vote the dirty liberal, self-serving and out of touch, ought to stay -even if only serving as a mirror on to our own contradictions and self-interest. I never said we ought to trust them.