The dialectic of democracy: neoliberal capitalism and …


South Africa’s socio-economic, environmental and political crisis is part of a global crisis of neoliberal carbon capitalism, where rising inequalities and poverty have delegitimized democratic institutions and seen the rise of right-wing populism.

The entrenched power of monopoly capitalism in South Africa, only partially deracialized but substantially globalized, still bears the hallmarks of apartheid capitalism. However, instead of facing a counter-movement from the left, it was faced with a counter-force from klepto-capitalism and racial populism. While this is clearly a right-wing response, it opportunistically uses some of the language of the left (like radical economic transformation) to gain the support of those who have been deprived of the fruits of order. post-apartheid.

This essay discusses threats to South Africa’s constitutional order by questioning two competing narratives, namely that of liberalism and the nationalist-populist counter-movement. It then examines two competing working class responses that attempt to rise above these dominant narratives – Marxism-Leninism and the Popular Democratic Alternative (democratic eco-socialist). Through this discussion, the role of the trade union movement in the struggle for democracy emerges as a key factor.

Cosatu’s crippling blow

Indeed, it is the main component of the democratic trade union movement, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) – which played a central role in the end of apartheid and the promotion of a participatory democratic socialist policy – which dealt crippling blows to this very political. Together with the South African Communist Party (SACP), he deliberately created the “tsunami” which brought to power from 2007 to 2009 a nascent kleptocratic bourgeoisie, led by Jacob Zuma. This was framed as an attempt to dislodge the “1996 class project”, which some call “white monopoly capitalism” (WMC).

One of its main allies at the time was the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) and its charismatic leader Julius Malema, who later parted ways to form the Fighters for economic freedom (EFF). Zuma’s administration mingled with parasitic business interests of the Gupta family from India, and together they are commonly referred to as the Zupta faction of the ruling ANC. While the EFF has mobilized against corruption in Zupta, its own leaders have been implicated in corruption scandals.

If post-apartheid corruption is not limited to the Zuptas or the EFF, the two most destabilizing factions of the nascent kleptocratic bourgeoisie are today to be found inside the ANC (the Zuptas) and the outside (the EFF), the latter taking a more vehement form of racial populism.

As some have argued, corruption is part of an informal politico-economic system that began with the ANC regime and has become a class-forming mechanism for blacks excluded from (white) capital networks. institutions that monopolize key sectors of the economy.

Indeed, the established private sector is not immune to corruption either, as the recent Steinhoff case illustrates vividly. These points are emphasized by those who reduce the Zupta link to mere “lizards” alongside the “crocodiles” of “White Monopoly Capital”.

Private productive capital is essential

Even if this counter-accusation is accepted, defenders of constitutional order support the idea that productive private capital remains an essential element of any development path that seeks to reduce inequalities and eradicate poverty. These sentiments are in keeping with the logic of the National Development Plan (PND), which emerged from a process chaired by former finance minister Trevor Manuel and Cyril Ramaphosa in 2010-2011.

The labor movement does not necessarily question the existence of private capital (at least in the short and medium term). However, he argued for more meaningful measures to curb his tendency to maximize profits and redirect social surplus to development results, through a capable democratic developmental state. This is consistent with the perspectives of critics of the Keynesian left (and Marxists who see the logic of reforms in a global transformational trajectory).

The trade union movement, however, remains fragmented and relatively powerless.

After the National Metalworkers Union of South Africa (Numsa) was kicked out of Cosatu in 2014 for deciding to stop supporting the ANC, followed by the ouster of Secretary General of Cosatu Zwelinzima Vavi, Numsa and Vavi formed the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) in 2017.

Today, Cosatu’s once-shrill voice against the klepto-capitalist class fraction is diminished – but Vavi’s voice is also struggling to assert itself within Saftu, as its largest affiliate, Numsa, seems caught up in the nodes of his own “WMC” speech. .

Numsa’s rhetoric

The workers’ movement maintains a current of “revolutionary” rhetoric which tends to see no positive role for private capital, and seeks its immediate overthrow (at least in the abstract). In such logic, all capital is “corrupt”, because capitalism as a system is “corrupt”, so there is no need to specify and target one form of corruption rather than another. This seems to be the logic behind, for example, the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ rhetoric of Numsa and his Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party (SRWP) – and materially coincides with the nationalist-populist argument, downplaying the importance of corruption. of Zupta in favor of an exclusive focus on WMC.

Clearly, to paraphrase the political thinker Antonio Gramsci, the morbid symptoms of an old order refuse to die, while the new struggles to be born. The wealth and splendor of the entrenched and new elites have fueled a racial reaction that draws its breath from the deep sense of relative and absolute deprivation experienced by the excluded majority.

In other words, the liberal-democratic constitutional order, exposed to the winds of an economic order that has failed to tackle racial inequalities, poverty and unemployment, has ushered in a counter-movement that can threaten its very foundations.

The tragedy is that the organized left, in particular the labor movement, is today as frozen as a deer caught in the headlights, while right-wing nationalist-populists steal aspects of their speech to ride the wave of discontent (a bit like what is happening elsewhere in the world). Although there is now a concerted attempt by the Liberal Democrats within the ANC to reassert control over the state (without upsetting the economic order), the left-wing critique of racial capitalism and the state solutions some have proposed are used by populists to try to reopen access to state coffers.

Low-level democracy

In a low-level democracy like South Africa, where progress towards a state of development has been severely compromised, state solutions may lead to an economic collapse. In this, liberal criticism cannot be easily dismissed, even if it is constrained by the narrow class interests of its main supporters (such as the Democratic Alliance and the Institute of Race Relations). Caught between a compromised and inefficient state and a monopolized, profit-maximizing private sector, the democratic left (offering substantial democratic, non-state and environmentally informed alternatives) struggles to make its voice heard.

The SACP and Cosatu have given their full support to the ANC led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose mission is to restore “normal” capitalism on a solid democratic basis, with rebuilt institutions capable of serving a capitalist economy, hopefully. -le, job creator, and more equitable and efficient redistribution of the social surplus. This is in line with the “first stage” of the “national democratic revolution” long promoted by the SACP (despite rhetorical pushes around a “second phase” within the first stage). This implicitly means that it is the best that one can hope for in the short or medium term.

For others on the left, in social movements and NGOs (and, perhaps, some unions), it is essential to harness the fossil fuel economy dominated by what some call “carbon capital”, within of a strongly constrained “carbon democracy”. This includes protecting besieged rural communities from mining, as well as moving workers from dirty jobs to a new era of green jobs with a strong social component (i.e. non-state and non-market) .

A deeper transformation project

This is part of a longer-term vision of building an alternative working class policy that builds on the popular democratic promises of the 1980s, and combines it with a renewed emphasis on democratic eco-socialism. (who made a brief appearance in Numsa from 2011 to 2014, before being sidelined by “Marxist-Leninist” orthodoxy).

While no left-wing project can easily dismiss the need to stabilize the economy and society after the ravages of the Zupta period, a deeper transformation project is the only real safeguard against the threats of both “neoliberal capitalism.” And its parasitic, narrow and racial nationalism. -populist responses. SM / MC

Devan Pillay is associate professor and former head of the sociology department at the University of the Witwatersrand. He has published on a wide range of topics such as labor policy, democratic transition, media, ecological Marxism, globalization and holistic development, drawing on his experience in the independent media, the labor movement, government and as an activist. .

This is the fifth in a series of ten essays written by authors of chapters of Destroy democracy, neoliberal capitalism and the rise of authoritarian policies, Volume 6 of the Democratic Marxism series recently published by Wits University Press and edited by Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar. The sixth volume focuses on how the global democratic project is eroded by decades of neoliberal capitalism and how authoritarian politics are gaining ground. The trials focus on four cases of countries – India, Brazil, South Africa and the United States – in which the Covid-19 pandemic fueled the pre-existing crisis. They question questions of politics, ecology, state security, media, access to information and political parties, and affirm the need to reclaim and rebuild a large and inclusive democracy.

Destroy democracy is an invaluable resource for the general public, activists, academics and students who wish to understand the threats to democracy and the rising tide of authoritarianism in the south and north of the world. It is available free of charge in open access on


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