[OPINION] Democracy’s future warning

According to Karl Marx, modern capitalism was heading for an ultimate crisis of what he called ‘overproduction’. Capitalist use of technology would extract surpluses from the labour of the proletariat, leading to greater concentrations of wealth and the progressive immiseration of workers. Marx’s scenario seemed quite plausible through the middle decades of the nineteenth century in all industrialising countries. The political left throughout the world is slowly losing or has lost its focus on economic and class issues and is becoming fragmented as the result of the spread of identity and populist politics, especially if one juxtaposes this with the developments in countries such as Brazil and the US today.

The rise of new forms of identity in the developed world by the middle of the twentieth century around black empowerment, feminism, environmentalism, immigrant and indigenous rights and gay rights created a whole new set of causes that cut across class lines. The leadership of many of these movements came out of the economic elites and their cultural preferences often stood at cross-purposes to those of the working-class electorate that had once been the bulwark of progressive politics.

The displacement of class politics by identity politics has been very confusing to older Marxists, who for many years clung to the underprivileged. They tried to explain this shift in terms of what Ernest Gellner labelled the ‘Wrong Address Theory’; just as extreme Shi’ite Muslims hold that Archangel Gabriel made a mistake, delivering the message to Mohamed when it was intended for Ali, so Marxists basically like to think that the spirit of history or human consciousness made a terrible boob. The awakening message was intended for class, but by some terrible postal error was delivered to the nations. Gellner went on to argue that in the contemporary Middle East, the same letter was now being delivered to religions rather than nations. But the underlying dynamic remains the same.

The contemporary context of the shackled Africa needs no explanation, particularly the well-thought through re-colonisation of the continent through the admission of Morocco by the AU, the blurred strategic motive of Africa-China relationship and the worst of all, the recent location of the Brazilian embassy straight to Jerusalem. This is worse because the newly elected Brazilian president is on record saying he is pulling out of BRICS - a golden platform of the progressive “like-minded”. Inherently there would be implications for IBSA too. Now you will potentially be left with RICS and ISA. The right-wing is on the offensive due to the dwindling ideological stance of the African continent. This means we are re-leaving in a racist and difficult world by choice.

Amongst the unanticipated projections by Marx is that they all centre on a single phenomenon, which was the conversion of the working class into a broad middles class. The developed democracies finally found themselves in a happy position. Their politics no longer sharply polarised between a rich oligarchy and a large working class or peasant majority.

From the days of Aristotle, thinkers have believed that stable democracy would have to rest on a broad middle class; societies with extremes of wealth and poverty are susceptible to oligarchic domination or to populist revolution. Marx believed that the middle class would always remain a small and privileged minority in modern societies. Yet by the second half of the twentieth century, the middle class constituted the vast majority of the population of most advanced societies, thereby undercutting the appeal of Marxism. The emergence of middle-class societies increased the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a political system and the modern technology has created what Robert Frank and Philip Cook call a ‘winner-take-all’ society, in which a disproportionate and growing share of income is taken home by the very top members of any field, whether CEOs, doctors, academics, politicians, musicians, entertainers or athletes.

On the other hand, we assume today that revolutionary new technologies/4th industrial revolution equivalent to steam power and the internal combustion engine will continue to appear into the future. But the laws of physics do not guarantee such a result. It is entirely possible that the first 150 years of the Industrial Revolution captured what Tyler Cowen calls the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of productivity advance, and that while future innovations will continue, the rate at which they improve human welfare will fall. Indeed, a number of laws of physics suggest that there might be hard limits on the carrying capacity of the planet to sustain growing populations at high standards of living.

What to be done for adjustment? France and Italy stood at the other end of the spectrum, seeking to protect middle-class jobs by imposing onerous rules on companies attempting to lay off workers, as it seems not to be the case by the newly appointed finance minister in South Africa who is ardently targeting civil servants/workers on the eve of elections. By not recognising the need for adjustment in work rules and labour conditions, they stopped job loss in the Anglo-Saxon world, labour has done much better protecting its privileges in Latin Europe. The countries that came through the 2008-2009 crisis the most successfully were those like Germany and the Scandinavian nations that steered a middle course between the laissez-faire approach of the United States and Britain, and the rigid regulatory systems of France and Italy. Their corporatist labour-management systems have created sufficient trust that unions were willing to grant companies more flexibility in layoffs, in return for higher benefits and job retraining. Where does this place the future of democracy?

The future of democracy in developed countries will depend on their ability to deal with the problem of a disappearing middle class. In the wake of the financial crisis there has been a rise of new populist groups. The proper approach to the problem of middle-class decline is not necessarily the present German system or any other specific set of measures as Chancellor Markel seem to be caught in the political cross-fire due to mistaken politics of mismanaged influx. The only real long-term solution would be an educational system that succeeded in pushing the vast majority of citizens into higher levels of education and skills. This is a leaf for the African continent.

The ability to help citizen’s flexibility adjust to the changing conditions of work requires state and private institutions that are similarly flexible. Yet one of the characteristics of modern developed democracies is that they have accumulated much rigidity over time that makes institutional adaptation increasingly difficult. In fact, all political systems-past and present are liable to decay. The fact that systems once were successful and stable liberal democracy does not mean that it will remain one in perpetuity.

Mphumzi Mdekazi is a PhD candidate at Stellenbosch University.