I recently came across, via YouTube, a talk delivered in May 2018 by former Greece Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis at the Cambridge Forum, Massachusetts, the United States. Its title was Is capitalism devouring democracy?
GUEST COLUMN TAKURA ZHANGAZHA
Given his leftist credentials, the main body of the talk was essentially pointing out valid criticisms of the current global economic system’s neoliberalism and perpetuation of inequality: Whether via bailing out global banks or promoting a rampant financialised global economy or negating the economic regulatory responsibility of the State.
At the end of the lecture, he proposed an international version of Roosevelt’s New Deal and greater solidarity among the oppressed of the world (mainly in the global north).
But that was not the most significant aspect of his talk.
Midway through it, he mentioned his first meeting as part of the Euro Group (a meeting of finance ministers from countries that use the euro as their main currency).
In the lecture. Varoufakis said he told the meeting that he had the democratic mandate of the people of Greece (as a radical lefty) and, therefore, was intending on changing the country’s economic policy from what had already been obtaining; or that which had brought the country to where it is, that was austerity.
He recalled that the then German Finance minister Wolfgang Schauble replied in one sentence; ‘Elections cannot be allowed to change economic policy.’
Varoufakis then said he replied with irony (and I am paraphrasing here); ‘In that case, let’s ban elections in bankrupt — or suspend elections for countries that are in the red.’
The key point that he was making here was the fact that the global economic system or as we generally refer to it these days, globalisation, as currently constituted, did not look upon elections or democratic processes to change economic systems from neoliberalism to being egalitarian or at least fairly distributive.
I have made elaborate reference to this lecture (you can check it out on YouTube if you have enough bundles), because in our Zimbabwean context, we are saddled with economic challenges that are a direct result of a re-energised neoliberal/free market/ ‘ease of doing business’ policy approach from our government.
An approach which is the preferred one for global private capital (global north and global east).
And so soon after a general election in 2018, which for now appears to have had little effect on the democratisation of the national political economy, and the effects are all too apparent in the form of fuel queues, rising cost of living, high unemployment and the loss of savings; as begun by former President Robert Mugabe and now being stubbornly attempted by President Emmerson Mnangagwa without his predecessor’s radical nationalism.
It is also an approach that is, to my own personal disappointment, being pursued by the mainstream opposition political parties, including those under the umbrella of the MDC Alliance.
Their argument is not one that represents an ideological counter narrative to neoliberalism, but one that confirms by claiming that it is only them that can implement the same neoliberalism better, as if there could ever be such a ‘progressive’ differentiation.
A change of implementers of neoliberalism does not mean the economic trajectory of the same changes.
But we live in relatively populist and angry times in Zimbabwe; where the immediate is more valued than the long term, and where individualism and a high level of competitiveness, coupled with deep pursuit of materialism means that to question the economic system outside of the neoliberal lens is viewed with derision.
Hence a lot of those still in employment want to be paid in foreign currency, or big business/local private capital wants to be allowed to determine the character of the market (and pricing of goods and services), but all at the same time screaming at a government that, at least at policy level, is already saying in order for this to happen, there must be pain.
This is a pain that will be transferred to the poor majority while the well to do are, to use the government’s own phrase, ‘ring-fenced’ or have their monetary wealth protected, or where the ruling party and opposition leaders are still scrambling for recognition from global financialised capital or institutions as if they do not know that the latter do not serve the democratic public interest of the people of Zimbabwe.
The economic formula government is trying to use to solve the country’s economic challenges is not made to fit the context, even if it has the support of global capital, the ruling and opposition parties, or is being hailed as a success in a few neighbouring or relatively more distant sister African countries.
In our specific context, we need to rediscover a more critical national consciousness that understands our challenges ideologically and in relation to our placement in the global economy.
We need to be wary of the culture of consumerism/materialism and individualism that Mugabe, and later on the 2009 – 13 inclusive government, followed through by Mnangagwa, are trying to cement in our polity.
This means examining new alternatives to our national political economy that can only take the form of social democracy if we are to prevent putting up ourselves and our country for sale to global capital and its local rapacious representatives; be they in government, opposition and in business.
And we also need to take sharp lessons from the global north as to how not to proceed down the same path.