Liberal democracy in crisis

The liberal consensus forged at the end of the Cold War is in rapid retreat. In South Africa new social forces, with new ideas, are required if we are to find a viable path into a better future.

In 1989, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberal democracy imagined itself as triumphant. American academic Francis Fukuyama announced the ‘end of history’ with liberal democracy understood to be the final destination for all forms of struggle toward social progress. The following year George HW Bush, speaking to Congress amid preparations for war against Iraq, announced an imminent ‘new world order’ of peace, justice and prosperity.

In reality every attempt was made to sustain the global domination of the West, with the support of reactionary regimes in places such as Saudi Arabia and, later, India and Rwanda. 

Across much of the planet a new form of market fundamentalism allowed capital to escape democratic regulation and society was increasingly subordinated to the market. Wealth was rapidly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The working class, and, in time, a large chunk of the middle class, found themselves forced into increasingly precarious circumstances, if not subject to outright impoverishment. 

In many societies political power in and around the state was rapidly concentrated in the hands of technocrats. Beyond the state, NGOs, now operating under the guise of ‘civil society’, were often able to dominate or displace popular organisations. In some parts of the world this phenomenon was crudely racialised. 

Thirty years after the hubris of 1989 the fantasies of an end to history, and a new world order, are in tatters. The horrors of war have devastated much of central Africa and the Middle East. Ecological destruction has accelerated to such a degree that the most sober scientists do not see a viable future for the bulk of humanity if fundamental changes are not made with genuine urgency. Wealth is rapidly being concentrated in ever fewer hands at an ever more obscene scale. 

Economic crisis has, as it usually does, morphed into political crisis. But in country after country right wing demagogues, shamelessly mobilising chauvinism of various kinds, and using social media as a key mechanism to spread their poison, have outmanoeuvred the left.

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In Brazil, Hungary, India, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, the Ukraine and the United States, along with a number of other countries, electorates have chosen dangerously authoritarian and increasingly extreme right-wing governments. Progressive movements, generally arguing for the market to be subordinated to society, and for more democracy, equality and solidarity, are growing in some countries but, in the main, the right has decisively out- manoeuvred the left. 

In this morass, attempts to treat the turn to the right as a temporary aberration, and to return to the order established after 1989, are not working. The old order produced the current crisis – an economic, social, political and ecological crisis. It must be replaced. The question is what comes next.

The right aims to allow capital to continue its rapacious rule by turning its victims against each other. The great fractures of race, caste and gender are ruthlessly exploited. Everywhere the migrant is scapegoated.

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When it is able to rise to the challenge of the moment the left offers solidarity and the prospect of subordinating capital, and the political class, to democratic oversight. 

In South Africa the political debate in the elite public sphere has largely been split been between two factions. One faction, now ranged across the ANC, the EFF, and a growing chorus of two-bit demagogues, presents outright looting of and through the state as a radical alternative to the old liberal consensus. This project is certainly capable of creating a new and powerful counter elite, but it can only do so at the cost of the further impoverishment of the majority, and the further decline of public institutions.

The second faction, which also has a base in the ANC, is endorsed by liberal opinion in business, much of the media and mainstream ‘civil society’. It hopes, albeit with decreasing confidence, that Cyril Ramaphosa will repair, even if just in part, the liberal order from the ravages of the Zuma years. 

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This debate is structured as a conflict between two factions of the elite, cheered on by those who are allied to or aspire to join one of these factions. One side largely derives its wealth and power from the market. The other is overwhelmingly dependent on the state. Both sides speak in the name of the people, and try to present their own interests as the interest of the people as a whole. But, of course, neither side offers anything remotely like a credible emancipatory project for the majority or, indeed, a viable vision for a democratic future.

We are in pressing need of a recasting of our political imagination to centre the deepening crisis of the majority. With the SACP and Cosatu unwilling to move beyond the ANC, it is clear that a progressive alternative to both those who seek a new licence to loot the state and those who seek a restoration of the liberal consensus will have to come from new social forces.

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