Thursday, April 17, 2014

Opportunity Lost?

As the national elections loom on the South African horizon and post-Mandela disillusionment sets in, UK journalist John Pilger offers a perceptive account of why so little economic progress has been made during the first 20 years of South Africa's democracy. Simply put, the ANC sold out and took the only path that remained after the fall of the Berlin Wall: neo-liberalism, the alluring but unrealistic belief that by making the rich richer (BEE, anyone?) wealth will begin to trickle down to the masses. Well, as Pope Francis wrote, "the excluded are still waiting". What is of particular interest is Pilger's brief description of what kind of programs could have been implemented to ensure that the end of apartheid meant not only the right for the majority of South Africans to vote, but also the right to a decent and dignified livelihood: 
[H]ad the ANC invested in [the majority of South Africans] and in their "informal economy", it could have actually transformed the lives of millions. Land could have been purchased and reclaimed for small-scale farming by the dispossessed, run in the co-operative spirit of African agriculture. Millions of houses could have been built, better health and education would have been possible. A small-scale credit system could have opened the way for affordable goods and services for the majority. None of this would have required the import of equipment or raw materials, and the investment would have created millions of jobs. As they grew more prosperous, communities would have developed their own industries and an independent national economy.
A reinvigorated—and skilled—peasantry that fosters the bonds most essential to a healthy society is crucial to liberating South Africa from its colonial and apartheid past that shattered the peasant class and tore families—the real fabric of society—to pieces. This is the basis of distributism in South Africa. 

The change that occurred in the early nineties put our country in a perfect position to transcend the ideological warfare that plagued the 20th century and embark on a new journey towards economic, political and social freedom. Instead the ANC revealed itself to be little more than an ideological playground for the black middle class, and South Africans—most of whom were not yet even born in 1994—are still waiting for real freedom to arrive.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Global Wealth Inequality

Political decay, poor farming and agricultural methods, a shrinking population, weakening military forces and a gradual decline in economic activity are some of the reasons why the Roman Empire fell. These are often presented alongside statistical or anecdotal evidence illustrating the extent to which Roman civilization had degenerated before eventually succumbing to the relentless barbarian invasions. It is tempting to look back upon the failures of past eras with a modern smugness that ignores the signs of our own decline. How will the fact that the combined wealth of today's richest 300 humans exceeds that of the poorest 3 billion be remembered by future generations as they learn about our era? 

The accumulation of such a vast amount of wealth (equal to the combined wealth of China, India, Brazil and the US) in the hands of such a small group of individuals is unprecedented, and has only been made possible by the rise of globalised free-market capitalism, which allows capital to extricate itself from its historically more permanent commitment to the labour it supplies. Before the invention of money, the interests of capital and labour could only be separated as far as one could carry one's pig to the local market. The replacement of bartering with a widespread currency created a level of fluidity between capital and labour that allowed economies to flourish, but nevertheless ensured that capital's interest (excuse the pun!) was still somewhat bound up in that of labour.   But in a post-industrial age, capital's ability to tap into and out of markets with such remarkable volatility threatens to produce the kind of economic absurdities that future generations may well look back on with the same smugness that we have towards those foolish Romans.  

South Africa can be seen a microcosm of the world's problems in this regard.  The solution clearly isn't to obliterate capital by means of nationalisation, which merely replaces one ruling class of capitalists with another (something that the ANC foresaw would be the chief challenge of post-apartheid South Africa), but rather to find ways of successfully recapitalising the people.  So far our government, via strategies like BEE, has accomplished transferring capital to a new black ruling class (as well as a brain drain of white professionals), but has failed dismally to reunite capital with labour, with the fruits of such a failure being on display to the whole world throughout the duration of last year's strikes.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Peter Maurin: A Fool for Christ

This is the title of a short biographical piece written by Christopher Shannon for Crisis Magazine. It's striking how applicable the ideas of Maurin (which are really the ideas of the Church) are to South Africa today. Shannon writes:
Maurin embraced and promoted holy poverty in a modern industrial age that presented new challenges to the Church’s understanding of wealth. Whereas St. Francis had stood against a greed and decadence acknowledged by the moral authorities of his age as a sin, Maurin set himself against a capitalist modernity that held up the pursuit of wealth as a positive virtue in itself. This new attitude toward material gain presented the additional challenge of fostering new inequalities of wealth even as it destroyed the traditional social bonds that had softened and humanized the old inequalities of traditional European Catholic societies. Secular critics of capitalism accepted the passing of traditional society as a positive good and focused on equalizing the distribution of wealth created by capitalist modernity. Maurin decried the poverty that he saw in the slums of the urban, industrial West, but saw both reformist and revolutionary plans for wealth redistribution as simply the democratization of greed. Against the modern alternatives of material poverty and material wealth, Maurin sought to lead the modern poor from their current, negative state of destitution—which combined material deprivation with social dislocation—to a future, positive condition of poverty, which allowed for the satisfaction of basic material needs but sought true wealth in communion with God and man.
Read the entire article here

Thursday, August 18, 2011

E.F. Schumacher Documentary

This film is a short documentary portrait of economist, technologist and lecturer Fritz Schumacher. Up to age 45, Schumacher was dedicated to economic growth. Then he came to believe that the modern technological explosion had grown out of all proportion to human need. Author of Small Is Beautiful - A Study of Economics as if People Mattered and founder of the London-based Intermediate Technology Development Group, he championed the cause of "intermediate" technology. The film introduces us to this gentle revolutionary a few months before his death.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Chesterton's Distributism

"As a young man, Chesterton flirted with socialism, but he soon realized that it was mostly a reactionary idea. The rise of socialism and its attendant evils was a reaction against industrial capitalism and its attendant evils. The danger of fighting injustice is that if the battle is misguided, even a victory is a defeat. Good motives can have bad results. This is the point Chesterton makes when he talks about how the 'virtues wander wildly' when they are isolated from each other and wandering alone. In a broken society where we have this seemingly endless battle between the left and right, the virtues on either side are doing war with each other: truth that is pitiless and pity that is untruthful.

"The conservatives and the liberals have successfully reduced meaningful debate to name-calling. We use catchwords as a substitute for thinking. We know things only by their labels, and we have 'not only no comprehension but no curiosity touching their substance or what they are made of.'

"It is interesting, it is fitting, that the philosophy which Chesterton embraced as the only real alternative to socialism and capitalism (as well as to liberalism and conservatism) goes by a name that is utterly awkward and misunderstood. As a label it is so useless it cannot even be used as a form of abuse. Its uselessness as a label demands that it be discussed. To say the name immediately requires explanation, and the explanation immediately provokes debate. The troublesome title is 'Distributism.' It has to do with property. It has to do with justice. And it has to do with everything else.

"There is more to Distributism than economics. That is because there is more to economics than economics. Distributism is not just an economic idea. It is an integral part of a complete way of thinking. But in a fragmented world we not only resist a complete way of thinking, we do not even recognize it. It is too big to be seen. In the age of specialization we tend to grasp only small and narrow ideas. We don’t even want to discuss a true Theory of Everything, unless it is invented by a specialist and addresses only that specialist’s 'everything.' In reality, everything is too complicated a category because it contains, well, everything. But the glory of a great philosophy or a great religion is not that it is simple but that it is complicated. It should be complicated because the world is complicated. Its problems are complicated.

"The solution to those problems must also be complicated. It takes a complicated key to fit a complicated lock. But we want simple solutions. We don’t want to work hard. We don’t want to think hard. We want other people to do both our work and our thinking for us. We call in the specialists. And we call this state of utter dependency 'freedom.' We think we are free simply because we seem free to move about."

These are excepts from the essay, "G. K. Chesterton's Distributism", by Dale Ahlquist on The Distributist Review website.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What Makes Man Human

To give and not to take
that is what makes man human.
To serve and not to rule
that is what makes man human.
To help and not to crush
that is what makes man human.
To nourish and not to devour
that is what makes man human.
And if need be
to die and not to live
that is what makes man human.
Ideals and not deals
that is what makes man human.
Creed and not greed
that is what makes man human.
By Peter Maurin, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Church (and Buddhism) on Work

Nowadays the work we do for a living is often treated as a necessary evil, a mere means to a financial end. Even from an employer’s perspective, the less labour of others' he has to pay for the better. That work is viewed in this negative lightby labourers and their employersis the mark of a society that has lost touch with its own value system and has long forgotten both the creative and the redemptive nature of work. In contemplating this dual nature of work, one is able to move beyond the deceptions of modern neoliberal economics that obscureand thereby devaluewhat has been, from even before the Fall, the vocational calling of mankind.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that work ought to be fundamentally creative:
Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: ‘If any one will not work, let him not eat’ (2 Thes 3:10). Work honours the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him.1
Work is done for the physical and material good of ourselves and of others. Bringing forth goods which are needed by society is a duty of every man capable of working. But St. Paul’s connection between working and eating rests on an assumption long forgotten by those engaging in modern workplaces: our work should be directly related to providing that which is genuinely needed by our communities. Therefore our work ought to be for the material benefit of our community. We only have a right to what we genuinely need (St. Paul uses the most obvious example of food), insofar as we take part in bringing forth what is genuinely needed by the community (proper work). By accepting the invitation of the Creator to co-labour with Him we participate in his creative purposes of providing us, His children, with what He knows we need.2

That work is done to honour that which the Creator has given us
including both the resources of the earth and our talents and abilitiesshould also be a guiding light in determining what kind of work is proper to man. Every end-product of our modern economy has been made by combining the raw materials found in God’s creation with what He has given each of us in terms of our physical and mental talents. Consequently, every single thing we create for the consumption of ourselves or others should be brought under the scrutiny of whether it honours the true Creator.

One of the chief illusions brought about by post-industrial economics is that the primary purpose of work is to earn money. Work is therefore a trade-off: by engaging in something somewhat unpleasant we are rewarded financially. Work is a mere commodity and workers are consistently seeking to sell less of their labour for more. We forget, as Pope John Paul II reminded us in 1991, that “work is work with others and work for others: it is a matter of doing something for someone else.”3 Indeed, without the needs of others to be met there would not be any work to be done at all.