Selective amnesia will be our downfall

WE don’t seem to learn from the recent past, let alone from more distant times.

This failure of memory seems to be borne of a desperate need for change coupled with a lack of clarity about what change is needed.

It is a view summed up last week by Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the SA Federation of Trade Unions, when he noted: “People can have short memories when they are desperate.”

He was referring to 2007, when he led what became known as the Zuma tsunami to unseat then president Thabo Mbeki.

Aids denialism fuelled the desperation to be rid of Mbeki, so “we chose the most compromised person because he was brave enough to take on Thabo Mbeki”.

Vavi used these comments as an illustration of what he categorised as the hero worship of deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa.

“People are so desperate for something different from [President Jacob] Zuma that they now call themselves buffalo soldiers,” he said, referring to Ramaphosa as “McBuffalo”. The nickname relates to Ramaphosa’s ownership of the McDonald’s fast food franchise and to his R18m bid for a buffalo for his game farm.

Sections of the labour movement are certainly concerned about Ramaphosa’s elite position within the capitalist system. Some hold against him his involvement as a director of Lonmin at the time of the Marikana massacre. Others, like Vavi, feel that no individual messiah can cure the leprous economy or put the poor and downtrodden on the road to collective salvation.

However, as billionaire philanthropist George Soros highlighted at the latest gathering in Davos – sponsored by that international rich bosses’ club, the World Economic Forum – the search for solutions tends increasingly to be focused on state capture, corruption and the rise of populist leaders. Yet these are only symptoms of a deeper malaise. They arise because of the state of the global economy, and uncertainty, pain and suffering.

Soros, much like the reformist economist John Maynard Keynes, believes in a kinder, gentler capitalism. Yet, increasingly, this may be seen as impossible.

Given the quite phenomenal development of technology in recent decades, the existing system of profit-driven competition has clearly reached its sell-by date.

Soros did mention what is now generally referred to as the fourth industrial revolution. The rapid introduction of artificial intelligence with algorithms is quickly replacing human labour and producing much more at ever lesser costs. The labour movement around the world has, at least rhetorically, taken this on board. But, by and large, the dots are seldom joined.

Yet the facts are there – even in developed economies such as Britain and the US, it is estimated that at least 30% of existing jobs will be lost by 2030.

Among them will be those of economists. Those supposed technicians of capitalism who analyse and forecast economic trends – a job sophisticated algorithms are much more capable of handling with accuracy.

But then much of journalism is likely to go the same way.

Yet these are technologies that could free all sellers of labour and allow everyone to develop to their fullest potential. Who knows what great inventiveness, what art, literature and music will emerge from realising the potential of humanity as a whole?

That is the dream and it rests on existing technologies. If used for common benefit they could free humanity instead of crippling and destroying human potential.

So, we have a choice – work to change the course we are now embarked on or accept the wrenching pain the future currently promises.

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