Watch out for the political disruptors

EFF leader Julius Malema. (AFP)
EFF leader Julius Malema. (AFP)

WE ALL know about the great business ‘disruptors’ of our time – new entrants like Airbnb, Amazon and Uber have disturbed an existing pattern of business in their respective sectors.

But it’s not just in business that disruption is fast becoming the norm. The political realm now enjoys more disruptive elements than in recent decades that can alter the course of countries.

Political leaders and their parties are shifting into new policy spaces hitherto held in relative check by competing interest groups who compromise on policy and ideology to ensure a cohesive and sustainable governing platform.

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader in the UK is the latest in a ‘testing the boundaries’ trend of the existing political order.

Donald Trump’s reign atop the Republican field and Bernie Sanders equally impressive showing for the Democrats shows the trend prevalent stateside.

In Europe, far-right anti-emigration parties are fast gaining traction. From Hungary to Holland, the establishment is being tested. Marie Le Pen and Nigel Farrage have already gained a solid populist foothold.

And of course, we here in South Africa have Julius Malema and the EFF – dressed in red and ready to disrupt even the most sacrosanct of proceedings.

Why then are the centrist politics of recent decades suddenly being tested?

Perhaps this disruption simply reflects an era of broader radical change.

The effects of mass migration are now being felt on both sides of the pond. This has been a long-time in the making without adequate consideration to the eventual consequences by the establishment politicians. Regrettably, this raises related security fears and prejudice that causes a rise in Nationalism and exclusionary politics.

Values and ethics also play a role. Younger generations – particularly in Europe – have often flirted with cause-based politics promoting environmental or humanistic agendas. These were never able to successfully harness credible leadership or be legitimised enough for the mainstream.

Role of state in the economy

A new crop of leaders are emerging that are pushing these boundaries. Jeremy Corbyn represents a socially conscious lobby embedded in a socialist philosophy that decries austerity and calls for the reintroduction of the role of the state in the economy.

Again, these ‘big-picture’ issues of austerity in the aftermath of the global financial crisis are cause for increasing radical alternatives.

For Malema, stagnant economic growth and declining job prospects over the last decade present a similar opportunity to capitalise on the frustration of inaction by the incumbent ANC.

South Africa included, there is a series of common threads that affect every nation. This is an era of fundamental and unprecedented shifts in almost every aspect of human endeavour.

For the electorate, many concerns are not new – but they have largely been ignored in terms of public policy responses by the moderate incumbents adding to their frustration.

From climate change to technology to mobility - the human condition is changing. The rise of new economic, trade and military players is shifting the global balance of power and adding to the complexities of an increasingly competitive and uncertain world.

From robots taking jobs to China’s volatility - it’s pretty dramatic. Add in an increasingly competitive global economy, unemployment and skills disparities, access to resources and the battle against vested interests and you have an era of unknowns that amplify a call to often-extreme action from the disruptors. Not to mention the rise of Isis and the unresolved issues of the re-integration of Iran or the Israel/Palestinian impasse.

But this is only a partial explanation for the rise of these new players. If you want to disrupt, you still need political legitimacy. Disruptors are increasingly presenting a much more sophisticated message adjusting their language and tone to enhance their credibility.

Ultimately though, equilibrium disruptors face the same issues as anyone else – developing sound and rational policies likely to hold as broad a coalition as possible together.

They face very specific tests in attempting to balance their desire for real disruption with the vested interests and inertia much more applicable to the public space than in the private sector.

And, as the world does not just revolve around one nation or a sub-section of its population, global forces in a more inter-connected world curtail many of the more extreme impulses – as Greece’s Syriza under Alex Tsipras found to its distress in a bruising contest with Germany’s Angela Merkel.

Combustible individuals

Political disruptors will also have more difficulty in staying on message. By their very nature, these are more combustible individuals less prone to worrying about what is deemed politically correct. They are more likely to invoke controversy with deeply held beliefs or potentially tactless, off the cuff remarks.

Although there may be a trend away from the mainstream centrists, the same political constraints will weigh on their eventual effectiveness and the cohesiveness of their parties and political movements.

Political disruptors play a more high-stakes game than their business counterparts. There are many more ‘moving parts’ as lobby groups, special interests, funding sources, friends and neighbours and the broader electorate require believable and considered outcomes.

Disruptors will add to an era of volatility and may often be susceptible to internal party revolts as policy issues become clouded in a quagmire of rhetoric and impractical hyperbole. They are sure to entertain us – but expect added instability as they do.

* Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

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