On Putin, the end of liberalism and the dangerous figures in SA's democracy

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony to receive credentials from newly appointed foreign ambassadors to Russia in Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 3, 2019. (Maxim Shipenkov/Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony to receive credentials from newly appointed foreign ambassadors to Russia in Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 3, 2019. (Maxim Shipenkov/Pool Photo via AP)
Associated Press

South Africa's expansive social welfare system is an essential social democratic buffer for all those millions of people who do not benefit from the neo-liberal aspects of government policy. But more needs to be done, writes Christi van der Westhuizen.

In a recent interview with the British Financial Times (FT), Russian president Vladimir Putin announced the end of liberalism. As the FT expressed it, Putin "crowed" about it, probably along with all the other autocratic populists like him. Does the bell toll for liberalism? And what does it mean for South Africa, with a Constitution that mixes liberal and social-democratic values?

Putin's sentiment makes sense against the background of Russia's history. It also hints at the unexpected ideological twists and turns the world has taken since the Second World War. Russia was the leading state in the Soviet Union, which tried to operationalise Marxism-Leninism with the system of state governance known as communism.

The history of the 20th century is to a large extent that of an ideological war between communism and liberalism. Broadly speaking, the differences between the two positions are that communism places the emphasis on collectivism and equality driven by a state-controlled economy but without democracy, as opposed to liberalism's emphasis on individualism and freedom driven by a market economy and democracy.

As we know, communism lost the war. The Soviet Union collapsed, and the Russians have become bigger capitalists than many Westerners. Notably, capitalism has flourished in Russia, not democracy. An authoritarian populism centering on the figure of Putin, entrenched by the neutralisation of political opponents and other state violence, has kept him in power for almost 20 years.

Of interest here, is the collective nature of authoritarian populism, an element shared with communism. One of the criticisms against liberalism is, again broadly, that the emphasis on the individual discounts or even denies the social and interpersonal ties that human beings require to survive. Liberalism does not see communities but human atoms, with each acting in its own interest.

This tendency can amount to a hyper-individualisation, as seen in neo-liberalism, a relatively new ideology that takes liberal principles too far. Margaret Thatcher, the British politician most associated with the rise of neo-liberalism, is notorious for saying "there is no such thing as society".

Combined with the other illusion of liberalism, namely the pretence that all individuals are free and rational agents on a level playing field who should just take the right decisions, and one can see why anti-liberal reaction is growing. Obviously, we are not free agents on a level playing field. Among others, human-made structures stand in our way, to do with poverty, patriarchy, racism and other disadvantages.

The denial of what the Christians call "love for one's neighbour" and the Africans "ubuntu", and the pretence that the playing field is level, are taken to an extreme level in neo-liberalism. This ideology has expanded from the 1970s to increasingly become the dominant force globally.

One of the economic consequences is a sharp increase in social-economic inequality, between and within countries. The current one-percent phenomenon, in which less than 1% of the world's population possess 40% of the world's wealth, is a direct effect of neo-liberalism.

Analysts already noticed in the 1990s that neo-liberal economic policy shrinks the middle classes. The system allows a few outliers, in the form of relatively under-resourced people who become filthy rich, which adds to its public legitimisation.

But generally, more and more people slip out of the middle classes into the new precarious class, called "the precariat" by researchers. This refers to people who frequently have more than one job and still can't keep head above water. That is if they escape unemployment. Neo-liberals regard such people as "the redundant" who did not take the right decisions, or who are "inherently" inferior and therefore could in any case never succeed.

In such stressful times, it is no wonder that "the redundant" grab at collectivism. And this is what the authoritarian populist lives on: our desire for emotional and material security among people like ourselves. Therefore, the third ideological contender of the 20th century, fascism, finds in these times new succour – or, at least, ideological shadows of fascism which have (so far) not descended into the violence of a Hitler, Mussolini or Franco.

Putin did not raise the question of democracy when he spoke about liberalism, because that would perhaps reveal his hand completely. He represents a growing political onslaught against democracy – from Russia to Brazil, Japan to Turkey, Hungary to the USA. In spite of all the problems with liberalism, the ideas that we must each be able to choose who rules us, and that we each possess the inalienable right to be free from violations by the state and other individuals, are both indispensable for human dignity.

Liberalism is not static. South Africa's Constitution is an excellent example of how the 19th century liberal idea, that only white middle-class men have rights, has been extended to all people, irrespective of race, gender and class. The inclusion of socio-economic rights alongside liberal rights in the Constitution was a ground-shifting innovation, along with the emphasis on the right to human dignity alongside freedom and equality.

South Africa's expansive social welfare system is an essential social democratic buffer for all those millions of people who do not benefit from the neo-liberal aspects of government policy. But more needs to be done to ensure that the local personifications of Putin don't entrap us in competing versions of racial autocracy. We know who these dangerous figures are.

For this reason, it was an important acknowledgment by President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier this week that the ANC did not sufficiently address the question of the structure of the economy after 1994. People's susceptibility to both corruption and local Putins becomes worse the longer they remain trapped on the receiving end of socio-economic inequality and poverty. This is a direct threat to the longevity of our unique system with its humanising mix of liberal and social democratic founding principles.

- Christi van der Westhuizen is associate professor attached to the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy, Nelson Mandela University.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.
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