By Zuko Godlimpi
IN HISTORICAL terms, Donald Trump’s victory in the race for the United States presidency was actually produced by the same objective circumstances that catapulted Barack Obama into power eight years ago, despite the fact that the two political figures represent different social values.
The victories of Obama and Trump, respectively, constitute competing extremes of the same changing global political framework that is conditioned by the historic economic and social impact of the 2008 global recession. South Africa, as I will later argue, has for at least the past 12 years also been impacted upon by these changes in the global political framework.
The few years in the run up to 2008 saw a build up to the Global Recession. The world witnessed a sharp decline in industrial economic productivity, growing inflation, falling real income, rising inequality and disillusionment with the ruling political elites.
The collapse of the global financial system, originating in the United States and continental Europe, cemented the radical critique against global capitalism and its financial tentacles. In that dramatic collapse of the credibility of the global system and how its elites wielded State power, the stage was set for Obama to be born.
He was black, confident and came from outside the political establishment whose existence is embedded in the capitalist power structure responsible for the generalised and growing misery of an increasing number of Americans and everyone else in the world.
In 2008, Obama brought a refreshing idealism of hope: the hour of yes we can! He personified a historic symbolism that promised reconfigured race relations and the forcing of racist ideology to retreat. Americans seemed to vote against the moral bankruptcy of the political elite that drove the world to an economic collapse as well as to vote for an idealism that promised to bind all Americans towards a new humanism.
“We reject the bankers whilst embracing humane approaches to banking and finance,” seemed to be part of the new idealism.
Eight years later, America is battling to extricate itself from the pit of that industrial decline, slow economic growth and a rising costs of living. In similar manner to everywhere else in the world, the American working and middle classes continue experience declining standards of living, rising unemployment, a rising student debt crisis and other economic constraints that threaten social upwards mobility. This material crisis has successfully eroded the effect of the Obama idealism, as its attractive value system cannot reverse the social desperation that is on the rise.
In that moment of historical crisis, Donald Trump emerges on a campaign platform centred on an imprecise “make America great again” slogan, whose major rallying point is also a promise of ‘change’ against an evidently failing polity that has not successfully transformed the material conditions of the average American person, eight years after Obama’s first election.
Trump advertised as an unapologetic bigot with uncompromising right-wing politics whose fiery rhetoric spells hell for black people, immigrants, the LGBTI community etc. who are blamed for virtually every development challenge of the US. He is a billionaire, confident about his power, comes from outside the political establishment and readily reminds people that he is actually not a politician.
In the scope of the Trump right-wing idealism, “unemployment is the fault of immigrants who steal jobs, therefore build a wall between the US and Mexico! The economy is de-industrialising because the Democrats are too weak to handle big business; I have money I’m not scared of the rich, they’re scared of me! America is not great because it allows gay marriages and abortion! America is losing international respect and therefore economic opportunity because the black President is weak and Hilary is a nasty woman!” The list of irrational but powerful invectives is long.
The decline in economic standards is an objective reality. The failure of the political establishment to respond effectively to these has for some time bred social fragmentation and a loss of political credibility across the board. In that vacuum Trump effectively mobilised frustrated and bigoted Americans, mostly white, sentiment and channelled it into a powerful, even if unsustainable, electoral agenda.
In ironically similar manner to Obama, Trump, is the rallying point of an entrenched sense of economic, social and political disillusionment. But differently to Obama, in capitalising on this social discontent, he fashions an idealism that bargains on crude American nationalism whose mainstay is aggression and the mobilisation of backward values to justify its existence (homophobia, sexism, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, constant insults to the political establishment etc.).
Obama, who benefited from socio-economic and political frustrations in 2008, has been rejected by the same trend because its sense of hope is now articulated towards a different direction. He came out in support of Hillary Clinton but could not sidestep the gravitational pull of economic strain. That Clinton is a woman and thus her victory would have represented a forward march in the evolution of America’s political identity, to effect an erosion of the masculinity of power, was overtaken by a different social anxiety – economic decline that has remobilised bigoted scapegoating.
In similar fashion, the successful referendum for Britain to exit the European Union was canvassed by right-wing political formations like the UKIP and Conservatives like Boris Johnson on anti-immigrant sentiments. Economic decline, rising unemployment and unconvincing responses by the leadership set the ball rolling for xenophobic English nationalism to triumph.
Here at home, in the ANC, the dramatic removal of President Thabo Mbeki was practically centred on similar patterns at the start of the Global Recession; a democratic transition that was slow in shifting wealth structures to black people, jobless economic growth, stagnant wages and cries of a bullish behaviour in how power was being wielded to victimise political opponents by an arrogant political elite etc.
His grand idealism of an African Renaissance came crashing as inequality and industrial economic decline spawned ground resentment. An alienating sense of an elite pact that limited economic transformation to an inner circle of comrades, through BEE deals, accentuated the fallout.
In Polokwane, the stage was set for the election of a people-centred leadership, centred on the figure of President Jacob Zuma, with promises of a ‘leftward shift’ in economic policy and a broadly democratic approach to state power and the alliance. The promise was to transform economic relations in favour of the black working class. A new economic idealism was born.
Ten years later, South Africa is experiencing similar gravitations towards the pre-Polokwane moment. The decline in real income, increasing inequality, rising costs of living and economic power structures centred in white and black elite networks are all persistent. Similar protestations over the abuse of state institutions for political witch hunts, crony-capitalist practices in the state, etcetera, have once again become central to our discourse. The difference is that the ANC is heavily being contested as the rallying point of the radical voices that articulate this social discontent and the search for urgent economic reform and transformation of state power.
The increasing radicalisation of the black middle class on race relations, rising vigilance around questions of corruption, binding concerns for things like Free Education, the prominence of radical politics and the rise of crude populist figures etc. all of which are now directed against President Zuma, the erstwhile rallying point of similar discontent, also betrays a ten year cycle that has not effectively delivered the economic and political restructuring that was projected.
The instability of the international market has also brought back South Africa’s established white capital into the political arena; looking to control ‘the political economy of their domicile’ since the international market is stuck in perpetual uncertainty. In a survivalist bid, established capital has re-entered the political arena to scramble for open control of the local political economy. With fragmentation within the ANC, and sustained standoff around Gupta shenanigans providing a moral window, different social and capitalist forces successfully conceal their strategic intentions of exerting long-term control over the political centre in the state.
What we say and do in the terrain of economic policy between now and 2019, especially in 2017, will determine whether figures like Julius Malema (on the populist left) and the DA (with its ‘clean-governance’, lean state, free market liberalism) will constitute the rallying point of a new idealism that SA is increasingly searching for.
Our continued fragmentation as the ANC and related inability to collectively generate effective perspectives to respond to this social drift is opening up a window for unimaginable outcomes. A moment of radical shifts in electoral patterns is increasingly consolidating on the basis of the centre not holding.
The key challenge for the future lies in our capacity as the ANC to generate a binding idealism built on practical radical economic reform, a believable ethical agenda to transform state power and a convincing ideational leadership on matters of race, gender and other dimensions of social relations.
If the prevailing political polarity persists without the ANC asserting itself as the driving political centre on the basis of superior political values that are coherently articulated alongside visible transformation in economic and social relations, then the stage is set for us to be the Hillary Clintons of this country.
*Cde Zuko Godlimpi is a member of the ANC Youth League