A vote of no confidence

By Samad Ramoly


Smart governments internalise the nuances of the system and implement policies that factor in a maximum of variables. How can you grapple with problems and provide solutions if you elude them and outsource thinking to (foreign) consultants?


Where there is inequality of estates, there must be inequality of power.
James Harrington, a 17th century political theorist


“New Zealand has been a poster child of globalisation. Still, new Prime minister Jacinda Ardern calls capitalism a “blatant failure” because, as they struggle to make ends meet, the majority of New Zealanders do not identify with the Gross Domestic Product data. Jacinda Ardern has pledged to reconnect government with citizens and bring back trust in the system with “kindness”. Inspired human beings tend to be more productive human beings. This is not pep talk. Time will tell how successful such a “laboratory of progressive politics” will turn out…”

The global gloom spreads so fast in this age of viral information that it appears to be less forgiving. Nobody looks likely to be spared, not even a member of a gang playing God. We promptly single out inequality as the bogeyman when it is just one of the symptoms of a pervasive experience harnessed with cold-blooded gusto. Wealth concentration is the root cause. Who and what are the triggers? Before contemplating any redress we need to let go of our blinders.

Muddled thinking

To be spared the Road to Serfdom (read enslavement), the high priests of economic liberalism preach laissez-faire. However defined, the brand of capitalism that has shaped most of the world since the 1980s is proxy to neoliberalism, commonly associated with the most extreme expression of capitalism. The overriding dogmas have been “market never fails”, “government is the problem, not the solution” and “planning is counterproductive”. Fittingly, the “Washington Consensus” package set out to standardise policymaking via gullible brains. Economic sociologist Karl Polyani presciently argued that unfettered capitalism will lead to societal mayhem sooner or later, with environmental degradation and social ills among the collateral damages.

As global unrest and anger gather momentum, only the reality challenged, the ideologically enslaved and the useful idiot will not recognise that trickle-down economics is actually a sham. We have been sold the doctrine that corporate taxes, when perceived to be “repressive”, act as an impediment to business dynamism and job creation. Alternatively, so we have been brainwashed, when businesses are freed from the tax and regulatory burden they create wealth that will be shared. No matter if more often crumbs, if at all, are what trickle down. A plight that is sordidly magnified by tax avoidance and its key conduit of tax havens. When things turn bad, the already under-performing welfare state becomes the convenient target, the “lazy” worker and the millennial, the punchbag.

The warning was therefore compelling: Embrace capitalism or else be a moronic “socialist”. Even if socialism, as philosopher John Stuart Mill believed, can satisfyingly accommodate private enterprise. Socialism and communism, precisely the travesty thereof, are not invariably bedfellows. Nordic nations, Switzerland, Germany, namely, have sustained their socio-economic expansion without kowtowing to hardcore capitalism. China’s approach could not be more hybrid. South Korea and Singapore have always striven to cruise with a robust measure of realism. Estonia also has not fallen into the trap of the simple-minded capitalism v/s socialism binary. Little wonder the above countries are relatively less devastated by the debilitating spin-offs of the global rat race.

Genuine Adam Smith, rise up! 

Religious bigots have no monopoly over the twisted reading of scriptures. The unintended consequences can be dramatic. Likewise, when zealots of economic liberalism advocate the “invisible hand”, they distort its original sense. Adam Smith, reductively referred to the “father of modern economics”, was essentially a supreme moral thinker. Ultimately, in his mind, the “invisible hand” is expected to deliver common good. The caveat: To achieve market equilibrium it must be guided by enlightened self-interest.

The big business-government nexus is not necessarily a conspiracy; it may also derive its might from a tacit agreement converging towards anticipated mutual benefits. The nexus constitutes the Footloose Class that acts recklessly with no sense of responsibilities and commitments. Its lifeblood is engineered by sponsored politicians and “experts”, promoted by the self-indulgent media and emboldened by undiscerning citizens. It is hardwired in doublespeak, hubris and greed. Do not hold your breath for a confession that, more often than not, subtly or brutally, markets are rigged against the 99.9%. For refuseniks, any move to upend market fundamentalism bears the seal of “socialism”.

Capitalism can work reasonably when governments are resolutely pro-competitive market. An overwhelmingly pro-conglomerates attitude taunts the doldrums. Simultaneously, competition watchdogs must turn actively zero-tolerant to all forms of business concentration. Today, America, the bastion of capitalism, is struggling to rein in Big Tech after decades of mindless regulatory laxism. Mergers, monopolies and cartels not only stifle competition but also drain household disposable income and business cash-flow. Cost-inefficient parastatals and civil service further compound the squeeze. It is absurd to expect depressed human capital and entrepreneurs to be productive and inventive. It would indeed be a feat for anyone with a little hindsight to stay numb to the attributes of the Neo-Mauritianus (including corporate neo-conservative mouthpieces turning candid “progressives” overnight after retirement), a typical “product” of our “miracle”.

Smart governments internalise the nuances of the system and implement policies that factor in a maximum of variables. How can you grapple with problems and provide solutions if you elude them and outsource thinking to (foreign) consultants? A situation that is worsened by flawed market intelligence like in the case of home ownership. How about assessing consumer confidence through the buzz around shopping malls and supermarkets? Regardless of the fading presence of smaller neighbourhood  shops, the amount of overpriced and ultraprocessed food in trolleys, widespread fake items, the mere act of window-shopping, restricted access to healthy leisure activities and so on.

Here is a sample of where and how we are tellingly missing out: 

  • Focus must not be on fostering a nation of degree holders and entrepreneurs, but on nurturing skillful, risk-taking, creative and fair-minded citizens;
  • The ease of doing business index does not always reflect real-world experience like, for instance, the time it takes for a bank account to be operational (if you manage to break through the glass ceiling of access to finance);
  • Uncertainties caused by rogue governance and lack of foresight add a premium on risks. By forcing businesses to inflate prices to hedge against unwarranted risks, our overall competitiveness is seriously undermined;
  • The family planning program of our first post-independence government was wise for the short run. But due to endemic mismanagement, of demographics in this case, our domestic market will literally shrink with an ageing population, inadequate birth rate and migration. Pressure on pension funds makes the situation untenable;
  • Equating development to infrastructural projects only without scrutiny of quality and costs has opened the floodgates of corruption and incentivised a heavily skewed system;
  • By letting her crafts fade, the country loses her soul.

Slowbalisation

The Footloose Class has been the unchallenged winner of late globalisation in terms of strictly material gains. For the rest, barring arrivistes, it has been a varying extent of pain. Our “miracle” was built upon unsound and corrupt premises. The “years of reform” distorted further the system. It was written on the wall that we were going to pay dearly afterwards. Our cynical bent for exports blinded us from the fact that it is also possible to balance our books by resorting to import substitution, meaning producing more for local consumption, and, as a result, spending less foreign currencies earned on exports.

Globalism ought to go together with localism. How much of each depends on the context. Now that the globalism fixation has reached its moment of reckoning and that we have not braced ourselves for global competition without safety nets, it is doubtful that localism, the forthcoming buzzword, will receive the earnest reception. The property development spree for well-heeled foreigners, no matter how decent and value-added, has escalated into gentrification that will exacerbate housing opportunity. We cannot “put out fire with gasoline”, can we? Massive re-industrialisation has become a matter of survival.

It is not “the end of history” for neither globalisation nor democracy. However they will both increasingly expand with less ideological grip and with more cultural cross-pollination. “Infinite growth” could not have served the Footloose Class and its copycats more majestically. Over-consumption, the vehicle of “infinite growth”, has strained the world environmentally and otherwise. The concerted effort needed to reverse the situation is happening too timidly. Clearly, the tipping point is not attracting the reaction it deserves. Instead of igniting a virtuous cycle, the system has instilled mutual mistrust between citizens and the Footloose Class. In its wake a culture of rent-seeking has sunk in – for the few to cash in, but for the many, as a survival mode. More often than not, the ends justify the means.

New Zealand has been a poster child of globalisation. Still, new Prime minister Jacinda Ardern calls capitalism a “blatant failure” because, as they struggle to make ends meet, the majority of New Zealanders do not identify with the Gross Domestic Product data. Jacinda Ardern has pledged to reconnect government with citizens and bring back trust in the system with “kindness”. Inspired human beings tend to be more productive human beings. This is not pep talk. Time will tell how successful such a “laboratory of progressive politics” will turn out. New Zealand is more than 100 times larger than Mauritius, and yet, Jacinda Ardern’s government acted swiftly to tackle spiraling property prices: most foreigners are now banned from buying homes. Should not that bold decision put our Footloose Class to shame?

Folk wisdom and wish fulfilment

Will it take our own “Brexit” and “gilets jaunes” for our Footloose Class to see the light? Evidence is mounting to demonstrate how, when institutions rot, watchdogs and “ecowarriors” grow picky, the road to plutocracy is paved with kleptocratic tendencies. Cutting the limbs of the Footloose Class may require a painful revolution. Maybe citizens must take the lead with a selective boycott of brands represented by players entertaining the most contemptuous sense of corporate citizenship. Or, maybe a radical change in our purchasing habits can potentially have more impact. Like, say, refraining from buying a new fast fashion black dress for every coming night out or every hyped electronic device. All in the name of our shared humanity and our natural heritage. In this era, citizen welfare may well yield to consumer power, rather than retail therapy that may seem to provide instant relief, but hardly addresses our entrenched malaise.

Slowbalisation is not de-globalisation. In its noblest character, it aims at the de-growth of toxic policies and over-consumption, and in parallel, the growth of well-being. Even if calling decadence a day, going frugal and still be content is not easily achievable in a setting where “nouveau riche” behaviour defines success. Without a synergy of virtuous input and a well-thought strategy, the odds that any new development model going ugly stay high. Yet again.


* Published in print edition on 8 March 2019

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