Ian Dewar
Ian Dewar

Is it time for a South African Spring?

Let’s face it, our world is in a total mess right now. Social strife, political skullduggery and infighting, environmental degradation, and, for most, severe economic hardship, are pretty much the common denominators across every nation which makes up the global community. What makes this mess so particularly vexing to contemplate in South Africa is that we have a new Constitution which envisages something so much better, but this vision does not seem to be manifesting much at all. So what is the problem?

I think Karl Marx got it dead right when he reduced the common problems apparent throughout modern human history to having one primary cause: “dialectical materialism”, or the constant class struggle between the capitalists, whose aim is private profit, and the workers, who resist exploitation. I think he was right is because this concept identifies the fundamental, radical clash between two completely different systems of thinking, and their modes of acting.

The business systems of capitalism can only function as hierarchically controlled, machine-like structures where an optimally sufficient workforce must obey instructions and rules without dispute, because in order to function profitably they must produce precisely designed outputs strictly according to a detailed cost budget within an exactly calculated time frame. The community systems of socialism, on the other hand, rely on a very organic form of collaborative decision-making and cooperative effort which constantly adapts itself over time according to the changing situation, needs, and aspirations of all of its members as one whole group. Given these fundamental differences in systemic ideology it is no wonder that the classes clash so badly, and always have.

The anti-capitalist and anti-ruling-class socialist revolutions which brought about the enforced totalitarian equality of the communist states may claim that Marx was their inspiration, but I believe that Marx espoused something quite different in order to find a way past the clash of the classes: “synthesis”, which Chambers Dictionary defines as “making a whole out of parts”. Quite to the contrary then, all communism actually did was make their ‘part’ much more militarily powerful and the conflict with capitalism very much worse – in fact getting it very close to the point of total nuclear annihilation of both classes in the 1960s and 70s.

The dismal failure of communism has become apparent in the expeditious scrabble of now quasi-communist states to join in with their capitalist enemy’s global economy (which, rather paradoxically, is an obtuse form of synthesis in itself). Does their abdication of workers’ rights mean that achieving socialist equality is just a utopian dream? Even more paradoxically perhaps, I think achieving it may be the outcome of yet further evolution within the capitalist economy itself.

What is making this evolution vitally necessary is the addition of a third ‘part’ to Marx’s dialectical equation: the natural environment. The conflict of interest between the two class parts would have begun the moment that the very first farmers took individual propriety ownership of their new strategic food supply and the land that produced it, and in doing so, became the front-runners for the rise of the ownership-and-ruling class of the capitalist economy. But two other conflicts would also have begun at the same moment: one between the rise of sedentary human settlements and nature, and the other between the rise of the agro-industrial economy and nature. Nature has no voice so these two conflicts were never considered in the relentless march of material progress – until now.

With climate change effects becoming more and more apparent, the increasing impact of both society and the economy upon the global natural environment have evidently now hit ‘Max Headroom’. In other words, we have reached, and dangerously surpassed, the maximum sustainable threshold of impact permissible for us as a species upon nature’s global ecosystem. And nature has at last found a substitute for its voicelessness in its alarming climate-change reaction to this abuse. Evolutionary change is no longer a choice, it has become a categorical imperative.

In effect, our environment is exerting the penultimate pressure for human change onto a new, ecological path of progress. This means that Marx’s original two-part “dialectical materialism” should be updated to the three-part form of “eco-dialectical materialism” and, accordingly, that his original two-part solution of “synthesis” be updated to “eco-synthesis”. But enough of the theory. The challenging question for implementation is, how can we learn to THINK like socialists, and FEEL like environmentalists, but at the same time still ACT like capitalists?

Einstein defined the first step onto a possible path forward with the sage advice, “You cannot correct a problem using the same consciousness that created it – you first have to learn to see the world anew.” It also helps to know that in our distant hunter-gatherer past there is a precedent in that for them such eco-synthesis was a normal, natural way of life. As John Gowdy so eloquently described in his essay entitled “Hunter-gatherers and the mythology of the market”, “What is informative is the relationship between social egalitarianism and environmental sustainability. Hunter-gatherers did not deliberately cultivate a higher ethical consciousness: their patterns of behaviour were embedded in the material characteristics of their economy. The same features that promoted an egalitarian social structure – sharing, collective decision-making, and a knowledge-based economy – also promoted environmental harmony.”

Fundamentally then, and because humanity has now become so totally dependent on the material continuity of the modern economy, everything boils down to one thing: How do we South Africans make our economy more socially and environmentally friendly without disrupting its much-needed material continuity? Obviously we cannot go back to hunter-gathering, but what this precedent reveals is the means with which our economy could be adapted and improved in order to affect eco-synthesis anew.

1) The adoption of a higher ethical consciousness was effectively formalised in the Agenda 21 strategy for sustainable development agreed on at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. This new consciousness is reflected in Section 23 of our Constitution which obligates securing ‘ecologically sustainable development for this and future generations’.
2) Sharing and collective decision-making are now part and parcel of the Information Technology industry behind the ascendancy of the global knowledge economy. By logistical default these practices transfer over into the user groups who make use of this technology.
3) The knowledge base of the internet has become so vast that every user and user group has direct access to most, if not all, information required to help solve a problem, and when innovating a new solution these users are feeding back new information which continuously updates the global knowledge base.

Globally speaking then, there are already new patterns of digital eco-behaviour embedded in the ascending knowledge economy. The last question must be: How do we bring and embed this behaviour into the local lives of marginalised society, the local economy, and the relationships of both with their local natural environment?

The short answer lies, I believe, in a simple sum of existing potentials. 1) There are proven new industrial methodologies for achieving highly eco-efficient, and eco-profitable, business outcomes; 2) convergence in the IT sector is constantly providing better and cheaper means of connectivity to the ascending knowledge economy; and 3) self-sufficient alternative energy technology is growing more efficient and cost effective in leaps and bounds.

Add these potentials together with the necessary capital investment, skills transfer, and start-up incentives, and strategically inject them into local informal economies. Then stand back, for without doubt there will be an explosion of eco-solution finding and innovative economic activity which should, over time, self-generate the required local eco-synthesis.

Only the future can tell its outcome but, without doubt, following such a path will ensure that our South African Spring is a spring as in ‘leap forward’, not ‘revolution’.

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