Sunday, September 28, 2014

Populism is the wrong solution, but it might rattle the right cages

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28 Sep 2014 | Tony Leon | Sunday Times

Most Ninety-one year olds would probably consider it an achievement to get up in the morning, have a cup of tea and watch television. But Dr Henry Kissenger, former US Secretary of State, decided it was a good age to produce a new book, in this case a 432- page door stopper entitled, World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History.
Actually, as Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, noted in his review of Dr Kissenger’s tone it could more accurately be entitled” World in Disorder”. Mad jihadists of the Islamic State beheading western journalists, a very reluctant (‘ambivalent’ is Kissenger’s phrase) US hyper-power re-engaging in a war in the Middle East in response; Russia throwing out the post -cold war settlement by invading neighbouring Ukraine, Israelis and Palestinians fighting an endless conflict, China upsetting its neighbours, Japan militarising, Iran nuclearizing, and anarchic permafrost settling upon the once hopeful Arab Spring.  In West Africa the once contained and rare Ebola virus has leapfrogged borders.  It has mutated from an epidemic  to a life-shattering endemic disease which, according to this week’s  forecast of the US Centre for Disease Control and Infection could get far worse by orders of magnitude killing hundreds of thousands of people and ‘embedding itself in the human population for years to come’.

Difficult indeed, in these hard times, to be optimistic about the world and human conditions.  But according to the well-credentialed contrarian Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, there’s actually more realistic hope about than at any other time in human  history.”The world might have gone to hell” he writes, “but it is getting much better”: the average person (meaning someone somewhere in the poor world ) lives about a third longer than he or she did fifty years ago and buries two thirds fewer of his or her children and the amount of food available per continent has risen dramatically,  so that famine, once a semi-permanent condition in the third world is in fact today rare ‘despite a doubling of the population since the early 1960’s.

But even if, objectively, the human condition has improved, the body politic appears diseased.  The institutions designed to improve the global order seem stuck in the past and unfitted for the present, never mind the future.  The United Nations is paralysed to act on the new threats to the planet such as climate change.  The World trade Organisation meant to harmonise global trade abandoned the Doha round after a decade of wrangling . The International Monetary Fund’s inability to reflect the economic realities of 2014 rather than 1945, has seen the rising powers of the South establish its own vehicle for development in the form of the BRICS Bank.

And when it comes to national politics, we see the rise of populism practically everywhere: nearly half of Scotland last week surrendered to its siren call, the once-fascist National Front in France is on the up and up, and even that bell weather of humane social democracy Sweden has seen the rise of nativist racist parties.  But as Philip Collins  wrote in The Times what we are witnessing in the world is ‘’the bacterium of anti-politics”. When you give up on traditional parties bringing real change to your life or the national condition you embrace the virus of anti-establishment organisations.

This rather dark global lens was given local resonance in a recent talk at the Cape Town Press Club by author –journalist Ray Harltey. He was speaking in the wake of the charm offensive launched in its rather traditional confines the week before by uber-populist Julius Malema. Far from infantalising politics as he is accused of doing, Juju had played his audience  and fine -tuned his message with the assurance of a political Stradivarius.

The far quieter but equally assured Harltey reminded us of the vast numbers of South Africans who have succumbed to the virus of anti-politics by opting out of the system entirely: of the 36m South Africans who could have registered and voted in the last election only 18m actually did so and of that total, the ruling ANC received only 11m votes, a far more modest haul than its apparent supremacy suggests. This led former parliamentarian, Dr Denis Worall to conclude, that while the “lords of Luthuli House” (to borrow the phrase of the DA Chief Whip) fixate on how to fix Malema, good and proper, we should actually thank Malema for ‘’making Parliament more relevant.”

After all when did you last hear the ANC Secretary General fussing about ‘’the dignity of parliament” as Gwede Mantahse recently did? When in fact did the ruling party last worry about parliament at all? Populism and its nasty noise and tactics can do much damage, but perhaps in the corroded corridors of power in South Africa, it might also be rejuvenating.



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