The SA Left and the neo-liberal straw man

Ashor Sarupen says the term is used to denigrate market-related policy ideas without the bother of actually engaging with them

Political left in SA labours under a fallacy

THE political left in SA has over the years targeted neoliberalism as the root cause of our economic ills. Dominated primarily by the trade union movement, along with the vestiges of organised communism, we are constantly told that neoliberalism is an evil that needs to be stamped out if we are to empower the poor, grow the economy and create jobs.

Whenever there is a policy that this strain of the left dislikes, it is dismissed as neoliberal. The youth wage subsidy, the National Development Plan and any mention of labour reforms are met with the same rallying cry - that it must be stopped to defeat the neoliberal agenda.

Perhaps it is time we asked the left: what exactly is the neoliberal agenda that has become such an obsession? Neoliberal is a term coined to describe the economic policies of the Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher era, characterised by a huge reduction in the role of the state in the economy, a large reduction in state expenditure, reduction and reforms to welfare, and a roll-back in the power of and legal protections provided to organised labour.

These are all, naturally, anathema to the political left and unions. To the modern left, such policies leave much to be desired in terms of creating a caring society and safety net for the poor, as well as protecting workers from exploitation.

The word neoliberal, then, is a pejorative term to degrade and insult any market-related policy ideas without analysis. This is sadly what the political left has been reduced to in SA. There is a distinct lack of engagement with market reform-based policy proposals and innovations, and the "neoliberal" rallying cry is used to discredit ideas - even when they come from left movements.

A neoliberal straw man has thus been built up - that there is an insidious agenda to destroy all unions and labour protections altogether, worsen inequality, and concentrate wealth among a small elite. A clear-headed glance about Parliament would show that there is no political party advocating this.

This is intellectually dishonest with no sense of historical facts. Since the introduction of "neoliberal" economic policies under Reagan and Thatcher, there have been 30 years of contributions from across the political and economic spectrum. Liberals, centrists and even socialists across the world have made big contributions to ensuring there is a market economy characterised by fairness, access to opportunity and which includes social welfare.

In order to build a modern market economy, it is widely acknowledged that unions have a role to play in protecting their employees from exploitation and unfair practices, but not to hold entire economies to ransom. None of these facts suit the straw man argument with which the left blindly beats its opponents.

This particular brand of leftist thinking, which seems determined to replace a democratic market economy with a totalitarian state-controlled economy, needs to adequately and scientifically demonstrate to those of us who advocate a market economy why it should be abolished altogether and what improvements this could possibly bring.

Why should the state dominate the economy when it has run Eskom and other state-owned enterprises into the ground and made them financially unviable? The left needs to explain why it won't enter into a grand bargain between labour and industry that would bring about reforms to increase flexibility, maximise productivity, grow the economy and create jobs, as economists and many institutions have long called for.

If we are to make any real economic progress, we need the left to contribute, not dismiss, policies that originate from outside its frame of reference. The culture of building up the neoliberal straw man time and again to bludgeon and dismiss proposals achieves nothing more than continued, unsustainable economic gridlock. It is time that the debate shifted to how to make the market economy work for all within the South African context.

Ashor Sarupen, MPL, is the DA's Gauteng Finance Spokesperson

This article first appeared in the Business Day.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter