STUART THEOBALD: If only we could shrug off labels and base policy on evidence

Both sides try to inflict injury on the other until a messy synthesis is achieved in which no-one will be happy

This column was first published in Business Day 

The strands of ideology that shape SA’s political economy are deep. Sometimes we are not even conscious of them. One of the most important is Marx’s theory of history, a vision of the world that spans the ANC alliance from left to right. It sets the terms for debate and action. It will play a powerful background role in attempts by the Treasury to cut back the public service wage bill by R50bn a year and save us from a ratings downgrade.

Marx’s dialectical materialism conceives of the world as a fight between implacable foes for material benefit, with history unfolding in its wake. Those foes are classes in society, principally labour and capital. This way of seeing the world defines what is possible — the kinds of engagements we can have with each other and even the ideas we can convey.

We will see this clearly over the next 90 days as the Treasury tries to achieve its cuts before the February budget. Finance minister Tito Mboweni is deeply embedded in dialectical materialism, though he has switched from labour to capital between his Mandela-era career as labour minister and his latter career as finance minister.

His first strike in the dialectic came in the medium-term budget policy statement (MTBPS), with the headline-grabbing stats that public servant salaries have grown 66% over inflation in the past decade and that there are now 29,000 civil servants paid over R1m a year. This was a sabre rattle.

Labour was quick to respond, with Cosatu calling Mboweni’s stats “either fundamentally dishonest or innocently delusional” and saying that savings should be made by cutting the salaries of executives and targeting wasteful expenditure.

And so it will go, with both sides attempting to inflict injury on the other until some messy synthesis can be achieved in which no-one will be happy.

If only we South Africans were able to engage differently. Some countries have changed the paradigm. Germany did it through its co-determination laws, which ensure labour has a large representation on company boards. That has also been adopted in Sweden and Denmark, among others.

The UK flirted with “third way” politics during Tony Blair’s prime ministership, though the Labour party has now retreated deeply into a Marxist paradigm, much to the frustration of those in the UK who would like to see progressive policies actually implemented.

These examples show what can be done when we escape the dialectic, when we shrug off the labels “labour” and “capital” and start having genuine conversations about what we can do as a single society. South Africans have done it before. The Codesa process brought together opposed sides to forge a democratic dispensation. You could even point to the World Cup as an example of all sides working together. But as soon as it was done we went back to our camps. And those camps are built into our body politic, most obviously in the form of Nedlac, which is an institutionalised form of materialist dialectic. It is also a failure, the place where good policies go to die.

The biggest casualty of a dialectic paradigm, as it functions now, is the truth. We are not much interested in evidence, in seeking out policies that work. Instead we are interested in the lobby for “our” side, in accumulating power for either labour or capital, and hoping to triumph. In that effort it is logical to take extreme positions, anticipating that the outcome of the process is going to be some sort of synthesis (along the lines of Hegel’s dialectic, which Marx saw himself as developing).

When that is how you see the world, an extreme position is a tactic deployed to sway the centre towards the outcome you want. I don’t think anyone on the Left desires the nationalisation of all banks, for example, just as I don’t believe anyone on the Right really believes we should privatise everything. But by advocating for these extremes, the resulting synthesis might be close to what we do want. The casualty in the process is any attempt to seek out proper evidence and setting out of policy ideas that would be good for the country. We cannot escape the roles that historical materialism imposes on us.

“Evidence-based” policymaking is in part a rejection of this stalemate and was popularised by the Blair government. Social scientists are employed to test and marshal evidence about what policy is best. The approach was heavily influential in the development of our National Development Plan. Attempts have been made to drive it into government, for example using cost-benefit analyses of proposed policies. But our society is a long way from adopting evidence as our guiding light. As a result, the Treasury and labour are set to butt heads intractably.

• Theobald is chairman at Intellidex.