Liberalism: An Antidote for South Africa’s Collectivist Ills

Around every corner, the central principles of individualism and liberalism - property rights, free speech, freedom of association, limited government - are undermined, and the consequences are both grim and expected.

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Liberalism Community Liberal

South Africa’s march down the collectivist path continues. Around every corner, the central principles of individualism and liberalism – property rights, free speech, freedom of association, limited government – are undermined, and the consequences are both grim and expected. The government and society have tried at least some measure of commitment to liberalism, and it may well be that that particular experiment has come to an end. After all, liberty is never guaranteed – people need to own it and fight for it.

At present, legislation and regulations are geared toward increasing the power of the state over individual autonomy, as well as over community initiatives. As a society leans more into collectivism and statism, ‘might makes right’ becomes the order of the day, and only those with the necessary political connections and clout are able to live well. Pockets of independent, new entrepreneurship and wealth-creation become ever fewer. As liberalism and economic freedoms decline, the more desperate people become to find just some measure of life improvement wherever they can – and populists both inside and outside politics will seek to exploit people’s hardships and suffering.

Race-focused-thinking and policy-formation – and associated rhetoric – have contributed to South Africa’s current general economic malaise, decline of investment (from local and foreign sources), and an over 42% unemployment rate. Instead of embracing the radical growth and positive transformation that would accompany the respecting of individual freedom, the government has over the last 10 years especially embraced thinking and policies that inhibit agency and dynamism, and new forms of wealth-creation. Government policies that weaken the value of the country’s currency further undermine the ability of lower-to-middle-income people to use what they earn to its utmost, and to invest in their children’s futures.

Morally speaking, collectivism places society or the group above the individual – what worth an individual has, if anything, can only be determined by whichever group they happen to be deemed part of. Depending on how much control a government has over an economy, and social life in general – and how much that government implements policies based on collectivist group-importance – the more a society will witness increased tension and possibly violence between the groups that comprise that society. Once you open that door, of mixing the government with the economy, you’re only going to increase the incentives for interest groups to compete and use the government against each other.

Much of the general discourse is dominated by group identity and analysis – and at times this can be useful to understand events. However, there is a serious problem when the analysis becomes normative, and people are talked about as only part of racial or economic class groups, and no longer recognised and valued as individuals, with agency and worth in and of themselves.

Collectivism destroys the organic bonds that form between individuals and communities, and attacks those nodes where people work together to increase their own and others’ prosperity. When people become convinced that their lot in life is a result of the actions of their neighbours – and no consideration is given to destructive government policies – the collectivist narrative and way of thinking wins out. The trampling of individual rights – and by extension, the functioning of communities – is a feature, not a bug, of collectivism and statism. One of the ways to hide that feature, is to pit individuals and cultural groups against each other.

The organic forming of voluntary connections carries exceedingly more moral weight than the associations imposed through an accident of birth, for example the colour of a person’s skin – associations that governments are only too keen to indulge in and exploit, and use given groups as convenient scapegoats when they seek to divert attention away from their own destructive policies. From the liberal perspective, the functions of a government ought to be as constrained as possible, leaving it up to individuals and communities how the ‘colour in between the lines,’ as it were.

With central governments having as much power as they currently do – and so many big businesses and industries getting in bed with governments and all the power they can wield to inhibit robust competition and market forces, the danger grows that various interest groups on the ideological left and right will engage in ever-higher stakes games to ultimately control what the government does to those with whom they disagree. When you believe in, and advocate for, a government to enforce your preferences for ‘the good life,’ don’t be surprised when, once your ideological opponents gain political power, they use the tools of the state against you.

This is one of the blindspots that many contemporary communitarians struggle to come to terms with – they wish to bestow the community with the power of the state, but assume that their present conception of ‘the community’ will remain statically what they, now, prefer it to be. This is not the reality, and only liberalism offers the (admittedly imperfect) safeguards that ensure communities can prosper regardless of temporary, flaring passions.

It is not for the government, businesses, or the media to create meaning for you. How you arrive at meaning in your life, is a responsibility that falls upon you, and that’s fantastic and empowering. When a country or society leans more toward liberalism, there is a very real chance that some people will live more atomistic lives – as is their choice, and right. At the same time, however, the meaning that people forge through free thought, engagement, and discovery, will be worth much more.

All of us make mistakes, and no one is perfect. Can we really afford an ever bigger state, with the power to dictate all manner of behaviour and lifestyle? Robust liberty comes with risk – and we shouldn’t want it any other way. We’ve seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic what happens when society seeks to outsource individual responsibility onto the state, and its chosen ‘experts.’ Sometimes people will pursue lives with which we fundamentally disagree – as long as they aren’t using force or fraud against someone else, we shouldn’t wail about it and call for the state to step in. It falls on those of us who hold individual and community independence and agency as important, to advocate for these ideals as convincingly as we can.

Despite all South Africa’s problems, many people across racial, religious, and other ideological lines worked together during the spate of violence and looting that afflicted parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July. Communities came together to protect themselves, their families, businesses, and property. No central edict from a government moral authority directed them to do so – they voluntarily chose to do so. At few other times have central, important principles of liberalism played out so starkly in South Africa.

Liberalism does not aim at utopia; it cannot, because part of the very foundation of liberalism is the recognition of the fact that people are going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. Many on the left and right believe that they have all the moral answers for how people ought to live – and when they use the state to mold society in their decided image, and some in society don’t buy in, one eventually runs into abuses and atrocities.

There are few things braver than recognising that people are going to make choices with which you disagree, and then tolerating that fact, instead of spending all your time trying to control them through institutions of violence.

As a slight diversion from the overall topic of liberalism, for those searching for discussion and philosophical tools more geared toward, How should I live? Should I get married? Is family an inherent good? I’d point them toward exploring Objectivism, a more robust worldview philosophy, in my opinion. But as long as your actions in the world do not infringe on others’ individual rights, liberalism qua liberalism is comfortable with them.

Moving forward, how can people equip themselves and their communities to be state-proof? On the one hand, by fighting the battle of ideas. On the other hand – and these paths do not have to be mutually exclusive – by taking practical steps to safeguard their property.

I will not attempt to hide my agenda, as it were: I yearn for robust communities, shaped by their own work and internal and external experiences, interconnected with other individuals and communities, all enabled by an underlying foundation of strong property rights, the rule of law, and free expression.

The further South Africa goes with collectivist thinking and action, the worse off future generations will be. Fortunately, those who choose to implement practical policies that state-proof themselves and protect their property will manage to survive the coming storms. There remain numerous methods for individuals and communities to concretise the liberal ideals of self-ownership, individual action, and property rights, and these ought to be robustly explored.

PS. If you have the stomach for it, I highly recommend this podcast from Martyrmade – a deep-dive into a period of history in which the horrors of full collectivism were unleashed on the world:

“History is replete with examples of leaders, nations, and empires who left a trail of blood behind them. But with the Bolshevik takeover of Russia after the First World War, something new crawled from the depths of the earth onto the surface of the world. Never before had a government shown such uninhibited savagery toward its own people, during peacetime, as a matter of policy and in the name of scientific management. After Nazi Germany was defeated in the Second World War, Stalin’s Soviet Union unleashed hell on the devastated nations of Eastern Europe, leaving behind an unmatched record of sadism and brutality.”

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  1. Helgard Muller Reply

    My last comment here not to overstay my welcome…I do think in many respects this was the better article on the communitarian vs liberal debate. (Although it still suffers from arguing in extremes)

    Check out these two related articles:

    Yes, it is about the US, but I think it has many valid lessons for South Africa.

    A key paragraph from each (read them both – they are short):

    “If there is a tendency in our society to see the world through a rigid, corrosive ideology, the solution is not the inculcation of a different ideology, but an examination and rededication to the details of life which have given these ideas currency. Rather than focus on what set of ideas America must revive, embrace, or reject, we ought to examine carefully the political and social experiences that have given rise to the dysfunctional cultural and political ideas that seem to reign. We might then work toward reforms that engage the people with these details of life, that seek to adapt them to the felt needs of society, and that may, incidentally, change people’s perceptions of their culture and their government (tasks that many are undertaking). Theory will adapt to or give way to a government and society which keeps the “old building” standing and working well.”

    (Again – not everything here applicable to South Africa that has much more foundational problems – however still the idea is to start with the foundation – social and political experiences / institutions)

    and (cheating a bit by combining some sentences to capture the argument)

    “The fact of the matter is that liberal ideology is false. It is false because all ideologies are false.”…”Our would-be critics of liberal theory are giving it more credit than it deserves. It makes no sense to attribute bad political outcomes to the practical application of a false theory. A theory that contradicts reality does not have practical applications. If you try to follow it in one respect, you will inevitably contradict it in some other respect.”…”The alternative to liberal theory is not a “theory” at all, in the sense in which we usually use the term. The alternative to liberal theory is statesmanship, pure and simple.” “Today, though, common sense is obscured by countless ideologies that cut us off from our own natural experiences as citizens.” …”Liberal theory, as I have been using the term, dismisses these sorts of questions as irrelevant to the practical tasks of statesmanship. That has not stopped some modern political philosophers from raising similar questions about the liberal regimes they admired. If one should insist on calling Montesquieu, Burke, or Tocqueville a “liberal theorist,” one would obviously be speaking about a very different kind of “theory” than what we usually mean by the term today. These men did not all ask the same questions, nor reach the same conclusions, as their ancient counterparts. But they did keep alive, by their own lights, the centuries-old tradition of non-ideological political thought.”…”Both our practical and our theoretical debates could be much improved if we would simply bear in mind the gulf separating the classic texts of liberal theory from the actual practice of liberal countries.”

    (Disclaimer: I am not stressing the non-ideological part here – but the notion of at least ground politics in practices and institutions rather than the abstract)

    The point I am trying to make here is fundamentally a conservative one. (See my comment on Burke in the Duigan piece). Political theory is not going to save South Africa. Neither will a War of Ideas. You need to see it in actions, practice and eventually traditions and norms. Through practical politics. The road to liberal politics is not through liberal theory, but by creating the conditions and polity conducive to liberal politics. That start not with abstract ideology / theory / principles (although they have their role in place – see article) but with working with what have have, understanding why we have it and starting to work / build / conserve from there…the ideas / rationalisation will follow if enough people can buy-in…

    I am afraid this remains the biggest mental shift our liberal project needs to make…It is a messy, long and winding road. But it starts with the messy part…

  2. Cultural Communities Are Stronger Together - Rational Standard Reply

    […] Liberalism: An Antidote for South Africa’s Collectivist Ills […]

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    […] the West is becoming (if it isn’t already)  a driver of an international regression towards collectivism – fragmenting into new tribes demanding for special privileges. No longer is the individual […]

  4. Rory Short Reply

    If we each look at ourselves we will see that each individual has independent self referential consciousness. Consciousness is basically an organism’s ability to sense what is happening to it and then choose how to respond to the event and along with the ability to choose is the built-in need to take responsibility for the consequences of your choice.

    This built-in aspect of consciousness is what many human beings wish to evade, even if we actually can’t. Politicians, in their search for supporters, offer people the apparent escape of collectivism where the collective takes on the responsibility not the individual. This is just a confidece trick because the collective, as an entity, is not conscious and therefore not really be capable of accepting responsibility for anything, only individuals can do that.

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