The historical Bonfires of the Vanities were curious affairs, in which the more of one’s wealth one destroyed in the ritual fire, the higher the status of prosperity one earned.
By Bright Simons
Fifteenth-century Florence witnessed these spectacles of mass burning as they were transformed from purification ceremonies of guilt-cleansing into displays of material pomposity that to the modern mind defy all rational explanation.
Viewing the news bulletins about the recent upsurge of xenophobic violence in recent days has conjured to mind that bizarre Tuscan tradition.
Many left-leaning ideologues—trade unionists, Marxist academics, “revolutionary” activists, and radical commentators of all shapes—have responded to the spectacles of mass arson ongoing in the “townships” of Gauteng and elsewhere in South Africa with characteristic ambiguity. First they criticize the “violence” and then, in the same breath, attempt to rationalize it by citing the usual clichés about equity and the gap between rich and poor, as if only they abhor these realities. Yet, the bankruptcy of the Left is evident in every aspect of the sorry saga unfolding in the land Nelson Mandela made free.
They are right to apportion some of the blame to Apartheid, but that is hardly an original position. Apartheid was after all a statist-ideology that believed that a government could legislate who participated in the economic processes of employment, self-development, and entrepreneurship. That the political elite consorted with corporate cronies deepens Apartheid’s decadence in the eyes of all true Libertarians.
By means of an amazing series of historical tricks, leftists and socialist historians have managed to render the Apartheid project in terms of ideologies opposite or opposed to leftist belief. Apartheid is held to have been a reactionary right-wing phenomenon often by shamefacedly resorting to context-less phrases such as: “Thatcher supported it,” “Israel traded with South Africa,” “the C.I.A. helped South Africa acquire a nuclear bomb,” and so on and so forth. As if any of these facts or factoids, depending on interpretation, is determinative in the discussion of economic Apartheid as practiced in South Africa!
The facts, however, are straightforward. As William H. Hutt (whose work far outshines Gary S. Becker’s more popular treatment of the topic) uncovered in his seminal work on the subject, racist economics of the type practiced in South Africa under the Racial Supremacists of the era are communist-based through and through. The logic of Apartheid derived from that same fallacious belief that drives economic central planning generally: that an all-knowing and powerful state can by centrally- organized policies determine the economic fates of millions of citizens toward whatever agenda. The overbearing regulation of the labor market, the restrictions on trade, the favoring of special interests (racial or factorial), the granting of monopolies in the name of national security, and collectivist allocation of resources to foster government-determined economic goals were all tell-tale hallmarks of the Apartheid system, which effects are still with us.
The tragedy is that the post-Apartheid elite has not used its immense moral authority, as erstwhile liberation forces, to fully dismantle the statist apparatus the supremacists left behind. Fear of the Marxist intelligentsia and the power-seeking unions has been allowed to weaken the reformist zeal of forward looking leaders in the African National Congress establishment.
I have always felt that President Thabo Mbeki harbors a deep libertarian streak that has been denied expression by the powerful statist blocs within the A.N.C. The sad outcome of that fact is that while some progress has been made toward liberalizing the South African economy to the ultimate benefit of all citizens, the excluded and marginalized Black underclass especially, this process of liberalization has not progressed sufficiently to begin yielding tangible benefits for the masses.
Meanwhile, the leftist influence in the media and in popular discourse has tended to distort the real economic challenges facing Africa. It has led to an erroneous perception that reform of centralized economic institutions is the problem not the solution, and that less liberalization rather than more is what will redress the genuine imbalance of economic opportunity that exists in that beautiful country.
This logic has pervaded the popular consciousness. So, not surprisingly, the misguided arsonists wielding machetes and spewing venom against faceless foreign monsters are convinced that economics is a zero-sum game: foreigners’ gain is natives’ loss. So by destroying the offensive wealth created by foreigners they will be augmenting the general prosperity! How can they appreciate that foreigners don’t only bring in much-needed skills but that they also form and shape new markets for goods and services that expand overall economic production, when the Marxist commentary being poured forth daily suggest that they are poor because someone else is rich? As has been the norm when the politics of envy and grievance become the main logic of action, it is not the elite (including the leftist elite) that suffers when the underclass turns revolutionary (yep, Marx lied), it is the weaker underclass. We saw it in the collectivization of agriculture during the Stalinist and Maoist years, and in Ethiopia under Mengistu Haile Mariam: it is not the elites that are wiped out by the famines that follow the implementation of utopian socialist programs.
It is not the beneficiaries of the Black Empowerment program or the remnants of the Apartheid-era privilege system that will suffer when the masses erupt in socialistic fervor. No, it is poor migrants, the poor of the poor. The weakest become targets in a misguided notion that by “burning” the wealth, new “guiltless” or “sinless” wealth is created. Witness the focus on businesses run by foreigners. If the real issue was one of competition for jobs, why attack the self-employed?
The spreading fires across the townships in South Africa exemplify a logic of communism that elevates false equality above genuine universal prosperity. So next time we hear some self-proclaimed “activist” attacking trade on the basis that it enriches one part of the world while impoverishing others, we would do well to give the charlatan the same disgusted look we have been giving the loudest of the thugs tearing Alexandria apart.
Bright Simons is Associate Editor of African Liberty and Director of Development at IMANI Center for Policy and Education