Almost every aspect of existence on this planet is shaped and informed by capitalist principles. The world has become one global village because of the force of capitalism. People’s choices in social, political, and economic senses are dependent on what capitalism throws at them. But capitalism has gone wrong – and it is leading to growing poverty and inequality across the whole world. Some of the solutions which are touted by capitalism do not improve the welfare of the people. And as such the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.
The adverse effects of capitalism are more palpable in Africa (the global south). African countries are approaching their economics with the mindset that by rigidly following the dictates of capitalism as enunciated from the global north and east countries then the economic problems of their people will vanish.
Capitalism was built through liberal ideals that spread over the Western hemisphere like veld fire. The liberal stance on free markets and free production was revolutionary, as it led to the growth of the Industrial Revolution. The raison d’etre of capitalism is private ownership of the means of production (productive forces) so that profits are generated. The state is sidelined as private players determine what the market is like though competitive goods and prices.
When the Industrial Revolution was imported to Africa through imperialism, capitalism made its solid mark on the continent. The colonialists established their industries for profit-making ventures. Africans were hired as laborers and were paid poor wages. Africans had no space in that capitalist world thrust on them by the colonizers. They did not own the means of production and did not have a high income to afford the luxurious life lived by the colonizers.
The majority of the Africans were the proletariat (the working class) as seen through the lens of rural-urban migration. And this is what prevails today. Being excluded from such a capitalist framework, Africans had to take up arms to fight for their inherent dignity, self-worth, and liberation. Capitalism as imposed by the colonizers dehumanized all colonial peoples across the whole planet. In its origins, capitalism was a tool for oppression so that imperialists could extract profits from the colonized lands. And the same still applies in these contemporary times.
The advantages of capitalism for humanity are plenty, especially with regard to technological innovation. But the downsides of capitalism are more pronounced now than ever before. Even in the global north where it originated, people are increasingly becoming skeptical about religiously the following capitalism.
For the global south, capitalism is now savagely cruel more than ever. African societies are now stratified based on class, and nay talks of progress are not inclusive. Capitalism has also created a high sense of individualism – people now perceive self-actualization in isolation and not as part of a national collective. The individualism goes hand in hand with the rapacious materialism/consumerism that capitalism has unleashed on the whole world.
This hyper-capitalism that the world is now witnessing (and affecting Africa negatively) can be explained through the word neoliberalism. Since the 1980s and 90s, African countries were instructed to follow neoliberal policies by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These were called structural adjustment programs and were spearheaded by Africa’s political and business elite as the panacea to Africa’s unique contextual problems. African leaders have never looked back since and have fortified their vain neoliberal interests.
With this, it signals that the role of the government in the economy as a regulator of economic activities is sidelined. And replaced by private firms. For instance, in matters of labor, the government will not intervene with much authority as regards the betterment of the workers’ welfare. Although violence through the security forces is applied whenever workers engage in industrial action against their employers (for example the Marikana massacre in South Africa). Private capital is protected at all costs by the elite (who own the means of production).
African leaders no longer see the need to resort to local solutions in order to address local problems. The governments are now worshipping private capital and the private sector as the answers to every problem. Governments are reducing their expenditure in critical areas such as healthcare, transport, access to water, and education. These fundamental social services are outsourced to private firms, who make enormous, obscene profits.
This has created a divided society based on class. Instead of advocating for public health systems that are safe, reliable, and affordable for all, the new option is private medical care. And it is only afforded by the elite. Instead of creating an education system that leaves no one behind, the new aspiration is sending children to private expensive schools that are more concerned with making profits rather than holistically developing students in various areas of life. Instead of a public transport system that is reliable and affordable for all, everyone wants to have top-of-the-range luxurious vehicles as seen from social media, movies, music videos, global mainstream media, or as told from church.
The economies of Africa are now made to cater more to the middle class and the bourgeoisie. The urban working class and rural peasants are left to their miserable fate. Mainly because everything is now a medium to get profits.
African leaders continue with their neoliberal agendas because of how they admire the capitalist lifestyles of those in the global north and east – lifestyles that are predicated on the unhindered accumulation of private capital/profits. This mentality waters down to the citizenry, and thus the hope for many a young people in Africa is to “make it” in life – to have cars, big houses, designer clothes, the latest smartphones, sending children to ridiculously expensive private schools. This is what Karl Marx referred to as commodity fetishism. People are now slaves to commodities. And they attach their self-worth and purported happiness on these material possessions.
Austerity is a gospel that some African governments have been regrettably inclined to. For example, the Zimbabwe government preaches austerity stridently. It espouses that “no pain no gain.” For economic prosperity to be there, the government has to cut down on spending money on the welfare of the people. The Zimbabwe government goes on to say, “austerity for prosperity.” This model of economics does not yield any intended results. Austerity is self-defeating and counter-productive.
Some environmental problems in Africa especially do to with oil and mineral extraction by multinational firms representing global capital are a result of a lack of government interference in the activities of private business. African governments cannot stand up to these firms because they are reliant on them for taxes. Environmental degradation is destructive to the lives of Africans in areas where such resources are extracted. Global climate change is a result of firms being unregulated. Deregulation is a cornerstone feature of neoliberalism.
With the neoliberal template now rampant on the continent, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. The bourgeoisie representing global financialized capital in the form of mines, stocks, and agricultural property owners continue to entrench their interests. And they rely on governments (even wielding power against them) to stay in business. The comprador bourgeoisie represented by the likes of retailers, bankers, politicians, and religious leaders has no interest whatsoever in changing the status quo. And then there is the “aspirational” middle class – comprising of academics, professionals like medical doctors and legal practitioners, the Diaspora, small scale farmers, and business holders. Then the urban working peoples and the rural peasantry.
Most African societies have now been divided into these classes because of hyper-capitalism in the form of neoliberalism. The upper classes continue to extract and accumulate capital by paying the urban working class and the rural peasantry meager wages that are not adequate for a decent existence. And by avoiding the duty to provide for social services (they only do so if they are getting profits from that).
African leaders have struggled against their own weaknesses i.e. the accumulation of private property by colluding with the global capital (the north and the east) even if it means using egregious state-sanctioned violence against their own people. Capitalism dehumanizes billions of people across the world.
All these factors outlined here point to an inevitable conclusion – modern-day capitalism is the new slavery. However, there are alternatives. With pragmatic democratic socialism being one of them. Africans need to return to an organic Pan-African approach to their political economies by fostering collective national consciousness and cutting down on hedonism. All the while retaining a consideration for future generations. There should be an equal distribution of wealth.