Picture: 123RF/ALPHA SPIRIT
Picture: 123RF/ALPHA SPIRIT

It is difficult to have mature policy conversation in SA’s current political environment. Meaningful and genuine debate on economic policy is particularly hard to come by.

The explicit, tactical manipulation of economic policy discourse by the agents of state capture certainly contributed to this. We were routinely bombarded by vacuous but politically appealing slogans of “radical economic transformation”, “white monopoly capital”, and the like. The cacophony of the latter has subsided somewhat since Ramaphosa’s entry into the presidency. However, these tropes remain audible and continue to present a distinct threat.

It is also disappointing that those who should know better undermine the possibility of genuine debate via other underhanded means. This was on show in Peter Bruce’s unfortunate and rather personalised attack on progressive economists, and Neil Coleman in particular, in a recent column for Business Day.

Bruce contends that progressive economists unwittingly empower corruption and in spite of their “earnestness”, undermine the Ramaphosa administration’s efforts to clean up the state. They do so by advancing economic policies that run counter to the current status quo, policies that are sometimes simultaneously and opportunistically supported by predatory forces.

This is a rather peculiar equivalence. In making it, Bruce not only ignores the strident criticism of corruption and the defence of state institutions by progressive economists, but sidesteps the possibility of rich and urgent policy conversation. 

One cannot but accept that current policy conversation and implementation risks being hijacked by political forces. That is the context within which we operate today. However, just because opportunists latch onto these policy demands in an attempt to garner popular support, does not, de facto, make these policies questionable as such.

Globally there has been a profound shift in economic policy thinking. The market-centric blueprint that Bruce supports has been an admitted failure, even by its most staunch advocates

For example, not a single commentator, Bruce included, has provided a coherent argument for insisting the Reserve Bank consider growth and employment in its conduct of monetary policy is necessarily a weapon of state capture.

Useful contributions in Business Day — by Duma Gqubule, Ayabonga Cawe, Steven Friedman and Neva Makgetla — at least try to pierce through the hysteria surrounding the issue and provide grounds for meaningful discussion.

As Friedman notes for example, quantitative easing (QE) is not unanimously accepted on the left or the right for different reasons. But it remains an issue worthy of discussion. 

Admitted failure

Bruce deploys other typical conservative tropes to supposedly buttress his position. The scarecrows of Zimbabwe and Venezuela make their usual appearances, with only state interventions seen as policy “experiments”. 

The result is to close down, rather than open up, space for genuine policy engagement, the outline and contents of which Coleman has recently offered in detail in a second Daily Maverick op-ed.

The fact of the matter is that globally there has been a profound shift in economic policy thinking. The market-centric blueprint that Bruce supports has been an admitted failure, even by its most staunch advocates. Instead of attacking progressives who note this, an intellectual defence of these doctrines could be provided, citing the relevant critics — perhaps Joseph Stiglitz  and then demonstrating why their views are false. We would welcome that sort of engagement.

We only empower the agents of corruption by refusing to consider innovative policy options that may deliver us from our current situation of economic and political crisis. This is particularly the case when the current policy orthodoxy — as argued by Mark Swilling and Karl von Hodt and others — has contributed to the development of primitive accumulation in the state. Ultimately, as noted by Coleman himself in 2017, the choice between a predatory elite and conservative economic policy is a false one. Bruce’s characterisation of an open letter sent by 40 economists to the finance minister is also misleading.

The letter in question notes: “In a wider political context and tone set by the president, where we are attempting to reach social consensus through meaningful, deliberative engagement across stakeholders, the list of local attendees is worryingly unbalanced. Almost no economists associated with the labour movement or civil society were invited. By contrast, economists associated with, or employed by, business, primarily from the financial sector, or business-linked consultancies make up a large contingent.”

It goes on to note the marginalisation of other development economists within academia and think-tanks.

It is in the interest of the public and policy makers to be aware of, and digest and interrogate, profound changes in global economic policy thinking. Achieving this was the intention of the open letter. We thought it necessary to raise the importance of this debate and for it to be handled openly and maturely, a position supported by several economists in attendance.

If Bruce is genuinely interested in engagement and compromise, one would imagine that he would welcome such an opening up.

Economic analysts, across the political spectrum, should stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the forces of state capture. I have no doubt you would find all the letter’s signatories, Coleman included, on that line. I am sure Bruce is on that line as well.  

Yet at the same time, we should not let the threat of corruption and political expediency undermine important policy conversation. Bruce describes the left as “inflexible, dogmatic and ideological”. Some are, some are not. The same goes for the right. Labeling the entire progressive fraternity dogmatic is done to position those with more market-centric policies as the sole purveyors of reason and moderation.

The vast majority of progressive economists remain open to discussing policy options and learning from a rich conversation. It may be expedient to insist otherwise, but it does not change the facts.

Bruce’s piece unfortunately distorts the content and intentions of progressive economists’ engagement with policy issues and political dilemmas. While it is presented as a lesson in real-politik, its bullying tone seems to be designed to delegitimise the right for progressive economists to have a seat at the policy-making table. This must be seen as an effort to support the monopoly of conservative perspectives in the mainstream, no matter how much it pleads for ideological innocence and technocratic political intentions.

Nassen Smith
Deputy director of the Institute for African Alternatives