Despite being a society beset by crisis, South Africa, strangely enough, does not seem to be short of solutions. In fact prescriptions for every problem facing the republic teem off the lips of “progressive” political economists on our televisions, radio and newspapers. The result? A poverty rate of 55%, 79% of grade 4 pupils being unable to read for meaning in ANY language, a murder rate of 36/100 000, some of the worst air quality in the world. Oh and since this metric seems to matter; the highest unemployment rate since the Great Recession. Part of this disjuncture between the seemingly available palliatives and the lived reality of South African life is the persnickety nature of what I term “Left-Wing Solutionism”.
What is left-wing solutionism you ask? Well, left-wing solutionism is the pernicious politics of prescribing tasks from above. It is a politics of surveying the land, reaching learned conclusions and proclaiming that there are a set of concrete solutions that if applied will steer us from the path of disaster. Left-wing solutionism is, in essence, the self-satisfied process of intellectual masturbation masquerading as politics. Left-Wing solutionism can be found in various segments of our society. Some of its most prominent proponents occupy our institutions of higher learning, our vaunted media houses, significant segments of civil society and trade unions, and even in our sorry excuse for a government.
Each of these contexts produces a slight variation in form although not in substance. Academic Left-Wing Solutionism is perhaps the easiest to caricature. This form of Solutionism is defined by two key features, the exaltation of policy formulation and analysis as the most significant intellectual pursuit and an utter [barely disguised] disgust at the working class. This results in a notion of politics that is far removed from the actually existing working class. It parades itself at elite academic conferences in which the working class is both the object of analysis and a problem to be solved.
Of course one of the chief instruments of this segment is its tendency to engage in hyper-academic discourse that serves to mystify and obfuscate the reality of our society. In this way the academic Left-Wing Solutionist truly occupies the ivory tower in all senses of the term. This helps the Academic Left-Wing Solutionist operate a cut above the rest of society.
He holds knowledge mere ordinary people cannot even grasp let alone dedicate the time to do so while they try to survive. This means the Left-Wing Solutionist’s name is bound to appear in a list of experts contributing towards issues ranging from value-added tax to national minimum wages, and various elements of social policy.
In cases where the Left-Wing Solutionist’s ideas do not feature prominently enough or at all in official government policy, you can expect him to publish a critique in an obscure journal read by no one but his peers. Sometimes the Left-Wing solutionist might send his bitter missives to Business Day and if he is desperate enough to the Daily Maverick. The Left-Wing Solutionist only cares about public sentiment when figures of authority have spurned his ideas.
Moving from the most vulgar form of Left-Wing Solutionism to its more noble forms, Civil Society Left-Wing Solutionism and Trade Union Left-Swing Solutionism present themselves as the valiant guards of intellectualism.
These two forms are similar to each other and sometimes individual members oscillate between them, so while differences do exist for the sake of brevity I will group these Solutionists together under the banner of People Power Left-Wing Solutionism.
People Power Left-Wing Solutionism is brilliant in recognising that the working class -it is important to note that they often make the error of conflating one segment of the working class with the working class as a whole- truly possesses the power to change things.
Where the Left-Solutionist operates is, and quite similar to the academic Solutionist, is to exalt policy and to disguise his disgust at the working class. Where they differ, and quite vividly so, is how they engage with the working class. The People Power Left-Wing Solutionist believes that the working class is to be directed to their policy positions. And this results from both their recognition of the Working Class’ power but their disgust at their lack of formal knowledge.
The People Power Left-Wing Solution feels both obligated and duty-bound to stand with the working class, yet is faced with the realisation that the working class in front of him is not the one Marx so passionately spoke of. And as such this working class must be directed to the right path. The Solutionist here already possesses or is on the path to obtaining the necessary qualifications to render him an expert and yet he is modest enough to occasionally break bread with members of the working class.
The most significant of the various forms of Solutionism I’m discussing is of course Government Positions Left-Solutionist. One could write tomes on this poor lot. For our sake it will suffice to surmise the Government Positions Left-Wing Solutionists thinking as such:
“If I reach a high enough position in government I will be able to affect some kind of change”
I hope that should be clear enough a description of the Government Position Left-Wing Solutionism.
Despite my clear personal, and even visceral, disdain for left-wing solutionism it does present a set of real problems for the future left-wing politics. These range from normalising intellectual vanguardism to the profoundly undemocratic nature of left-wing solutionism that follows. Considering the sheer space Left-Wing Solutioninism occupies in public conceptions of the ‘’left” an interrogation is necessary.
My critique of Left-Wing Solutionism rests on my disdain for its forebearer Vanguardism. One need only read the descriptions above and reach the conclusion that Left-Wing Solutionism is an Intellectual Vanguardism of sorts.
And of course, as any survey of history shows, what naturally follows vanguardism is the betrayal of any democratic norms it may proclaim to stand for.
It fronts as the expression of popular will despite having no legitimate constituency beyond a vague notion of civil society at best. It is intellectual and political fraud, the Left-Wing Solutionist speaks for no one but himself and his class. Yet he holds no qualm presenting his views as the pure expression of the will of the masses. It is a quasi-Stalinist operation.
No surprise given the predominance of Stalinism in the South African left-wing movement. What this means is that the decisions and views of this class are sufficient to determine the path we should follow, a crude Democratic Centralism of sorts. We can only be thankful that the left-wing solutionist have to date proven too incompetent to coalesce around a supreme leader.
Despite this fortune on our part, we still experience a class that projects itself as popular but presents pre-packaged solutions as the only route. It is a politics of buy-in and the only people buying in are the working class. This functions as a variation of a pitfall identified by Pithouse, where “civil society can substitute themselves for popular and democratic organisation.”
Left-wing solutionism is neither popular nor populist, yet it oscillates between the two. At one moment presenting itself as the expression of popular underlying sentiment and on the other hand attacking those to its left as radical and unrealistic. Policy wonkism is a staple of Left-Wing Solutionism. If a proposal doesn’t pass some stringent yet ultimately arbitrary econometric function, then it is considered unrealistic. “Pragmatic, yet radical” is how the average Left-Wing Solutionist presents himself. Perhaps it is due to the underlying fact hat Left-Wing Solutionism is merely reformism by another name.
On another day I must not bother to explain why this is a problem, the conclusion should be clear from all that I have listed above. Yet accepting that being misread is too be expected I shall belabour to explain myself.
Left-Wing Solutionism is reformism in that it wants applause for its deviation from the status quo but rejects more radical measures out of a sense of “pragmatism”. The discourse of “realistic” solutions is the pure terrain of the Left-Wing Solutionist. Of course, this commitment to “realistic” solution gets shattered every time Peter Bruce pens a critique in the “Business Day”.
It is at this point the Left-Wing Solutionist will remember his radical credentials, he will remind his [more] conservative critics of how “business as usual” has failed us in the past and continues to fail us now. Following that he will propose the same scripted solutions that prove perhaps indefinitely that left-wing solutionism like every iteration of reformism is bound to produce failure even if it succeeds in its programme.
By Kgosi Morena, Cape Town-based writer, read his full profile here.