Monday, December 5, 2011

Blinded by colour.

The three most important dimensions of any activity are: “what”, “how” and “why”.

They also apply to writing: knowing what to write, how to write it and why write it at all. I find the “why” the most distressing. The welcome stipend one gets as a columnist is useful in structuring some discipline to the activity, but my own experience has proved beyond doubt for me that money is a poor motivator – a subject that I have covered extensively before. It brings me back to my definition of “decent work” which is “that which gives a sense of meaning in being able to make a contribution to another”. Purpose is all about meaning, and lasting meaningfulness is seldom found in what we receive, but rather in what we give. The extremely important caveat of this approach is not to be too concerned about the outcome; to be detached from an expectation of making a difference, for that could reflect a need to satisfy one’s own ego.

This brings me to the subject of this article – one which really raises a question whether there’s much point in covering it despite its critical importance. Few things in life suffer from assumptions and preconceptions as much as race, ethnicity and culture do … indeed they are founded on these defects of human behaviour. Writing about any race issue will be either endorsed by a solid group of “converted” or automatically rejected by detractors. At the extreme, one could argue that even a discussion about race is itself racist, which may explain my own discomfort in dealing with it.

It was one of those many and endless TV panel discussions about young black aspirations that made me realise with some shock how destructive and blinding the race perspective is to everyone concerned and to the country as a whole. Emotive phrases and slogans such as “white monopoly capital”, “white wealth tax”, “we want what the whites have”, the “legacies of apartheid and colonialism” are thrown into the discussion as if they are the only causes and solutions to our problems. But all these slogans really do is add venom, emotion and defensiveness to the interaction; narrowing it to one dimension and thwarting any useful outcome. Ultimately they simply exacerbate racial divisions.

This topic has many dimensions and can be approached from a variety of angles, but let’s focus on the ideologies that have divided mankind for centuries – the control and ownership of resources. It is really quite simple: if we could overnight swap the “colour” of the various actors on the economic stage, would the problems disappear? If we could, say, convert all of the “monopoly capitalists” to black, and consign all whites to being poor, would the problems of centralised economic power, income disparities and dismal employment prospects for the youth suddenly evaporate?

By colouring very real profound economic issues with a race dimension, we are not only hindering meaningful solution seeking, but we are trivialising the deep malaise that is confronting not only South Africa but the world as a whole. Being constantly informed by race is diverting our attention and forcing us to look for answers where they most likely do not exist. They will ultimately fail and become totally counter-productive.

A good example is the now generally recognised failure of the original approach to Black economic empowerment. It was thought then that the imbalance in ownership of capital had to be redressed by simply allocating equity ownership to black partners. In the process a new elite was created, instant billionaires appeared out of no-where, and some very dubious practices such as tenderpreneurship were encouraged. We were blinded by colour to one simple truth: empowerment is not about owning things. It’s about doing things.

Empowerment is about making a meaningful contribution to others because that is where our true value lies. The extension of ownership to staff suffers from the same defect. It’s what I previously called the “worker capitalist delusion”. Employee share schemes do little to enable employees in controlling their own or the company’s destiny, largely fail as productivity motivators and certainly have had little effect on labour unrest, flexibility and labour costs. In addition, a large number of people are left out of the empowerment loop.

“Monopoly capital”, whether white or black, state or private is little more than centralised economic power which is of real concern to everyone, and which is the main grievance driving the Occupy Wall Street movements worldwide. The simple fact is that market capitalism whether by Smithian default or by financial manipulation has arguably become socially inefficient.

We can fairly challenge the view that these deficiencies are inherent in the Smithian model. Until about forty or so years ago, the West led by the United States, showed significant reductions in inequality. Then came a substantial dismantling of market controls and deregulation from about the mid-seventies and whether instrumental or coincidental financial markets exploded to reach exponential frenzy in the last twenty or so years. Key “players” (there is a pun in there!) in these markets and share-value driven overpaid corporate executives became the new “capital class” hammering a wedge of income disparity into society. They have joined the more deserving and innovative business heroes of the past, present and future, like biker gangs gate-crashing the church fete.

The real tragedy of the debt ridden economic model of today is that the aspirational dream is dead for a large number of particularly and sometimes highly educated young folk. This may be a prison that they are constructing for themselves, but let’s face it, while becoming a new Steve Jobs or modern day Henry Ford may have been a remote dream in the past, it was kept alive by a belief in hard work and equal opportunity. For most, this dream no longer exists and when the 1% is made up largely of beneficiaries of a financial or boardroom lottery, disillusionment by the 99% turns to stone throwing, street protesting anger.

We cannot ignore the real need to redress economic demographic imbalances. But being blinded by colour to a more fundamental reality is counterproductive. It is also highly dangerous.

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