COLUMN | Once upon an ideology: A people caught between Bible-thumpers and empty leaders

Samora Machel and Julius Nyerere: Did ideology die with them?

At a time when the world is craving for leadership, Africa is hurtling along without a driver. The problem, writes Chris Kabwato, is a lack of ideology.

I am not sure in what corner of the world one needs to be to be optimistic and high-spirited. The horrific scenes in the Middle East and the reactions of various segments of global society point have brought into sharp relief the ideological mishmash we live in.

In Africa, the Bible-thumping evangelical fundamentalists have been displaying their breathtaking ahistorical take on the roots of the crisis. For them, the Bible is the history of their chosen ones. The terrible mischief of the Global North in 1948 that is the root of the current conflict in the Middle East is never referenced because it does not appear anywhere in the notes of the modern-day shiny-suited Papa the Prophet. Between the spineless, self-serving looters masquerading as presidents and our native imbeciles, Africa hurtles on into the unknown, without a driver. The problem is much bigger. It is ideological.

Once upon an ideology, rock stars of capitalism

Once upon a time, there was an American called Alan Greenspan. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed Greenspan as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Until his retirement in 2006, he was the John Mangudya of the USA, but with wider respectability. A quiet man with an austere demeanour, he exuded confidence, certainty and wisdom. Under his watch, the central bank played a key role in money supply and he went in for deregulation. For 20 years, he was worshipped by the market. But then in 2008 something happened that shook the edifice of capitalism – the big banks failed. Lehman Brothers with 25,000 worldwide and $639 billion in assets filed for bankruptcy. The visuals on television of employees in their suits carrying boxes of their effects as they headed out of the Lehman Brothers offices made for a riveting watch. Something was clearly broken.

The crisis was occasioned by the subprime meltdown that shook the financial markets to the core resulting in an estimated $10 trillion in lost economic output. The genesis of the crisis was simple enough – the US’s housing boom in the mid-2000s along with the low interest rates enabled many lenders to give home loans to borrowers with poor credit and who would not normally be considered by traditional lenders, hence the term subprime. Those same borrowers were unable to make payments on their subprime mortgages from 2007 onwards when the real estate bubble burst.

Given the interconnectedness of the global markets, when a crisis of that magnitude rocks the world, a culprit must be found. For many, the villain was Alan Greenspan. The argument was that this man had so much faith in the self-policing and efficiency of the markets that he could be accused of gross negligence. Whilst Greenspan understood the importance of financial stability, he argued that “controlling asset prices and leverage was hard; fighting inflation was easier.”  

For those of us observing from the sidelines as the master of deregulation presided over a twenty-year reign in which interest rates came down to as low as 1%, we could not help but notice the fawning stories (which all would recant as if they never wrote them).

The alleged death of metanarratives

But the politics of the late 1980s, the 1990s and the early 2000s favoured the total hegemony of capitalism. The fall of the Soviet Union with the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev preaching ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ was music to the ears of those in the West. This was the final nail in a failed experiment, so we were told. Speaking by the Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany in June 1987, the former cowboy-actor turned president, Ronald Reagan bellowed: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The former Soviets wanted McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, so we were told. Boris Yeltsin was the perfect leader for those cheering the fall of the ‘evil empire’ – alcoholic, incoherent and pro-West. He brought his shock therapy tactics to the Russian economy – lifting price controls, privatisation of national assets (which oligarchs gladly snatched) and a market exchange rate for the Ruble. Ironically the havoc he caused would pave the way for the entry of a strongman, one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Still grappling in the dark

For those on the left, the frustration is with the vacuity of our political leaders. On the one hand, we have the chauvinism of the robbers of the national cashbox masquerading under the pseudo-nationalist moniker “Vene”. On the other, you have the Bible-wielding fanatics and their evangelical right-wing buddies encroaching on the fundamental human rights of all citizens.

There was a time when we had Julius Nyerere, Samora Machel and Kenneth Kaunda. When were faced with an international crisis, you expected them to lead us with a coherent political position rooted in solidarity, anti-imperialism and the sovereign rights of a people.

For now, we grapple in the dark – without conviction.