Rafiq Jumabhoy

When I was speaking to John about my thoughts during the pandemic, he said, “put it on paper!” So, with the proviso that these are my random thoughts and not claiming academic rigor, here goes.

Many watched with horror as “democratic” countries legislated draconian measures to wrest control over the public narrative whilst attempting “roti prata politics” to camouflage failures. At the same time China’s need to rein in the” wild west” of its internet was reported as repression of “democratic norms” when a reading of the measures showed remarkable similarity to EU regulation. What struck me as I read and listened to all this was disinformation and questions about government legitimacy. Trump and his enablers’ malign presence contributed further to the confusion.

To make some sense of this, I was reminded of my politics tutor, Sir Maurice Shock, who told me at my very first tutorial that, “whilst it’s more amusing to describe political activity in terms of personalities, you cannot judge a political action or the actor, till you understand the structure in which such actions take place.”

This led me to look for a fundamental issue. My readings suggest that many political economies have been organized to value GDP growth as the sole measure of success and ipso facto governmental legitimacy. So, when a government cannot safeguard that, as in a pandemic, its raison d’etre becomes suspect. The absence of representative government is a second factor, and this can be seen from the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality.

Policy makers in many “democracies” have ignored this as a measure to address the yawning gap in wealth disparity.  Evidence of this is provided by the carelessness during the pandemic towards human beings who mattered most to our well-being — the front-line workers, the nurses, the doctors, the garbage collectors, the cleaners at hawker centers, etc. In a nutshell, the structure of government has become dysfunctional when it favours only certain segments of society.

This gross inequality has not come about by accident but by an alignment of “free market” theory originating in Adam Smith but codified into monetary policy by Milton Freidman, the connivance of Wall Street and the willingness of public officials to be corrupted by the rewards of this regimen whilst professing national ideals. The enablement by government officials of the rampant greed of big pharma during these last months — and earlier with weapons manufacturers for endless wars— make that clear. Information technology has further concentrated elite power, shifting  “democracies”  into plutocracies.

The fallacy of unbridled GDP growth in a world of finite resources was finally seen as demonstrably idiotic against the backdrop of the climate crisis.

Chinese history is replete with examples of this loss of the “mandate of heaven” caused by inattention to income inequality. Under the Zhou dynasty, the concept of meritocratic government was established post the Chou. But then as now, Beijing is capable of corruption when the ruling elite become out of touch.  In our historical era, China was the earliest to recognize the need for a “profound transformation”. This is officially referred to as Xi Jinping’s “Common Prosperity” campaign. I make no judgement on the impact and manner of its implementation, but the anomaly of an “unrepresentative and repressive” regime making the shift to an inclusive society — versus “democratic” countries ignoring broader societal needs — cannot be lost on us.

We can make the transition to a less fractured society if we have enlightened leaders like Jokowi in Indonesia and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. But they needn’t be politicians. Greta Thunberg’s small protest outside the Swedish parliament at the age of 15 had a global impact, inspiring thousands of young people across the world to organize their own efforts for a reset. Her iconic contribution catalyzed global action on climate.

There is still power in individual action. I am buoyed by the hope of its ripple effects.

Rafiq Jumabhoy

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