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When capitalist realism drives political common sense

Opinion & Analysis
Tapiwa Gomo

We live in a scripted world. Everything about us is a characterisation of a script embedded in our social, economic, environmental or political dispositions. They way we behave, make choices and decisions, and grow in society is a characterisation of these scripts. We are simply acting out the scripts we have been exposed to since birth. However, acting out the script does not necessarily mean conforming to the norm, it can also mean challenging the status quo.

In most cases, without realising it, these scripts become the norm and repository of common sense — the supposed truth assumed to have been agreed upon by the whole society and immediately apparent to anyone of “normal intelligence”. Common sense is what people think they unquestionably know about themselves and the world around them or what seems to be obvious to any “normal” member of the society.

The role of common sense is to help make judgements and conclusions quickly and move to the next stage instead of dwelling on what is assumed to be obvious. Take for example; it is common knowledge that the sun rises from the east and sets in the west. Then the next stage is that when the sun rises from the east, it is morning or beginning of the day and when it sets, it is the evening or end of the day. Common sense makes interpretation of situations easier or is it?

It is not always the case when it comes to the political economy of the world. Let’s look at a country that we all now call Zimbabwe. It is common sense that the Great Zimbabwe Kingdom was larger in the pre-colonial era. It is common sense that it was colonised and its people fought, perhaps, won the battle to rule themselves. It is also considered common sense that the country which used to be a kingdom is now an independent State.

There are a number of slippery concepts in the description above and yet they script how we understand our situation today. Attaining independence for a small piece of land out of the entire vast expanse of the Great Zimbabwe Kingdom is far from being a sign of victory. We accepted what was prescribed and scripted by colonial power and it is now common sense. The borders were not scripted by us but we accepted them as they were. The very notion of independence and its prescriptive subtexts should be more troubling instead of the common sense of what we are.

It does not end there. Zimbabwe is known to be a democratic independent State which means it must hold regular elections and uphold the tenets of good governance and that of human rights plus several other global prescriptions of how to run a State. That is the global common sense of governance but are these the prescriptive requirements for a prosperous society? Why is there limited focus on economics than politics? Prescribed common sense also impose what to focus on.

What we adopted at independence was an acceptance to be loyal to the refined tenets of the same colonial oppression for which we fought to dislodge. Therefore, what we think is the predominant current common sense of our political status vis-à-vis the world around us is what has been described by some scholar as capitalist realism.

This phrase is not just limited to describing the dominant political economic framework that organises the world and its central role in allocating power, but its ability to normalise, legitimise and celebrate imbalances and inequalities in pursuit of its interests. The world today is an outcome of the late-stage industrial State capitalism where the elite decide directly or via its political proxies that the role and power of the people and its elected government is consumed by capitalist realism. That is the basis upon which we need to look at ourselves and challenge the current state of common sense.

To understand capitalist realism’s intentions and how it has been able to establish its tenets as common sense, we just have to look at how it wrested power from monarchies and religious institutions during the industrial revolution, to the time of slave trade, colonialism, imperialism (in either their historical or new forms) to independence of colonies and then democracy and their precepts. Common in all these historical phases is the absolute centralisation of power and narratives that legitimise and celebrate that as a global necessity.

Why is this a danger to the global society? The 1970s and early 1980s witnessed the growth of neoliberalism, a premise that centralised freedom for humanity. But the intention was the opposite — to drain all the power that remained in other institutions via sponsorship of populism. Between that period and now, the world has witnessed growing movement of activists to eliminate poverty and suffering via privatisation of government services and cutting their expenditure.

There has been an increasing muzzling of labour movements, deregulation of every segment of the economy, and the absolute faith in market-based principles to adjudicate all elements of social, political, cultural and economic life.

Who are the winners and losers in this game of power? The effects of these have been staggering levels of wealth and income inequality, increasing poverty among the poor, weak governments as a result of the diminishing of power of the state and the people, an increasing control and use of civil society organisations to destabilise institutions that threaten the interests of capitalism realism.

Money is used as an effective tool of control. All successful movements or politicians in the world are either sponsored by the richest people or corporates. Any movement that diverts attention from the real problem of capitalist realism or one that does not threaten its interests, gets the most support. It is for these reasons that has seen growth in social movements for social, political and economic justice. However, one disheartening factor has been the elites’ effective ability to keep these movements from antagonising each other. This is their way of keeping the activism and populisms space safe because they are necessary to ensuring leaders of governments and service institutions tow the line.


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