South Africans are fighting decline on all fronts, notably in every interface with our crumbling state, whether it is queuing at the home affairs department, sitting in darkness or driving through potholes. Yet, the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal conference two weeks ago witnessed the resounding endorsement of a political faction supporting the protagonist of state capture causing fallout across South African society.
The most recent half-decade witnessed tectonic geopolitical shifts punctuated by reversals in freedoms and democratic backslides. The United States, long considered the hegemon of democracy, can no longer claim any such superiority. The United Kingdom has experienced a similar set of reversals. Then there are Hong Kong and China, and of course the Ukraine and Russia, and Turkey and Belarus and Afghanistan.
On home ground, reversals abound too, and although exacerbated by external shocks such as Covid-19 and Russia’s war in the Ukraine, we have had to weather these disruptions off the back foot.
Trying to find the root cause of our deepening weakness takes us right back to the fundamental human dilemma, which is how societies organise themselves to solve conflicting interests. To prevent what Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century described as a self-interested “war of all against all”, he proposed that societies agree to relinquish rule-making powers to a higher authority, a Leviathan. History soon proved that the Leviathan becomes the greatest harasser of all.
Central in catastrophic episodes of national decline on a grand scale — precipitated by predatory, all-powerful Leviathans — is the state-society balance. This balance shapes state-society interactions and the rules of engagement. The rules of engagement are often referred to as institutions but are simply society’s self-made rules that govern people’s behaviour. These rules matter because they determine where the payoffs in a society are, for instance whether it is more lucrative to rent-seek and do business with the government than to be innovative and pursue entrepreneurial opportunities.
Crucial as these rules of engagement are for how societies function, they are not random. One class of rules is formal and fairly observable such as constitutions and laws. In state-society relations, these focus pretty much on the role of the state, which we know is a profound one — capable states lifted all of the East-Asian tigers out of poverty. Democracy is an obvious formal institution, or actually a collection of formal institutions governing how political power is allocated, transferred and kept accountable.
Essentially, it amounts to self-government, placing the levers in the hands of society which, as custodians of its own interests, then operate them to not be preyed upon by the Leviathan. So theoretically, state capture and all that has been revealed by the Zondo commission should be impossible under democracy. That is precisely the point of democracy and what makes it distinct from authoritarian politics — society can keep the Leviathan at bay. So why don’t we?
The next class of institutions explains why we don’t. This class comprises the informal rules of engagement — the stronger but less salient drivers of human behaviour. These informal rules of societies are embedded in our culture-inspired, prevalent psychologies, the origins of which are a complex mix of societies’ evolutionary anthropology, history and even geographic environment. Despite the heterogeneity in the cultural origins, societies’ informal rules of engagement are surprisingly consistent and predictable in several respects.
The quintessential distinction in societies’ modes of cooperation is whether it leans more towards collectivism, or more towards individualism. Almost all other traits of societal cooperation correlate in predictable ways with this distinction. In a collectivist society, groups are the constituent units of a society and long-standing social norms dominate social interaction. Norm-deviance invites shame upon the perpetrator and diminishes social standing. Shame is an external enforcement mechanism that depends on detection. Hence non-detection also means impunity.
Most noteworthy is that moral duality characterises collective societies. One set of norms applies to interactions with in-group members; a wholly different set applies to how out-group individuals are treated. It is very much an us-versus-them view of the world, with altruism and trust afforded to in-group members only. Francis Fukuyama refers to this duality as the “tyranny of cousins”, explaining how far collectivists are prepared to go for their in-group but also against out-groups. Fukuyama argues that there is hardly anything that hardened collectivists would not do to express loyalty towards the in-group (“rape, pillage, murder”).
The most exasperating fallacy regarding collectivism is that it favours the common good over personal interest; it does not. It favours group interest over all else — over the interests of individuals and all other groups. It is a polarising mode of sociality in a diverse society, translating into extreme degrees of in-group favouritism and internecine factional conflicts.
History has proven how hazardous moral duality can be. Apartheid South Africa was an example: two (racial) groups, two moral treatments. So was Hitler’s Germany, slavery and colonialism. They are tales of moral duality with ghastly consequences. Moreover, collectivism subdues individual innovation and initiative; it encourages unquestioning obedience to traditional norms and ways of doing things. It cultivates a passive society, comfortable to be prescribed to and to surrender control to the dictates of traditional authority.
Collectivism also does not sit well with the democratic ideals of a shared purpose, inclusivity and equality. It is not a long stretch to predict that the accountability levers of a democracy may in fact not be used against deviant leaders of one’s in-group. One recalls how the British newspaper The Daily Journal on 26 July 1868 reported the objection of a party member that an elected leader was “a great rascal”, and his colleague’s rejoinder, “Ah! but he is our rascal”.
Individualists, contrastingly, trust broadly, across group boundaries and prize independent thinking but are uncomfortable with authoritarian power structures. Most importantly, individualists subscribe to a universal morality towards all, which translates into impersonal altruism as expressed through compliance with redistributive tax-and-transfer systems and blood donations, for instance.
Paradoxically, because of individualists’ proclivity towards universality in their treatment of others, their social cooperation is aligned with the common good. Norm enforcement is also very different from collectivist societies. Individualists internalise norms they subscribe to; deviance therefore triggers guilt and devalues self-image as opposed to social image, which is an internal sanction. Detected or not, there is no impunity for norm deviance in individualist societies. Individualism translates into innovation to do things better, and gels with the democratic notions of impersonal technocratic appointments of bureaucrats and accountability when the executive overreaches.
The fallacious malalignment of individualism as exploitative is, in our highly factionalised, polarised political environment, as self-serving as it is exasperating. It is conceptually simply not true but is also entirely at odds with empirical evidence. A World Values Survey research paper in 2020 Human Empowerment before Prosperity and Liberty by myself and R Van Eyden with panel data from 105 countries has shown that the gap between rich and poor countries is not primarily a democratic deficit, nor is it a deficit in state capacity, or in investment or exports.
The largest distance between the global rich and poor is in degrees of individualism. That is, in the largely unobservable informal rules of how members of a society treat each other. Societies held hostage by group dominance are the vulnerable societies waiting to be rescued by a strong-man leader, or to be liberated by a system of formal institutions, but then fail to operationalise active custodianship of their own interests.
We witness widespread declines amid our governing party’s collectivist politics. It is divisive and paralysing. While maligning individualism on entirely false grounds, this pro-social, morally universal mode of cooperation makes prosperous democracies both democratic and prosperous — outcomes we are trying to emulate. Paradoxically, while we say that we strive for a better existence for all, we shun the clear path that leads there.
This article first appeared in the Mail and Guardian on 1 August 2022. Sansia Blackmore is a senior lecturer at the African Tax Institute in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, University of Pretoria.