Zimbabwe’s biggest labour federation the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) has given the theme for the 2019 Workers Day commemorations as ‘We are at a Crossroads! Unite, Fight Neo-liberalism and Austerity.’
This is a radical theme to say the least. It is also directly ideological in that it immediately challenges the free market economic reform policy trajectory of Mnangagwa’s government. Even if by assertion of intent.
While we wait to hear in their May Day and after addresses what the leaders of ZCTU will outline as an alternative, it is however an important departure point.
Not that there has been no previous outline of alternatives from labour or human rights civil society. There are a couple that come to mind. These are for example the 1999 resolutions of the ‘National Working People’s Convention’ which apart from tasking ZCTU to form a working peoples party, also outlined social democratic values as the panacea to resolving the country’s economic challenges. There is also the Zimbabwe People’s Charter which distinctly sought to give a holistic and ideological outline of how the country should be governed on the basis of democratic more leftist ideological values.
These are but a few examples and there are others, though these may have been less political-economic in outlook. Or would have confirmed neo-liberalism and austerity in the same way as is being pursued by the current government. Or with a specific focus on seeking a change of personalities/implementers of the same free market ideological template in order to suit the interests of global financialised capital. Or follow post-cold war assumptions of an ‘end of history’ and falsely believe that capitalism as being beyond defeat by the working class and poor.
But this is not to say that capitalism as represented in the contemporary by globalized neoliberalism is down on its knees in anticipation of annihilation. On the contrary, it is sometimes when it appears at its weakest that it turns around and reinvents itself. The global financial crises of 2008 being a case in point. Either with false populism or with the direct use of force (in a majority of cases- ditto the re-emergence of political roles for the military via coups-no-coups). Even if theoretically we would still be wont to argue in Marxian terms that it remains confronted by its own contradictions.
So when the ZCTU boldly asks the people of Zimbabwe to unite against austerity, it is not a simple matter. It is a serious indictment on the broad economic policies being undertaken by the government.
As however is often the riposte from our social and mainstream media commentariat, there will be and already are derisive comments about how Zimbabwe no longer has a ’working class’ let alone the industry to sustain it. These would be fair comments only if we did not know the ideological context from which they were coming from. Those that would argue as such are in most cases active sympathizers of free market economic policies and would prefer in most cases a return to the past of either a minority run economy or the disastrous years of economic structural adjustment (ESAP). The latter in our contemporary case being what we can now safely refer to as ‘ESAP 2.0’ thanks to government’s commitment to austerity.
This is probably what they would rather prefer instead of learning from the past and re-imagining working peoples centered national political economy.
And for the purposes of clarity, it is important for us to understand what it means to be a worker in Zimbabwe, the socio-economic (hegemonic) challenges that workers are faced with, and how to strive continuously to overcome these same said obstacles.
To begin with the first, being a worker in Zimbabwe is to be part of what ZCTU has already described as the ‘working peoples of Zimbabwe’. And this relates largely to class- namely a working class that now includes not just the formally employed and unionized worker, civil servants’ associations/unions, but also the peasant farmer, the farm worker and those that are regarded to be in informal trade as ‘vendors’.
But in defining workers as broadly as outlined above, it is also significant to understand that at each turn the free market and its advocates in the form of state actors and private capital have also been working hard to weaken the ability of working people to organize themselves either in the form of strong unions and associations. Or at least for working people to be able to believe in the importance and utility of collective action and above all collective solidarity.
This is where the second point in relation to the socio-economic challenges faced by the working people of Zimbabwe is significant. In this, increasingly high levels of individualism and a diminishing understanding of the common public good beyond one’s own pocket has meant acts and understanding of solidarity have not only become infrequent but are also expected only to be undertaken by private capital. And only in the most extreme of cases such as natural or man-made disasters.
This is also despite what should be the political-economic reality that it is the primary responsibility of the state to look after its citizens.
And this immediately points to another socio-economic challenge faced by workers. That of being essentially left on their own. Where the state is supposed to be the guarantor and provider of social services, again, it has outsourced this to the private sector and shows no sign of changing tact. This is at the heart of neoliberalism and austerity. An intention to almost do away with the state save for in pretense at regular elections/ democracy and retaining control of state violence/force (security services). All the while leaving workers salaries to be determined by the ‘market’ together with prices of other basic commodities that are essential but unaffordable to workers’ livelihoods.
The final consideration is how to ensure that this new call to challenge austerity and neoliberalism by ZCTU is not lost to populism. An immediate strategy would be for the working people of Zimbabwe to define the alternative as clearly and in as apeople centered a way as possible. Not in a dogmatic way where we insist in an ideologically puritanist framework but a contextual one that takes into account historical workers struggle events , documents/declarations but also steers clear of the abstract rationalizing of poverty that comes with neoliberalism.
And these new frameworks as informed by history and the present, need to reach out to young workers and Zimbabweans to understand the democratic value of having a people-centered state that gives everyone a fair, equitable chance and start in life. Despite their parents or other forms of inherited wealth. All with a firm understanding that in the final analysis we are all equal in the state and before the state. A state that should be founded as it was at national independence on social democracy at minimal ideological correctness and at best organic democratic-socialist national consciousness. All of which were betrayed by a revolution that, as Andre Astrow wrote, lost its way.