The myth that we did it by ourselves

Rhodes>Perspective>2012 Archives

If we want to understand how many in this country’s middle class see the world, we need to turn to a Canadian philosopher. And if we do, we will begin to realise how some attitudes make it much harder for this to become a country for all its people.

The philosopher’s name is CB Macpherson.

Half a century ago, he wrote that many liberals believed in something he called “possessive individualism”. If he had been able to listen to our debates – including some reactions to last week’s census results – he would have learned that liberals are not the only people who think that way.

Possessive individualism is the belief that the only people in society who matter are those who own things. Owners owe nothing to the rest of society for their success, which was achieved entirely by their own efforts. The job of government is therefore to leave the owners alone to enjoy their success – and to use force to protect them from jealous non-owners who want to get their hands on the owners’ wealth.

The possessive individualists always sound as if they are concerned about freedom. But the freedom they value is only that of the owners. And they are always brave enough to challenge democratic governments. But only when they seem not to protect the freedoms of the owners.

If all of this sounds academic, it is what we hear every day from sections of our society who don’t like affirmative action, or anything else which aims to change the inequalities created by our past. Those who live in the suburbs and continue to occupy most of the good jobs are, they insist, where they are because they are clever and worked hard, not because they benefitted from racial laws.

Instead of pestering them to share what they achieved with their own efforts, government (and unions and many non-governmental organisations) should, they believe, leave them alone to continue making money. Some of those who hold this view would prefer government to do nothing about poverty because they can then pay less tax. Others insist that the government should address the needs of the poor (without raising taxes) because then the wealthy need take no responsibility for the rest of the society.

Commentator Aubrey Matshiqi reports that possessive individualists of this sort were out in force last week after the census reported that the apartheid pecking order was still alive in the economy. Whites get most, black Africans least and the black minorities are somewhere in the middle. The reason? Whites, they say, have more education, a fact which presumably has nothing to do with measures designed to ensure that black people could never be qualified for skilled jobs.

But white people who insist that none of them were ever helped by apartheid are not the only possessive individualists around. There is a new black generation too.

A while ago black possessive individualists formed a chorus to reject the social grants, which keep millions of South Africans active in the economy. Columnists and radio hosts followed some of our politicians in denouncing grants and their role in creating “dependency” among the poor.

Some of them were presumably a little embarrassed at lecturing the poor on the need to go out and get a job (when unemployment is at least 25%). And so they blamed the government for keeping the poor on the welfare rolls rather than ensuring that they could earn their living by their own efforts .

Much could be said about this attitude, but the most obvious point is that, just as whites got where they are because a particular type of society helped them get there, so the black middle class has received more than a little help along the way – help which the people who get grants never received. And it is open to debate whether the middle class have done as well with the help they got as poor people have at creatively using their grants.

Possessive individualism is based on a myth. There is no one in this society who is doing well who did not need help to get where they are. And we will not achieve our potential until the possessive individualists, black and white, in government and outside it, recognise that they are nothing without society and need to give back at least a little of what they have taken out.

It is surely no accident that a society in which many at the top of the economic pile believe the rest of the country should leave them alone is also one in which owners are forced to use security measures to separate themselves from the rest of society – those who enjoy wealth in mental isolation from everyone else surely have no option but to enjoy it in physical isolation too.

Apartheid may have ended, but some of its attitudes survive – except that now they are embraced not only by many who benefitted before 1994 but also by some who have made it good since then.

We can do better than a system which relies on gated communities – those in people’s heads as those that litter our suburbs.

The possessive individualists don’t have to give up their wealth – they don’t even necessarily have to share large chunks of it. But they do need to face the consequences of their attitudes. As long as any measure to make this a society one in which everyone has a role is dismissed as an assault on the owners of property, the high walls and the barbed wire will remain necessary. Instead of resisting this change, those who own wealth should be discussing how best to make it work.

We need less talk of what society can do for owners, far more on what they can do to include everyone else.

By Steven Friedman

Photo by Ross Shackleton

Prof Steven Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg