The age of historical amnesia: Capitalism, socialism, and demise

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

In the 21st century, we find ourselves grappling with a fading collective memory of historical events and ideologies. As philosopher George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is especially evident in the contemporary swing from capitalism to socialism. Two particular groups worldwide seem to suffer the worst from this amnesia: politicians and journalists.

In South Africa we are bombarded on a daily basis by politicians and journalists calling for greater socialist policy and government intervention. Just recently The Pretoria News published an article entitled: “Unchanged repo rate signals need for state bank” (30 January 2024). In the piece the alleged failure of the central bank – itself a mechanism of state legislation and control – would be solved by the introduction of a “State” bank. The article drips with irony, misunderstanding and general ignorance of economic factors, forces and most importantly history. If not a call for the nationalisation of the central bank, we hear chanted at every opportunity calls for the nationalisation of our private medical system. Politicians and journalists alike spew out the horrific consequences of what would happen if we were to dare to privatise our SOE’s. Are we all suffering from amnesia? Have we all forgotten the destruction that comes with socialism?

Prior to the millennium, socialism was largely vilified. It had demonstrated its severe socio-economic failures in countries like Russia, China, North Korea, Vietnam, and the Eastern Bloc nations of Europe. These countries were notorious for widespread human rights abuses, causing more deaths than World Wars I and II combined, and their ubiquitous problems of starvation, poverty, obsolete technologies, and corruption. This grim reality was well-documented and has never been hidden.

Contrastingly, during the same period capitalist, privatised free market nations were sites of economic prosperity, political accountability, and rapid progress. The West symbolized a beacon of hope against the gloom of socialist regimes. With the dawn of the new millennium however, n wave of amnesia seems to have erased all our memories of socialist failures.

Post the millennium change, an increasing number of people are advocating for a re-evaluation of socialism. The motivations behind this change range from youthful rebellion and racial beliefs to cultural factors. Take, for example, South Africa’s economic policy shift after apartheid ended. Its choice of socialism was as much a reaction against the perceived capitalist policies of the previous regime, who labelled any opposition to them “Pinko Communists!”, as it was a statement of ideological alignment with the communist countries that had supported the ANC during apartheid.

South Africa has not been unique in this idolisation of socialism. The 21st century has witnessed a rise in socialist populism across the globe. The Great Recession of 2008 and perceived wealth inequality in capitalist societies have fuelled a shift towards socialist ideals. For instance, a 2019 YouGov poll in the USA showed 70% of American millennials were likely to vote for a socialist candidate.

A contributing factor to this shift seems to be the increasing influence of Marxist education in institutions. Critics, including James Lindsay, argue that Marxist ideologies have infiltrated educational institutions, advocating a worldview questioning capitalism’s very foundations. Lindsay believes this ideological infiltration constitutes a form of cultural capture, embedding Marxist principles into modern culture under the guise of critical theory, thereby influencing cultural norms and societal values.

However, not all advocates for socialism’s resurrection are peaceful dissenters. A vocal minority, while representing a smaller fraction of the global populace, has leveraged digital platforms and social media to amplify their calls for socialist measures. They’ve also weaponised labels and titles, using inflammatory accusations to silence critics and dissenters, which is effectively an attempt to dumb down global intellectualism. Think 1984’s “Ministry of Truth”.

This societal shift has seen capitalism’s global stronghold weaken significantly. With socialist principles infiltrating many aspects of society, few nations could be deemed wholly capitalistic anymore. Alarmingly, socialism, once shunned, is now hailed as a potential solution for global issues.

As mentioned earlier, South Africa offers an applicable and sadly ironic case study in this regard. During the apartheid era of its history South Africa had several bouts of commendable economic growth (See South Africa GDP Growth Rate 1961-2024 | MacroTrends – SA’s biggest growth period 1950 – 1984) only seen again briefly right after apartheid ended. While no one supports apartheid, South Africa did grow from strength to strength under these free economic conditions. Growth was only curbed by arbitrary racial prohibitions, global sanctions in the 80’s, and the sad but inevitable layering of more and more regulation and state control over the economy, before the fall of apartheid.

Contrastingly, the current ruling party, the African National Party (ANC) as a matter of principle not only sided with communists but were supported by them, namely the Russians and Cubans, as the enemy of the National Party. The socialist charter of the ANC has seen a radical step up in state intervention since 2007 – after a brief period of unsatisfactory pragmatism from 1994 – and has led to the almost complete destruction of South Africa’s economy in a period of less than 20 years. And yet we hear more and more cries for further nationalisation and government intervention.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) for example, the country’s third-largest political party, openly advocates for radical socialism, despite the evident failures of the ANC’s socialist-leaning policies. The EFF’s proposals for sweeping nationalisation and land redistribution without compensation have found support among those disillusioned with the ANC’s failure to deliver economic equality and poverty alleviation without truly understanding or realising the already evident failures of these policies and almost despite it being characterised by rampant corruption, economic stagnation, and the high unemployment rates that did not exist in South Africa at their advent.

This transition from capitalism to socialism since the millennium offers a horrifying glimpse into societal transformation. Despite historical evidence of socialism’s shortcomings, the world gravitates towards it again and again. This shift, propelled by populist sentiment, educational influences, and a vocal minority, indicates that the ideological journey and the destruction it brings with it, are far from over.

Almost exclusively supported by labour globally, the principle appeals because it appears to offer an easy way out of work, endurance and resilience. It is the Utopian answer to the hard work that not only builds free markets but is demanded by them. Ironically, this message of Utopia never tells the story of the poverty and destruction that follows in its wake.

When will we remember? For South Africa, at this stage, it just seems too late to turn back. The silent majority, side-lined and witnessing the disintegration, will likely bear the burden of rebuilding the mess that the 21st century has initiated. How future historians will record this period remains to be seen and how even more distant “historians” rewrite it will be truly telling…


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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