IF HISTORIAN and academic Niall Ferguson is correct in saying that the success of a civilisation is not measured only by its aesthetic achievements, but more importantly the duration and quality of its citizens’ life, then it is fair to say that SA and many other countries, if not the entire world, are demonstrations of the failure of modern human civilisation.

"Civilisations are partly a practical response by human populations to their environments — the challenges of feeding, watering, sheltering and defending themselves..." he observes in his book, Civilization: The West and the Rest. We are struggling to feed, water and shelter everyone, let alone reach the quality that is required to afford people the fullness of their dignity.

SA is one of the world’s more unequal societies, often demonstrating the extremes of what remains a global phenomenon. Liberal democracy’s fundamental political-economic theory seems to be facing a grave existential crisis, as did that of Soviet communism. What is to be done about this, is a question that has so far eluded popular discourse. This is partly due to an unwillingness or inability to listen and observe the signs before us and the arguments put forward as to the alternatives. This has not stopped many from trying, however.

McKinsey is trying to spark a global discussion about the need for capitalism to reinvent itself in a way that better responds to the grave challenges facing humanity today. It is a message that resonates with many but will continue to find few committed takers because the claws of the crisis are not yet being felt by those who need to give up their privileged positions in order to enable the change.

It is also a discussion that is regarded as a heresy in the US, the bastion of liberal free market economics. Even its president, Barack Obama’s political problems can be traced back to his pledge to use public resources and legislation to ensure good quality public healthcare for every American. His healthcare policies are often denigrated as "socialist", a label which apparently requires no further examination of the substance of the policy.

Despite making all the right noises, they cannot appear to find agreement among themselves to break open their crony circles to allow the democratisation of SA’s political economy.

In What the Left Should Propose, Brazilian thinker Roberto Mangabeira Unger notes that huge, fundamental shifts in every society have always resulted from a crisis. Appropriately he states clearly that we cannot wait for an actual crisis but instead need to deploy the imagination to "do the work of crisis without crisis".

This means changing the political institutional framework to provide the basis for a new socioeconomic formula of which the priority is not only to provide more equitable distribution of opportunities but also to successfully combat the vices of the dominating political and economic elite. Crony capitalism, political corruption and other forms of unethical exclusion have become normative such that their ethical problems are easily ignored.

Should we fail at this task natural forces are likely to take over and resolve the deadlock in a gravely destructive way we cannot even begin to imagine. The reasons are simple, as American scholar Francis Fukuyama observes in The Origins of Political Order.

"Political decay occurs when political systems fail to adjust to changing circumstances. When the surrounding environment changes and new challenges arise, there is often a disjunction between existing institutions and present needs. Those institutions are supported by legions of entrenched stakeholders who oppose any fundamental change," he says.

In SA’s case there is the added difficulty of historical inequalities and injustices which need urgent resolution but are poorly attended to for a variety of reasons. The most prevalent is the declining moral capital of the political and economic elites.

Despite making all the right noises, they cannot appear to find agreement among themselves to break open their crony circles to allow the democratisation of SA’s political economy.

In any case, there is a permanent tension between business and the government whose continually transient remedy is a series of quick fixes and tweaks which do not resolve the structural obstacles standing in the way of broad political and economic institutional shifts.

Examples are everywhere, from SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) members leveraging their political influence in the ANC to deny black children education in the name of workers’ rights; to the same ANC using leftist jargon to fool the electorate, when in reality, it continues to walk a decidedly liberal centre to assuage the fears of business.

A new political morality is needed of which the premise is not cheap, power-hungry populism, but a desire to reformulate SA’s narrative into one of inclusivity, opportunity and hard work. This will not be possible when the would-be chief architect of such a formula is increasingly perceived to be corrupt, out of ideas and saddled with a future leadership corps so bereft of talent and credibility that the crisis can only worsen despite the grandiose plans and political platitudes. Be warned.

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