In the summer of 1989, the American academic and then United States Government employee Francis Fukuyama wrote in an essay titled: The End of History? that the end of the cold war and the fall of the soviet union signified a larger end of the competing political and economic ideas that have been at the heart of international conflict throughout modern history. He argued that liberal democracy had triumphed as an idea, even if the full expression of liberalism (protected universal human freedoms) and democracy (government with consent by the governed) would take more time to come to pass in all parts of the world.
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government…the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world. But there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run.”
Throughout, Fukuyama highlighted the Gorbachev-led Soviet Union as the main example. He argued that while the Soviet Union of 1989 could not be considered a liberal democracy, that a liberal democracy would now certainly be the end state of the Soviet Union as those ideas had beaten communism as a form of governance. What might modern day Zimbabwe learn from the writing of an American academic on the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s? The similarities between the break up of the Soviet Union and Zimbabwe’s recent history are striking. See if anything reminds you of Zimbabwe prior to November 14, 2017.
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“…for at least the last generation…virtually nobody in that country [the Soviet Union] truly believed in Marxism-Leninism any longer, and that this was nowhere more true than in the Soviet elite, which continued to mouth Marxist slogans out of sheer cynicism.”
“The corruption and decadence of the late Brezhnev-era Soviet state seemed to matter little, however, for as long as the state itself refused to throw into question any of the fundamental principles underlying Soviet society.”
“Marxism-Leninism was like a magical incantation which, however absurd and devoid of meaning, was the only common basis on which the elite could agree to rule Soviet society”
And if today’s Zimbabwe is much like the Soviet Union of that time, Mnangagwa is almost certainly Gorbachev.
“Gorbachev has finally permitted people to say what they had privately understood for many years, namely, that the magical incantations of Marxism-Leninism were nonsense, that Soviet socialism was not superior to the West in any respect but was in fact a monumental failure.”
“Gorbachev and his lieutenants seem to understand the economic logic of marketization well enough, but like the leaders of a Third World country facing the IMF, are afraid of the social consequences of ending consumer subsidies and other forms of dependence on the state sector”
The lesson, therefore, that Zimbabwe can learn from the Soviet Union’s transition out of communism nearly thirty years ago is that its current struggle is not one of finding new ideas or solutions to old problems—problems that the rest of the world solved by the 1980s. The struggle before Zimbabwe today is in breaking from the ideology of the past that has kept its citizens frozen in history as other poor countries drove themselves into modernity.
Zimbabwe has been through five distinct economic periods since independence. They have been alternatingly economically destructive and stabilizing before repeating the same pattern—a sort of chaotic business cycle. Roughly speaking, those are: 1) Post Colonialism (1980-1990), 2) Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (1990-1997), 3) Redistribution (1997-2008), 4) the Government of National Unity (2008-2013), and 5) post-GNU (2013-today). The prescription for each economic crisis experienced during periods 1, 3 and now 5 has been some version of the same advice: rationalize government expenditure, formalize property rights, stop erratic policymaking and implementation, and follow the rule of law. These broad policy prescriptions could also be deemed “liberalization” and “democratization” and were the same measures that the Soviet Union and other nations like the Asian tigers undertook to transform living standards for their citizens—again, the full expression of liberal democracy and in particular, democracy, is not necessarily what the West thinks of as democratic governance. In other words, the medicine that Zimbabwe is advised to take after each destructive episode is Fukuyama’s prescription: liberalization and democracy. So if the rest of history knows that these are the solutions to Zimbabwe’s economic problems, why does Zimbabwe seem not to? Why has this advice not been implemented during any of these periods?
In some ways, this advice was implemented during the recovery periods in Zimbabwe. But never fully. Only the most palatable economic reforms were ever undertaken given the political climate of each period. The result was not only haphazard policy implementation, but the poor performance of those reforms attempted. These half measures are akin to taking half of one’s prescription for an infection. Not only will a half-dose not kill an infection, it can often cause an infection to come back even stronger. Each time only politically palatable policies are implemented in a system of cronyism, Zimbabwe guarantees that not only will policy half-measures not work, but that these economic ailments will come back in the form of a stronger mutation. Think of the odd strain of RTGS hyperinflation that Zimbabwe seems destined to experience in this post-GNU period. Is it not following the same path that the country took in 2008? It appears that not only has Zimbabwe not learned its lesson about the dangers of unrestrained money printing, but this current round of inflation is proving much more challenging to treat because it was never dealt with properly the first time.
So if Zimbabwe is to break from its past, how can it do so now? An experienced politician knows he must find someone or something to blame for the country’s failures as well as a rallying point around which to gather support for any change. A country’s recently deposed politician, for example, often makes for a good scapegoat and national hero from the past often serves nicely as a spokesman. In the former Soviet Union, for example:
“Gorbachev’s claim that he is seeking to return to the true Lenin is perfectly easy to understand: having fostered a thorough denunciation of Stalinism and Brezhnevism as the root of the USSR’s present predicament, he needs some point in Soviet history on which to anchor the legitimacy of the CPSU’S [ruling party’s] continued rule. But Gorbachev’s tactical requirements should not blind us to the fact that the democratizing and decentralizing principles which he has enunciated in both the economic and political spheres are highly subversive of some of the most fundamental precepts of both Marxism and Leninism.”
So in this way, Gorbachev changed the fundamental ideas behind a national hero’s identity. In doing so, Gorbachev expertly exploited the Soviet Union’s historical self-image to move the country into the future. In Zimbabwe, however, there had only ever been one administration. This left the former president Mugabe in somewhat of a bind. Unlike Gorbachev denouncing Brezhnev’s perversion of Marxism-Leninism, Mugabe had no ideological predecessor to blame. He was both Lenin and Brezhnev. That left Mugabe with Western institutions as his only ghosts to exorcise in the public view. Following the ESAP period, the IMF and World Bank were criticized for undermining the revolutionary principles of the Mugabe administration with liberal policies. Following the failures of the redistribution period, the US and EU sanctions were criticized for destroying the economy. And in the later part of the post-GNU period, as the economy began to falter once again, the greed of economic saboteurs and market indiscipline (whatever that is) were to blame for holding the country back from further progress.
Under the new dispensation, however, there is an opportunity to use the strategy that Fukuyama highlights to great effect. Zimbabwe already has one foot into another economically destructive period if the government continues spending beyond its means and attempting to controlling the marketplace. But Mnangagwa can now play the Gorbachev card and claim that a break from recent policies would represent a return to Mugabe’s true legacy. How can he argue this? By using the convenient excuse that those worst policies were perpetuated by the criminals who surrounded Mugabe in recent years. Then Mugabe’s “true” legacy can be anything that Mnangagwa desires it to be. And like the change in ideology from communism towards liberal democracy that followed Gorbachev’s years in power, it is irrelevant that these new policies would be the antithesis of Mugabe’s actual legacy. Once anchored in the cloak of Mugabeism, liberal policies can be held up by all former and current Mugabe supporters. We have already seen elements of the current president’s move away from the ZANU-PF revolutionary ideals when the MDC-T spokesman claimed after the inauguration that ZANU-PF is stealing MDC-T policies.
Assuming that the Mnangagwa administration recognizes the disastrous economic nature of the government’s policies over the last twenty years, Mnangagwa must decide which dose of liberal policies is politically feasible and which would have the greatest economic impact before elections. The new administration already has the ideological cover that it needs to maintain reverence for Mugabe, the party, and the revolutionary ideals that underpinned the independence movement in Zimbabwe. It was the thieves who had entrapped Mugabe who perverted these ideological goals. And what of those who despise the West and liberal democratic values? Mnangagwa need not talk of “liberal democracy” nor transform Zimbabwe into Sweden overnight. As Gorbachev knew:
“The Soviet Union could in no way be described as a liberal or democratic country now, nor do I think that it is terribly likely that perestroika will succeed such that the label will be thinkable any time in the near future. But at the end of history it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society.”
In this light, for Zimbabwe to progress economically several of Mugabe’s previous policies can be dropped—i.e. the indigenization act as it applies only to black Zimbabweans—and Mnangagwa need not actually undertake democratic reforms. He needs only to end the more misguided of Mugabe’s ideological adventures.
Will any of these reforms move forward…who knows? It is unlikely that even Mnangagwa is certain which reforms he will be able to pursue while balancing the political economy of any such change. Pitfalls are everywhere, and those who would exploit his missteps lurk around every corner in an election year. But the fact remains that the same policy reforms that Zimbabwe has needed for the past 37 years are now necessary to avoid both further short-term erosion of Zimbabweans’ living standards and longer-term economic collapse. These reforms are well known to all and sundry as they are touted out after every period of economic crisis, and no doubt the president has been using those talking points in Davos last week. We have already seen much rhetoric fromMnangagwa’s administration that these reforms (rationalize government expenditure, formalize property rights, stop erratic policymaking and implementation, and follow the rule of law) are his priorities. Let us hope that is true.
Fukuyama ended his essay by stating:
“The Soviet Union, then, is at a fork in the road: it can start down the path that was staked out by Western Europe forty-five years ago, a path that most of Asia has followed, or it can realize its own uniqueness and remain stuck in history.”
Zimbabwe need not diagnose its challenges once again. They come from the same failed economic policies that the country has known for a long time. The same medicine also applies, but a stronger dose is now required to fight the mutant strains that ail the economy. Whether these liberal and democratic policies are finally implemented by the current administration can decide if Zimbabwe will take a step towards the countries that have already emerged on the other side of history or if it will chain itself to the failures of the past.
This guest post was authored by Kenedy Moyo
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