Oscar van Heerden | Marie Antoinette said ‘let them eat cake’, and look where that got her

Some of the big revolutions in our world were characterised by a clear disconnect between those governing and those that must be governed.

The causes of such revolutions are generally premised on social, political and economic factors, which the existing political class proved unable to manage.

In the case of the French revolution, it culminated in the masses storming the Bastille – a medieval armoury fortress and political prison in the centre of Paris. It was seen as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power.

We also observed a similar “storming”, in a sense, in 1990 in Cape Town, when thousands of people gathered outside the parliamentary building to send a very clear message to the government of the day that, if political matters do not go their way, all hell will break loose. Fortunately, the government of the day saw the light and did the right thing.

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The cultural revolution in China, the Cuban revolution, the American revolution, and the numerous post-colonial revolutions on the African continent are all indications of fundamental change being demanded and indeed acquiesced to.

I guess what I’m getting at is the inevitable conclusion that, in South Africa and, indeed, the rest of the world, we are on the precipice of yet another such revolution – because something has to give.

The current situation worldwide is dire, especially for the poor.

A few factors come to mind, such as the impact of the Covid pandemic, the ongoing Ukraine war and, in small measure, the collapse of the capitalist system as we know it.

Dog-eat-dog world

I won’t spend much time on how the Covid pandemic decimated health systems, how it redefined social relations and how we saw first-hand that, when the going gets tough, it quickly becomes a dog-eat-dog world. We saw it with big pharma and drugs and vaccines.

Next, we feel the effects of war, even though it is happening thousands of kilometres from us. Oil prices, food prices, food security, migration issues, energy security and so much more. All of this contributes to a world that is simply not considering the poor. It is a capitalist system that is unable to provide lasting solutions to very complex challenges.

The United States simply just prints more money, and no one can call them to order because they are the global hegemon. More and more subsidies are being given to citizens of wealthy countries, like Germany and elsewhere, but this too is unstainable. At home, we are also constantly talking of a basic income grant because we simply cannot create the growth nor the jobs required to offset the ever-growing inequality gap in the country.

Now, I am very aware that all leftist projects of the 20th century have failed. So, I am not advocating for a repeat of such. Similarly, the current system, post-communism, famously termed the “end of history” by Francis Fukuyama, cannot provide us with lasting solutions any longer. Fukuyama himself admits this now.

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We are seeing the gospel that said capitalism needs democracy to thrive also no longer holds true. In fact, more and more, we observe that capitalism does not need democracy to function. And, in the meantime, the poor suffer what they must.

We talk of alternatives as if it is affordable, as if the poor can cope with such. We must move away from fossil fuels, and we must all drive electric vehicles. Well, do you know the price of such a vehicle? The poor cannot afford this.

We must have alternative energy sources, but the cost of these for the poor does not get factored in. We don’t provide efficient and sufficient public transport options to our poor people, and yet they must function in society. And even when some of us advocate for a social wage of sorts, many in the chattering classes talk of ‘dependency’.

Growing dissatisfaction

Just as in the case of the French, things are cooking on the outskirts of our metropoles, dissatisfaction is growing, and hope is fast fading. The steady influx into urban settings, to seek better opportunities, is a mirage for many.

Very little to no rural development is taking place to attempt to foster a culture that we can exist in rural areas, that we can develop local rural economies, if we just put our heads together.

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A revolution is a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favour of a new system. If our government continues on this current trajectory, if our private sector continues increasing prices and increasing shareholders’ profits, and if our unions continue to demand higher wages, then we are bound to see a revolution, good people.

I fear the disconnect between the leaders and the led is such that, when they say, ‘let them eat cake’, they either reflect the frivolous disregard for the starving poor or reveal their poor understanding of their plight.

– Dr Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular

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