The recognition that global poverty constitutes the deepest and most dangerous structural fault in the world economy is not the preserve of progressive politics. All thinking people agree that the elimination of this structural fault requires sustained economic growth and development in the poorest areas of the world.
Thinking people also agree that various macro-conditions - democracy, rule of law, property rights - have to be met to create the possibility for such growth and development to take place, and they agree that the first driver of growth and development is capital investment. Further, all these thinking people would agree that in contemporary society, the capital needed is privately owned, and that publicly owned capital is but a tiny proportion of the stupendous volume of capital in the global economy.
The consensus about these necessary macro-conditions relates to the agreed requirement that the right climate should be created to encourage the private owners of capital to put it into the areas where such macro-conditions exist, especially the poor countries.
Implicit within this is the recognition that capital, as distinct from capitalists, has no sense of social responsibility. It has no soul. Money and its multiplication constitute its motive power. No thinking person would therefore contest the view - advanced by political economy - that without profit maximization, capital dies. "Market economics" has acquired the character of a universal and self-evident truth.
The objective reason for this is the recognition that capital, the generation of the means to ensure human survival, is privately owned. In this condition, capital, "the market", has its own innate logic, which is independent of human consciousness. In this sense, capital dictates the rules that human society sets itself.
This neoliberal-conservative economic paradigm represents the political expression of the rules of "the market". Consistent with the logic of the market, it emphasizes the "private", as opposed to the "public", the individual, as opposed to the collective, the individual versus the state. Thus society becomes an agglomeration of atomized individuals, connected to one another only by the reality that to achieve their competing objectives, they have to interact with one another as competing individuals. Necessarily and understandably, it accepts the reality of private ownership of capital and the private acquisition of profit by its owners.
It then transposes this into a proposition about the imperative for society as a whole to organize itself in such a way that each individual lives only for personal gain. Thus "the market" becomes the great leveler, the cold, dispassionate instrument for the achievement of the goal of human equality, giving an equal possibility to all to succeed or fail.
The neoliberal political ideology therefore proposes, logically, that "the market" must be given free rein. This endows capital with the capacity to produce the greatest good, both in politics and in the economy, creating the best humanly possible result, with regard both to the political rights and the economic welfare of the individual.
To be itself, and have any real meaning, progressive politics has to disagree with these propositions.
The neoliberals would fiercely contest any such statement by prominent representatives of progressive politics. Capital - as personified by the individual owners of capital - would join them in this war. The injunction would be issued that all must abide by the rules of liberalization, deregulation, privatization, absolute protection of private property rights, or the owners of productive property will move their property to another, less intrusive location.
Do the progressive politicians have the courage to challenge this injunction? They need it because they have to present the reality that it is impossible to solve the problem of global poverty solely through reliance on "the market". The poor do not present themselves as an appropriate object of attention for capital, whose inner logic is the maximization of profit. Billions across the world, including Africa, are too poor to achieve beneficial integration into the global market, even if they do create the macro-conditions attractive to capital.
These are billions of people who are described as "unbankable". Something else, in addition to self-beautification, and outside the possibilities of "the market", must happen, to make them "bankable".
Happily for progressive politics, the European Union has found the practical answer to this challenge. To ensure its own survival, it had to ensure the advancement of its poorest areas. Accordingly it set up a system of "structural funds" to transform EU regions that, because of their poverty, cannot easily come into the "market system". The EU recognizes that public capital must be invested.
Africa is much less developed than Europe's poorer regions. It has greater need of non-private-sector capital. However, Africa's development partners tell it that, for its own development, it must depend on private-sector capital. To add insult to injury, it is also expected to service the debt it owes to these countries, exporting capital it does not have; compete with their heavily subsidized agricultural products; absorb continuously adverse terms of trade; and finance the achievement of "standards" of behavior set by capital with money it does not have.
What Africa says to its development partners is: do with and for us what you do with and for yourselves. If poor regions within the EU need "structural funds", how shall the far greater need of Africa be met?
The progressive politicians must demonstrate whether they have the courage to define themselves as progressive, recovering their historic character as champions of the poor, and break the icy ideological grip of rightwing politics. The African masses are watching and waiting.
Thabo Mbeki is President of South Africa. A longer version of this article appears in Progressive Politics Vol 2.2, which is published to coincide with this weekend's progressive governance conference.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003