The Age of Polipreneurship

By Dale T. McKinley · 7 Dec 2010

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I am not sure whether the word ‘polipreneurship’ has ever been part of our political lexicon but I do know that what it represents has been with us for some time now, not just in South Africa, but globally. At its most basic level, polipreneurship can be defined as ‘politics as business’.

While there were no doubt some political figures in the pre-capitalist era that could be more broadly classified as polipreneurs (the practitioners), it was the arrival and subsequent development of capitalism as a social, economic, cultural and political system that provided the foundation for politics to become a societal vehicle for organisational and individual polipreneurship. 

It is a much more widely practiced profession than those who belong to the tenderpreneur club which, while increasingly widespread, remains largely reserved for those within closely knit and institutionally connected party political networks. Indeed, polipreneurship is not simply about making money from and through politics, although that remains a central component. It is much more about the way in which politics is seen, approached and most importantly, practiced.

Here at home, we have heard many key ANC politicians talking loudly and publicly about the historic ‘traditions, cultures and values’ of their party’s politics. In doing so they have invoked the ideas and practice of ‘selflessness’, ‘serving all the people’, being part of a disciplined political collective, leading with integrity and upholding/defending basic democratic principles. Not surprisingly though, leading politicians from most of the opposition parties have invoked a similar view and approach, claiming that their politics are more in line with such ‘traditions, cultures and values’ and that it is the ANC that has tarnished our national politics (and thus our democracy, societal image and socio-economic prospects). And then there is the general populace whose politics, besides having its own claims to a specific history of organisation and practice, mainly consists of variously voting for, engaging or disengaging with and actively struggling for and against the assorted parties and the politics they offer.

It would be easy enough for ours or any other populace to just point a finger at certain politicians, parties, the ruling party itself and/or government and argue that it is simply a matter of having different ones in power (at whatever level) in order for our politics to ‘return to the source’. In other words, for politics to be seen as a public/collective good; to be approached with an ethic of humility and honesty; and, to be practiced as a means to help construct a society in which justice and equality are institutionally organic and have real, lived meaning for all.

But it is not that simple. This is the case precisely because the kind of politics that has now taken a firm grip on South Africa and most other societies around our globe is embedded in a system of neoliberal capitalist social and productive relations whose prime vehicle has been business. The very essence of this system is to construct and run societies based on individualised/privatised material benefit, the ‘ethics’ of accumulative greed and self-aggrandisement as well as institutionalized injustice and inequality. 

What this has produced over time, regardless of changes in government/ruling parties, are societies whose dominant politics have become the most direct societal expression of such as system. Our politicians and political parties make up one part of the equation, with our ‘private’ business sector and our general polity (i.e., the ‘people’) filling in the other parts. The overall polipreneurship that has emerged is nothing more, and nothing less, than the sum of these parts -a reflection of the respective society as a whole at this stage in our human history. 

Thus, when we take a critical look at the contemporary polipreneurship that has been borne out of this systemic frame, we cannot just focus on the politicians, political parties and private business sectors; we have to also look at ourselves. We cannot divorce ourselves from the intensifying tide of corruption, the cesspool of nepotism, the in-built disdain for organisational transparency, the conscious refusal to embrace personal responsibility, the general demise of human empathy, the consistent evading of popular accountability and the never-ending litany of false promises, lies and subterfuge. They are all representative characteristics of what we as a society, and thus our business and politics, have become. And, let us not fool ourselves; this is the norm not the exception.

In South Africa, we see and experience (not to mention practice) this political ‘normality’ every single day. However, it is on the institutional plane of governance where polipreneurship has been taken to new heights. Whether it is something as simple as a politician owning up to clear conflicts of interests or breaking of the law or something as seemingly complex as government adopting the necessary monetary policies to effect more equitable socio-economic opportunities for the majority, the reality is that the underlying politics is predominately informed by how such decisions/ programmes will ensure personal, party and organisational benefit and sustenance.

In this reality the lines between business and politics have effectively disappeared. There is no foundational difference between: Premier Foods colluding to fix the bread price (and then using their corporate and monetary power to make sure that they mostly get away with it); and, the ANC and its leaders colluding to ensure their self-constructed ‘investment’ vehicle – Chancellor House – directly benefits from government mining policies (and then using their political and institutional power to arrogantly dismiss any wrongdoing and also get away with it).

Similarly, there is no principled divergence between: various provincial governments consciously spending public monies meant for things such as healthcare and environmental protection on the self-serving extravagance of 2010 World Cup projects (and thus directly contributing to increased disease and death rates in poor communities); and, mining companies consciously limiting expenditure on improving underground safety measures in order to enhance profits (and thus contributing to increased disease and death rates amongst miners).

In our polipreneur age, the mandarins of capitalist politics and capitalist business have perfected the art of creating a sustained symbiosis between the private and the public ‘interest’. They have been able to achieve this because most of those who organisationally and institutionally represent the ‘public interest’ at various levels of governance as well as ever-increasing numbers of ordinary people have personally imbibed and institutionally integrated the ‘traditions, cultures and values’ of their business counterparts. In the process, the measurement of what is ‘successful’ and of what is ‘good for society’ has become almost completely delinked from the historic and popular struggle for a universally conceived but mainly nationally practiced, collective human solidarity and benefit.  

The challenge is as difficult as it is profound. If we can’t change our politics then we can’t change our societies. Game on.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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