The paradox of economic liberalisation rhetoric…‘low-hanging fruit’ with no peduncle


By Dr Tafataona Mahoso

IN many cases, economic theorists, economic reformers and aspiring businessmen, who apply their theories against economic reality, do not like to be challenged by philosophers, historians, sociologists and creative writers.  

Profits, which can be achieved by just raising the price of a product in which the company commands a monopoly, can be described as ‘low hanging fruit’.

And yet, when faced with the challenge of communicating with the public, whom they recognise as the ‘market’, they then borrow powerful metaphors, images, symbols and even clichés which they routinely rummage from the same academic disciplines which they often denounce for standing in the way of their ‘entrepreneurship!’

To demonstrate this paradox, let me use one of the commonest metaphors being used today in the euphoria of economic reform and liberalisation, that is the image of ‘low-hanging fruit’ which can be easily picked.

This image is used to suggest goals, objectives, benefits or profits which can be achieved without much effort or without any effort at all. Profits which can be achieved by just raising the price of a product in which the company commands a monopoly can be described as low-hanging fruit.

But a philosophically minded person can retort by saying: “Without a peduncle, low-hanging fruit either does not exist at all or, if it exists, it will soon rot.”  

A ‘peduncle’ is the stalk-like feature by which an organ or organs are attached to the body of an animal.  

In botany, a peduncle is the stalk or the connecting feature which holds a bunch of fruit, such as grapes or bananas, together. 

A peduncle always presumes the existence of a branch, trunk or stem.  But in the current reform jargon, this trunk or stem is left out.  There is just ‘low-hanging fruit’?

The problem with many economic theorists or reformers is that they get carried away with the popularised image or metaphor which they have borrowed from literature, religion, philosophy or folklore without paying any attention to the context from which it is borrowed.  

In reality, there can be no real low-hanging fruit without a robust peduncle which is itself a sub-structure of the branch and the stem.  

In Chindau language, a peduncle is called chitsango.

Coming specifically to the current economic reform debate in Zimbabwe, there is too much talk about separate planks constituting the economic reform scenario, which talk stops short of describing the strategic sinew connecting the planks together.

To pick just a few of the critical planks, we have economic liberalisation, financial austerity, free-trade or economic integration into the African and global economy.  

To this list has been added, by force of accident, the economic reconstruction and disaster relief now required as a result of Cyclone Idai.  

Overarching all these planks is the poisonous economic environment imposed through the illegal Western sanctions on all the people and renewed repeatedly for 20 years!

Now, since Zimbabwe is one economy meant to cater for more than 15 million people, any philosophically minded person is forced to ask: What is the connecting strategy which makes it feasible to pursue economic liberalisation, free trade, fiscal austerity, rapid economic growth and speedy disaster relief with long-term reconstruction in the context of a 20-year long economic war called sanctions? Is there a coherent centre which will hold all these features in one feasible programme? Are these features not contradicting each other?

That same philosophically and historically conscious observer would also be forced to note that during the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme  (ESAP), from 1990 to 2001, the borrowed images used to include Malaysia as the model developing country which Zimbabwe was following in its pursuit of reform.  

Although that model or image was capable of being questioned, one could argue that at least, at that time, Zimbabwe was not under sanctions.

But now, in 2018-2019, the Malaysian model or image has been dropped and journalists and other economic popularisers have adopted Rwanda as the model or analogy which Zimbabwe should emulate. This is a surprising analogy for the following reasons:

-First, according Professor Michel Chossudovsky, the Rwandan implosion and genocide of 1994 and the collapse of Somalia into chaos in 2004 were caused by ill-considered economic reforms imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

– Second, Rwanda was not punished with sanctions for the genocide.  This was partly because some of the Western powers keeping sanctions on Zimbabwe were implicated in the same genocide. So, where Zimbabwe has been punished for ‘gross human rights violations’, Rwanda received sympathy for its genocide and it has become a useful model for the success of its economic reforms which are conveniently presented as totally unrelated to the genocide that preceded them.  The false picture painted is not only the denial of sanctions on Zimbabwe, but also the impression or perception that it is reforms which ended genocide and its aftermath even though there are authorities who say the original reforms in the 1990s precipitated genocide which caused the shock which made the latter reforms easier to impose on the thoroughly traumatised population.

-Third, disaster relief and reconstruction in the wake of Cyclone Idai have already been compromised by sanctions.  As an illustration, the US Government generously donated US$2,4 million for relief in the very same week the same Government punished Standard Chartered Bank of Zimbabwe by fining it US$18 million for violating that country’s sanctions ‘law’ on Zimbabwe!

In the broader context, history shows that successful economic reforms go hand-in-hand with a strong state or one which is in the process of being strengthened.  

But the challenge of the current reform project is that the reformers either seek to weaken Zimbabwe in order to force it to reform or they ignore those forces seeking to so weaken the state.

As Benjamin Barber has pointed out his ‘Commerce Versus Culture in the post-modern World’, the ideology of liberalisation, when applied to nations of the South, does amount to waging a war against the state, that is, deliberately seeking to weaken it:

“The war (against people’s) dependency (on the state is) a war on public goods, a war on democracy. As a consequence of these anti-statist developments inside democracies, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund have in effect been turned over to [global] banks and corporations by the very governments that might control them.  The WTO is a blunt corporate instrument by default, because the government of the United States has (itself) to a degree become a dependency of corporations.”

For a country like Zimbabwe, the war on the state has been sharpened by illegal sanctions.  

And it means the safety net which has been promised to protect the people against corporate plunder can no longer be guaranteed because the same state is being asked to privatise the parastatals, the very same remaining instruments which could have been used to intervene in the market against speculative pricing.

Michael Novak, a former Catholic priest who became an economic historian, had this to say about the virtues of so-called market forces: 

“The commercial virtues are not, then, sufficient to their own defense.  A commercial system needs taming and correction by a moral-cultural system independent of commerce.  At critical points, it also requires taming and correction by a political system and the state.”

So yes, all intellectuals must ask the economic reformers and financial experts where the peduncle is which holds together all the elements of the current economic development programme. 

This is not an academic question: It is practical, if we remember correctly Rwanda and Somalia at the turn of this century.


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