Former United States President Barack Obama has painted a grim picture of a world where right-wing movements have sprung up and a few dozen individuals have the ability to shift capital internationally at a push of a button, but he says that people with a sense of humanity needed to promote “an inclusive capitalism” for their people and rebuild hope in human institutions of peace, love and progress
Obama – delivering the Nelson Mandela Lecture at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg – argued that capitalism had gone out of control. It had produced a world in which a few dozen elites controlled the wealth of half of the world.
The early part of the lecture focused on the progress that the world had made in the last 100 years, but especially after the Second World War – including the revolutionary role of technology.
“We cannot deny the real strides the world has made,” he said, but he warned that people had to recognise that the international order had also fallen short of expectations, especially in recent years.
“It is in part because of the failures of government and the powerful elites that we now see much of the world threatening to return (the world) to a more dangerous way of doing business,” Obama said. Members of this elite can move “millions of dollars … with the tap of a computer key”. A few dozen individuals “have the same wealth as the poorest half of humanity.”
He acknowledged that some of these billionaires saw themselves as politically liberal and as philanthropists. Some of them had even supported his politician campaign. But he said these people needed to be generous to the poor and the marginalised. They needed to see the world outside of their own insular existences.
The former president – who served two full terms from 2008 to 2016 – did not refer directly to President Donald Trump but he did say that the politics of “fear and resentment” had become entrenched in the world. “That kind of politics is now on the move… on a pace that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.”
He said populist movements “cynically funded by right-wing billionaires” tapped into the unease felt by the people, who feared that economic security was slipping away.
He said that the perfect state was one where there was a kind of inclusive capitalism, without wide disparities of wealth and power. He said socialist models of managing states had been a failure.
While talking about inclusive capitalism he acknowledged that he had gone off-text from his prepared lecture: “Where was I? I ad-libbed.”
He said this sort of capitalism should not involved unregulated, unethical practices. “It won’t involve control-socialism from the top… that was tried… it didn’t work.”
Obama said those who stood for the combining democracy with civil rights have a better story to tell. The liberal democracies remained “the world’s most prosperous societies,” he said, noting that China “bristled” when questions were asked about the absence of democracy.
He said authoritarian governments had proved over and over that they ended up oppressing their people and “lost touch with reality” and engaged in “bigger and bigger lies”.
Obama explained that inclusive capitalism offered education to the citizens, involved breaking up monopolies and provided protection for workers through collective bargaining. In addition it encouraged competition in small and medium-sized business.
He said that he believed in Mandela vision for the world. What had Mandela said about inequality, Obama asked rhetorically? “Madiba warned us about this… Globalisation means that the rich and powerful have new means to enrich and empower themselves at the cost of the poor and weak…. We have the responsibility to protest (against this) in the name of universal freedom.”
Obama warned that ethnic, cultural and religious differences still determined in many parts in the world who got opportunities and who did not. “The plain fact is that racial discrimination still exists in both the United States and South Africa.”
People still needed to fight against the accumulated disadvantages of institutionalised oppression and the resultant disparities of access to income, health, personal safety and even access to credit, argued Obama.
Obama said he was a follower of Mandela: "I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality, justice, freedom and multi-racial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal."
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