Political decay, poor farming and agricultural methods, a shrinking population, weakening military forces and a gradual decline in economic activity are some of the reasons why the Roman Empire fell. These are often presented alongside statistical or anecdotal evidence illustrating the extent to which Roman civilization had degenerated before eventually succumbing to the relentless barbarian invasions. It is tempting to look back upon the failures of past eras with a modern smugness that ignores the signs of our own decline. How will the fact that the combined wealth of today's richest 300 humans exceeds that of the poorest 3 billion be remembered by future generations as they learn about our era?
The accumulation of such a vast amount of wealth (equal to the combined wealth of China, India, Brazil and the US) in the hands of such a small group of individuals is unprecedented, and has only been made possible by the rise of globalised free-market capitalism, which allows capital to extricate itself from its historically more permanent commitment to the labour it supplies. Before the invention of money, the interests of capital and labour could only be separated as far as one could carry one's pig to the local market. The replacement of bartering with a widespread currency created a level of fluidity between capital and labour that allowed economies to flourish, but nevertheless ensured that capital's interest (excuse the pun!) was still somewhat bound up in that of labour. But in a post-industrial age, capital's ability to tap into and out of markets with such remarkable volatility threatens to produce the kind of economic absurdities that future generations may well look back on with the same smugness that we have towards those foolish Romans.
South Africa can be seen a microcosm of the world's problems in this regard. The solution clearly isn't to obliterate capital by means of nationalisation, which merely replaces one ruling class of capitalists with another (something that the ANC foresaw would be the chief challenge of post-apartheid South Africa), but rather to find ways of successfully recapitalising the people. So far our government, via strategies like BEE, has accomplished transferring capital to a new black ruling class (as well as a brain drain of white professionals), but has failed dismally to reunite capital with labour, with the fruits of such a failure being on display to the whole world throughout the duration of last year's strikes.