Conservatism

Conservatism comes from the word conservation, which means to keep what is there. Conservatives generally feel that rapid change creates upheaval which is not good for society (in their view).

From this follows logically that there is no fixed set of conservative values, because the situation that is existent is different in different locations, and so the values that are to be conserved are different. Many conservatives tend to want to go back to an (imaginary) past, when things were better according to their ideas.

Conservatism can be applied to economics: keep the economic order the way it is. It can also be applied to social policies: keep social values as they are. This usually means social conservatives oppose women’s rights, equality, abortion, gay rights, minority rights (including rights for racial minorities) etc.

As I did with liberal, I follow the European interpretation of conservative. The American concepts of conservative and liberal (as well as progressive) are very complex and sometimes internally contradictory, so I feel they are less useful, and less applicable to the Malawian situation.

If we look at Malawi, we see a conservative (or even reactionary) attitude in the MCP/Chakwera movement, who explicitly state they want a return to the Kamuzu Banda era. How this ties in with the more progressive views of MCP spokesperson Jessie Kabwila is not really clear to me, and she refuses to shed any light on this in the numerous interviews she has given. Kabwila, before she became spokesperson for the MCP, has repeatedly supported women’s rights, including abortion rights, and liberal views like academic freedom.

Most other politicians talk a lot about development, which implies a progressive attitude. But in their actions most politicians in Malawi tend to be conservative: they do not change much. The last big change in Malawian politics was Bingu wa Mutharika’s FISP (Farm Input Subsidy Program). Since this program was instituted about 10 years ago, no great ideas have been implemented. A lot is written and talked about, but most policies, once written down and “launched” are not fully implemented, which creates stagnation. For instance the sugar factory in Salima is stalling, the Green Belt irrigation initiative is not being implemented, the implementation of the FISP is less and less.

Recently, Arthur Peter Mutharika’s delegation to the UNGA (United Nations General Assembly) showed a return to clientele politics, which characterized the reign of Kamuzu Banda, especially in his later years. Also APMs reaction to the criticism about this seems to spell out a reactionary attitude to the press: in a democracy the press is the watchdog of government, while in the Kamuzu Banda dictatorship the press was the propaganda instrument of the government. Mutharika insisting that “this [criticism] has to stop” shows a reactionary attitude to the media, where he feels he is in a position to command what the media can and cannot publish.

In principle the Civil Service Reform Program is progressive (as opposed to conservative), but again since the launch of the report, the implementation seems to slow down. Performance contracts are signed with several ministries, but it remains unclear what happens when the ministries miss their targets. The number of Principle Secretaries has been brought down, but not by removing people, only by renaming their position to Principle Director. This is cosmetic change, which means no real change, which means conservatism.

The dichotomy between the speech (“development”, “reform”) and action (no real change) seems to show that the conservatism of our government is not so much ideology, but more incapacity to implement the (identified) necessary change. It seems a conservative civil service defends their rights so effectively that the politicians are incapable of delivering development to the people. Another factor appears to be a lack of creativity with the politicians, who seem to always come back to similar policies and ideas, which have failed in the past. In this failure the current politicians see only reason to do the same thing again, resulting in more failure.

The late Raphael Tenthani has stated that a factor may be that the ruling class (which is not just the government party, but the whole group of higher politicians, higher civil servants and the closely allied part of the private sector) have no interest in real change: they got their privileged positions through the current system and real development would move the system, and threaten their positions.

One type of conservatism does not exist in Malawi: fiscal conservatism. This means being careful with spending, so taxes can be kept low, and government borrowing is limited or stopped. Both will allow the private sector to grow, and create jobs, as well as wealth. In Malawi governments tend to overspend, and borrow to the max of their opportunities, which pushes the private sector out of the lending world, and pushes up interest rates. Overspending also creates the run-away inflation we are currently experiencing.

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