Now since around the 1970s—both locally and internationally—there has been an orthodoxy pedalled by various interest groups connected to western governments about the benefits of privatisation. Globally, this onus flipped previous national commitments to a large and healthy public sector as the driver of national development to a new strategy based on privatisation, deregulation, competition and the marketisation of the public sector.
Privatisation became a culture. With the requisite language, myth-making, and worldview to make its claims to increased economic efficiencies, improved innovation, less unemployment and much more seem beyond doubt.
Proponents of privatisation justify their claims about its benefits through the use of rational techniques. Presenters speak endlessly of “empirical data,” “cost-benefits analysis” and “economic modelling.” They will illustrate their arguments with flow charts, and diagrams with the various stages the sale and transfer of power and wealth will follow.
Folk theory, which claims “the time is right” or “we have reached a certain stage in our development,” is peddled to make the functional case for privatisation. Often an ideal case is made too as though the effects of privatisation can be accurately predicted. All this presents privatisation as a rational response to social and economic “problems.”
An anthropologist would describe such “problems” as social constructions. They are socially constructed because for issues to become social and economic “problems” worthy of a political fix, human actors must identify the specific issues, with a certain view on the situation in the first place. Privatisation, then, is not a rational response; it is a response dressed up as rational but tied to particular interest groups.
For example, because privatisation is always a policy decision, the “need” for privatisation always has to be recognised by a person, or people, with power before it ever becomes a “need” to be acted on.
To the anthropologist, policies, just like myths in the Trobriand society of Papua New Guinea, or “ritual cycles” in the Ndembu culture of Zambia, are social mechanisms for hiding subjective, ideological and irrational goals. Policy, once supposedly neutral and objective, becomes a device that maintains societal inequalities and obscures the human agency and politics behind the decision-making process.
Policy is not inert, scientific, and apolitical. It is always distinctly a political choice between key individuals. The State is not a neutral mechanism solely fixed on the betterment of society for all—that is another myth of modern society. The State acts in its own interests, not the interests of all. And policy itself often aligns with the interests of well-organised groups in society who can best influence policy makers.
Globally there is no academic consensus or conclusive evidence that privatisation consistently reduces government outlays or that privatisation is the most cost-effective way to provide essential public services. Sociology and anthropology often say something quite different from economics. Yet the culture of privatisation has seeped into our logic. So much so that for many people there is an almost moral necessity to do away with collective and public forms of ownership.
Privatisation itself is a particular choice that determines how a society develops. It moves power and resources from one area to another. It transforms how a Government views its responsibilities. It re-aligns decision-making and institutions. And it often creates new interest groups. In particular, privatisation produces winners who are mostly the senior management of the privatised entity, political leaders, bureaucrats and the more wealthy members of society.
So when our various unions speak out against what they perceive as the creeping privatisation of various state enterprises such as Eximbank, First Citizens, Home Mortgage, Petrotrin, Plipdeco and others, we should take notice and name exactly which special interest groups will benefit from the push to take public goods into private hands.
Fundamentally, the myth-making surrounding privatisation hides the fact that neither the public sector nor the private sector is inherently more efficient than the other. Rather, they both have a particular influence on the culture, politics, and development of the wider society, that is, privatisation affects the direction a society grows and whether individual interests outweigh the common good.