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OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Why the High Grand Falls Dam project is a bad idea

14 min read.

In this second part of a three-part series, PAUL GOLDSMITH explains why, instead of being a solution to the problem of food insecurity, big dam projects and large-scale irrigation schemes in Kenya end up causing more problems than they solve due to a combination of mismanagement, corruption and a top-down approach that fails to take into consideration the environment and the livelihoods of local populations.

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OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Kenya’s misguided Big Water policy
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The various feasibility studies and state policy documents supporting the revival of the High Grand Falls Dam project on the Tana River conform to what economists refer to as path dependency – or how a set of decisions for any given circumstance is limited by the decisions made in the past, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant.

The QWERTY keyboard is the classic example of this pathway effect. It was designed to prevent typewriter keys from striking each other and sticking. A clever solution at the time, the un-ergonomic keyboard survives as the default for our computers and phone keypads decades after the demise of the typewriter because changing it would create greater problems.

Conceptually, path dependence interfaces with other properties of systems such as convergence, probabilities, and the jargonistic but useful property termed ergodicity. Economists define ergodicity as the ability to eventually shake free from the influence of a past state. Non-ergodic practices, in contrast, risk the problem of becoming locked in, as demonstrated by the rapid fall of Nokia when it dismissed touchscreens as a “gimmick” and lost out on the growing smartphone market.

The path dependency Illuminated by this particular case highlights a wide set of institutional practices and incentives that contribute to many of Kenya’s latest large infrastructure projects. The empirical evidence demonstrating that large infrastructure projects do not benefit the poor is not a concern in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big 4 policy environment. Rather, it’s a case of “the bigger the better” when it comes to Kenya’s administrative gatekeepers, tenderpreneurs, and decision makers. Endemic corruption and the ballooning national debt are consequences of this non-ergodic mindset.

Feasibility studies and invisible stakeholders

The upper Tana became the main provider of Kenya’s electricity after independence, a role that began with the construction of Sagana in 1956 and expanded by the commissioning of the Kindaruma (1968), Kamburu (1974), Masinga (1981), Kiambere (1988), and completion of the original Gitaru (1999) dams. None of these projects generated significant controversy at the time. Adding another electricity-generating station to the chain would appear to be a straightforward proposition, but it is not.

The 2016 Environmental and Social Impact Assessment of the High Grand Falls Dam project commissioned by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) confirms that the majority of people that will be negatively affected by the project live in areas historically neglected by the government. The report’s two-page summary of the project area’s socio-economic characteristics observes that the corresponding “low level engagement has left the communities to develop at their own pace. Some of the communities in the region are very conservative and continue with retrogressive practices that are inimical to development”.

The upper Tana became the main provider of Kenya’s electricity after independence, a role that began with the construction of Sagana in 1956 and expanded by the commissioning of the Kindaruma (1968), Kamburu (1974), Masinga (1981), Kiambere (1988), and completion of the original Gitaru (1999) dams. None of these projects generated significant controversy at the time. Adding another electricity-generating station to the chain would appear to be a straightforward proposition, but it is not.

The assessment document is rich in technical details but bypasses critical socio-economic and cultural issues. For the inhabitants of Kenya’s remote margins, it is the latest example of the dirigisme underpinning Kenya’s post-independence tradition of social exclusion.

Whether by design or omission, the negation of local histories and indigenous knowledge traditions effectively functions to render excluded minority communities invisible when it comes to development planning. Once an area is targeted for an external investment or development project, the commissioning of the feasibility study reinforces the established trajectory without exploring the negative social implications of the environmental impacts and other related factors.

The various feasibility studies commissioned in support of the Magogoni port and the Lamu Port South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor, the Roola Project Memorandum of Understanding with Kuwait that preceded it, and the study supporting the allocation of the Tana Delta land for sugar production all conformed to this model. The original Mutonga-Grand Falls feasibility study, to its credit, documented the negative environmental impacts downstream, but otherwise skirted the social and economic consequences for the local stakeholders.

OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Kenya’s misguided Big Water policy

Read also: OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Kenya’s misguided Big Water policy

There is much to be said for sticking to what works, but the opposite principle applies in the case of the government’s Expanded National Irrigation Programme (ENIP) goal of expanding the 165,833 hectares under irrigation in 2011 to 1.2 million hectares by the year 2030. Most of the land to be developed in order to meet this 600 per cent increase is located in the country’s Arid and Semi Arid Lands (ASAL) zones. The performance of Kenya’s large irrigation projects has not been impressive and several of them are very expensive white elephants.

The ENIP contribution to the proposed strategy is based on an in-depth study of the water resources available in the Tana and Athi river basins. A Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) overview of the strategy outlines the formidable technical challenges involved, such as the high level of water losses due to evapotranspiration in the reservoirs and in the channels proposed to convey water to other sites. Kenya currently uses over 69 per cent of its limited developed water resources on irrigation. The share of Kenya’s water diverted to irrigation will rise to 89 per cent with implementation of the ENIP-driven food security strategy, which does not factor in growing industrial and urban demand.

The High Grand Falls Dam project is the main engine of this plan that, among other things, aims to redirect water to the Galana River to ensure sufficient water for the dysfunctional Galana-Kulalu scheme that is scheduled to eventually cover a colossal 1.7 million acres. The NEMA assessment document also mentions the construction of another channel transferring water to the Waso Nyiro, but does not explain why.

The water problem is emblematic of the formidable challenges facing society across system scales. The high stakes posed by the global population-natural resource equation explain why the private sector and governments alike are extolling the virtues of innovation, disruption, and creative problem solving. The dam is, in contrast, a Red Ocean project predicated on the giganticism embraced by the Vision 2030 and LAPSSET agendas.

The larger problem with the High Grand Falls Dam Assessment Study is what is not reported, like the cutting-off of the Tana for 32 months and the consequences for the ecology and downstream communities. The study does refer to the increased incidence of human-crocodile conflict (their words, not mine) and includes a list of preventative measures that can be taken to reduce it, but otherwise lacks mention of any planned mitigations downstream, or the prospects for the intensifying resource conflicts that John Allen Namu documented in The End of the River series screened on NTV.

The study does, however, pay lip service to the impact on the residents of Tharaka, who were the only grassroots stakeholders consulted. The study team convened five meetings in Tharaka attended by 857 local participants. According to the document, “there is a general acceptance of the project by the majority of the communities living in the area”.

The larger problem with the High Grand Falls Dam Assessment Study is what is not reported, like the cutting-off of the Tana for 32 months and the consequences for the ecology and downstream communities. The study…lacks mention of any planned mitigations downstream, or the prospects for the intensifying resource conflicts…

One can question the extent of the information communicated in these briefings; summaries of the discussion include miscellaneous details, like an announcement that title deeds are ready for Kamanyaki, an area that will be under water if the project goes forward. There is also no reference in the document to consultation with other communities; it renders the stakeholders in Garissa, Tana River, and Lamu counties invisible. My contacts downstream, including a local MP, verify the lack of consultation and report a general perception of confusion over the dam project.

Spatially, Tharaka is one of the most remote areas of Kenya. Its remoteness is not a function of distance, but of the area’s isolation. The roads are challenging and it is not on the way to anywhere else. So the only reason you will find yourself in towns like Marimanti, Chiakariga, or Gatunga is because you have an important reason for visiting. As the Assessment Study observes, the locals have been developing at their own pace; what it does not say is that the residents of Tharaka seem to be okay with this, and are keen on finding their own solutions, like the modified female rites of passage based on piercing the ears of young girls in place of the “retrogressive” tradition of female circumcision.

Once upon a time I conducted a survey on the state of education, health, and access to water that took me to every sub-location of Tharaka. The residents at that time were highly independent and probably the most land-paranoid community in the country. The area can prosper with greater exploitation of the local rivers for irrigation, but this has been slow coming due to internal social factors linked to the use of communal resources. The High Grand Falls Dam blueprint, in contrast, requires the relocation of 4,500-plus displaced households to a large-scale irrigation scheme outside their home county.

I find it very difficult to see the residents assenting to the planned mitigations, especially without monetary compensation, which according to recent reports in the press has been scrapped due to inflated claims and other problems common to projects that require resettlement and compensation.

Maybe the lack of attention to these issues does not matter. In a study entitled Watered Down? A review of social and environmental safeguards for large dam projects, the authors of one of the studies report that “the implementation of systematic procedures to reveal social priorities is still very unusual in developing countries” and that “it has been estimated that environmental and social safeguard processes derived from public consultations have been implemented in only 10–15% of new hydropower projects around the world”.

A case of too much electricity?

This brings us to the objectives justifying the displacement of Tharaka households and the other social and ecological negatives that will be caused by the 32-month hiatus in the river’s flow. The benefits covered in the Assessment Study are the generation of 700 megawatts of electricity, the creation of a large 5.6 billion cubic metre reservoir that the project’s designers claim will be used to irrigate 200,000 hectares of cropland, and enhanced management of the river’s flow to control flooding. These plans represent the culmination of the pathway beginning with the development of the Tana’s hydroelectricity capacity that projected 11 dams in total. But things have changed since the project was first proposed in the mid-1990s.

Kenya’s national electricity strategy seeks to diversify the nation’s power sources. But hydroelectric generation already provides the greater portion of Kenya’s electricity, and is subject to increased uncertainty over the long run due to factors of climate change and degradation of the country’s water catchment areas.

Moreover, like the controversial coal-generated electricity plant proposed in Lamu, this latest energy investment comes at a time when the region’s electricity supply is outstripping demand. Several new power sources, such as the Lake Turkana Wind Farm, the three Gibe dams on the lower Omo River, and the Bujagali, Isimba, and Karuma dams in Uganda, will add to the region’s growing electricity surplus.

Kenya is blessed with an abundant but largely untapped capacity for wind and solar power, and costs have come down. The wind and solar projects now being planned or under construction at this early point in the sector’s development will add another 1,000 megawatts to the grid. In addition, Kenya is contracted to buy 400 megawatts of power from Ethiopia, but the government appears to be delaying the connection, ostensibly due to the problems of marketing the existing supply, even though in 2015 a contract to build supply lines was signed with a Chinese contractor.

The numerous problems of mismanagement and consumer exploitation that are endemic in Kenya’s state-controlled electricity sector highlight the real priority, which is the need to extend connections to the large numbers of Kenyan households that do not have access. This is being addressed through a mix of off-grid, mini-grids, and connections to conventional sources.

A history of failed irrigation projects

No one contests the need to enhance Kenya’s national food security. However, the prioritisation of large-scale irrigation schemes in order to justify the High Grand Falls Dam is considerably more problematic than the power generation that was the original Mutonga-High Falls project’s primary driver.

The record of Kenya’s large irrigation schemes ranges from poor to disastrous, sprinkled with a few qualified successes. The Perkerra, Kanu plains, Mwea-Tebere, Hola, Bura, and Galana schemes have all experienced serious problems. Even the one success story, the Mwea scheme, was on the brink of collapse by the early 1990s when it was managed by the National Irrigation Board. Militant protests by the scheme’s residents who fought and defeated the police trying to block a demonstration led to the liberalisation of the Board’s marketing monopsony. This was followed by the still ongoing and controversial privatisation of the scheme’s land holdings.

The record for sustained mismanagement belongs to the ill-fated Bura irrigation scheme. The world’s most expensive irrigation project at the time it was christened in 1977, it quickly turned into a black hole for the World Bank, the Government of Kenya, and the pastoralists-turned-farmers who settled there. Writing in 2008, three decades after its inception, one researcher described the conditions on the scheme as:

The area is now reminiscent of a ghost town. Huge water towers stand abandoned in the scrubby landscape; irrigation canals stretch across tens of miles, overgrown with thorny vegetation; and a fenced-in vehicle parking lot contains dozens of rusting Land Rovers and large farm machinery. Housing units built for mid-level project staff as well as the villas for the resident managers stand abandoned, dilapidated, and looted. Only people with nowhere left to go remain on the project site.

The former pastoralists who settled on the Bura scheme have survived as subsistence farmers assisted by famine relief provided by the World Food Programme. They draw their water from a murky irrigation pond they share with livestock. The award for the ultimate cosmic insult, however, goes to the nearby Hola Irrigation Scheme. During the mid-1990s the Tana changed course, leaving expensive industrial pumps beached next to the old riverbed.

The record of Kenya’s large irrigation schemes ranges from poor to disastrous, sprinkled with a few qualified successes. The Perkerra, Kanu plains, Mwea-Tebere, Hola, Bura, and Galana schemes have all experienced serious problems. Even the one success story, the Mwea scheme, was on the brink of collapse by the early 1990s.

Indigenous production systems developed important social risk-spreading strategies and cultural resilience for coping with climatic uncertainty and periodic but unpredictable extreme environmental events – an orientation that most developmental interventions lack. The Japan-supported Tana Delta Rice Production scheme, for example, started well but went belly up after the 1998 El Nino rains destroyed the main canals. Power surges disabled the large German-built milling complex. Rice production continued on a reduced scale and the problems could have been fixed, but the government withdrew its funding in 2001 due to massive corruption.

The last time I visited the scheme, monkeys were roaming the impressive but incapacitated processing plant while an old smoke-belching mill next to it laboured to turn the small harvest of mpunga into mchele. A number of local and international agribusiness organisations stepped into the gap by lobbying the government in order to establish sugar and jatropha plantations. A large area was allocated to a British firm to implement a biofuel scheme, but like the plans for sugar, it failed to take off due to widespread local opposition.

As one report declared, “The Tana Delta could house a museum featuring failed projects”. The report traced the poor record of top-down projects in the Tana Delta to the failure to take the local people and the environment into account. Research undertaken by Nature Kenya established that the value generated by local agricultural and livestock producers considerably exceeds projected returns to sugar monoculture and the other capital-intensive ventures.

Environmental impact on the Tana Delta

In 2012 the Tana Delta became a Ramsar site, which recognised its status as one of the world’s important wetlands. A case study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that the dam’s impact on the Delta will result in the reduction in the area and composition of floodplain grasslands, lowered surface and groundwater sources, loss of fertile riverbank sediment depositions, reduction in swamps, ox-bow lakes and seasonal water bodies, the deterioration of riverine forest areas due to senescence, and the degradation of the mangroves that include two species unique to the Tana Delta environment. The ecosystem hosts many other rare and endangered species, but the main casualty may be the over one million people who depend on the river’s flooding regime for their livelihoods and the 2.5 million head of livestock who depend on the water and pasture. The project will also jeopardise the growing number of riverside farms in Garissa that use the river for irrigation, who will lose out when the project redirects Tana River water to the Athi-Galana in order to support the government’s latest water grabbing experiment – the US$3 billion Galana-Kulalu project.

A case study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that the dam’s impact on the Delta will result in the reduction in the area and composition of floodplain grasslands, lowered surface and groundwater sources, loss of fertile riverbank sediment depositions, reduction in swamps, ox-bow lakes and seasonal water bodies, the deterioration of riverine forest areas due to senescence, and the degradation of the mangroves that include two species unique to the Tana Delta environment.

The Tana Delta and riverine zones are crucial dry season reserves that attract other herders from as far as Wajir and southern Somalia during drought years. Over 100,000 Pokomo depend on recession agriculture, and there are 50,000 freshwater fishermen working in the Delta. However, none of these facts have stopped the authors of the High Grand Falls Dam Assessment Study from claiming that the project is necessary for securing the productivity of land in the Tana Delta.

The record of flawed interventions on the coast, including the nearby Magarini settlement scheme, did not augur well for the government’s one-million-acre Galana-Kulalu irrigation scheme. Observers questioned the prospects for the proposed public-private partnership when it was launched in 2014. The scheme did not disappoint. Production has been dismal, funds have vanished, and in 2016 a group of parliamentarians called for the suspension of the scheme, citing mismanagement and inflated costs. In September of 2018, the press reported that the National Cereals and Produce Board received maize valued at Sh35 million from the scheme, a paltry return to an enterprise that four years after its launch has spent Sh7.3 billion to bring only 5,000 acres under cultivation.

Analysis of the technical, administrative, and tenure-related issues besetting Magarini and other schemes in Kwale and Lamu show that they have neither alleviated the coast’s land problems nor have they advanced Kenya’s agricultural development. The Galana-Kulalu scheme is the latest contribution to a policy pathway littered with numerous such developmental disasters. Massive amounts of funds have evaporated under the hot African sun; and in an area inhabited by minority communities, these disasters have been a recipe for political tensions, conflict, and corruption.

Irrigation launched Kenya’s lucrative horticultural export industry. Private farms are perhaps the best example of irrigation’s commercial potential, but most of the produce is exported. Irrigation will also have to make a growing contribution to food security over time and prospects for expanded medium- and small-scale irrigation based on water user associations are positive. But at this point, farmers using the common jua kali overhead sprinklers and appropriate technologies like the ApproTec treadle-pedal pump have probably made a greater contribution to domestic food security.

Irrigation presently consumes 69 per cent of Kenya’s water. An analysis of scale, control and success in Kenyan irrigation attributes the problems of schemes to bureaucratic control, and found that state mismanagement is a more important factor than scale. Expanding the unexploited potential for land under irrigation will depend upon sorting out a matrix of technological, social, and environmental issues influencing agricultural output and efficiency. The High Grand Falls project and documents supporting it do not provide answers.

The elephants in the room

There are two elephants in this room. The first is the nexus between climate change and the availability of water. A hydrological analysis of the impact of climate change on the Tana Basin indicates that levels of rainfall across the basin will increase, but so will the variation and episodes of extreme precipitation and drought. Its impact will also vary across the region’s ecological zones, increasing the problematic consequences for ASAL areas. Despite the overall increase in rainfall, the authors underscore that the real challenge will be the need for those managing water resources to adapt to the new climate regime with its extremes of drought and flooding. This is a serious game changer.

The other elephant is the state. The record of mismanagement, graft, and poorly designed interventions make it easy to critique the Kenya state’s record of bungling and impunity in this sector. But the fact remains, for the bureaucrats who harvest the extra allowances and other perks these projects generate, Big Water is a magic bullet that will resolve Kenya’s food security equation. For the political decision makers at the top of the food chain, it is a convenient source of patronage and rents.

Although the case for expanded water storage requires a sustained long-term strategy, it is hard to take projects like the High Grand Falls Dam seriously when a Permanent Secretary goes on record to justify the project by stating the dam will form ”a small lake, introducing fishing to the communities around it, and tourism”. He clearly did not read the reviews on TripAdvisor about the state of the Masinga dam resort. A fraction of the dam’s price tag would go a long way towards improving water security across Kenya’s water-stressed regions by creating many “small lakes” where rainfall collects.

There are many other alternatives to centralised water storage. According to the author of an Oxford University Business School study of large dam projects, “Many smaller, more flexible projects that can be built and go online quicker, and are more easily adapted to social and environmental concerns, are preferable to high-risk dinosaur projects like conventional mega-dams.”

Big Water is just another variation on Big Infrastructure, but with much greater potential for blowback in this case due to the number of Kenyans facing lost livelihoods and displacement. The cash-strapped Jubilee government is clearly locked into a dead-end developmental pathway that is damming up its citizens’ problem-solving energies and capacity for developing social and technological solutions.

An analysis of pathway dependency offers two pieces of advice about escaping the “entrapment basin” like the one luring state policymakers and planners into the cul- de-sac reviewed here. The first is that those managing the system require external agency to change. The second is that instead of making choices that often turn out to be wrong, policy makers should improve the informational basis for choices that can be made by private parties and government agencies.

Big Water is just another variation on Big Infrastructure, but with much greater potential for blowback in this case due to the number of Kenyans facing lost livelihoods and displacement.

Unlike the case in the 1990s, there is now a large base of information and analysis on the issues interfacing with the High Grand Falls project, but the dam state will need a push if it is to play a role in rationalising the process.

In 1988, opposition to Hungary’s Nagyramos Dam provoked citizens to defy their Communist government for the first time, triggering the succession of events leading to the collapse of the Eastern Block governments in 1989. Maybe the High Grand Falls project will be the tipping point catalysing a coalition of local and external forces, like India’s Save Narmada Movement, that will lead to a more viable policy framework for managing the Tana Basin’s waters and the larger region they support.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

Politics

John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief

Late president John Magafuli never was the anti-corruption saviour international media claimed.

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John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief
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Tanzania, a country that produced Julius Nyerere, is a country tottering on the precipice of a pandemic catastrophe. The philosopher-president ruled for 23 years and put the nation on the international map as a frontline state that stood up to Apartheid South Africa and helped liberate modern Uganda by ridding it of Idi Amin.

With the abrupt death of its populist president John Magufuli on March 17, 2021, ostensibly from a COVID-19 related ailment, Tanzania finds itself at a crossroads, insofar as tackling the devasting disease is concerned. Magufuli who was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, became the denier-in-chief of COVID-19. The disease has decimated scores of Tanzanians, including top government officials.

Magufuli was hailed as a tough anti-corruption crusader, as he entered state house in 2015. Ordinary Tanzanians initially saw him as their saviour in the fight against institutionalised state corruption. The international media also saw him as a man keen on tackling state corruption, “but Magufuli was all about optics,” said a Tanzanian journalist. “He wasn’t fighting state corruption pers se, what he was doing was to get rid of Jakaya Kikwete’s (immediate former president) networks in the government and replace with his own. So, it was just a matter of time before Tanzanians and the world realised Magufuli was just interested in musical chairs.”

Magufuli was re-elected on October 28, 2020 in one of the most controversial post-Nyerere’s Tanzania elections with a whopping 84 percent. His “true colours” revealed themselves after Benjamin Mkapa’s death in July 2020. After mourning the ex-president, Magufuli turned his attention to the business of crippling the opposition.

Magufuli was a protégé of Mkapa who served as president between 1995–2005. It was Mkapa, who in 2015, prevailed on the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, ‘Party of the Revolution’) national executive council (NEC) to pick newcomer Magufuli as its flagbearer for what was to be a hotly contested general election in October 2015. Magufuli was then primed to run against Edward Lowassa, a CCM stalwart, who had bolted to Chama Cha Democrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA), after not clinching the CCM ticket, in which he was touted as one of the hot favourites.

The “true colours” was the ruthlessness with which Magufuli pursued the opposition in the lead-up to the presidential elections. That massive victory came in the backdrop of President Magufuli’s continuous campaigns since being inaugurated as the fifth president in 2015. “Magufuli never stopped campaigning,” said a Tanzanian journalist: “He rode on the wave of populism – dishing out money and favours to select supporters and well-choreographed individuals wherever he went.”

The 2020 Magufuli campaigns were a mirror-image of his mentor’s similar campaigns in 2000. Just like Mkapa’s mission was to presumably pulverize the nascent opposition, Magufuli’s mission 20 years later was similarly to ensure that the “irritating” opposition is no more and is, literary ran out of town. Mkapa in the October 2000 elections unleashed so much violence on the opposition that many of its supporters sought exile in neighbouring Kenya, after the elections.

Mkapa’s use of unmitigated force by Jeshi la Polisi (Tanzania has a police force, as opposed to a police service) and Field Force Unit (FFU), a paramilitary outfit much like Kenya’s dreaded General Service Unit (GSU) was unprecedented in Tanzanian politics. Just like Magufuli, it seems Mkapa’s “true colours” were revealed only after his mentor’s death the previous year on October 14, 1999. Mkapa was a protégé of the founding father Julius Kambarage Nyerere.

It was Nyerere who held Mkapa’s hand in 1995, after influencing his nomination by CCM, and single-handedly campaigned for him throughout the country. Tanzania held its first multiparty general elections in 1995, pitting CCM against a disparate opposition for the first time since its formation in 1977.

He dished out money and favours to select supporters.

Revisiting this unparalleled violence orchestrated on fellow Tanzanians, Mkapa, the former journalist-turned-diplomat-turned-president in his memoirs: My Life, My Purpose – A Tanzanian President Remembers published in January 2019, regretted the 2000 election ordeal. To some Tanzanian journalists and political analysts, Mkapa and Magufuli are today referred to as the chief advocates and perpetrators of state violence in post-independent Tanzania.

Both the presidential elections of 2000 and 2020 happened under a cloud of America’s own election problems: In 2000, it was the “Florida fiasco.” Florida was then governed by the Republican’s presidential candidate, George Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush. Bush was running against the Democratic Party’s Al Gore. Jeb was allegedly accused of rigging on behalf of his elder brother.

Like the Americans say, the electoral college vote was too close to call: the vote was not only going to determine who was going to be the winner of the states’s 25 votes, but the next president after Bill Clinton. A recount was called by the Democrats and for a brief moment, the democrats believed they had taken it, only for the Republicans to also ask for their own recount. Bush won with a razor thin win vote. The democrats were not persuaded. To cut a long story short, the sunshine state’s case found itself in the supreme court, where the republican-led court declared George Bush the eventual winner.

In 2020, with both the Tanzania and US elections being held days apart, America once again came under the world spotlight after the “Pennsylvania problem”, in which President Donald Trump claimed his votes had been tampered with and paid for a recount. The MAGA Republican Party candidate was defending his seat against “sleepy Joe” a derogatory tag given by Trump to Joe Biden.

The citing of both examples here is to emphasise that America in 2000 and 2020 could not claim a moral compass to the Tanzania government’s excesses in its elections. Covering the 2000 elections, I remember in Dar es Salaam, a CCM top official telling us journalists that America could not lecture Tanzania on matters election – “they should first deal with their own election rigging in Florida, before accusing us of unleashing violence and rigging the islands’ results.”

Nyerere had always been opposed to the twin islands of Pemba and Zanzibar’s divorce with the mainland Tanganyika – a sticking sore thump between the mainland and the islands, since the republic turned to plural politics. But he never advocated state violence, instead, he sued for dialogue and persuasion.

Magufuli was determined to put the opposition in its place this time round: In a parliament of 261 members, the opposition only won seven. “By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country,” said the deceased in one of his campaign rallies.

There is not a doubt that he loathed the opposition, so much so that he warned the regional commissioners and election officials, “I don’t pay you so that you can allow opposition to win.” Tume la Uchaguzi (National Election Commission) flatly refused any presidential debates and told the opposition it could debate among itself if it so wished.

In Tanzania, CCM ni tasisi,” a local journalist reiterated to me. Literary it means the ruling party CCM is an institution. Figuratively it means, CCM is Tanzania and Tanzania is CCM. Anybody going against the “wishes of the party” would be crushed. The CCM’s propaganda machinery against the leading opposition figure Tundu Lissu of CHADEMA was geared to pulverize all his efforts of running a successful campaign. “He was being hunted down like a wild animal,” said the journalist.

Magufuli claimed Lissu was a supporter of LGBTQ and that he was a tool of the West being used to campaign for mashoga, homosexuals’ rights. Several African presidents during their re-election campaigns have turned the hot-button issue of LGBTQ, their favourite bogeyman: In the terribly conservative African societies, nothing evokes emotions of antipathy like suggesting gay-ism could be mainstreamed. Yoweri Museveni has done it, John Magufuli did it, just like Robert Mugabe did it before him.

CCM being Tanzania and Tanzania being CCM, not even the bravest of private media would dare report on the opposition or against Magufuli and CCM. “There was total blackout on the opposition by the media. All what Tanzanians could read and listen to, on politics, was on the ‘indefatigable Magu’ and his infrastructural developments,” said my Tanzanian journalist friend. Hence, Tanzania media did not report on politics – it reported on Magufuli, the person.

By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country

Being heavy users of social media, Tanzanians turned to VPN – virtual private network. Found as an app in many smart phones, it protects one’s communication from snoopers like government agencies and hackers. What VPN does when activated is to bypass the conventional internet service providers (ISP) when connecting to the internet. In the case of Tanzania’s government shutting down its ISP, tech savvy Tanzanians resorted to VPN to access facebook and especially Twitter, to fend off the states’s eavesdropping.

This is the reason why Magufuli ordered all social media outlets shut, said the journalist. All what the Tanzania Communication Authority needed was a nod from Magufuli. A consumer of foreign news outlets, Tanzanians also resorted to BBC, Deutsche Welle (Sauti ya Ujerumani) and VOA, to stay informed on their country’s politics. “This is how many of them were informed and kept tabs on Lissu’s campaigns,” said the journalist.

Even after being sworn-in for the second term, President Magufuli pursued the browbeaten opposition. Chief opposition figure Lissu had to escape the country a second time. “Run or be run over, these people are not joking,” Lissu was ostensibly warned by his intelligence team. In September 2017, Lissu had survived an assassination attempt in Dodoma, that saw his vehicle sprayed with bullets by “unknown” assailants, as he left parliament for his house for lunch. On November 7, 10 days after the elections were over, he hid at the German embassy, then onwards to Brussels, where he had been recuperating for three years after treatment in Nairobi.

The former MP for Arusha Urban Godbless Lema also skipped the country and sought refuge in Kenya after claiming government people were after him. Lema, with his family was granted asylum in Canada.

Nyerere’s CCM may have operated in the one-party era during the cold war, but many Tanzanians of the post-independent generation remember those days with nostalgia. “The party was more democratic and free, unlike today,” said a former CCM mkereketwa (party diehard).

Magufuli’s populism was laced with autocratic tendencies. He told fellow Tanzanians msinijaribu mimi ni jiwe (don’t try me, I’m as tough as a rock), meaning he prided himself in being tough-headed.

“Magufuli’s CCM in the era of multiparty brooks no dissent, is dictatorial and dangerous, while Nyerere’s CCM preferred a palaver type of democracy where party issues were discussed until it arrived at a consensus,” said a University of Dar es Salaam don.

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South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?

Assuming today’s socioeconomic crisis benefits the Left is folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision to make class the fault line of social polarisation, and for that we need to face the challenge of constructing a new party.

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South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?
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Over the last decade, the Left in a number of Western countries has undergone a historic transition from “protest to politics,” to borrow the words of the late Canadian Marxist Leo Panitch and his frequent co-author Sam Gindin. From Podemos in Spain to Sanders in the United States, a new wave of parties and electoral coalitions have emerged and made rapid gains. Despite setbacks and defeats, Panitch and Gindin’s indispensable analysis of these events in The Socialist Challenge Today, casts them in an unambiguously positive light. None of the examples they study offer formulas for resolving the vexing dilemmas facing the socialist movement in our globalised present.

But in their determination to take state power seriously they constitute an unmistakable step forward, after decades in which the Left’s confinement to episodic instances of mobilisation left the electoral field wide open to the parties of business. Part of this “new new” Left’s success stems from a willingness to shake free of its own past. Building a viable socialism of the 21st century, they argue, requires dispensing with the outmoded parts of the Leninist model, like its wager on insurrection, while retaining that which still holds value, like its internationalist spirit.

These developments hold important lessons for us on the South African Left. Just under a decade ago it seemed that we were on the verge of effecting a similar transition “from protest to politics.” During the first decade and a half of democracy, a socialist opposition had found a locus in the so-called “new” social movements—like the Anti-Privatisation Forum—which grew in reaction to various parts of the ruling African National Congress’ neoliberal agenda.

These waged a number of important defensive struggles and scored a few key victories but fundamentally did nothing to loosen capital’s grip on policymaking. By the end of the 2000s most were a spent force. It became clear to a growing segment of the Left that lasting gains would not be achieved unless social agitation were more effectively linked with efforts to seise governing power. The ability to think these more ambitious terms received a major boost when the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA), the nation’s largest manufacturing union, appeared to redraw the political map of the country by breaking from the ANC, amidst a wave of working class militancy.

Of course for the “official” left which NUMSA represented there had never been any turn away from politics as such. But decades of compromise had bred a form of politics that had become completely unmoored from the guiding thread of class antagonism. NUMSA’s move thus constituted a kind of mirror image transition—from a back-room corporatism to a politics more grounded in the methods and spirit of “protest”. This is what imbued the “NUMSA moment” with such hope—it promised to re-connect the two sides of South Africa’s bifurcated Left, and supply the strategic elements that had been missing from each. By matching the militancy and class-independence of the social movement Left with structural and organisational might of the “official” Left, it seemed possible that a mass socialist movement could be rapidly brought into being.

That was not to be. From today’s vantage it’s impossible to regard the NUMSA moment as anything but an abject failure. The political party which eventually issued from it is the farthest cry from the unifying force that so many had hoped for. While the international left has been able to advance by breaking with its shibboleths, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) has fallen back on a slavish appropriation of Bolshevik ideology, almost comical in its extremes.

Despite enormous resources, a large part supplied by a US-based billionaire, the party ran a dismal general election campaign in 2019 where it failed to get even a tenth of NUMSA’s own membership to vote for it (it ultimately only amassed 25 000 votes nationally, below the threshold to obtain one seat in Parliament). It’s since never recovered, joining a host of other failed socialist parties on the margins of political life. Marginality seems in turn to have degraded the internal culture of the party, which now resembles closely the Stalinism of the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party in all its worst aspects.

The floundering of the NUMSA moment is a terrible blow. But the setback inflicted on us will far greater if we fail to draw the correct lessons from it. Perhaps the most worrying outcome is that it precipitates a slide back into movementism, and shuts the window that we’ve had to execute the transition from “protest to politics.” Party politics acquired a bad name during the era of “protest” in South Africa, and many on the Left already feel that the SRWP’s example vindicated their worst suspicions.

But what the SRWP actually reveals to us is are not flaws inherent in the party-form as such, so much as the limits of a certain kind of party, one founded on a hidebound Leninism. If the Left were to abandon party building altogether there would, quite simply, be no socialist future. All visions of radical change that eschew parties and an active takeover of the state suffer from a principal defect in that they misconceive the nature of class formation—the process by which individuals become aware of their class position and begin to articulate their politics through it. This is presented as a quasi-automatic effect of the capitalist class structure.

But history offers no support for such a view. Class is impactful because it frames the options we have over so many major decisions in our lives—but not so narrowly as to make resistance to one’s employer, or the system behind him, inevitable. Indeed, the extreme vulnerability of workers under capitalism means that individualised modes of coping tend to be more commonplace than collective action. That’s why socialist consciousness has been the exception rather than the norm in the global history of capitalism, and exceedingly rare in the absence of a well-organised party. As Panitch argued with the force of a life’s work—parties make classes as much as they are made by them.

Thankfully, an outright repudiation of the party-form is not really where we are at in South Africa. The variant of movementism which took hold here, and which has revived in the aftermath of the NUMSA moment, was not really this more extreme kind, which denies the ultimate need for a party. Rather what it advocates is a downgrading of the role of party building or its deferral to some indefinite future.

What seems to be the common premise for this position is that party building can only succeed when perfectly timed to the right “objective conditions” —conditions which are only likely to form in the wake of a rupture moment defined by intensified street-level mobilisation. Only the transformation of mass consciousness brought about by such an episode of struggle can furnish the base for a party. Moreover, efforts to “impose” a party on the working class before this are liable to be rejected by its most conscious and active layers. Cut off from nourishing energy of grassroots movements, they are likely to grow in authoritarian directions. The task of socialists in the present, therefore, is devote ourselves to strengthening movements, and hope that a party may gestate from within them in some future context.

Related but distinguishable from this, is an ingrained hostility on the South African Left towards electoral politics. This view tends to draw a sharp line between the electoral arena and movements. While movements unlock popular power by sensitising their participants to their potential for collective action, elections offer no such platform for consciousness-raising. Instead, they tend to reproduce the atomisation of liberal democracy, and to fortify the myth that progress is possible within it. Moreover, movements which take the electoral road subject themselves to debilitating pressures. The logic of getting the vote tends to conflict with the logic of grassroot mobilisation, and all too often to overwhelm it.

Movementist positions contain many insights. It is wise, for example, to be attuned to the importance of ruptural breaks—the likelihood that we will ever get to a mass party simply through a molecular accretion of our ranks is slim. But the contention that movement building alone is the best way to prepare for such a rupture fails to take seriously the inherent weaknesses of social movements.

Of the numerous movements which sustained the first era of “protest” in post-Apartheid South Africa virtually none remain (barring one major exception). New ones have of course cropped up, and a tide of less organised community protests has continued unabated across the country. But these show equally little likelihood of autonomously cohering into anything bigger or more resilient.

It’s now very hard to avoid the conclusion that their failures resulted from internal rather than external factors. The model underpinning them rested on localised mobilisation around immediate demands, while actively eschewing efforts to politicise a leadership layer. Some of their more excitable proponents portrayed them as crucibles of anti-capitalism, in which the mere experience of collective decision making offered a form of political education beyond what traditional forms of Left organisation could hope to match.

But in doing so they exhibited the same fallacious thinking about class formation that informs all ventures aimed at “changing the world without taking power.” Much less a break with capitalism, it’s not clear that social movements even succeeded in getting most of their members to question their loyalty to the ANC. That left them prone to demobilisation and disorganisation when circumstances changed, when defeats where incurred or when key individuals drifted off or were co-opted.

One strategic upshot of this critique is that the trade-off between movement and party building posited by movementists is a false one. It’s likely that there is no winning formula for transforming single issue mobilisations into lasting, mass organisations without NGOifying them. But what we can do is to ensure that the small advances made by movements each time they arise are not dissipated. After all—the notion that struggle develops consciousness is not a false, what movementists get wrong is overstating the extent to which it does so organically. Virtually every movement throws up militant leaders, who stand to become tribunes for socialist politics if they can be identified, recruited and supported appropriately. This is work that a party is best suited to undertake.

But facing up to the limits of social movements should lead us to even stronger conclusions than this. It should lead us to question the overwhelming strategic significance that they have been accorded in the politics of the “independent left.” If movements are tough to sustain and to politicise, they may not be the vehicles best suited to bringing about a political rupture or ensuring that it outcome favors the Left.

Of course this was a strategic orientation that was largely foisted on us by circumstance. The stranglehold that the Tripartite Alliance (whose third member is the Congress of South African Trade Unions) exercised on organised labour and mass politics generally left little room for an alternative. But the situation has changed. The factionalisation of the ANC, the split in COSATU and the emergence of its rival, the South African Federation of Trade Unions, have created an opening for a more militant socialism to regain a foothold in organised labour. This ought to be the clear priority of socialists.

For all its infirmities, the union movement still presents a much more promising site for grounding socialist politics in a mass base. Although this may not hold for much longer, unions remain mass membership organisations with considerable resources. Most importantly, and most differently from social movements, they have access to structural power (i.e, the power to withdraw labour and shut down the economy). Here is one insight of Leninism which time has not invalidated– that our project will most likely fail unless that structural power is at its center.

If organised labour is once again to become our strategic focal point, this strengthens the case for not consigning the party to an intangible future. The synergies between party-building and organisation building are arguably stronger in the case of unions than social movements. At a fairly abstract level, one reason for this is that union building (or revitalisation) typically relies on a few individuals being prepared to take bold action out of moral conviction. Marxists have often argued something very different—that shopfloors collectivise as soon as workers wake up to their material interests. But narrow self-interest is unlikely to ever motivate someone to take the first steps towards organising their co-workers, since doing so incurs enormous risks but yields no extra benefit—the essence of the “free-rider” problem.

Thus, it’s not a coincidence that so often in history, socialists of various stripes have been significantly overrepresented among the “militant minority.” The values that draw people to the banner of socialism are often the same as those that move them to action against workplace injustices. It’s also not a coincidence that a militant minority is more likely to take shape when socialist ideas are more prominent in the public realm.

Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at  least broadly resembles a party. Without one we have no real means of translating strategic debates into action—of coordinating our energies towards the tasks most likely to yield long-term gains.

There’s therefore a case for not delaying in building a fighting organisation, that tries to cohere leading militants from workplace and community struggles around a socialist program. But such an organisation should do more. As soon as it has the numbers needed, it should seek to involve itself in elections. In all likelihood it would have to start at the local level, and logic would dictate that it seeks out community and social movement partners in doing so. But as quickly as possible is should seek to graduate to the national stage. South Africa’s unusually proportional representation electoral system (which was in fact designed to provide space for smaller parties), makes this a reasonable short-term goal.

Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at least broadly resembles a party.

The first thing that sceptics of this strategy tend to get wrong is that they overstate, or misunderstand, the legitimacy problem facing formal political institutions. The SRWP seems to think that any worker with lingering attachments to electoral politics is suffering from “false consciousness.” But in our current circumstances, there is nothing the least bit irrational about remaining invested in the electoral arena, even while recognising the severity of its class bias. The simple reason for that, is that there is no existing social force capable of challenging state power while remaining entirely outside its institutions, nor does one show any prospect of coming into being in any foreseeable horison. Worker organisations in SA are locked a desperate defensive struggle—not preparing to set up a parallel state.

It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.

It’s thus not surprising that despite the tremendous alienation produced by decades of neoliberalism, electoral movements in the West have been able to engineer a political realignment that was much deeper than what post-2008 movements were able to achieve on their own. Their location within the domain of mainstream politics provided both visibility but also a kind of credibility—they promised to take over the institutions in front of us, rather than replace them with ones we can’t see and can’t yet imagine. Several of these examples stood the movementist model on its head. Rather than an electoral breakthrough growing out of a period of intensified movement activity, it was the electoral arena itself that has delivered the rupture moment, the energy from which can then be filtered down to social and labour struggles.

In the process they challenged another fallacy of movementism—that the electoral arena is entirely inimical to a politics of struggle. Sanders, Corbyn, and others imbued their campaigns with a spirit of insurgency that succeeded in appealing to many otherwise turned off by politics, particularly among younger generations. Rather than sucking energy from the streets, these examples provided a renewed model of “class struggle elections” —not their own invention but one that had faded from the Left’s repertoire during the era of movementism.

Class struggle elections seek to deliberately leverage electoral campaigns, and political office itself, to bolster movements. They use every platform available to raise awareness of, and encourage solidarity with, labour and social struggles. In doing so they try to inculcate the understanding that radical policies can only be won with an inside-outside strategy, in which legislators are supported and pushed forward by powerful movements. At the same time they use campaigns as tools of organisation building.

They recruit and deploy a mass of activist to spread a socialist message, and simultaneously try to develop those activists by building political education into their activities. Done properly, this can bridge the gaps that supposedly separate movement from electoral organising, infusing the latter with a powerful sense of collectivity. That’s why so many thousands of young Americans (to pick a recent example), were politically activated through their involvement in the Sanders campaign, which became a gateway to organising in their workplaces, campuses and communities.

Note that this is completely different to the SRWP’s narrowly propagandistic approach to elections which didn’t promote social struggles so much as fantasies of revolution, whilst denouncing ‘bourgeois democracy’ as a sham and doing nothing to actually win. After a predictably disastrous outcome, the party chose to compound the embarrassment, and feed into a profoundly dangerous trend by denouncing South Africa’s independent election management body and claiming the result was rigged.

It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.

Contrast its subsequent marginalisation with the early trajectory with the Economic Freedom Fighters (now South Africa’s third-largest party), which leveraged the electoral know-how of its ex-ANCYL cadre and Malema’s media savvy to run an enormously successful first campaign. It then built on the success, steadily expanding its vote share each cycle, while using parliamentary office to bolster its national profile. Sadly it drifted off the orbit of the Left along the way. But the two diverging cases provide an obvious lesson: if elections are to be useful to us, we have to show that we are capable of succeeding in them. If we can’t, how on earth will we convince anyone that we’re capable of transforming society from its roots up?

None of this is to suggest that the concerns movementists raise about electoral politics are meritless. Its unquestionably true that electoral competition imposes its own logic, which can be ruinous if it totally subsumes the party’s strategic purview. We can trace the decline of many a worker’s party, at least proximately, to misguided efforts to capture middle-class votes by abandoning a politics of class antagonism. But all socialist strategising in our dismal conjuncture is the consideration of perilous alternatives. Far better for us to confront the dangers of succumbing to a narrow electoralism than the near certitude of permanent marginalisation should we choose to abstain from mainstream politics altogether.

The NUMSA moment may have come and gone. But the many elements of the broader conjuncture which produced it, and which seemed to augur a new direction for socialist politics, persist. The Alliance coalition is in the doldrums. Expecting its inevitable demise is of course a pastime of which we “independent leftists” should now be wary. But the material facts this time really are different. The state faces a fiscal crisis that President Cyril Ramaphosa has neither the wherewithal nor the institutional tools to escape from. His factional opponents preach a “radical economic transformation” that offers nothing whatsoever to workers.

Social strains look set to keep accumulating. But assuming that any crisis they produce will automatically redound to the Left’s benefit would be folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision and the organisational capacity to ensure that class becomes the fault line of social polarisation. And for that we need to face up to the challenge of constructing a new party.

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Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media, but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

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Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?
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As President Joe Biden begins to get comfortable in the White House, there are those who might say that America, under a democratic system of government, has once again allowed the voice of her people to be heard, and that they have elected a new leader into office. Some might go so far as to say that the world’s most affluent democracy has once again proved that government of the people, by the people, for the people is alive and well.

But just below the surface, there are questions deserving of a deeper examination. One is how narrow the margins of victory were. For while it is true that President Biden won the highest number of votes in American electoral history, it is also true that President Trump won the second-highest number of votes in American electoral history; 10 million more people voted for President Trump in 2020 than did so in 2016. Mr Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia was 0.48 per cent, while that in Arizona was 0.63 per cent. Further, even as the Democrats belatedly won a majority in the Senate, again by the finest of margins, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives actually narrowed. Why, if the choice was so clear, were margins so narrow?

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy – not merely because true democracy has never existed, but because even that imperfect form of democracy that characterises modern politics long perished in America. The United States today is in fact a corporatocracy; mega-corporations rule the country, a polite way of saying that that nation is now a plutocracy. This development is not really new – wealth has always, eventually, determined leadership, in America and elsewhere.

This article attempts – colossally log-in-eye, and at a distance of thousands of miles, admittedly – to furnish proof of the existence of this plutocracy; to demonstrate the effects of this plutocracy on American life and politics; and to establish whether there is any way out of the present morass.

That America is a plutocracy

A total of US$14 billion (KSh1.4 trillion) was spent on campaigns in the US this year, twice as much as in 2016. Where is this money coming from?

In 2010, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision called Citizens United that allowed unions, corporations and associations to spend unlimited amounts in elections provided they would not coordinate their efforts with a candidate. As a result, political action committees (or PACs – private organisations established to raise money in support of a candidate or an issue) morphed into Super PACs that could receive unlimited amounts of money for campaign purposes. The effect was immediate: in 2012 non-party outside spending tripled 2008’s total and topped US$1 billion for the first time. Of that amount, Super PACs spent more than US$840 million.

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy.

Yet the amounts spent in 2012 pale in comparison with spending during the 2020 campaign; in October 2020 alone, outside spending by super PACs and other big-money groups totalled nearly US$1.2 billion. President Joe Biden alone raised US$1.6 billion. President Trump raised US$596 million, itself a significant haul. Given the closely fought nature of the presidential election, it would not be wrong to conclude that money helped tip the scales in favour of the new president. Nor was this true only of the presidential race; it was true across the ballot. Eighty-nine per cent of House races and 71 per cent of Senate races were won by the better financed candidate. The conclusion is clear: money – corporate money – wins American elections.

The effects of the plutocracy on American life

It is all very well and good to conclude that corporate money runs and wins American elections. The issue is what the effect of all this money is on American life. If corporate hegemony is harmless – even beneficial – arguments can be made that it should be left alone. If it is not, however, then that fact should be exposed, and reform commenced.

The American mega-corporation has achieved a number of victories (from a corporate standpoint) that have constituted assaults on the wellbeing of the American people and populace. For example, these corporations have been allowed to outsource American manufacturing jobs to China and other nations. The iPhone, signature product of America’s second largest company by market valuation (Apple), is assembled in Shenzhen. Nike began outsourcing manufacturing in the 1970s; today it has plants in Vietnam and South Korea as well as China. IBM now has more workers in India than in the US. As of April 2012, Walmart’s supply chain included some 30,000 Chinese factories, producing an estimated 70 per cent of all of the goods it sells. This trend has gone on so long that there now exists a portion of the northeastern US, formerly known as the Manufacturing/Steel/Factory Belt, that is now known as the Rust Belt, owing to industrial and economic decline occasioned by outsourcing and the automation of jobs.

Meanwhile, for those jobs that have escaped being shipped overseas, the average wage has been stagnant for 40 years. A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents. To make up for stagnant incomes, American citizens are drowning in private debt (US$14 trillion worth) including mortgages (US$9.44 trillion) and student loans (US$1.5 trillion). Indeed, absolute US household debt was higher in November 2019 than prior to/during the great recession, although the debt-to-income levels during the great recession were higher than the 2019 levels (83 per cent to 73 per cent). High house prices, supported as they are by mortgage lending, coupled with student loans, together mean that new graduates are experiencing “failure to launch”, i.e. the inability to leave one’s parents’ home and start one’s own family.

(We should pause here to note, parenthetically, that the level of any nation’s private debt, and America’s in particular, is a very important metric. The level of private debt was the key indicator that enabled Professor Steve Keen, one of the Bezemer 12, to predict the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2007-8, a prediction mainstream/neoclassical economics, quite criminally, failed to make.)

The US$14 trillion of private debt that American citizens owe is owed to the very same mega-corporation class whose wage stagnation has necessitated the need for lending (since the early 1970s, the hourly inflation-adjusted wages received by the typical worker have barely risen, growing only 0.2 per cent per year). Most unfortunately, this wage stagnation is not uniform: the ratio of CEO-to-worker earnings has soared from 21-to-1 in 1965 to 320-to-1 in 2019.

A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents.

Has the American mega-corporation been censured by the political class for these excesses? Hardly. In fact, the large American corporation, while using American infrastructure, using some degree of American labour and selling to Americans, is allowed to pretend that it operates outside America, by invoicing from nations with low tax rates, such as Ireland, thereby avoiding paying federal taxes on its income. From 2009-2018, for example, Amazon paid an effective federal tax rate of 3 per cent on profits totalling US$26.5 billion. In 2018 alone, the company received a tax relief of US$129 million dollars on profits of US$11.2 billion. Such is the scale of tax avoidance by American corporations that by 2016 a staggering US$2 trillion in untaxed corporate profits was stashed outside the US, according to the New York Times. (What makes this doubly lamentable is that the Internal Revenue Service tells the American citizen in unambiguous terms that “Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside.”)

Corporations, therefore, enjoy egregious advantages. It is in order to keep them that they are so willing to fund political campaigns. In other words, corporations will do everything to avoid paying the taxes that would improve American infrastructure and healthcare (to their own benefit) but spend billions on political campaigns to inoculate themselves from losing the unfair advantages they have carved out for themselves.

The effect of the plutocracy on American politics

The shock election of President Donald Trump in 2016 can be seen as a response to the deleterious effects of corporate hegemony on the American political and economic life. Candidate Trump campaigned as an outsider, promising to “drain the swamp”, even though, ironically, he was himself a self-styled billionaire who shipped jobs to China and paid very little in taxes. America was suffering economically. He claimed that the blame for this could be placed squarely on the shoulders of China and immigrants. In an illuminating two-part, three-and-a-half hour 2019 interview with PBS, key Trump campaign advisor Steve Bannon (who was arrested for fraud and then pardoned by President Trump on his last full day in office) stated that the cost of the 2008-09 bailout was loaded onto the American middle class, and that American gig economy millennials are nothing but 19th-century Russian serfs. Many may disagree with Mr Bannon’s political views, but his statement had its finger on the pulse of post-bank-bailout America. The genius of the Trump campaign was its ability to identify these pain points; to incorrectly but convincingly blame foreigners – locally (immigrants) and abroad (China) – for what were and continue to be the excesses of the plutocracy; to identify the existence of a swamp in Washington and characterise Hillary Clinton as the personification of these ills; and to ride that wave all the way to the White House. The lesson – a lesson seemingly yet unlearned by mainstream politics – is that it actually worked.

Candidates however, campaign in poetry; rulers, on the other hand, govern in prose. During Trump’s presidency Faustian bargains, in Steve Bannon’s words, were made; here again the power of the corporatocracy made itself felt. One of the early indicators of the direction and tenor a presidency will take is a president’s cabinet picks; Steven Mnuchin, yet another ex-Wall Street executive, was placed in charge of the Treasury. While President Trump did not drag the US into another war – in spite of the assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassim Soleimani – his presidency did not up-end Washington in ways meaningful to the nation’s citizenry. Readers may recall the US$2 trillion of untaxed corporate profits mentioned earlier; President Trump’s signature legislative achievement was to open new windows for tax rebates for major corporations, reducing taxes on the wealthy. This legislation resulted in the repatriation of US$777 billion in 2018, but the Federal Reserve noted that “the strongest effect of repatriation was on share buybacks” by corporate America. This particular episode is a textbook example of the plutocracy at work.

Trump does not greatly differ in this way from the way in which Candidate Obama contrasts with President Obama. Candidate Obama campaigned on Change We Can Believe In. Yet, once elected, he bailed out the banks (the abiding question on this, some wonder, is why citizens did not retain their houses if the banks’ losses were made good). Obamacare, a very significant advance in the fight for decent healthcare for Americans, did not include a public option although it could have. Nor did President Obama succeed in extricating himself from American warmongering abroad: in a particularly sad and tragic episode he helped end the Libya Gaddaffi had created. Libya under Gaddaffi was a nation that had free university education, free healthcare, no external debt and reserves of US$150 billion – all ideals that America, ironically, declares it wants but has yet to achieve despite its claim to being the richest nation in history. Allied “intervention” replaced that Libya with today’s bombed-out nation, in which incessant internecine strife went on for a decade. This in Africa, the land of Obama’s fathers. Only two years previously, at a location just two hours from Benghazi by air, the new President had given his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, which speech contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

In these two presidencies, we see, microcosmically, the effects of the plutocracy at work: the lofty ideals of the campaigning candidate and the searing needs of the masses, once office is assumed, are replaced by a kind of neutered, ineffective pragmatism, as far as the wellbeing of American citizens is concerned, and a sly and insidious effectiveness where corporate welfare is concerned.

The 2020 campaign

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 2020 campaign is that it took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The cost of this pandemic – in the gruesome currency of American lives – has been more than 500,000 dead Americans and counting, nearly 10 times the number of US soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, and more than the number of American lives lost in World War II.

Uniquely among developed nations, the structure of America’s healthcare system is such that very often one only has healthcare if one is employed. So that when 44 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, they lost their medical cover at precisely the time they most needed it. The pandemic therefore threw into sharp focus the critical importance of having a healthcare system that is not based upon employment.

(Nor is the state of health insurance all that is wrong with American healthcare – in several tragic articles it has been reported that American diabetics have been driving to Canada in caravans to buy insulin – some driving up to 5 hours one way. Price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies means that the drug is ten times cheaper in Canada than it is in America.)

The bipartisan response to the pandemic was to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that – while it gave individuals with less than US$99,000 a year annual income a check of US$1,200 a month – also gave further tax cuts to the wealthy. According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, just 43,000 individual tax filers covered by one of the Act’s provisions would see their tax liability fall by a combined US$70.3 billion in 2020 (or about US$1.7 million each). This is the America that corporatism has created.

And yet, mid-pandemic, was healthcare on the national ballot? How, when pharmaceutical and health product industries have spent a total of US$4.7 billion on lobbying the federal government, US$877 million on state candidates and committees, and US$414 million in the 20 years to 2018? Indeed, by the time he won the nomination, Joe Biden had already said he would veto a Medicare for All bill if it landed on his desk (a colossal if, it must be said), proposing a public option instead.

So what was on the ballot? Democrats, choosing to characterise Trump’s presidency as the problem, instead of seeing it as the natural consequence of the decades of wage stagnation, high healthcare costs, inordinately high levels of private debt, etc., campaigned on the platform of “restoring the soul of America”. The president’s narrow margins of victory perhaps find an explanation here: the problems Americans face were not really on the ballot. And they were not on the ballot because the corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

Is there hope?

There is an American constituency that is in broad agreement on the issues raised above: a Fox News exit poll, for example, showed that 72 per cent of Americans were at least somewhat in favour of changing to a government-run healthcare plan. Florida, a state President Trump won, voted to increase the state’s minimum wage to US$15 an hour.

However, it is unlikely that this broad constituency will be allowed to unite under the current political system. The reality is that the US is a de facto one-party state. If that party were to be honestly named, it might be named the Megacorp Party, or, slightly more genteelly, the Corporatist/Establishment Party. It has two wings: a supposedly left-leaning Democratic wing and a supposedly conservative Republican wing. Under the framework of Citizens United these two wings will continue to swap power ad infinitum. Yet, even as the presidency bounces from party to party, a president from one party will bomb Iraq; the next president, from the other party, will campaign on the platform that he never voted to go to war in Iraq, only to subsequently bomb Libya. These tragic contradictions find their resolution in the fact that this war activity happens at the behest of the military-industrial complex.

Political consultants will keep finding new, misleading ways of “framing the political argument,” creating false choices and developing narratives such as restoring the soul of the nation. Meanwhile, the money that pays them will continue to fortify itself against the needs of the people; the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and power will remain with the wealthy.

As long as this continues, we can expect two outcomes. The first is that the issues that Americans need solved will not be solved. (We are now reading, for example, that the US$15 dollars/hour minimum wage President Biden promised (during a presidential debate), is unlikely be included in the US$1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus package President Biden intends to bring to Congress.) The second is that, as a result of the failure to resolve these issues, America will, in the words of Robert Reich, continue to produce candidatures like Donald Trump’s as far as the eye can see. The American political system does not contain within itself the mechanism to correct the current malaise. As a result, money will continue to win out: it will continue to select which issues are on the ballot, and it will continue to choose which candidates win. America’s long decline, therefore, is likely to continue.

The corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media (the concentration of media ownership in America is yet another triumph of the plutocracy), but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

I return to the beginning – this article is written colossally log-in-eye. As a Kenyan I know we have major, pressing domestic issues to resolve. If or as we make a detour to examine the American political situation, let our contemplation resemble our use of a mirror, and let our aims be those of helping us to avoid the problems others have experienced, in order to more wisely and speedily resolve our own.

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