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Winter Is Coming: Why Our National Debt Is Illegitimate, Unjust and Unsustainable…and Why We Should Be Worried

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Greece teaches us, if we will listen, that the time is likely to come when Kenya will be unable to pay government workers’ salaries and will not be able to fund essential public services, such as security. At this point, the Government of Kenya will be forced to take on yet more borrowing to prevent a mass uprising. These “rescue packages” will be offered on grossly usurious terms, terms that the government will have no choice but to accept.

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Winter Is Coming: Why Our National Debt Is Illegitimate, Unjust and Unsustainable…and Why We Should Be Worried
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Recently the matter of Kenya’s national indebtedness has gained wide coverage in the media, not least in a presidential roundtable with the press on December 28th, 2018. In my opinion, our nation is grossly indebted, and in fact we are in a de facto state of emergency as far as our nation’s finances are concerned. I hope to demonstrate this fact below, and to suggest what options we have for dealing with our indebtedness.

Several indicators for measuring national indebtedness exist, such as Debt-to-Gross Domestic Product (Debt:GDP), debt per capita, etc. Probably the most widely-used indicator is the Debt:GDP ratio. This particular metric is so obfuscatory and misleading that it is not inconceivable that it was actually developed to mask the truth about national indebtedness the world over.

When we as individuals want to borrow salary-backed loans from banks, the banks attempt to assess our ability to pay off these loans by reviewing our payslips, sometimes going back 3 to 6 months. This effort is calculated to answer just one question: what is our take-home pay? In doing this, the banks are assessing our credit-worthiness, which helps to reduce the risk of default.

At the national level, however, this abundance of caution is thrown to the wind. The use of the Debt:GDP ratio to measure national indebtedness means that a country’s ability to take on more debt is assessed on the basis of its GDP. At an individual level, such an assessment would approximate assessing our ability to pay off salary-backed loans based on our gross pay. In fact, it is much worse: it is more like assessing an individual’s ability to pay off a loan based on how much revenue he generates for his employer. Even if such a company is just breaking even, the revenue an employee earns his employer must necessarily exceed his salary, or else that organisation would be unable to meet its operational costs, such as rent, electricity and other office expenses. Put another way, the revenue an employee generates pays a lot more than his salary). Since GDP attempts (poorly) to measure the total value generated by all the economic activity in a nation, to use it as a basis for measuring whether a country has room to borrow is patently unwise simply because not all the value created in a nation’s economy is available to pay a nation’s debt.

The revenue employees generate and the value an economy generates (GDP) are analogous in that both are measures of value created. However, whereas the revenue produced by employees accrues directly to their employers’ GDP, it does not so directly accrue to a nation. For example, after a loaf of bread has been produced in a country, that loaf is not submitted to the government, yet its production adds to the nation’s GDP. For this reason, even a revenue-based definition of employees’ income does not properly approximate the absurdity of using GDP as a measure of national income on which to assess indebtedness because not all of GDP accrues to the nation as income.

By masking true indebtedness, therefore, the Debt:GDP ratio encourages wanton borrowing. This works in favour both of fiscally irresponsible (or worse, corrupt) governments and of predatory lenders…

What is the net effect of all this? The more broadly a lender can define a borrower’s income, the larger the proportion of that borrower’s true income that will flow out as loan repayments, and the more the borrower’s assets stand at risk of repossession as collateral. This is what has happened to us as a nation. When we consider further stratagems like rebasing our GDP, which had the effect of increasing our GDP by 25% at a stroke, it can be seen that by nominally increasing our GDP the illusion was given that our nation was able to take on even more borrowing than before, opening the gates to yet more lending.

By masking true indebtedness, therefore, the Debt:GDP ratio encourages wanton borrowing. This works in favour both of fiscally irresponsible (or worse, corrupt) governments and of predatory lenders, both private and multilateral (the line between private and multilateral lenders is far thinner than is generally believed). We do not pay debt out of GDP. We pay debt out of our national revenues. The more revealing and honest measure would be debt-to-national revenue. For the same reasons of honesty and clarity, it is prudent to narrow the definition of national revenue down further to tax revenue, thereby eliminating grants, donations, monies realised from the sale of public assets, and other incidentals from the discussion.

The problem – from the viewpoint of irresponsible governments and predatory lenders, of course – is that once we do so, the scales will fall off our eyes and it becomes apparent just how much of our nation’s money is going towards servicing our debt. According to the national Treasury, our national debt, which stood at Sh1.894 trillion in the financial year (FY) 2013, had grown to Sh5.047 trillion by the end of FY 2018, a growth of 269 per cent.

In 2013, however, the government collected a total of Sh754.2 billion in taxes. The implication is that our Debt:Tax ratio stood at a whopping 251 per cent in that year. By 2018, although revenue collections had grown to Sh1.47 trillion, our debt had grown much faster, so much so that our Debt:Tax ratio in the FY 2018 stood at 343 per cent.

Our GDP in 2013, according to the same report, was Sh4.496 trillion, meaning our Debt:GDP ratio was 42.1 per cent in 2013. In 2018, our GDP was Sh8.845 trillion. (This suggests that our GDP has been growing at a compounded annual growth rate of 14.49 per cent, which would be news to most Kenyans; the effect of rebasing our GDP can now more clearly be seen.) These figures imply our Debt:GDP ratio in FY 2018 was 57 per cent.

In 2013, however, the government collected a total of Sh754.2 billion in taxes. The implication is that our Debt:Tax ratio stood at a whopping 251 per cent in that year. By 2018, although revenue collections had grown to Sh1.47 trillion, our debt had grown much faster, so much so that our Debt:Tax ratio in the FY 2018 stood at 343 per cent. In other words, if the Government did nothing else but pay off our national debt – if it did not pay teachers, doctors, nurses, the army, and the police; if it did not provide medical supplies; if it bought no textbooks; if it did not construct one metre of road or railway; if it did not construct one hospital room or classroom or police post – it would take us about three and a half years to pay off the national debt.

Table 1: Kenya's Debt:GDP vs Debt:Tax ratio, FYs 2013 - 2018

Table 1: Kenya’s Debt:GDP vs Debt:Tax ratio, FYs 2013 – 2018

This situation is untenable. National Treasury data indicates that in FY 2018 we spent Sh459.4 billion servicing our debt. By that measure, debt repayment was the single largest item in our nation’s expenditure, exceeding our expenditure on transport infrastructure (Sh225 billion), health (Sh65.5 billion) or education (Sh415.3 billion). In other words, we are spending more paying off our debt than we are spending providing good transport for our people and good treatment for our sick – combined.

A day of reckoning is soon coming for our beloved country, on which day we shall realise that indeed, as per the Holy Writ, “…the borrower is slave to the lender”, and that debt (even if the money is used well, let alone if it is actively misused as we have done) is the tool of the neo-colonialist. It will become starkly apparent that by a system of multilateral and international debt, there is a sense in which foreign powers have been able to be perhaps as extractive of our nation’s wealth as they were when they were in power as our colonial masters. There is in fact a very real sense in which the colonial powers never really left. The only major change is that China is now on the list of our foreign masters.

We have already seen multilateral lenders like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) force our government to impose VAT on fuel. This is not the first time this happened. In 2013, when our debt was less than half what it is now, the IMF backed changes in our VAT law that would have imposed VAT on milk and medicines, claiming that “…the changes in the law [would] put Kenya in line with other modern VAT regimes in the world by simplifying the way it operates while reducing the number of exempt items.” Although the Cabinet did not impose VAT on milk and medicines, other items, such as textbooks, periodicals and magazines, did not escape the taxman’s levy. The press reported that our national port in Mombasa was used as a security for the loan that was used to construct the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). These are not isolated bellwethers of the dire situation our country finds herself in: the Daily Nation recently reported that we will require Sh1.04 trillion to service our debt in FY 2020. Where will it come from?

We must now examine possible solutions to what is clearly a monumental problem. The truth is this: debt can be dealt with either by paying it, or by not paying it. National debt can be repaid through austerity programmes and/or by the realisation of collateral. A nation may avoid repayment by pursuing debt forgiveness; defaulting on our sovereign debt; and/or overseeing a managed default on our sovereign debt.

Options for paying our national debt

Austerity programmes

Since the national debt can only be paid out of taxes, an escalation of the national debt can only result in an austerity programme. Austerity is a term that follows a very well-worn path of giving nasty, anti-common man policies honourable names (this is what is called “Economese”). Simply put, austerity necessitates the redirection of large portions of tax receipts away from normal government expenditure (including mission-critical social expenditure like health and education, and away from development expenditure) in an effort to pay off the debt. The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes austerity as “enforced or extreme economy”.

The fact that Kenya is – whether it has publicly announced it or not – well up the austerity road is evidenced by the earlier observation that debt repayment is the single largest item in our nation’s budget. By the time our lenders and leaders decide to announce that we are in an austerity programme, we will have been in one for years.

To examine where this road leads, we must turn to Greece. That nation has been locked in austerity’s deathly embrace for the better part of a decade. An Al Jazeera article notes that the austerity programme in Greece was occasioned by over-borrowing (sound familiar?) in the years leading up to the global financial crisis, which was exacerbated by a rise in rates occasioned by that crisis. In order to keep paying government salaries and finance public services, Greece had to accept an initial loan of EUR110 billion from its Eurozone partners and the IMF. To pay off this loan, the country was compelled to institute radical austerity measures. How did that go?

In August 2018, the Guardian summarized Greece’s experience thus:

The European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund loaned Greece a total of €289bn ($330bn) in three programmes, in 2010, 2012 and 2015.

The economic reforms the creditors demanded in return brought the country to its knees with a quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP) evaporating over eight years and unemployment soaring to more than 27%.

The fundamental contradictions between the envisaged outcomes of austerity and its outcomes in reality are also the reason we find multilateral lenders talking out of both sides of their mouths, first imposing these programmes, and then sheepishly admitting that they have not worked. The IMF, for example, actually produced a report stating that it made notable failures on its first rescue package to Greece.

Greece teaches us, if we will listen, that the time is likely to come when Kenya will be unable to pay government workers’ salaries and will not be able to fund essential public services, such as security. At this point, the Government of Kenya will be forced to take on yet more borrowing to prevent a mass uprising. These “rescue packages” will be offered on grossly usurious terms, terms that the government will have no choice but to accept. Then, in a strange twist of irony, the very people upon whom the initial injustices were visited will do the lenders’ marketing for them by way of a civil uprising. From then on, our nation’s expenditure will be “supervised” by these lenders, not to help the Kenyan people, but to ensure that these lenders are paid. These are doomsday scenarios, and I find it difficult to even write them. Yet it can get worse – and has, elsewhere in the world.

Realisation of collateral

Realisation of collateral is a method of debt payment that is as old and as basic as Shylocks. It is difficult to recall a time when national debt was collateralised to the extent that has happened in the recent past. It appears that the realisation of collateral appears to be the favoured method of China for collecting debt. For our case study on this, we must turn to the nation of Sri Lanka, as the New York Times reported:

Every time Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, turned to his Chinese allies for loans and assistance with an ambitious port project, the answer was yes.

Yes, though feasibility studies said the port wouldn’t work. Yes, though other frequent lenders like India had refused. Yes, though Sri Lanka’s debt was ballooning rapidly under Mr. Rajapaksa.

…Mr. Rajapaksa was voted out of office in 2015, but Sri Lanka’s new government struggled to make payments on the debt he had taken on. Under heavy pressure and after months of negotiations with the Chinese, the government handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years in December [2017].

There are examples closer to home. In December 2018, the US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, sensationally claimed that China was about to take over the Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation (ZESCO), which is Zambia’s version of Kenya Power & Lighting Company, before KenGen and Ketraco were hived off. Although this rumour was strongly refuted by Zambia’s presidential spokesman, Mr Amos Chanda, Mr Chanda did admit that Zambia owes China US$3.1 billion in debt. In Africa that kind of statement from that kind of person often means the figure is much higher; indeed, some sources have placed the figure at US$6.4 billion.

In 2017, Zambia’s police force had to scrap plans to hire eight Chinese nationals following a public outcry. Zambians were concerned about having to salute a Chinese national in their own country. It is also true that in November 2018 police arrested over 100 residents in Kitwe (the country’s second-largest city) who were protesting the alleged sale of the Zambia Forestry and Forest Industries Corporation (ZAFFICO). There is a possible sub-plot here: Mr Bolton’s claim may mean that the IMF and Western allies are worried that they are losing their grip on the Zambian nation to China.

Options for not paying our national debt

In advocating for the non-payment of national debt I am not advocating injustice or dishonesty for this reason: “The government” is not a nebulous entity separate from the people. The government is the people. When the government borrows, it is the people who are borrowing; when the government pays, it is the people who must pay; indeed, it is their taxes that are used to pay.

As can be seen from the foregoing, over-borrowing, poor governance and/or the mismanagement of public funds can lead to adverse effects, not on “the government”, not on the lenders – even private lenders – but on the people. The stark truth is that austerity rarely, if ever, aids recovery – unless by recovery we mean the recovery of lenders’ money.

As can be seen from the foregoing, over-borrowing, poor governance and/or the mismanagement of public funds can lead to adverse effects, not on “the government”, not on the lenders – even private lenders – but on the people. The stark truth is that austerity rarely, if ever, aids recovery – unless by recovery we mean the recovery of lenders’ money. Austerity is a creditor-oriented policy, not a people-oriented policy, and it fails because cuts in government spending result in reduced consumption, unemployment and lower tax receipts. Yet tax receipts are what are needed in order to pay off the debt. The realisation of collateral (the other solution) is nothing but the seizure of a people’s land

There exists, therefore, a moral case for non-payment, which is this: that the betrayal of a people by its ruling class through the accumulation of a debt whose benefits the people never realised should not be visited upon the class of the ruled, who pay the debt. On this point, therefore, I am advocating for justice, not injustice; and for honesty, not dishonesty.

Debt forgiveness

Debt forgiveness is not a new concept; it is in fact a biblical concept. The concept of Jubilee meant that every 50 years, during the eponymously-named Jubilee year, all debts were written off, all enslavement ended, and everyone was allowed to return to whatever ancestral lands that they might have had to give up because of an inability to pay back debt. A thorough examination of the wisdom and justice of this law would take up a solid chapter in a good book; suffice it to say that it acted like a legislated revolution, resetting the kind of gross national inequalities that US Senator Bernie Sanders is grappling with – for the price of a trumpet blast.

Our gross national indebtedness means – or rather, dictates – that we pursue debt forgiveness, because we simply cannot pay back everything we have borrowed. The problem is that we are not considered a poor country any more – not even a low-income country. We are now a middle income nation, and precedent shows that debt forgiveness is the preserve of highly indebted poor countries. Our pleas for debt forgiveness, therefore, are quite likely to fall on deaf ears. Further, a significant portion of our national debt is owed to China and China, Sri Lanka might whisper, is not a nation one asks for forgiveness.

A note of caution must here be sounded: only 15 or so years ago, Zambia had its debts wiped clean under the IMF’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries scheme. The same country then took “less than a decade” to run up fresh debt of 59 per cent of GDP, buying million-dollar fire engines and constructing roads twice as expensive as those of her neighbours.

A strategy of debt forgiveness is, therefore, useless in the absence of enforced legislation to ensure that future over-indebtedness and/or wastage is prevented. A law preventing the government from tying up more than 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the average tax collected in the previous five years on debt servicing would be a very good place to start. The laws preventing wastage and theft of what we actually do borrow do exist, but require radical enforcement.

Default on sovereign debt

There exist exceptional circumstances in which nations default on their national debt. These times are usually presaged by significant external shocks or political ones, such as when Fidel Castro took over in Cuba in 1959, and simply defaulted on outstanding Cuban debt. The bonds on which he defaulted are in default to date.

Reference is often made to the Argentinian default (and one must be specific) of 2001. In 1998, Argentina’s economy entered a deep recession. The IMF’s by now predictable solution, of course, was austerity. Over the course of the following two years, it became increasingly clear that the toxic mix of an artificially fixed exchange rate, a steadily worsening balance of payments deficit (imports exceeding exports) and mounting debt, among other factors, meant that Argentina would never be able to pay off its debt.

Then the people began to protest, with increasing vociferousness, against austerity. When in December 2001 the IMF realised that default could not be avoided, it held back previously promised “support” so that the government was left without any external funding. Bank runs and riots followed: at one point the country had five presidents in ten days. Finally, on December 24, the country defaulted on a US$ 100 billion debt. This led to a social crisis of epic proportions, characterised not least by rampant unemployment.

Sovereign defaults of this nature tend to be devastating and ought to be avoided. The social cost ends up being far too high, even if one is a Castro leading a non-conformist Cuba. Firstly, in order to teach other would-be defaulters a lesson, lenders make an example out of one. Secondly, the world has become too interconnected for us to make ourselves a pariah state for any length of time: globalisation is a source of many ills, but it can help us as well, for we have a surplus of labour that we can offer the world (among other competitive advantages).

Managed default on sovereign debt

The way we might want to do it is the way Ecuador did it between 2007 and 2009. The then President Rafael Correa stopped payments on bonds that the country had taken out, and established a “debt audit commission” to conduct an audit on the country’s debt, which at the time was using up 38 per cent of the government’s budget. The purpose of this audit was to establish the “legitimacy” of the debt.

This was a brilliant first step. Firstly, it brought to the forefront the moral injustice of a people’s having to pay loans from which they never benefitted. Secondly, the reason given for the initial default was a moral one, as opposed to a financial one (even though the financial reasons lurk menacingly in the background). The genius behind the debt audit was that it was for establishing the morality (and not merely the affordability) of the public debt. Such a debt audit commission in Kenya – objective, apolitical (in a local sense), staffed with technically qualified, patriotic individuals and with an ability to trace the flows of borrowed funds – would likely produce spectacular results.

The way we might want to do it is the way Ecuador did it between 2007 and 2009. The then President Rafael Correa stopped payments on bonds that the country had taken out, and established a “debt audit commission” to conduct an audit on the country’s debt, which at the time was using up 38 per cent of the government’s budget. The purpose of this audit was to establish the “legitimacy” of the debt.

Ecuador’s debt audit commission found that the debt was illegitimate based on the manner in which negotiations were conducted. (The reasons for which debt can be illegitimate are myriad: here in Kenya, the factors would range from non-existence of the assets ostensibly purchased with the debt, overpricing of assets that do exist, payment of bribes and kickbacks, and lack of public participation and parliamentary approval, etc.) Arising from the stopped payments, and from the public establishment of the illegitimacy of the debt, the value of the bonds on the open market plunged. The Government of Ecuador then tendered to repurchase the bonds at 30 cents on the dollar. On the basis of the auction results, the government then offered to buy back the bonds at 35 cents on the dollar, expecting to retire at least 75 per cent of the bonds. Ninety-one per cent of the bonds were so retired in June 2009, that the government paid off its public debt for about a third of what it was worth and, according to President Correa, saved US$ 300M (Sh30 billion) per year in interest payments.

The Ecuadorian solution has an elegance that only simplicity gives. However, its success needs to be assessed against the backdrop of an important contextual factor: the retirement of the country’s debt happened at a time when markets were in the throes of the global financial crisis. Investors, therefore, were under pressure to liquidate their assets. Further, how successful this method would be as regards Chinese debt is anyone’s guess: simple and easy are vastly different things.

That said, the process presents a blueprint for any government that is ready and willing to ease the burden of over-indebtedness and is an option and a strategy this country should pursue – before it’s too late.

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The author is a Christian, a patriot and a financial professional. He tweets at @Chrenyan

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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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