On an otherwise ordinary Nairobi day in 2016, Yash Pal Ghai stood in a hallway of the Supreme Court of Kenya, waiting to have lunch with his former student and friend, Chief Justice Willy Mutunga. Ghai, carrying his usual striped cloth bag, its worn strap tied in a knot and its edges frayed, waited patiently, his unassuming nature belying his reputation as one of the world’s foremost experts in constitutional law.
Ghai soon noticed activity around the Chief Justice’s office. Mutunga had gone in, followed by several senior judges, many of whom had been Ghai’s students in the early days of Kenya’s independence. When he was finally called in, Ghai was taken aback by the arrangements in the room, which had been set up to swear him into the Roll of Advocates of Kenya. Mutunga had arranged it as a surprise.
Now, at 78 years of age, and after having waited nearly half a century for this day, the father of the Constitution of Kenya – his small, slender frame concealed beneath a billowing, black robe and a white barrister’s wig hiding the silver wisps of his iconic, unruly hair – cut a distinctive figure in the room. “As Chief Justice, it was my singular and great honour to admit Yash in the Roll of Advocates on June 10, 2016, six days before I retired. I fought tears as I conducted this ceremony. It seemed like a culmination of brother-comrade-friend-teacher-student-patriot.”
It was a meaningful moment for Ghai as well, but – ever the professor – his memory of the day is dominated by pride in his student. “To see Willy, my former student, as Chief Justice, was very meaningful. I had kind of given up on practicing law at that point, so being sworn in was quite moving.”
It had been a long and circuitous journey, but Ghai was finally home. For Mutunga and many others, the moment was highly symbolic, a mark of rightful return, a sign that Ghai – whose lifelong work in the service of people’s rights had been done while in exile from his home – was finally back where he had always belonged.
Growing Up in Colonial Kenya
It may come as a surprise, given his long and illustrious career, but law was not Ghai’s first career choice. In fact, when he left Kenya for the University of Oxford in 1956, the young Ghai had been intent on studying English Literature. “I loved reading novels,” he remembers with a smile. “My father used to give me fifty shillings a month, and I would hoard it and hoard it until I could buy a Jane Austen novel. I thought I might be an English teacher.” When he wasn’t absorbed in an Austen novel – Pride and Prejudice being his favourite – young Ghai could be found with his best friend, Dushyant Singh, the son of esteemed High Court Judge Chanan Singh.
The youngest of six children, Ghai remembers a happy childhood. His family was close, and he was, in his own words, “slightly pampered” by his older siblings. Ghai’s home in Ruiru was behind his father’s store, Mulkraj Ghai Shops, a popular stop for the area’s coffee farmers. “We sold everything, from kerosene, to food, to general supplies. The farmers would come in the morning to place their orders, and by the time they returned in the evening my father would have prepared and packed each order.” Kenya in the 1940s was heavily segregated, and – aside from one notable exception – Ghai says he rarely saw a non-white customer. That exception was none other than Jomo Kenyatta. “At the time, Africans were not allowed to drink, but he used to drink a lot. He would come to the shop, and my father would take him up to our place, close the curtains and give him a drink. My mother would give them lunch. My father could have been jailed if anyone had ever known that.” Kenyatta, who developed a close friendship with Ghai’s father, took a special interest in the youngest Ghai. He would often ask to see the youngster, bringing him fruit from his farm. Ghai remembers seeing Kenyatta after he was released from prison. “When I had come home from Oxford, Kenyatta had just been released and he asked my father why he hadn’t taken me to visit him and my father told him that the queues of people waiting to see him were so interminably long! So he arranged for us to see him specially. There is a picture of us all together about a week after he was released.”
The success of his father’s shop blessed Ghai with a relatively easy childhood. He spent the week in Nairobi, where he went to school and was cared for by his grandmother, and returned to Ruiru on the weekends. His father emphasised the importance of education, and Ghai worked hard, excelling in school. In fact, when Princess Margaret visited Kenya in 1956, Ghai, as the top student in his school, was chosen to present her with a bouquet of flowers. Unbeknownst to him, it would be his first claim to fame. “In those days, the British had their own propaganda thing. There were huge, outdoor screens, and they would show these clips. It would start with news about the country, and then they would show a cowboy movie,” Mutunga laughingly remembers. “I saw Yash in that clip. That was the first time I saw him.” When asked about the moment, Ghai laughs quietly. “I fell in love with Princess Margaret.” Indeed, Mutunga says, “You know, the way the British did those documentaries was very, very interesting. A lot of us became monarchists as young kids after seeing those beautiful women and queens.”
The reality of segregated living meant that young Ghai had virtually no substantive interaction with the white, British population in Kenya. What little interaction he did have, though, showed the young Ghai how very different life was for some Kenyans. “We wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near any British home. We didn’t know any British kids.” In fact, as he now looks out over his garden in Muthaiga, Ghai describes his initial reluctance to live in the neighbourhood. “I remember dogs barking at me here. They would bark at any non-white person. I never wanted to be here.”
Most of the inter-racial interactions he did have in his youth occurred at school, especially during athletic competitions. Once a year, he remembers, the leading schools in Nairobi, each segregated by race, would have athletics competitions. “I took part in athletics. We would always lose, because the Prince of Wales School (for white students) had coaches and equipment. You were on the field together, but then at intervals you went back to your own side. We didn’t even get to know their names.”
Segregation was just one manifestation, however, of the harsh reality of inequality all around him. Ghai remembers witnessing insults and beatings on the streets. “As a kid, when I used to see people being beaten up, I couldn’t do much. The injustice of it left a very deep impression on me, the unfairness of it.” By the time Ghai was ready for university, he had been personally bruised by the harsh mark of racism as well.
As he was preparing to apply for university admission, Ghai was advised to seek assistance from the Ministry of Education. He recounts, “In the Ministry, I saw a lift and I had never been in one. So I got into the lift. I was about to go, and suddenly three white men came in and asked me what I was doing. They physically picked me up and threw me out, and I ended up on the floor. I was so shattered. I thought, ‘How can they just throw me like this?’ ” Taking the stairs instead, Ghai eventually reached the office of Mrs. Brotherton, who, Ghai had been told, could help with the university admissions process. “She asked me where I wanted to go. I said, ‘Oxford.’ She looked at me and smiled and said, ‘You? You want to go to Oxford?’ She laughed at me and then mentioned two or three other universities. ‘You really think you could go to Oxford?’ she taunted. I said that I wanted to try. She asked me if I had received a credit in my ‘O-levels.’ And I said, ‘No.’ She smiled and said, ‘See? You didn’t even get a credit in your exams.’ That’s when I said, ‘Madam, I did not get a credit. I got a distinction.’ She was so angry with me. She told me she didn’t think Oxford was good for me.”
It was a defining moment for Ghai, who had received the highest O-level results in Kenya. Instead of embittering him, however, the experience motivated him to forge ahead. In fact, when he spoke to his teachers at the newly opened Gandhi Academy, which would eventually become the University of Nairobi, they wrote to Queens College to recommend him. After passing the entrance exam, Ghai was accepted at Oxford. Given his intent to pursue literature, however, the university urged him to study Latin so that he would be prepared. “My teachers helped me get tutorials for Latin. They got this chap to come from the Prince of Wales School twice a week and tutor me. My school arranged it. I was quite pleased that this chap drove up and took the time. I thought, ‘He’s English but he’s quite nice.’ ”
Oxford (Queen’s College) welcomed Ghai, but it was an adjustment. “In the beginning, I was nervous in all kinds of ways – there were all these bright people, etc. I didn’t even know how to eat food British style. The British Council had set up a course on how to eat, and I attended that to learn how to use utensils. I would look at other people, and I got a complex about knowing which spoon to use.” Ghai quickly made friends, pursuing his love of sports and the outdoors. He also enjoyed time with his brother, who was still at Oxford, and with Singh, who was studying in Bristol. The two kept in touch, hitchhiking around Europe during their holidays.
Soon, however, Ghai realised that studying English literature was not what he had expected. “It was very difficult, because at Oxford they started four centuries before Austen. It was hard to read old English, and I just couldn’t cope. So I went to my tutor. He was understanding, and he asked me what I wanted to do instead of English. Even though my second love was history, I chose law.”
Ghai excelled at Oxford, so much so that, when he achieved the highest exam scores in the university, the College Provost told him that the College would henceforth take care of his fees. After graduating with his Bachelor’s degree in 1961, Ghai applied to undertake graduate work at Oxford’s Nuffield College. It was while at Nuffield, where he was studying comparative Commonwealth constitutions for his doctorate, that Ghai was approached by his former tutor. “He raised the idea of Harvard. I hadn’t really thought about it, but he said, ‘Why not take a break from Oxford and go to Harvard?’ He said I could come back later and finish my thesis. I wondered if the College would really allow something like that. He was such a nice person, and he wrote to his friends there. Harvard gave me a grant and a generous allowance.” At Harvard, Ghai completed a Masters in Law and also took courses related to his doctoral thesis.
And it was at Harvard that Ghai met William Twining, the son of the former Governor of Tanganyika, who would become a lifelong friend. Twining had just started a law school, along with AB Weston, in Dar es Salaam. The University of East Africa, as it was then known, was recruiting professors. “People were telling me that Twining was around and was looking for me. It turned out that he was looking for staff. When we met, he said, ‘I’ve come to pick you up.’ ‘Pick me up?’ I laughed it off.” Although he was tempted, Ghai was concerned about finishing his doctorate, especially because Nuffield had been so good to him. It turned out, however, that Twining had already spoken to Oxford and the university was very supportive, encouraging Ghai to take the position in Dar. “After a lot of thinking and consideration of the fact that this was the first time Africans would have had a chance to study law [in East Africa], I thought it would be good to do this. Twining had already recruited four or five teachers. I ended up going at short notice.” Although Ghai would continue to work on his doctoral thesis once in Dar, even publishing several chapters, he never had the chance to finish it. In 1992, the University of Oxford honoured Ghai with a “higher doctorate” in Civil Law. While ordinary doctorates are earned through a defined program of study, higher doctorates are awarded only through a nomination process and a review of a scholar’s research work over a period of time. Ghai is among only 96 recipients of this degree since 1923.
A Young Professor in Dar es Salaam
In 1963, Ghai, at only 25 years of age, accepted his first professional position as a lecturer of law at the University of East Africa at Dar es Salaam. It was a heady, idealistic time for the young graduate, as well as for the wider society. According to Professor Bill Whitford, Ghai’s colleague and lifelong friend, Dar was one of the most desirable places in terms of legal education at the time. “There was a wide range of people from all over the world, and the students were fantastic. The law school admitted only 100 students per year, and they were superb. The other thing was that this was [Tanzanian President Julius] Nyerere’s most creative period, and thoughts about creating a new society were all over the place. Everything was up for debate. It was a very hopeful time.”
Indeed, Ghai describes his time in Dar as “most formative” in terms of his professional growth; he was acutely aware of the significance of his role. “It was the first time black Africans were being allowed to study law [in Africa],” he remembers. “People didn’t know much about law other than that this is what the British used to beat you. We were aware that the students who left us could soon be judges or senior government officials, and we were conscious of inculcating in them the sense that law could be used for the promotion of good values.”
This conviction of his responsibility to inspire students to use the law to work for the betterment of society, to seize and channel the fervour of newfound independence in the direction of an equal, democratic post-colonial Africa, is partly responsible for Ghai’s break with the legal positivist tradition in which he had been trained, opting for what came to be known as “legal radicalism” or “law in context.” This approach, which sought to understand and interpret the law within the social, political and economic contexts in which it functioned, was not the norm at the time. In the new era of independence, however, Ghai and others like him believed it was critical for lawyers to understand how the existing law had come to be and how it might need to change to suit the rapidly evolving needs of newly independent nations. Writing about his years in Dar, Ghai says, “It was not long before I became acutely uncomfortable with endless explorations of the rules of privity and consideration, and became conscious of the unreality of the emphasis on the common law when it touched only a small segment of the population.”
Indeed, Mutunga credits Ghai for this approach. “We were taught law within its historical, socio-economic, cultural, and political contexts, thus departing from the conservative legal positivism with its clarion call that ‘law is the law is the law.’ We undertook to study, research, and practice law never in a vacuum. Above all, we anchored law in politics and shunned legal centralism. Our approaches were multi-disciplinary.” At the same time, however, Ghai ensured that his students were well grounded in traditional law. Mutunga describes the high standards Ghai held as a teacher, demanding that his students become masters of “staunch positivism” while having the skills to interrogate that tradition. Mutunga describes Ghai’s approach as a “fantastic balance,” recalling how his professor’s exams required students to address three questions dealing with technical aspects of the law and two questions asking students to critique the legal rules. “Dar law graduates could regard themselves as ‘learned,’ as we were distinguishable from other pretenders to the ‘learned’ tag.” Mutunga considered Dar to be his “liberation Mecca,” the place where he developed his own intellectual, ideological, and political positions.
Not everyone was a fan of this approach. Mutunga describes how some students were not interested in studying context. Already assured of high level jobs, these students “just wanted to know the rules so they could go out there and practice.” They were not interested in learning context. Some students wanted to “finish things and get marks. They had gone to law school to be ‘big people’.” Ghai himself has questioned legal radicalism, wondering if his students were at a disadvantage for not having trained as traditional lawyers. Mutunga, who adopted Ghai’s approach when he became a professor, disagrees, explaining that his own students have expressed how the approach of law in context helped them cultivate a more holistic approach to the law, and to an understanding of the law.
Ghai’s natural aptitude, not just for the law but also as an educator, quickly became clear. While teaching in Dar, he co-authored (with his colleague and friend, Patrick McAuslan) what would become one of his most well-known books, Public Law and Political Change in Kenya. Although his primary motive in writing the book was to provide a textbook for his students, who did not have authoritative texts on the laws of newly independent East Africa, Public Law became one of the most widely cited works related to Kenyan law. When it was published in 1970, Ghai was just 32 years old.
The authors wrote that they wished to provide an analysis and critique of Kenya’s development since early colonial times as seen through the processes of law:
We have never understood the function of the law teacher or writer to be the mere reciter of rules whose merit is to be gauged by the quantity of information he can relay. All African countries have great need for lawyers who can take their eyes off the books of rules, who can see more to law than a set of statutes and law reports . . . The law student must constantly be brought up against questions such as . . . what is this law designed to achieve, what set of beliefs lie at the back of this law . . . a text should aim to stimulate, even aggravate, not stupefy, and that is what we have tried to do here.
Their analysis was incisive and sometimes harsh, blatantly questioning, for instance, increasing executive power and the trampling of the Bill of Rights, which they said was so ineffective that they wondered why it remained a part of the Constitution at all.
George Kegoro, the Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, refers to Public Law as “the bible,” and “easily the most widely cited book in Kenyan law.” Kegoro says, “At independence, everybody was trying to establish a frame of analysing Kenya and Kenyan society. How do you analyse society? What are the constituent components? He provides that within the book. There was no clarity about where the tails were, where the heads were. And what he did was to show us where the tails and heads were. It has held sway up to now. It is still very much a valued way of analysing Kenyan society, which is why the book gets cited over and over and over again. It is one of the reasons why he is a legend.” Kegoro pauses, then adds – with incredulity – “And he never talks about it himself! Ever, ever!”
In fact, despite his growing success, Ghai remained down-to-earth. He strove, in many ways, to be a peer of his students. “Yash belonged to a group of law professors and lecturers who did not carry the tag of ‘academic terrorists’. We reserved that tag for the faculty who clearly did not like to teach, did not like students, and suffered from egos and serious intellectual arrogance. Invariably, they treated us as intellectually inferior, adopted a pulpit lecture system where they ordered not to be interrupted while lecturing. Questions were to be asked during tutorials. Yash and others were different. They were approachable, treated us as equals in the word and spirit of the intellectual culture in Tanzania. “All students were Yash’s friends,” recalls Mutunga.
Indeed, Ghai’s ease with people placed him in the middle of a wide social circle, made up of students and colleagues. Despite his work, which was significant, Ghai invested time in creating and maintaining deep and often lifelong relationships with people around him. Mutunga explains, “He was always likable and great company in and out of class. Bear in mind Yash became a full professor at the tender age of 32. In all respects he wanted us to see him and treat him as a brother. Many of us were in our mid-20s. Today, whenever I communicate to Yash I sign off, Nduguyo/Your brother because of a relationship that spans almost over five decades.” Whitford describes Ghai’s ability to balance a social life with his professional duties. “He cooked, and he was an excellent cook! What male Asians cooked at that time?” Whitford asks in amazement. “He didn’t have servants, because he didn’t want to have that kind of relationship with anyone. He was a democratic socialist from the word ‘go.’ He entertained but was also very intellectual. It was typical to see him walking around with his arms full of papers all the time.”
Just as Dar es Salaam was a site where he flourished professionally, it was a place where home took on a new meaning. It was while in Dar that Ghai met and married his first wife, Karin Englund, who was from Sweden. Their daughter, Indira, was born in Dar in 1971. He remembers a pleasant life, with a house by the sea.
Ghai’s tenure in Dar was one of the most dynamic periods of his life. He quickly climbed the ranks, becoming the first East African dean of the University of East Africa’s law school in 1970. He was also personally approached by Tanzanian President Nyerere, who asked him for assistance in the development of the Tanzanian constitution. He admired Nyerere, who gave him complete freedom to say what he believed.
Interestingly, it was also while he was teaching in Dar that Ghai met his future wife, Jill Cottrell, for the first time. “I first met him in 1969. I was doing my Masters at Yale, and my supervisor had taught for a year in Dar. He knew Yash, who was at Yale on a short visit. My supervisor invited a group of people who had some connection to East Africa over for dinner, and then he invited me, although I didn’t know any of these people.” Cottrell Ghai laughs, remembering the evening. “He said, ‘I am going to introduce you to a glamorous man, but I think he’s going to get engaged.’ He did get married soon after that.”
Over time, however, the environment in Dar became increasingly stressful. In his reflections on this time, Ghai writes of more and more racism. “For despite the scholarly analysis of some Marxists, what passed in general for radicalism in those days included a large amount of racism and xenophobia. I remember overhearing the wife of a Tanzanian colleague – a self-proclaimed Marxist – that she would not rest in peace unless she saw that muhindi (Indian) out of the country – that muhindi being me!” In fact, a growing drive to “Africanise” things, along with the University of Nairobi’s continued and persistent invitations to return to Kenya and assume the deanship at the law school, tempted Ghai to finally accept the offer.
Disclaimer: This article is meant as a brief overview of Professor Yash Pal Ghai’s life and career. While it aims to shed light on some of his personal and professional experiences, it is not a comprehensive account.
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John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief
Late president John Magafuli never was the anti-corruption saviour international media claimed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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