Orphanages, alternatively referred to as children’s homes or charitable children’s institutions as per the Children Act 2001, have been in the headlines in the recent past for a myriad of allegations ranging from abuse and neglect of children, recruitment of children from poor families and involvement in a cartel of traffickers in the guise of adoption that has involved adoption societies, lawyers, children’s officers and judicial officers. The dramatic case of Matt and Daisy Mazzoncini is the latest in a series of explosive exposés on orphanages and adoption in Kenya.
While all the focus has been on these emerging cases and the ensuing drama, a more profound discourse concerning the suitability of the orphanage as a model of care and protection of children has been ongoing for some years among policymakers, practitioners and childcare advocates. Deinstitutionalisation or the gradual replacement of the orphanage with social services at the community level coupled with family-based alternatives like foster care and kinship care have been proposed. To a keen observer, the question of whether there is a nexus between the two seemingly discrete occurrences naturally arises.
Is the ongoing onslaught on childcare service providers related to the broader deinstitutionalisation discourse?
Bur first, what exactly is deinstitutionalisation?
Any attempt to effectively unpack the concept of deinstitutionalisation immediately demands an answer to the question of how the orphanage, in the first place, came to stealthily occupy the space for the care and protection of children traditionally reserved for the family. Social inertia implies that norms and institutions anchored in tradition do not easily give way to new and exotic ones unless, as a prerequisite, the social forces that anchor them are weakened by changes within the same society. New norms and institutions only come in to fill a gap which they have not themselves created but which requires filling nevertheless.
What then are these social dynamics that significantly weakened the family institution and its cultural underpinning? Why and how did the orphanage emerge? What is the impact of the orphanage on children, the family, and communities? Is the orphanage a better alternative for care and protection of children than the family? What informs the ongoing deinstitutionalisation discourse and how is it likely to shape the national child protection policy?
Any attempt to effectively unpack the concept of deinstitutionalisation immediately demands an answer to the question of how the orphanage, in the first place, came to stealthily occupy the space for the care and protection of children traditionally reserved for the family.
The orphanage is primarily a western concept. In North America, orphanages first emerged in the early 19th century while in Europe they can be traced far back to the Roman Empire. In the mid-20th century orphanages were gradually phased out in the West and replaced with foster care and welfare systems. There exists two schools of thought concerning what motivated governments in the West to adopt deinstitutionalisation policies On one hand are arguments that the motivating factor was child welfare concerns informed by evidence of the long-term negative effects of orphanages on the developmental well-being of children while on the other are arguments that policymakers were more concerned by the high costs of orphanages as a model of care of children compared to foster care and provision of social services to needy families. Whichever the case, there is consensus that both factors played a role in the eradication of the orphanage in the West.
However, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc continued the use of orphanages under the communist regime until the fall of the Soviet Union. When the former Soviet countries started to join the European Union, they were given a precondition of eradicating orphanages and the practice of intercountry adoption. The EU supported these initiatives, and this saw the rise of the concept of deinstitutionalisation as it is understood today, which is a policy-driven and systematic process of eradication of child care institutions (orphanages) as a model of care for children who have lost or are at the risk of losing parental care.
The growth of the orphanage in Kenya
While countries in the West had gotten rid of orphanages and those in Eastern Europe were in the process of doing so, the opposite was happening in Kenya and Africa in general. Though there exists very scanty data on the growth of the orphanage in Kenya, it is believed that the Thomas Barnado House (now Kenya Children’s Home) was the first orphanage in Kenya. The Thomas Barnado House opened on or around independence to care for children born out of relationships between British colonial masters and Africans.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that the orphanage remained at the periphery of Kenyan society until late 1990s when the numbers began to swell rapidly, particularly in the wake of the AIDS pandemic that saw an increasing number of children losing their parents to the disease. Currently, there is no substantive evidence on the number of orphanages in Kenya though some studies indicate that there are 850 registered orphanages and an unknown number of unregistered and unregulated ones.
Traditionally in Kenya, children were cared for within the extended family and the community. This tradition was slowly eroding in Kenya by the early 1970s and by the turn of the century it was almost on the brink of total erosion or so was the impression. This trend can be attributed to several factors. The global economic downturn in the 1970s saw fluctuating prices of the country’s major exports, low levels of technology and increasing debt. Other factors, such as drought and famine, high population growth, the collapse of the East African Community, high rates of urbanisation, and land fragmentation resulted in widespread poverty, food shortages and declining standards of living.
In addition, the country’s adoption of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in the late 1980s, which significantly impacted the government’s investments in social services, especially education and health care and which led to rising unemployment and retrenchments. Joseph Rono, in his paper, “The Impact of the Structural Adjustment Programmes on Kenyan society” states:
“The SAPs are intended in the long run to improve the economy. However, in the short run, one area that suffers from the immediate consequences of the SAPs, which has been ignored, is the social aspect of human development; namely, the erosion of social services, especially among vulnerable groups, families and individuals.”
Further, in reference to their impact on the family unit, he states:
“Although the government was committed to the reduction and eventual eradication of poverty in Kenya immediately after Independence, it has experienced difficulties in implementing its plans. Consequently, poverty has not only persisted, it has also increased significantly in the I990s, negatively affecting all sectors of development and the family unit in particular.”
In addition, the HIV pandemic further complicated the capacity of the family in two ways. One, it aggravated the already bad socio-economic conditions of the affected families and communities. The most infected were between the ages of 15 and 49 years, which constitutes the productive demographic. Many families lost their breadwinners and in most of the cases, one member of the family was forced to cut down on work hours or leave work altogether to take care of the one who was ailing. The number of orphans increased significantly with most being left in the care of either their grandparents or older siblings.
Currently, there is no substantive evidence on the number of orphanages in Kenya though some studies indicate that there are 850 registered orphanages and an unknown number of unregistered and unregulated ones.
Secondly, the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS was a direct affront on the kinship care previously attributed with caring for children who had lost their parents. While orphaned children would previously be absorbed into the extended family or close family friends, they were now shunned. In this state, the family institution was vulnerable to any external idea that would seemingly save these children.
As the pandemic quickly morphed into a humanitarian crisis, the Government of Kenya was understandably caught flatfooted. It had inherited the colonial philosophy that did not consider child care as a function of the state. As a result, Kenya didn’t have a credible child care and protection system to cater for the increasing numbers of children needing protection. This is a fact demonstrated by the laws concerning children that existed prior to 2001 when the Children Act was enacted.
The Adoption Act of 1959 was a law to govern the adoption of children. The Guardianship of Infants Act of 1959 was for guardianship and custody of infants and the Children and Young Persons Act was for the protection and discipline of children, juveniles and young persons. This implied that as the family became increasingly overwhelmed, there was no law or policy framework for services to support families in crisis or for alternatives in case the separation of children was inevitable.
In addition to introducing the term orphan in international development, the term’s definition was problematic in two ways. One, the definition branded the victim of the problem and not the problem itself. Secondly, the idea of orphan with its socio-economic connotations was hitherto alien to most African cultures.
In response to the crisis that had engulfed most African countries, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) came up with the concept of orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) in an attempt to raise the profile of the crisis on the international development agenda. The term single orphan was introduced to refer to a child who has lost one parent while double orphan referred to one who had lost both parents. As a result, the number of orphans shot up instantly.
In addition to introducing the term orphan in international development, the term’s definition was problematic in two ways. One, the definition branded the victim of the problem and not the problem itself. Secondly, the idea of orphan with its socio-economic connotations was hitherto alien to most African cultures. Evidence indicates that most African communities still define children left behind not based on their socio-economic deprivation but on their position within their community. In the Gikuyu community, for instance, the child is referred to as “Mwana wa ndigwa” or a child who has been left behind, implying a general understanding that the child had been left in the care of the extended family or the community.
Secondly, the wisdom of the concept of vulnerable children is questionable since its implication was that almost all children in sub-Saharan Africa became the target of interventions, consequently creating a false impression that the traditional child care and protection systems in Africa has completely collapsed. It’s no surprise then that evidence indicates that between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of children in orphanages today have at least one surviving parent.
This was quickly followed by the emergence of the orphancare movement within the American Evangelical church. Though the church in the West, due to the simple lack of the bureaucracy of governments and international development agencies, was the first to respond to the crisis by mainly building orphanages through their local affiliates, the orphancare theology marked a watershed moment. Founded on James 1: 27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world, this new gospel became the rallying call for Christians to commit to helping children out of the orphan crisis. With that, taking part in helping orphans in African and other developing countries became a measure of how Christian one was, and donations rose to unprecedented levels and so did the number of orphanages. In Kenya today, the majority of orphanages are operated by churches and Christian-based organisations with funding from mainly the US and Western Europe.
The Children Act 2001 and the official sanctioning of the orphanage
To further reinforce the position of the orphanage, the Children Act of 2001 was enacted, placing the orphanage at the core of the childcare system. Under the Act, a child must be placed into an orphanage before they can be placed for foster care or adoption. More fundamentally though, the Act was silent on the services to support vulnerable families and prevent separation or relinquishment of children.
Through the Children Act, the orphanage was thus officially and legally sanctioned as the default mode of care for children separated from their family while the family was left to its own devices. Stephen Ucembe, in his paper titled, “Institutionalization of Children in Kenya: A Child Rights Perspective”, notes that the reference to the orphanage as a charitable children’s institution in the Children Act 2001 clearly demonstrated the government’s abrogation of its role as the primary duty bearer of children’s rights – a fact demonstrated by the historical low budgetary allocation to the Department of Children’s Services and the National Council for Children’s Services. The government today only runs 26 statutory institutions meant for children in conflict with the law while churches and Christian organisations and individuals operate the 850 registered orphanages and an unknown number of unregistered ones. This is not surprising given the bizarre provision in the Charitable Children’s Institutions Regulations of 2005 that requires an orphanage to have at least 20 children before seeking registration. An orphanage simply needs to keep its numbers below this threshold and it can legally operate outside regulation.
Through the Children Act, the orphanage was thus officially and legally sanctioned as the default mode of care for children separated from their family while the family was left to its own devices.
Another key factor was the introduction of free primary education in 2003 which has been coupled with decreasing levels of funding for education, consequently reducing the quality of education in public schools. It’s estimated that 1 million primary school-age children were out of school by 2017. With orphanages either having schools within their precincts or securing sponsorships for children to attend private schools, impoverished parents relinquish their children and even ask them to lie that they are orphans to get into orphanages. Today, access to education is one of the leading reasons why children are in orphanages. Other reasons for placement of children in orphanages include abuse and neglect, gender-based violence, especially female genital mutilation, alcoholism and drug abuse, disability and discrimination.
What is the impact of orphanages on children, families and communities?
A 1999 study titled “Growth and Development of Abandoned Babies in Institutional Care in Nairobi” concluded that infants under institutional (orphanage) care have poorer growth and development compared to mothered infants. This is consistent with decades of research that has proven that care in orphanages has adverse impact on the cognitive, intellectual and social development of children, especially those below the age of three. The rule of thumb is that for every three months that a child below the age of three spends in an orphanage, he or she loses one month in development. Institutionalisation of children under the age of three is classified as a form of violence by the World Report on Violence Against Children.
In addition, evidence also demonstrates that violence against children is six times more likely in orphanages as compared to family settings – a fact not openly acknowledged due to the secluded nature of orphanages which allows most abuse to go unnoticed. Children in orphanages, their parents and the community also lack agency and are less likely to report abuse, especially if the benefactor is the perpetrator.
The orphanage perpetuates social isolation resulting in adjustment challenges once children exit. Care leavers lack social capital since they are cut off from their families and communities. They lack social skills to negotiate life outside the orphanage. Research indicates that they are more likely to end up in crime and prostitution, more inclined to suicide, while young women are likely to end up in abusive relationships and their children are likely to end up in an orphanage, thus perpetuating an endless cycle of poverty and institutionalisation.
Additionally, the orphanage infringes on children’s right to parental care, growth and development, freedom of association and of worship, particularly when children attend school and church within its confines. It also encourages discrimination and stigma against children.
The orphan ideology and the orphanage institution are a direct affront on the ideology and institution of the family. As indicated earlier, the idea of the orphaned and vulnerable child is not only foreign to African culture but also creates a false perception that the contemporary African family is irredeemably and inherently incapable, abusive, neglectful and exploitative towards children by classifying almost all children as being in need of care. For instance, there are reported to be 3.6 million orphaned and vulnerable children in Kenya out of which approximately 50,000 are in orphanages while between 400,000 and 500,000 live on the streets. Even if the number of children in orphanages was doubled to cater for those in unregistered orphanages, at least 83 per cent of these children would still be living with their families, though at risk of separation.
In a more direct affront on the position of the family, orphanage operators often refer to the orphanage as a family, and/or outrightly delegitimise the impoverished family. In a study titled, “Children’s Personal Data: Discursive Legitimation Strategies of Private Residential Care Institutions on the Kenyan Coast”, Njeri Chege notes that references to the orphanage as a family on orphanages’ websites are meant to legitimise the orphanage by attributing to it the authority of the family as a social institution. She highlights that the communication advances a rescue discourse that portrays the dysfunctional family as either an inherent threat to the child’s well-being or helpless. The orphanage is portrayed as the saviour and appropriate environment for the child. She further notes that communications by the orphanages only refer to unfit mothers with no mention of the fathers, while the extended family is only mentioned in situations where they are referring children to the orphanages.
Such narratives erode the legitimacy of the family both locally and abroad and further reinforce the impression of the hopeless African family created by the orphan and vulnerable children concept. This is especially potent for the younger generation of Kenyans born into the era of the orphanage and who because of the orphanage’s prominent presence and the repeated reference to it as a family end up internalising it as a legitimate or even better form of family while in actual sense it’s a much inferior alternative. The orphanage thus diverts resources that would be sufficient to provide social services to families at the community level. Evidence demonstrates that both provision of services at the community level and community foster care are more cost-effective than running orphanages.
Global an national policy shifts
The foregoing notwithstanding, the suitability of the orphanage is being questioned in Kenya today. This conversation has been driven by several factors at the international and national levels.
The Government of Kenya in 2010 formulated the National Social Protection Policy followed by the Social Assistance Act of 2013. The Act provides for, among other things, a cash transfer for orphaned and vulnerable children. The stipend is meant to enable vulnerable families to take care of their children. Other cash transfers include that for the elderly and persons living with severe disability.
In response to the United Nations Guidelines for Alternative Care of Children adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2009, the government developed the Guidelines for the Alternative Family Care of Children in Kenya, which were launched in 2015. The guidelines recommend the development of a deinstitutionalisation strategy. Since then, there has been a consistent push by a section of civil society for the implementation of the guidelines, which culminated in the formation of the Association for the Alternative Family Care of Children in Kenya in 2016. The government, through the Department of Children’s Services and in collaboration with UNICEF Kenya and other partners, is currently piloting the guidelines in Kisumu County.
The Government of Kenya in 2010 formulated the National Social Protection Policy followed by the Social Assistance Act of 2013. The Act provides for, among other things, a cash transfer for orphaned and vulnerable children.
Perhaps one of the clearest indications of the inevitable change is the decision by the trailblazing SOS Children’s Villages Kenya to gradually shift focus from their villages to the integrated foster care model, which basically involves moving the family units from the centralised cluster and scattering them within the community, effectively eliminating social isolation and allowing children to better integrate into society.
At the global level, several developments have heightened the prospects of a global shift, which inevitably exerts pressure on national policymakers. These include the inclusion of orphanage trafficking as a form of modern day slavery in the Australian Modern Day Slavery Act in the midst of an initiative to have all Commonwealth countries enact modern day slavery laws. The resolution by the Commonwealth Youth Forum at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London in 2018 calling on all member states to prioritise policies and programmes that prevent placement of children into orphanages. The latter is particularly interesting given that Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2020 will take place in Kigali, Rwanda, a country that is the trailblazer in deinstitutionalisation in Africa.
In 2018 the European Union placed its first ever call for proposals for deinstitutionalisation, signaling a possible intent to export its deinstitutionalisation policy position outside its jurisdiction, while the UN General Assembly selected “Children without Parental Care” as the theme for the Rights of the Child in 2019. All eyes will be on New York as it hosts the UN General Assembly in September 2019 when the resolution will be released.
Recruitment of children into orphanages has also become increasingly recognised in the US State Department’s Report on Trafficking in Persons. Most significant though is the recently launched US Government “Advancing Protection and Care of Children in Adversity’ Strategy 2019-2023”, which has “Put Family First” as one of its three core objectives. The strategy represents the most explicit and candid policy position by a major donor on the need to eradicate orphanages as a form of care.
Schools of thought and policy positions
In this context, it seems inevitable that the orphanage will inevitably either be eradicated or it may undergo some radical change. Undeniably, the actors in the country are aware of this and have embarked on initiatives to try and shape the discourse in their favour, either for self-preservation, positioning or even raw power play.
Three schools of thought or policy positions have emerged, each with a different motive, deinstitutionalisation ideology, and theory of change. The first policy position is the “conservative” position associated with the Association for Charitable Children Institutions in Kenya, which is the umbrella body for orphanages in Kenya. Unsurprisingly, this school of thought, though acknowledging the harm caused by orphanages, argues that the situation on the ground makes orphanages inevitable. “How do we take children back to the same families who abused and neglected them in the first place?” is their argument. Fundamentally though, they have redefined deinstitutionalisation to mean removal of children from orphanages through reintegration as opposed to removal of the orphanage from the childcare and protection system, effectively turning the orphanage system into a revolving door where children come in and out. Consequently, they are proposing the strengthening of orphanages to adhere to the National Standards of Care for Charitable Children Institutions and the strengthening of families at the same. They do not propose when and how the actual transition from orphanages to families will occur.
The second position is the “slash and burn” position whose proponent is the Child Welfare Society of Kenya. Though seemingly unrelated to deinstitutionalisation, this school of thought presents the most radical strategy for reintegrating children within three years, closing of all orphanages and replacing them with 47 mega foster care centres, one in each county. Funded by the national budget, construction of the facilities is currently underway in several counties. The second proposal is the centralisation of policymaking and service provision at the Child Welfare Society of Kenya. The argument is that a government agency will better guarantee child safety as opposed to private ones, which have been branded as rogue. However, evidence suggests that the key to safeguarding children lies in strict enforcement of sound regulations and presence of checks and balances at all levels and not necessarily whether the service provider is a state or non-state agency.
To justify overrunning of all the other players, this school of thought has adopted the emotive child trafficking in the guise of adoption narrative. It should, however, be acknowledged that adoption and child protection in general suffers deep systemic weaknesses that are beyond the scope of this essay, and not simply a matter of some alleged rogue players as the narrative seems to portray. The situation has further been aggravated by years of poor regulation, which has seen the rise of unscrupulous orphanage operators that expose children to abuse, neglect, exploitation and trafficking. This school of thought is focused on centralised regulation as opposed to reform.
The third position is the “care reform” position propagated mainly by the Association for Alternative Family Care of Children. In this case, deinstitutionalisation is just an entry point into broader social reforms aimed at provision of basic social services at the community level and resourced family-based alternatives. Though radical in its intended outcome, this school of thought is advocating for a more systematic approach encompassed in a clear strategy comprising political will for reforms, building the capacity of civil society organisations and the social workforce, building evidence through, among other avenues, piloting of the concept, and the securing of funding for reforms, including ring fencing of resources being channeled into orphanages currently. This position is informed by the model applied mainly in Eastern Europe and Rwanda and its main global proponents are tge international charities Hope and Homes for Children and Lumos, a charity founded by the iconic Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.
Currently, this model is being piloted in Nyamira, Kisumu and Kiambu counties under the banner of Changing the Way We Care programme spearheaded by the Department of Children’s Services, Catholic Relief Services and Lumos. USAID, under the “Advancing Protection and Care for Children in Adversity” strategy mentioned above, is co-funding the initiative alongside the MacAuthor Foundation. A similar pilot is currently underway in Murang’a County under the stewardship of the Department of Children’s Services and the charity Stahili Foundation.
In his thesis titled, “For the Benefit of Children Alone? A Discourse Analysis of Policymaking Relating to Children’s Institutions in Indonesia, 1999-2009”, Brian Keith Babington examined the process of deinstitutionalisation policymaking in Indonesia and found out that the policy position finally adopted in the country was not informed by child welfare concerns but was a compromise between the policy positions adopted by different players, in addition to some influence from external development partners. The Kenyan situation is similar to that of Indonesia in terms of orphanage ownership, poor regulation, the emergence of different policy positions and the involvement of major development agencies. In addition, the robust civil space in Kenya makes policymaking highly participatory in most cases. It is, therefore, likely that in the long term, a compromise of the different policy positions and the influence of international development agencies will shape the final policy position adopted in Kenya.
In conclusion, it is evident that though the family was gradually weakened by socio-economic factors from the 70s, the tipping point was the HIV pandemic and the lack of a child care system at the time of its emergence. The interventions and narratives that followed, including the concept of the orphan and the orphanage, further aggravated the situation by affronting traditional child care systems and focusing on the symptoms of the problem and not the problem itself.
The ultimate solution, therefore, lies in changing the ideological foundation and narratives, policies and practices on child care to focus on the family and community. Rehabilitating the family and community child care systems will not only eradicate the need for the orphanage but will also solve the problem of children living on the streets, reduce abuse and neglect of children and improve the overall well-being of children, their families and communities. Failure to do this will only see the family, especially the impoverished one, increasingly fail in its child rearing role, which could be disastrous considering that children make up to slightly over half of the Kenyan population.
Against this backdrop, it is stark clear which of the policy positions is sounder from the perspective of the problem as defined herein.
This notwithstanding, the “slash and burn” position seems to have the support of the executive perhaps due to the proximity of the Child Welfare Society of Kenya to the First Family. The president was their patron at the time they were made a state corporation after succeeding his mother. The position by the Labour and Social Services Cabinet Secretary on the government’s plan to close orphanages therefore need not be interpreted as a sign of political goodwill for care reform but rather for a specific policy position within the broader care reform discourse. More interesting is the seeming difference in position between the Department of Children’s Services, on the one hand, and the Cabinet Secretary and the Child Welfare Society of Kenya, on the other.
The ultimate solution, therefore, lies in changing the ideological foundation and narratives, policies and practices on childcare to focus on the family and community. Rehabilitating the family and community childcare systems will not only eradicate the need for the orphanage but will also solve the problem of children living on the streets.
With all the pushing and shoving, the deinstitutionalisation policymaking process is likely to produce on the most dramatic and interesting policy processes witnessed thus far. It can only be hoped that in the end, the best interest of Kenyan children will prevail.
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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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