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Conservation Vs “Development”? The Political Ecology of the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam and the Selous Game Reserve

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The up and downstream impact of the proposed Stiegler’s Gorge Dam depends on its completion, which is by no means guaranteed, but the Selous Game Reserve is already counting the costs.

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Conservation Vs “Development”? The Political Ecology of the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam and the Selous Game Reserve
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Wildlife tourism is one of Tanzania’s main foreign exchange earners and an important source of formal employment, but the sector’s survival is threatened by poaching, mineral exploration, and pressure from farmers and cattle-keepers to access farmland, fuel, pasture and protein in protected areas. For the Selous Game Reserve (SGR), the decision to build Africa’s largest dam across the Rufiji River adds a new and potentially devastating dimension to these existing threats.

Between a quarter and thirty per cent of Tanzania consists of national parks, conservation areas, game reserves, and controlled and protected areas. Until last year, the Selous was the world’s largest game reserve, covering an area of 50,000 sq. kms (larger than Denmark). In 1896, the area was designated a protected area by the Governor of Tanganyika Hermann von Wissmann, and it was made a hunting reserve in 1905. Last year’s gazetting of the 31,000 sq. kms Nyerere National Park reduced the SGR by sixty per cent, to about 20,000 sq. kms. President Magufuli justified this radical move as a means of reducing hunting tourism. “Tourists come here and kill our lions, but we don’t benefit a lot from these wildlife hunting activities”, Magufuli said. Slicing up the SGR will also complicate future negotiations over its status as a World Heritage Site, discussed below.

Exploration and mining concessions to Western and Russian oil, gas and uranium companies covering an estimated six per cent of Selous constitute a further challenge to the reserve’s integrity, and have been widely criticised by environmentalists. By 2017 there were said to be 48 prospective oil, gas and uranium concessions in the SGR (See Map 1), but for the moment, the government has put their development on hold. If and when the price of uranium reaches a certain threshold, we may expect mining to take off, with the attendant negative environmental consequences.

From the Selous’ killing fields…

The Selous once boasted Africa’s largest concentration of elephants and other megafauna. Waves of sustained ivory poaching reduced the elephant population from about 100,000 to only 13,000 in 2013. In 1982, SGR was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for protective purposes, and in 2014, it was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, by which time poaching, driven by the Asian ivory trade, was threatening to wipe out Tanzania’s entire elephant population, leading UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre (WHC) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to declare that: “there appears to be no coherent governmental response which could halt or even reverse the documented poaching trends”. Successive Tanzanian governments, politicians and officials, were widely considered complicit at best or, at worst, actively involved in facilitating the trade.

… to the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam…

In 2016, Stiegler’s Gorge Dam (SGD) was included in the Tanzania Power System Master Plan, and the project was finally underway. In the same year, the WHC expressed its “utmost concern about the ongoing project despite a high likelihood of serious and irreversible damage to the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property”, that is, the Selous. In 2017, UNESCO stated bluntly: “The foreseeable impact of Stiegler’s Gorge Hydropower project is irreversibly damaging to the Outstanding Universal Value of the property and clearly not in line with the Committee’s position on the incompatibility of dams with large reservoirs inside a World Heritage property”. UNESCO consequently recommended that the Tanzanian government should “permanently abandon” the project.

… enraging the conservationists…

In addition to UNESCO and other UN agencies, conservationists and the wildlife tourism industry were dismayed by the proposed dam, as were bilateral agencies and NGOs supporting Tanzania’s conservation efforts. They complained that no robust social or economic impact analysis, environmental assessment or public consultations informed the decision to proceed with the dam. The brief Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) produced by the University of Dar es Salaam’s Consultancy Bureau in 2018 contained “hardly any quantitative predictions of positive or negative impacts” of the proposed dam. Conservationists further argue that, by disturbing annual water flow patterns, the dam will have a potentially devastating impact on farmers and fishers downstream from the dam, and on the vast mangrove forest in the Rufiji Mafia-Kilwa Marine Ramsar Site, another internationally protected area. The dam would trap sediment and organic matter normally transported to the coast and enriching downstream agriculture, fisheries and hatcheries. Interrupted water flows would lead to increased salination upstream from the delta.

In addition, critics argue, the dam’s reservoir will take years to fill and will be subject to increasing rates of evaporation as temperatures rise under global warming. Up-stream irrigated rice cultivation on the Kilombero River and sugar on the Great Ruaha have reduced the volume of water flowing into the Rufiji, and future unpredictable weather patterns could lead to crippling drought. Effectively, only the waters of the Rufiji will be filling the dam’s vast reservoir. A more optimistic scenario could see an increase in precipitation from the unpredictable effects of climate change on micro-climates.

New roads and power transmission lines and the arrival of contractors and workers on the dam site and attendant commercial activities will have a massive and uncontrolled impact on the local environment and encourage further poaching, say the project’s critics. The millions of tons of cement required to build the dam will stimulate the local cement industry, but at the cost of a massive carbon footprint (cement accounts for about eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions). Loggers have already cleared the dam site of vegetation, and the site of the projected 1,200 sq. kms. reservoir, containing nearly three million trees, awaits the same fate, with unknown effects on wildlife habitats and biodiversity. When the loggers entered the park in late 2018, one luxury lodge announced its imminent closure.

… and leading economists to wave a red flag

Not only conservationists have found fault with President Magufuli’s mega-project. Though the necessary data for a robust analysis are lacking, economists argue that the dam makes neither financial nor economic sense and that there are cheaper, smaller, less risky and more practical alternatives for increasing access to electricity. Joerg Hartmann, an independent consultant who undertook an economic feasibility assessment of the project, argues that: “Stiegler’s Gorge has become unnecessary, and would be a significant economic burden for Tanzania”. The dam is likely to cost a multiple of the present contract price, and take much longer to build than currently proposed. One recent estimate puts the total cost of the dam at nearly $10 billion, while the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht estimated that it would take 9-10 years to complete, and not the three years claimed. At over 11 US cents per unit (kWh), SGD power would cost almost twice the current tariff, and a multiple of the cost of power from gas.

Currently, Tanzania has surplus power generation capacity of 280MW, and it is most unlikely that so much additional power would find a market. The project’s supporters claim that surplus power from the SGD will be exported. A 2018 World Bank technical appraisal for a power interconnectivity project between Tanzania and Zambia argued that internal demand for electricity was inadequate to justify the SGD, so that it could only be justified if exports were built into the project.

A final risk facing the planned dam is the apparent inexperience of the Egyptian contractors. According to Barnaby Dye, Arab Contractors, a state-owned company, worked on the giant Russian-built Aswan Dam in the 1960s, but only as one of many sub-contractors, while the second company, El Sweeny, builds transmission lines, not complex electro-mechanical systems.

President Magufuli defends his project

Defending the dam that he claims will power his ambitious industrialisation programme, President Magufuli claims that it will affect “just three percent” of the SGR, and will help combat deforestation across the country by providing citizens with a cheap alternative to charcoal and wood fuel. Ironic, therefore, that over 90,000 ha of miombo woodlands and forest risk losing an estimated 2.6m trees in the dam’s reservoir. For the moment, only the dam site has been cleared. President Magufuli says more power will be required for industrial growth, rural electrification and to run the Standard Gauge Railway, justifying one mega-white-elephant project in terms of the needs of another. Arguably, diesel power would be more economical than electricity given the probable low traffic density on the new railway, though this needs to be examined empirically.

Critics argue that the notion that rural Tanzanians will soon enjoy cheap hydropower via the national grid thanks to the SGD is highly unrealistic. The huge investments in transmission and distribution infrastructure required to make this work have not been costed, and the limited demand for electric power would make the required investment to reach Tanzania’s vast rural hinterland hugely expensive. Solar mini-grids have become widely popular and can be supplied at little cost to the state by commercial and social investors. Gas, not electricity, is the best (or least bad) alternative to unsustainable charcoal use for cooking in Dar es Salaam and other urban centres.

The President’s claim that “just three percent” of the SGR will be affected by the dam is also challenged by environmentalists, pointing to the downstream impacts and the likely negative effects of the dam’s construction on the Selous discussed above.

Past plans to dam the Rufiji came to nothing

Both colonial and post-independence governments explored the viability of damning the Rufiji River at Stiegler’s Gorge to produce power and develop irrigation agriculture. In the 1970s, Swedish aid financed dams at Kidatu and Mtera on the Ruaha River, a tributary of the Rufiji, upstream from Stiegler’s Gorge. At different times, detailed technical studies and construction designs by Japanese, American and Norwegian aid agencies and consultants led nowhere, while the World Bank concluded that, on the basis of demand projections and environmental concerns, a large dam was not feasible. Donors subsequently funded two more small- to medium-size dams, at Kidatu and Pangani.

Increasing power shortages and rationing under Presidents Mkapa (1995-2005) and Kikwete (2005-15) led the government to seek private investors through power purchasing agreements. South African, Canadian and Chinese companies came forward with hydropower proposals, but the main interest came from Brazil’s giant Odebrecht corporation, which in 2012 signed an MOU with the Rufiji Basin Development Authority (RUBADA).The MOU specified a seven-year timeline to finish the first phase and a further three years to complete the project. But the project preliminaries had not been finalised before the corruption scandal known as Operation Carwash” made Odebrecht a household name for serial bribery in Brazil and internationally, and led to the imprisonment of three former Brazilian presidents. President Magufuli disbanded RUBADA in 2017 and the SGD’s client is now Tanzania’s power utility TANESCO under the supervision of the Ministry of Energy.

Not even China, Africa’s premier source of concessional finance for big infrastructure projects, including dams, has shown any interest in financing this one. As of 2015, Chinese contractors were involved in dam building projects in over twenty African countries, from Angola to Zimbabwe. Though estimates vary, Deborah Brautigam and her team identified Chinese-financed dam projects in 17 African countries in 2013, financed by concessional loans from China’s Exim Bank worth nearly US$7 billion.

Finally, no private investors could be found to finance a dam on a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) basis. Globally, private developers are increasingly reluctant to invest in large dams for power production or irrigation. Human rights activists condemn forced population displacements while the economics of large dams are increasingly questionable. No forced population movements are involved in the SGD project, however.

What has changed to make this project viable?

After so many years of aborted plans to build a dam, what has changed to make Stiegler’s a viable project? The answer is: nothing. If anything, the project is even less viable now than it was a decade ago, before Tanzania’s huge gas deposits off its southern coast began to be exploited. The risks attached to continued upstream-irrigated agriculture and siltation increase with time, bringing the additional risk that the dam’s reservoir could fail to provide the volume of water required to run the facility at a capacity level that would justify the huge investment involved.

For sixty years, no bilateral development agency nor the World Bank has been willing to finance a dam at Stiegler’s Gorge, though these agencies have funded numerous medium-size dams over the years on tributaries of the Rufiji River, which regularly dry up during the dry season and are increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable rains. A study titled Structural adjustment and sustainable development in Tanzania reported that siltation was a common feature of small dams in Arusha, Kilimanjaro, Dodoma, Tanga and Rukwa regions. Falling water levels due to the degradation of water catchment areas rendered the potential of hydropower “doubtful”.

Beware of the mega-dam syndrome

If completed, the 700m long by 130m high SGD would be one of Africa’s largest dams by installed capacity, equal to Egypt’s Aswan High Dam (2,100MW) and Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa (2,075MW). A rapid review suggests that SGD will generate few of the benefits but suffer most of the costs normally associated with large dams. A study titled Megaprojects and risk: An anatomy of ambition lists four typical flaws of mega-projects, including dams: “underestimated costs, overestimated revenues, undervalued environmental impacts and overvalued economic development effects”. All four appear to apply in the case of the SGD. The study argues that: “Megaprojects are systematically subject to “survival of the unfittest”, the worst projects get built instead of the best”. Big dams are inherently high-risk. In a 2014 study, researchers from Oxford University concluded that: “In the vast majority of cases . . . megadams are not economically viable”.

Map 1: Selous Game Reserve

Map 1: Selous Game Reserve. Source DW

Note: The map shows the SGR before the creation of the Nyerere National Park in 2019.

Dams per se are not the issue, but mega-dams. Though it is by no means true that dams are carbon-neutral, hydro is still by far the most common source of renewable power worldwide, accounting for around 90 per cent of renewable energy generation. The main problems with mega-hydro highlighted in the literature are population displacement, often accompanied by inadequate compensation, and the up- and down-stream impacts on local eco-systems discussed in this report. Despite mega-dams’ bad reputation, a number of countries are investing heavily in mega-hydro, including Ethiopia, Brazil, Pakistan and China. The SGD does not involve population displacements.

Megaprojects are systematically subject to “survival of the unfittest”, the worst projects get built instead of the best

But the dam’s power generation capacity is also questionable. The figure of peak generation capacity of 2,100MW was based on a 25-year old feasibility study, since when the Rufiji River’s average volume is said to have fallen by as much as a quarter. Upstream agriculture and (possibly) climate change are responsible. Experts see the effects of climate change (more droughts, storms, floods) as a threat to the viability of hydropower globally. According to Clemente Prieto of the Spanish Committee on Large Dams: “Climate change is having a remarkable impact on hydropower generation and it increases the challenge of managing hydro plants”. Though the effects of climate change are difficult to predict, the increasing intensity of extreme and unusual climatic events is well documented. 

A dysfunctional aid relationship

UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, prominent wildlife and nature conservation bodies, including the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), numerous donors and a substantial number of private philanthropies dealing with specific animals and issues (hunting, poaching, wildlife trafficking, forestry, water), have commented negatively on the SGD initiative, so far to no avail. Germany, one of the most vocal critics of the project, has been at the forefront of wildlife conservation efforts in Tanzania since colonial times. Over many years, Germany has financed the Tanzanian government, technical experts, the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and others to promote conservation efforts in the Selous. After a heated debate in the German Bundestag in early 2019, a proposal that future Germany aid should be made conditional on Tanzania abandoning the dam was rejected, while it was agreed that Germany should assist Tanzania in finding an alternative source of power. This offer was not pursued.

Climate change is having a remarkable impact on hydropower generation and it increases the challenge of managing hydro plants

Critics wonder why, given the Tanzanian government’s refusal to enter into a substantive dialogue with its main long-term advisor/financier on conservation issues, while constantly ignoring its own international conservation commitments and policies, Germany continues to fund conservation efforts in Tanzania. In late 2018, a group of German experts was refused permission to enter the Selous to check on progress in anti-poaching. A German source commented: “International nature conservation organizations are increasingly wondering about the German policy of ‘paying and keeping their mouth shut’’. An expert from KfW (Germany’s state development bank) resigned after two years, during which the GOT restricted his visits to Selous (his work site). Underlying the protracted stand-off is the widespread belief that the rapid decimation of Tanzania’s elephant population—a two-thirds decline from about 109,000 in 2009 to about 43,000 in 2014—was facilitated by the active participation of elements within the Tanzanian state. The slow release of a 2018 aerial survey of wildlife in the Selous fuels suspicions that poaching is still an issue. It took two years to release the report, which the German government had financed. According to Henry Mwangonde, the number of elephants had stabilised at just over 15,000, more or less the number counted in 2014, suggesting little or no recovery.

Comment is free … and punishable

Once the government launches a major project, its implementation is declared “inevitable” and beyond discussion, and any internal criticism is deemed “unpatriotic” and “treasonable”, while development prospects. Magufuli accused “some” CSOs and NGOs “of being used by ‘foreigners’” to push the latter’s agenda. In May 2018, both ruling party and opposition MPs challenged the decision to proceed with the SGD project in advance of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and the premature issuing of licences to clear-fell the site of the dam’s future reservoir.

International nature conservation organizations are increasingly wondering about the German policy of ‘paying and keeping their mouth shut’

These mild criticisms were met with an impassioned threat from environment minister Kangi Lugola, who told parliament: “. . . the government will go ahead with implementation of the project whether you like it or not. Those who are resisting the project will be jailed”. Since then, apart from praise-singing, local commentary has been muted, while external critics have focused more on the conservation aspects of the project than on its economic and financial implications, though the two are related. No academic economist, Think Tank or newspaper editorialist has commented negatively on the project, while social media sources have featured both critical and pro-Magufuli commentary, albeit with little insight into the underlying issues. It is striking that no advocacy group or alliance in or outside Tanzania has challenged the SGD through public interest litigation, as happened in the case of the proposed road across the Serengeti.

Conservation versus “development”: a zero-sum game?

Rapid population growth is fueling increasing conflicts between farmers and cattle-herders over land. Both groups face off against conservationists, big-game hunters and the safari tourism industry in what is increasingly becoming a zero-sum game. Attempts for more than two decades to “empower” villagers to protect rather than harvest wildlife and forest reserves have largely failed. Last year, President Magufuli ordered the deregistration of a number of “idle” forest and game reserves totaling over 700,000ha for “redistribution to wananchi for residential and farming uses”. Subsequently, the government announced the creation of three new national parks, including one near President Magufuli’s home district of Biharamulu. In addition, the government has recently legalised the hunting and sale of game meat, a move that conservationists see as opening the door to the widespread slaughter of wildlife. The wildlife survey mentioned above reported a 72 per cent decline in the number of wildebeest in the Selous between 2013 and 2018. According to Mwangonde, the numbers for buffalo and antelope have not been released, but there are thought to have been significant decreases. Lastly, though the President justified the creation of Nyerere National Park in terms of stopping hunting tourism, the ban on commercial hunting that was imposed in 2015 has been partially lifted.

For your information, the government will go ahead with implementation of the project. . . Those who are resisting the project will be jailed

With or without a functioning dam, the SGR has taken an additional hit. While ivory poaching may have been curbed for the moment, and uranium mining and oil and gas exploration are on hold, the disruptions caused by the SGD contractors and the impending clear-felling of the dam’s imagined reservoir only add to these and other threats to the (now much smaller) SGR’s long-term survival. A gloomy but realistic prognosis is that further population growth and the impact of climate change will eventually put an end to conservation and wildlife tourism in the Selous and throughout the continent. According to Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey, as a result of climate change: “. . . the problems we all face now are far beyond the power of individual conservationists to cope with”.

Alhough many conservationists would challenge this view, it is difficult to see how fences and armed wardens can ward off climate change even if they can prevent “trespassing”, illegal hunting and grazing, or how farmers and pastoralists can be “empowered” to conserve rather than degrade forests and grasslands in the absence of an effective state that can legislate, coordinate and regulate the management of natural resources effectively and efficiently in the public interest. Even without the gathering storm clouds of climate change, and the obscenities of ivory poaching and wildlife trafficking, population growth and competition over finite resources are likely to lead us inexorably towards a comprehensive tragedy of the commons.

Resource misallocation and delays

Beyond conservation issues, however, is the question of resource misallocation, which economists now treat as a major explanation of why some economies and firms perform better than others. Though universal, the issue of systemic resource misallocation is particularly devastating in poor countries, where investible savings are by definition limited, and where prestige projects, white elephants and poor policy analysis and implementation commit huge amounts of capital to non-performing ventures, at enormous opportunity costs. Africa is littered with examples of leaders’ vainglory, extravagance and incompetence.

President Magufuli is pinning his legacy on what he terms “strategic” infrastructure projects, perhaps reflecting, in Flyvbjerg’s words, “The rapture politicians get from building monuments to themselves and their causes, and from the visibility this generates with the public and media”. But the success of the strategy depends on the success of the projects. If they succeed, the leader’s legacy is assured. If they fail, so does the legacy.

Wildlife trafficking, population growth and competition over resources are likely to lead us inexorably towards a comprehensive tragedy of the commons

President Magufuli’s penchant for multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects is stretching Tanzania’s finances to the limit, consuming an ever-larger part of the national budget and growing the national debt. Since coming to power in 2015, he has: initiated a 2,500km, $14.2 billion standard gauge railway (SGR) to replace the narrow gauge line and extend it to neighbouring countries; revived the country’s airline Air Tanzania Company Ltd (ATC) with new aircraft, including four Airbus A220-300s and two Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners; signed off on a three-kilometre, $260m bridge across the Mwanza Gulf on Lake Victoria, and launched a number of other costly projects.

It is most unlikely that the SGD will be commissioned before the end of President Magufuli’s second term in 2025, given the typical delays and cost overruns in mega-dam construction, leaving the unfinished project as a potentially costly embarrassment for the next government to deal with. Hopefully, ongoing investments in gas-fueled power plants, bottled gas for urban consumers and off-grid solar for rural areas will assure adequate power and help control deforestation in the likely event of an aborted Stiegler’s Gorge Dam.

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Mr Sarokin is an independent researcher based in Arusha, Tanzania.

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He dished out money and favours to select supporters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?

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

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

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

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

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

That America is a plutocracy

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

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

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

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

The effects of the plutocracy on American life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The effect of the plutocracy on American politics

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

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

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

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

The 2020 campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there hope?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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