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Why Bother to Vote? Why Elections Are Losing Their Lustre

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A couple of years ago, there was a contentious debate in academic and policy circles about the perceived decline in global democracy. Through all the talk about how to define democracy and measure its growth and reversal, one thing remained certain: the sanctity of elections. Regardless of whether or not democracy is advancing, elections retain their position at the center of any legitimate democratic system. Problematic though they might be, elections represent the height of political progress.

When there is public outcry over an election, is usually revolves around a particular aspect of the electoral process: the merits and/or drawbacks of election technology, controversy around how votes are counted, the source of campaign money; the list goes on. This has especially been the case in the last year, as people reacted in shock to -and looked for flaws in- the electoral process after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump won the American presidential election.

But how do we know that elections themselves are still a broadly accepted and publicly legitimate way to select leaders? And given that even dictatorial leaders are often happy to hold elections, what is their real value in advancing democracy around the world?

The Erosion of Electoral Credibility

It turns out that people around the world are wondering the same thing. In fact, more than ever before, citizens from across the globe report that elections are not necessarily a defining part of a democratic system. In the 2010-2014 wave of the World Values Survey, for instance, less than half of all respondents (41.5 percent) agreed with the view that elections are an essential characteristic of democracy. This represents a significant drop from the previous round of the survey (2005-2009), when more than half of the respondents (52.3 percent) expressed that elections are an essential part of democratic systems. This drop goes hand in hand with a sinking faith in democracy overall. From 2005-2009 to 2010-2014, there was a 7.1 percentage drop in the proportion of people around the world who felt that democracy is “absolutely important.”

It isn’t difficult to see that elections are losing their lustre. But why? In representative democracies, elections empower citizens to stand in judgment of their (prospective) leaders. Even if only for a short while, elections shine a spotlight on ordinary voters, providing a platform for them to debate, reflect and ultimately assess their choices. Voters hold ultimate power in elections…or do they?

Unfortunately, elections around the globe today have lost much of this original sense of purpose. This is hardly surprising. Over time, elites have used their positions and power to gradually distance electoral processes from the people, and this has created electoral contests that hinge on little more than big money and elite strategy. As a result, the rules that govern elections often do not uphold the principles of democracy, and ordinary voters do not hold the reigns of power in elections anymore.

Electoral Systems

In some ways, it all starts with the electoral system. Although the design of a country’s electoral system — involving calculations of district sizes and populations, determinations of boundaries and vote to seat ratios — may seem like a purely technical process, the choice has serious political implications. At their core, after all, electoral systems determine how votes get counted and translated into seats; they determine who has a chance of a seat at the table. Electoral systems are thus at the heart of democratic design.

Since the choice of electoral system design impacts many later phases of the electoral cycle – especially party and coalition formation and campaign strategy – it is a stage setter, providing the framework and incentive structure for electoral stakeholders’ behavior. A majoritarian system, for instance, tends to favor larger communities – often to the detriment of smaller groups — by requiring only a simple majority for electoral victory. In so much of the world, these types of winner-take-all electoral systems risk creating a tyranny of the majority. They also often produce governments that are seen to be “unfair” in the sense that the number of seats a party wins can often be highly disproportionate to the number of votes that party garnered. Parties who do not manage to win a majority of votes but who still capture a substantial amount of support are left with absolutely no access to decision-making power. In 2015, the controversy surrounding first past the post was brought to the fore in the United Kingdom. There, the Conservatives won 37 percent of the vote and 51 percent of parliamentary seats. The party therefore received a parliamentary majority with less than half of the electorate’s support.

Unfortunately, elections around the globe today have lost much of this original sense of purpose. This is hardly surprising. Over time, elites have used their positions and power to gradually distance electoral processes from the people, and this has created electoral contests that hinge on little more than big money and elite strategy.

Of course, other electoral systems – even ones that seek to produce more “fair,” proportional results – have their problems. Proportional representation may give more parties a seat at the table, but it can also bestow striking amounts of power to the smallest and most ideologically extreme parties, who become “kingmakers” in the kinds of coalition governments that PR systems produce. In Israel, for example, hard-line members of ruling coalitions have routinely blocked potential agreements related to the conflict with Palestinians over “any slight movement perceived as anti-settler.”

Electoral systems are not just about vote counting; they can also determine whose vote counts. In the United States, Donald Trump won the presidential election without winning the majority of Americans’ votes. In fact, Hillary Clinton received almost 3 million more popular votes than Trump, which represented the most votes ever won by a losing candidate in American history. Since it is the votes of the American electoral college, made up of elite party insiders, that ultimately decide the victor, the popular vote can end up determining nothing.

It is easy to see why such systems provide real disincentives to popular participation, especially for non-mainstream voters. Indeed, a post-election poll in the United States revealed that a mere 30 percent of surveyed Americans felt the electoral system was functional. 70 percent said that it was broken.

Money in Politics

Of course, electoral system design is just the tip of the iceberg. The electoral playing field is also heavily skewed by the growing role of money – both legal and illicit – in electoral contests. Without regulations that limit donations and expenditures, require regular and full disclosure of funding sources, and that incentivize close interaction with voters, it is all too easy for politicians to fall prey to a small group of wealthy donors who can and do influence policy formulation in the years between elections. In this situation, ordinary voters must fight to be heard, and even when they are they must struggle to compete with affluent elites. This kind of situation is also self-perpetuating. Once elected, leaders will think about how to retain their positions; the quest for campaign contributions and the subsequent quid pro quo may go on for the entirety of elites’ electoral careers.

This type of election is hardly voter-centered. Indeed, the Kofi Annan-led Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security listed uncontrolled, undisclosed and opaque political finance as a “grave threat” to the credibility of elections. “In an era of explosive growth in campaign expenditure across older democracies, citizens lose faith in the electoral process. They suspect that wealthier citizens and corporations have greater influence in public affairs…Poorly regulated campaign finance in turn leads to lower participation in the democratic process, tainted electoral integrity and impaired democracy.”

Examples of these situations abound. In India, where the election commission has set fundraising and expenditure limits, politicians resort to “black money” from the criminal underworld. Politicians have been forthcoming about the reality of the situation. In fact, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is often cited for saying that “every legislator starts his career with the lie of the false election return he files.” In 2012, parliamentarians discussed spending as much as $3.3 million on campaigns, despite expenditure limits of $26,000. To put this in perspective, the average Indian person earned $1,480 at that time, roughly 6 percent of the official limit and .04 percent of the maximum $3.3 million quoted by politicians. In Kenya, where parliament refused to pass a campaign finance regulatory bill into law, candidates have spent millions even before the official beginning of the campaign period. In the run up to the primary elections in April, for instance, aspirants in the North Rift region of the country spent approximately Sh850 million ($8.2 million) on their campaigns. In the Uasin Gishu region, the leading opposition party’s top two gubernatorial aspirants each spent Sh100 million ($967,000) in the primary contest.

Given the dangers, it is surprising how little regulation there is around these issues. In fact, around the world, only about a quarter of all countries in a global study banned corporate donations to political parties, less than half prohibited donations from corporations with government contracts to political parties, and just 4 in 10 outlawed anonymous donations to candidates. Rules about disclosure aren’t much better. Just 50 percent of countries require political parties to submit financial reports in relation to election campaigns.

In such contexts, it comes as little surprise that voters don’t have faith in electoral processes. Average voters can’t compete with big business, and it is easy to understand that some would think there is no point in trying.

Media and Elections

Voters also greatly depend on the media during elections. Indeed, as the conduit of information to the public, the media play a pivotal role in electoral processes. Voters rely on the media to learn about candidates’ and parties’ platforms, to debate with other voters on the current issues, and to find the practical information necessary to cast ballots. Furthermore, the media act as watchdogs, safeguarding the transparency of the process. Without credible information, voters stand little chance of making informed decisions at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, however, media around the world are in crisis. In its most recent report, the Electoral Integrity Project lists media as one of the two (the other was campaign finance) most serious obstacles to a level electoral playing field. There are many challenges to free and independent media today, but some of the most critical election-related problems include:

Freedom of the Media: Media cannot fulfill its duties to society in a politically restricted environment. It is thus worrying that the 2017 edition of the World Press Freedom Index lists only fifteen countries (out of 180) in its most free category (“good situation”). Of these, twelve are located in northern and western Europe. In other countries, media outlets and journalists face high-profile bashing – increasingly from elites, financial restrictions, threats, physical abuse and violence, and an oppressive legal environment. Notably, the Index singles out the African continent for the recent spate of internet shutdowns during elections.

The 2017 Index warns of a “tipping point” in the state of media freedom, especially in democracies. The report states that media freedom “has never been so threatened,” and documents a 14 percent rise in the overall level of media constraints and violations over a five year period as well as how an “obsession” with surveillance and the death of respect for confidential sources have contributed to the decline of many consolidated democracies.

Consolidation: The vast majority of media outlets are owned by an increasingly smaller number of people and firms. In Australia, for instance, the News Corporation and associated Rupert Murdoch companies own 57.5 percent of the country’s newspapers. In Chile, El Mercurio SAP owns 54.9 percent of that country’s newspaper market. The concentration of media ownership means that there is less diversity of opinion in the public domain. Without multiple, diverging viewpoints and feisty public debate, voters are less informed and thus less able to make independent and free choices on election day.

A majoritarian system, for instance, tends to favor larger communities – often to the detriment of smaller groups — by requiring only a simple majority for electoral victory.

Access to Media: Media become especially critical during election campaigns, when candidates and parties rely on television, radio, newspapers and the internet to communicate with the public. Without regulation of some sort, smaller, less affluent contenders will struggle to access the media and therefore to reach voters. In 67.2 percent of cases, countries provide subsidized access to media for political parties, but in many of those cases that subsidy is based on the party’s share of the vote/number of seats in the previous election, or even on the number of candidates running. Newer and smaller parties are thus at an extreme disadvantage. In cases where there is no subsidy for media access, the costs can be prohibitive. In the United States, for instance, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spent approximately $227 million on media. That was 58 percent of her total expenditures for the campaign. Donald Trump spent less in actual dollars, but it still amounted to 59 percent of his campaign’s total expenditures.

Without the freedom to report honestly and in safety and without a balanced playing field, characterized by equal access to media, voters are at a distinct disadvantage, simply because they do not have the opportunity to freely and easily obtain the information they need to make informed decisions about their choices on election day as well as about the legitimacy of their electoral processes. This is even more true as global threats to internet freedom grow.

These problems threaten media’s connection to the public around the world. They also serve to perpetuate elite dominance in the electoral arena, undermining the rights to information and the freedoms of expression and speech that are fundamental to democracy.

Electoral Manipulation

As if the issues outlined above were not enough, old-fashioned rigging continues to be a problem in elections around the world. Despite the advent of electoral technology, which is perceived by some as a way to prevent many polling station-level crimes, in many parts of the world, elections are still susceptible to ballot box stuffing, multiple voting, underage voting, and voter bribery.

These types of incidents are regular occurrences, happening all over the world. Egypt provides an exemplary case in point. In 2010, observers cited the removal of opposition candidates’ names from ballots, blocking opposition agents from entering polling stations, premature closing of polling stations and ballot box stuffing. Evidence in the public record included photos and videos of voter intimidation and election officials filling in blank ballots. In 2014, turnout was so low during the scheduled two days of voting that the election commission took the step of adding a third day. International observers called this a “needless irregularity.” On the night before this additional day, the opposition candidate withdrew his monitors because security forces were abusing them. In 2015, Egyptian elections were marked by widespread vote-buying and violence. In fact, the situation was so extreme that some candidates dropped out of the race.

The same issues can be seen in many other parts of the world. Recent analysis cites allegations of electoral fraud in Russia, election related violence and the theft of vote counting machines in the Philippines, and irregular figures from results sheets in Gabon. In Nigeria, accusations of double voter registration are threatening the legitimacy of a sitting governor and a British MP is on trial for 14 counts of electoral fraud.

Allegations of rigging are also occurring in relation to election technology. The United States 2016 election is perhaps one of the best known recent examples of polls tainted by such accusations, but the vulnerability of election technology is well known in other parts of the world. In 2016, Andrés Sepúlveda revealed how, beginning in 2005, he manipulated elections for a variety of clients across the South American continent, ultimately having a hand in nine different countries. Just before the 2016 election in the Philippines, hackers attacked the country’s election commission website and compromised personal data of approximately 70 million people.

Electoral systems are not just about vote counting; they can also determine whose vote counts

And this isn’t all. The drawing of electoral boundaries, the drafting and amending of laws, access to voter registration, electoral dispute resolution and many other aspects of the electoral process can all be skewed to serve private rather than public interests. In recent years, much of the conversation and rhetoric around elections has focused on trying to determine how many problems, or exactly what problems, constitute a fraudulent election. This is a difficult question – after all, the manipulation of even one part of the electoral process can impact a number of stages later on. If it is clear that private interests have trumped public interests in even one phase of elections, shouldn’t that be enough?

Are polls passé?

For some, issues such as the ones raised above call the very legitimacy of elections into question. For these critics, the solution does not lie in bolstering the electoral process; it rests in upending reliance on elections altogether.

Indeed, one argument is that elections are outdated, relatively undemocratic and far from the best way to channel people’s thoughts and opinions.

Isn’t it bizarre that voting, our highest civic duty, boils down to an individual action performed in the silence of the voting booth? Is this really the place where we turn individual gut feelings into shared priorities? Is it really where the common good and the long term are best served?… Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every four or five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

The argument has its merits. Although elections are processes, made up of multiple phases and activities, each of which has its individual purpose and impact on the final result, the majority of attention, money and work is – more often than not — focused on election day and the counting and announcement of votes. Practically, then, an election is about individual decisions at the ballot box. One tick and it’s all over.

There is also the argument that electoral democracy is a particularly western conception, designed for particular social systems that are organized quite differently from social structures and systems in other parts of the world. Thomas Koelble and Edward LiPuma contend, for example, that “the real measure of democracy is the extent to which governance conforms to the visions of democracy worked out by the governed.” Elections, at least the way they are currently practiced, may not factor into all visions of democracy.

In this reality, what are the other options? Should the focus be – as it has been for the last two decades – on improving electoral processes? Or is there another way altogether? Is it time to reconsider elections as the preferred mode of choosing political leaders?

That may already be happening.

In many places around the world, new political movements – many of which have sprung from waves of popular protests against the corruption, greed, and self-serving mindsets of politicians, are working to create innovative structures through which citizens and voters can easily and directly participate in governance. While these movements do not necessarily reject the concept of elections, they place as much – if not more – importance on internal democracy and consensus. As a result, they approach elections from a position that has grown much more directly from constituents’ and members’ input and decisions than those of traditional parties.

It comes as little surprise that voters don’t have faith in electoral processes. Average voters can’t compete with big business, and it is easy to understand that some would think there is no point in trying.

By placing ordinary people at the center, these movements are defining new modes of direct democracy. Indeed, the Podemos party in Spain makes use of digital platforms like Loomio and Reddit, which allow citizens to take part in policy discussions, vote on senior party positions and come to consensus on issues under debate. Similarly new movements in India and Italy make efforts to grow from the local level upwards, prioritizing grassroots issues.

Another possibility is sortition, or drafting by lot. In this system, a random sample of the population comes together to learn about selected topics, hear from experts, debate with each other and make decisions. In this way, everyone does not vote on a range of issues that few understand. Instead, a randomly selected group of people takes the time to comprehensively understand a set of questions and make well-informed decisions. This body could then interact with elected representatives to draft legislation. Proponents argue that sortition reduces corruption and promotes attention to the common good. Sortition is not new. It was used in ancient Athens, and it has been and/or is being used in Bolivia, Australia, Canada, China, the Netherlands, Ireland and the United States.

The new political movements and the concept of sortition demand much more of people than mainstream elections. This makes sense; it takes significant effort and time to weigh the policy choices facing society. Elected representatives, regardless of their experience and expertise, can only do so much on their own; citizens and voters must be active participants, providing their leaders with the information they require to make informed decisions and constantly demanding accountability.

It may be that if elections are to regain and maintain legitimacy, they, too, will have to ask more of voters. And voters should demand more of their elections, if it’s not already too late.

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Seema Shah is an elections expert with experience in North America, Asia and Africa. She holds a doctorate in Political Science, and her research focuses on electoral politics, with an emphasis on electoral integrity and electoral violence.

Ideas

Another Now: Why the “Jerusalema” Dance Challenge Reveals a Longing to Re-Imagine the World

What then, is Jerusalema, if not the finest distillation of a global desire for another city on a hill? And not by simply turning to another great power as America’s ready replacement—China is not the world’s savior—but one that like the dance challenge itself believes in the possibility of collective subjectivity.

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Another Now: Why the “Jerusalema” Dance Challenge Reveals a Longing to Re-Imagine the World
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Forever condemned as its “heart of darkness,” the world remains baffled as to how Africa has seemingly avoided the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier in the year, as the virus ravaged other parts of the world and prepared to make landfall on the continent, the projections were nothing short of severe.

It was widely anticipated that Africa’s poor and overcrowded living conditions, the prevalence of other diseases like HIV and TB and its lack of well-resourced health systems would make for the deadliest viral path on the globe. Despite their touch of catastrophism, these predictions were not unreasonable given the evidence of despair elsewhere.

What is strange, is the sense of perverse disappointment that this hasn’t been the case. Stranger still, that at the height of doom and gloom, little was done by way of international support to prevent the expected worst case outcomes.

On the flip side, the world is celebrating the lightness of this continent, albeit in the most cliched way—through its products of song and dance. Since the middle of this year, the gospel-inspired, South African house track “Jerusalema” by DJ and Producer Master KG featuring vocalist Nomcebo Zikode, has enraptured a global audience.

What made it especially take-off was its evolution into the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge, prompted by a group of Angolan friends recording themselves with plates of food performing a variation of the line-dance to the song. Following that, similar clips of people dancing to the song have been shared from all over— groups of ordinary people, nuns and priests, healthcare and other essential workers, police and soldiers, fuel attendants; you name it. Per the African Union, Jerusalema is “a song that has transcended its national boundaries and the continent, and has people across the world dancing to its vibrant rhythm.”

The South African government made sure to co-opt the dance challenge, transforming what was a mostly spontaneous and uncoordinated phenomenon to a state-sponsored feel-good narrative. As President Cyril Ramaphosa announced South Africa’s move to its lowest level of COVID-19 lockdown, he urged all South Africans to participate in the dance challenge as part of Heritage Day celebrations which happened in late September. (The holiday itself has a curious history; it replaced Shaka Day and is mostly now an excuse to BBQ.)

Suddenly, a country which had been a powder-keg of disaffection, traumatized at the injustices and suffering endured during lockdown yet divided on who was to blame, became united in cheerful performance as it seemed that at last things were back to normal. And for South Africans, “normal” means being able to repress the fact of normal being the problem; it means comfortably moving from being outraged about police brutality in June to applauding their renditions of the Jerusalema dance in September.

But perhaps Jerusalema is different, in that the hopefulness it expresses is not simply about a return to normal, but about a desire to go beyond it. The lyrics themselves (translated from isiZulu) include the lines, “Jerusalem is my home, save me, take me with you…My place is not here, my kingdom is not here.” Yet, the actually-existing city of Jerusalem, which means “city of peace” and is claimed by all of the Abrahamic faiths yet controlled by Israel, is anything but one.

There is a gap between the religious imagery invoked by the song and the state of religiously- motivated practice today, which makes the fact that Master KG himself isn’t particularly religious more telling of how the song speaks to a deeper yearning in the human condition, one beneath religious sentiment. And, when Zionists (not the South African version of African-inspired Christianity, but supporters of Israel) at one point tried to appropriate the message of the song as endorsing support for Israel, Palestine solidarity activists worked with Palestinian youth in Jerusalem and South African youth in Durban to produce two videos, which raised the profile of the African Palestinian community and solidarity between South Africa and Palestine.

Young Palestinian activists including Janna Jihad and Ahed Tamimi sent video messages inviting Master KG to come to Palestine, and there have been a number of awareness-raising engagements with the artist and his management on the politics of the Palestinian struggle.

That Jerusalema as an idea represents a longing for more than has come before, perhaps could also explain the curious absence of Americans, from the dance challenge crazing the world right now (something writer Michelle Chikaonda pointed out on a recent episode of AIAC Talk).

It was the Massachusetts colonizer John Winthrop who inserted the vision of a new Jerusalem in the gospel of St Matthew into the image of the United States; the founding exceptionalism upon which it would forever conceive itself as a beacon of hope and progress for the rest of the world. As the United States now decidedly proves itself to be a failed state, it renders the majority of the world—who by force or coercion adopted its version of liberalism—failed as well, with the global inability to handle a pandemic the surest testament.

What then, is Jerusalema, if not the finest distillation of a global desire for another city on a hill? And not by simply turning to another great power as America’s ready replacement—China is not the world’s savior—but one that like the dance challenge itself believes in the possibility of collective subjectivity. Of course, this subjectivity can collapse into forms which are reactionary rather than emancipatory.

As Zwide Ndwandwe writes, there is not much separating the rainbow nationalism of the kind uplifting South Africans through the dance challenge, and the xenophobia at the same time proliferating through social media demanding that the government #PutSouthAfricansFirst. It is not enough that there is widespread dissatisfaction about our society as it is underscored by a desire for something better—content must be given to what that better could possibly be.

In a recent episode of AIAC Talk partially devoted to talking through Malawi’s recent elections, Sean Jacobs and I addressed a question to the panelists which dwelled on how Malawi’s new leader, Lazarus Chakwera, is a theologian, one known to refer to citizens as being part of his “flock.” Our reason in asking this was to understand if this was a sign Malawi could possibly be headed toward more of the same demagogic and autocratic leadership that characterizes so much of the rest of the continent.

Yet, in the eyes of Chikaonda and media scholar Jimmy Kainja, this fact about the new president was unremarkable—much as Malawi is a religious country, this is not why Chakwera was elected. In Kainja’s words, “Malawi is a different place now.” Its people have no time for the usual nonsense of the political class that they’ve endured since gaining independence, and now trust in their competence as citizens. It is this spirit of self-determination which enveloped Malawi and saw ordinary citizens play an active role in monitoring and overseeing the elections without foreign observers, and going so far as tracking and giving hourly updates on the flights carrying the ballots.

And it is that spirit of self-determination which is quietly sweeping throughout the continent as citizens respond to the crisis of global capitalism exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s easy to take an isolated look at the successful management of COVID-19 as a public health crisis on the continent, and think that the worst is over and Africa has impressed—but the truth is, we are only just beginning to grapple with the socio-economic fissures that COVID-19 laid bare and worsened.

We are witnessing an ongoing wave of mobilisation on the continent challenging the excesses of neoliberalism—in NigeriaGhanaKenya, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere. South Africa’s trade unions and social movements are preparing for a season of nation-wide strike action, ones bringing together the largest trade union federation (which is aligned with the ruling party, the African National Congress) and its closest competitor. Of course, these efforts might fail and no doubt governments will continue to use COVID-19 gathering restrictions as a pretext for repression.

But, the sense you get is that for the first time in a long time, there is belief that self-determination can only be understood as a collective achievement—of creating institutions in our society by guaranteeing the conditions of life for all. These are achievements that have to be fought for politically, and no matter how bad things get they won’t come from the benevolence of an outside actor. The fate of Africa is determined not by the state of the West or China, but only by its people themselves. Maybe, what is becoming stronger as we search for a new city on the hill, is the conviction that we are going to build it ourselves.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Ideas

Populism and the Global South

In a major analysis of current developments at the level of the world and multinational market of late capitalism, Esteban Mora grapples with the phenomenon of so called ‘right wing populism’ not only in the West, but in Third World regions as well. He asks if Africa’s decades of trauma now confront metropolitan and central capitalist countries, as the road where they are heading.

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Populism and the Global South
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The origins and formation of ‘right-wing populism’ from the point of view of Marxist economics and their impact of these processes for Africa must be understood from observing the world market from an internationalist and multinational point of view.

The policies of ‘right-wing populist’ movements come from the big multinational financial and productive capitals, not from the local national bourgeoisie. This big financial and productive capital has as a goal the elimination of the fragmentation to the concentration and centralization of value, which is being caused by multinational production itself, at least as it has been functioning until now.

In addition, the international bourgeoisie has an understanding of East Asia’s economic ascension, right wing populists see these regions advance in the multinational market (where East Asia is now the centre of industrial production on the planet), as a result of the intervention of the state in the economy.  It is from this characterization (and these goals) that they define themselves as ‘nationalists’ or ‘anti-globalists’, but always within the frame of multinational capital and competition.

Let me illustrate this with a couple of examples.

Both Hungary and Poland, or even Austria, have intensified the economic activity of their sovereign wealth funds or equivalent funds, for the investment of state capitals within their economies. In the same way, Hungary and Poland are characterised by the nationalization of certain companies and assets, and by the great support of the state through state and public subsidies (coming mainly from the structural funds of the European Union, which are composed of state and public European budgets) to subsidize multinational companies and their operations within their countries, as well as social spending in general.

That means it is simply inaccurate to argue that they are ‘protectionists’ or ‘nationalists’ in the classic sense of the 20th century.

So, the convergence of the Viktor Mihály Orbán government in Hungary or the Polish government with certain multinationals is as great as any other globalised economy, but it is focused on state interventionism. It is worth restating the point. These governments see East Asia’s success and the ability to now compete at the multinational level as almost entirely due to their state-led or state-oriented support or intervention. Therefore, these ‘populist’ governments promote this economic perspective to prevent the fragmentation of concentrated and centralised capital.

It is also important to stress that multinationals arriving in different regions and countries, are producing growth and the development of mainly small and medium industrial enterprises. So, in East Asia the overwhelming majority of industrial companies are small and medium sized, instead of factory-scale, and they are vertically integrated through outsourcing or portfolio investment, which means part of the profits stays within those companies and is not automatically ‘repatriated’ to the multinational, in turn this benefits the host country and companies, and creates the possibility that the Asian Tigers, China or India, or even Turkey, Israel or South Africa, of developing multinationals themselves.

Trumps Tariffs and Brexit

Another example comes from Brexit and the trade war between United States and China, provoked by Donald Trump’s tariffs. None of these policies make the slightest economic sense for either the internal markets of England or the United States. The first ones to oppose and criticize Brexit or US commercial tariffs have been precisely the local big, medium and small bourgeois from those countries, for which inputs, raw materials and means of production, as well as exports, are all affected.

While multinational capitals who can produce anywhere in the world remain largely ‘immune’ from these policies. When production was located inside the nation-state, protectionism made sense, but with the internationalisation of the division of labour and multinationals, it can only affect the internal markets and not the companies with production sites all over the world.

Let’s look at these processes in a little more detail. Through tariffs (and Brexit, hard or soft, will produce tariffs for trade between England and the European Union) multinationals accomplish the deterioration of the conditions of production for their respective competitors and at the same time promote the movement of multinational production to regions more favorable to their interests.

This ‘movement’ of multinational production could stop the ‘spill over’ of productivity, knowledge and profits to those centres or possible centres of world production (for example, against China’s growth, in the case of the US trade war). So, we see in this process a way of preventing the fragmentation and competition at the level of the world market. From this follows that American multinationals are moving their productions sites from China to Vietnam or Malaysia, for example.

Again, it has to be stated that it is impossible to understand these policies (both Brexit or American tariffs) without appreciating that they come in part from multinational capital, as a form of intervention in the multinational market, not at the level of nation-states, but at the international and multinational level.

I would argue that we are seeing a shift from commercial freedom characteristic of the World Trade Organization, for example, and the extensive phase of the internationalisation of the division of labour in late capitalism to an intensive phase based on the intervention of the state at the level of the world market. From this follows the resurgence of the state by ‘right-wing populism’, as economic intervention increases the role of the state as a centre or point of concentration of power (which has come to be known as ‘neo-fascism’).

Contradictions, questions and solutions

As I have already argued, the world centre for industrial and high-tech production (in East Asia), is not composed of factory-scale companies or processes, but of small and medium sized companies. In the same vein, the biggest component in intra-regional trade in East Asia, as the industrial centre of the world, is not based on finished products, but intermediate parts and components, which come and go from Vietnam to Malaysia, or from South Korea to China, etc. On top of this, it is the state and sovereign wealth funds, for example, which allow this concentration of power to take place.  From Singapore to Vietnam, each has working mutual funds or wealth funds of different types, and they all have intensified their involvement in the economy in recent years.

All bourgeoisie economic analysis and research on the multinational market from recent years is questioning neoliberal policies, and describing not without surprise, the incredible performance of economies and multinationals where countries have state-led types of policies for their own multinationals (subsidies, trade barriers, lower interest rates, etc), like India or China, and how this seems to be working much better than Western non-interventionism for the growth and rise of those countries. This change in perspective is a change in bourgeoisie consciousness, in the face of the incredible ascension of Asia as a real competitor, and the possibility of reproducing the same success in the West through the same state-oriented policies (from which wealth funds are just one example).

Poland and Hungary are not the only European countries expanding production through state funds, but we see the same processes from Turkey or from Persian Gulf states, or even India and China. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently formed the first sovereign fund in the country, under his own personal management. Similar processes can be seen in Gulf States, with funds under the control of their royal families, or under Hussein el-Sisi and the state-military elite who are in charge of Egypt’s industrial sector.

Even Jair Bolsonaro’s Brasil has immediately focused on pension funds reform, which would allow private investment through those funds, just as we have seen in Austria, Hungary or Poland where state funds are starting to invest in the private and multinational sectors.

We need to remember that even though the US and UK still maintain hegemony in terms of the financial control of assets at the multinational level (demonstrated in Gerard Duménil and Dominique Lévy’s 2018 book), it is the Chinese financial sector which surpasses the Triad in terms of revenue and profits; they may control fewer assets, but are producing the largest revenues of all and China is doing this through exactly these types of sovereign funds. By ‘Triad’ I mean the three historically dominate centres of the world economy from the late 1940s until the end of the 20th century: the United States, the European Union and Japan.

How do these wealth funds work? Wealth funds are very similar to bank capital, which is the definitive characteristic of financial capitalism. But the difference is that it is not based on dividends, and you don’t need to work around stocks and dividends from specific companies, but you can participate on the ‘pool’ of financial assets invested in different companies all at once, getting a percentage of total profits or revenues controlled by the wealth fund.

This allows for a faster way of diversification and centralization of profits and value, even more resolutely than bank capital in some senses. Instead of a stock which represents a percentage of the profits for a single company, etc, the percentage you own on a wealth fund is equal to a percentage of the profits not only for one company, but for all the profits from all companies the wealth fund finances all at once.

‘Right wing populism’ or ‘nationalism’ has meant a turn to the state and its financial assets and capabilities, in stark contrast with neoliberalism, where all talk was about a minimal state.  It is crucial to point out the historic discrepancy between neoliberal ideology (that states that the state should not interfere with markets) and the neoliberal political projects and practices (that actually reshapes the state, assigning to it clear fields of action, private property right protection, fiscal incentives, privatisation of the public etc.)

Alain Lipietz (1997) actually studies how job deregulation and reduction of the state’s involvement is stronger in the Triad, where the flexibilization occurs at the level of the job market and not the internal productive process, and the opposite happens in the Global South: the state is more involved comparatively (although there are also examples of privatization, structural adjustment programs, etc, in Africa or Asia!), the flexibilization occurs at the internal level of the production process, and not at the level of the job market which is highly organized and centralized, etc.

The same process where sovereign wealth funds from the Global South turn into competitors at the multinational level,is at play when multinational production fragments itself into small and medium companies through ‘spill overs’: state-led economies perform better in the world market by subsidizing their multinationals. Equally sovereign funds from countries with state-led economies have the biggest concentration and centralization of financial assets.

The consensus among bourgeoisie economists is that state subsidizing of multinationals is the reason for the Asian miracle, and the reason they even entered the multinational market in the first place. This means an intensified competition, both for the market and the state. The whole Huawei controversy or the trade negotiation between the US and China over state subsidies, show the motives and the purpose of ‘right wing populism’.

This explains the convergence of libertarianism with conservative statism in the United States, where Trump erases regulations at the same time as his administration applies tariffs.  It may also explain the United Kingdom’s Tory government’s announcement of the end of austerity, and the possibility of state planning.

Falling profit rates

These processes, I would argue, can only be explained by the fall in the profit rate (and its different multiple causes) within multinational companies, which makes it impossible for multinationals to simply buy up companies and integrate them vertically as their own. The companies are instead forced to reduce costs through outsourcing, in combination with ‘offshoring.’ The state, in this situation, turns into a point of comparative and relatively high concentration of capitals, compared to the reigning fragmentation throughout the rest of the economy, where the rate of profit keeps falling, or where the economy continues to fragment into small and medium companies.

This explains the historical rise of sovereign and wealth funds in peripheral economies of the South, allowing them to become real competitors at the multinational level against the Triad. It is these processes that force or propel the formation of this ‘right-wing populist, ‘anti-globalist’ or ‘nationalist’ movements.

Of course, state intervention or fragmentation are not the real causes of East Asia’s rise nor of the increasing competition at the multinational level. From a Marxist point of view, the historical fall in the profit rate hits the Triad and developed countries the hardest, in terms of its expanded reproduction. Why? In Marxist terms this is because of a bigger organic composition: more expensive equipment and raw materials (constant capital) compared to the labor component (variable capital), which causes the fall in the profit rate itself.

The process is relatively simple: if profit is derived from what is extracted from ‘the labour component’, it is in the economies of the Triad with a high concentration of constant capital that we see profit rates in a historical, downward spiral. The difference between the profit rate and the accumulation rate (gross investment) is considerably smaller than in peripheral or underdeveloped countries.

As the 20th century Polish revolutionary and Marxist economist Henryk Grossman explained, even if the profit rate falls immediately after the organic composition of capital rises, it can maintain itself above the accumulation rate and sustain expanded reproduction, but only for a while.  After a certain period, the profit rate will be inferior to the accumulation rate, and this is where troubles begin: expanded reproduction needs to be held back, which is precisely what neoliberalism is.

Instead of big investments and rising wages to augment profits and productivity, we see the opposite: the cutting costs rationale, and the reduction of real wages.  In peripheral or underdeveloped countries, constant capital was cheaper, and so organic composition was lower and profit rates higher. This allows for extended reproduction to have more space to develop in peripheral countries instead of in the Triad.

As it has been shown, the fall in the profit rate works with different causes, specifically the exploitation rate, the unemployment rate and the new value rate in conjunction with the financial variable (the reduction in the financial profit rate), to create crises (See Carchedi, 2017).

These issues are of such vital importance to capitalist development that they must be explained carefully. The difference between the profit and accumulation rate was greater, so peripheral countries were suddenly in the position of sustaining expanded reproduction, as we have seen in the Asian Tigers or China and India, while the Triad had to immerse itself in the cutting-costs rationale of neoliberalism to hold back expanded reproduction. This is the crux that explains East Asia’s resurgence against the West today, in Marxist terms. Just as neoliberalism is not the cause of the crisis, rather the reaction by the bourgeoisie to the reality of the historical fall in the rate of profit since 1973/4, so ‘right-wing populism’ is a reaction against the consequences (state interventionism and fragmentation at the multinational market level) of that very same historical process.

The processes at work in the Global South

The internationalisation of the division of labour of late capitalism integrated the bourgeoisie of the Global South not only into the financial aspect of imperialism, but into its multinational aspect, through the emerging industrialisation of areas of the South. This took place through the so-called ‘Taylorism’ and ‘peripheral fordism’, as Alain Lipietz’s described it in 1997.

This caused the political erasure of the so-called progressive bourgeoisie in the South, which also eliminated the conflict between anti-colonialist ‘bourgeois’ movements from the Third World and the Triad. It was a huge triumph for the Triad’s class project to have finally eliminated this faction al conflict between anti-colonial layers of the bourgeoisie from the South and themselves.

It eliminated reformist, social democratic and import-substitution programs in the South, precisely because industrialisation was now realised by multinationals, instead of their own nationalistic and anti-colonial projects and at the same time integrating them within the circuits of multinational capitalism.

The internationalisation of the division of labour of late capitalism first defined by Ernest Mandel, seems to have had two different stages: an expansionist stage, with the conglomerates boom of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the industrialisation and vertical integration of productive processes all around the world.

Today we enter a stage where expanded reproduction shrinks or contracts (due to the fall in the rate of profit), and multinationals stop integrating vertically in the classic and strict sense, and decide to outsource or seek portfolio investments as the main way to diversification.

Portfolio investments are different from Foreign Direct Investment and vertical integration in the sense that they allow for the Southern bourgeoisie to stop being simply passive investors, and allows them to start to behave like active investors, integrated not only as minority partners of multinationals, but as members of the multinationals themselves.

The first stage of the internationalisation of the division of labour saw the Southern bourgeoisie’s integration into financial capital in a passive way, but the end of the expansive phase of late capitalism has allowed them to turn this relationship upside down: the Triad’s bourgeoisie turns into passive investor, and the South has taken charge and control of the multinational means of production.

These processes have seen the integration of the anti-colonialist class faction of the South, into the industrial and multinational class faction of the multinational Triad over the last forty years. This has also changed the character of the Southern bourgeoisie from a simple ‘comprador’ class, into a managerial multinational faction (not a new class, as Duménil and Lévy argued in 2018) which deals and controls directly in the businesses of the Triads multinationals.

The Southern bourgeoisie is still a ‘small partner’ of the Triad or what Paul Baran described in the 1960s as the lumpen-bourgeoisie, but instead of a nation-state bourgeoisie, which produces for its own internal market, or trades the imports and exports of its internal economy, or produces agricultural products, etc, it now controls the means of production of major multinational assets. In a word, the South’s bourgeoisie has stopped producing for its internal market only, and started to produce for multinationals.

If we follow Karl Marx’s work, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, there are two contradictory tendencies here: the absorption of the Southern bourgeoisie into a single international class (with all of the unevenness and dependency that continues to characterize this class), and at the same time, the revulsion based on the increasing competition this multinational integration produces.

This means the international bourgeoisie moves from away from the conflict that characterised 20th century anticolonialism and industrialisation/import-substitution, to act as a unified faction or class under the financially dominant faction of the global class. At the same time, it integrates heterogeneous factions into multinational competition, acting not as a dominant minority faction, but as an entire class.

This contradiction between governing as a faction or as a class, explains precisely the mixture of fascistic characteristics, and democratic and republican elements.  If you govern as a whole class, you govern through parliamentary and democratic dialogue on how to run society. If you govern as a particular faction among others, you will try to impose your faction’s view on the others, and rule above your own class. The internationalisation of the division of labour in late capitalism, eliminating the internal factional conflict between the Triad and the Third World, creating at the same time an intensification of competition and control from multinational capitals seem to be explained by this enormous historical development.

These processes explains the entire political climate and movement to the right, and the virtual disappearance of a progressive bourgeois element from Central America to Africa itself – the transition from progressive (bourgeois) struggles to the so-called neoliberal age. This represents an intensification of the class struggle between a more compact international bourgeois class, and a proletariat with a smattering of allies in parliaments or in mainstream political parties.

Finally, to Africa

For Africa, this divergence in expanded reproduction related to the fall in the profit rate – which produces the phenomenon I have just described – has enabled the economic ‘boom’, just as it facilitated peripheral countries on the continent attempting to transform themselves into Asian Tigers, or to see the so-called BRICS as a vehicle to their development and growth, etc.

It does not mean that profit rates have not fallen in Africa or other peripheral countries, it rather means peripheral countries, because of their own underdevelopment, can expand reproduction more decisively than their central and metropolitan counterparts.

This demonstrates how capitalism feeds off ‘backwardness’ itself.  We should remember as well, that the so-called economic ‘boom’ in Africa has not translated into the improvements in the lives of peasants and workers, rather the improvement of the economic figures for certain extractive companies on the continent. The boom in GDP growth rates has not translated into higher living standards for workers and the poor on the continent.

At the same time, Africa has something very valuable to teach to the rest of the world: Africa, more than any other continent, thanks to its fragmentation of land and smaller commercial integration, knows very well what it means when the state is in relative terms, a bigger point of concentration of capitals compared to private merchant or financial capitals. Just like in Asia or Latin America, the state in Africa turns into a great possibility for the bourgeoisie to accumulate bigger sums of capital quickly, and dispose of them in any way they want, if they have the state-power to do so.

Like sovereign wealth funds today, Africa knows what it means for the state itself to turn into a medium for capitalist enrichment and profit making, and not a neutral ‘people’s state’ which eliminates class contradictions. This turns the fight (even the electoral fight) for the state into a bitter struggle of factions, which, as we know, has already led to disastrous scenarios (from civil wars, to total state repression) or to apparently ‘progressive scenarios’ – until recently Ethiopia was the poster-boy of this ‘success’ – which hides exactly the same process of using the state and state-funds to finance private and multinational production.

At the beginning of his administration, Trump was accused of wanting to turn the US into a ‘Third World strong-man government’, which besides the racist undertones of the comment, was essentially correct. The concentration of power in the state, plus the concentration of specifically economic power in the state, which seems to be the characteristic of ‘right wing populism’, is indeed very common to us here in the so called ’Third World’ – with the fragmented character of agriculture, land tenure, and commercial integration, etc.

Africa understands this world better than others, since the continent has a long history of seizures of state power in order to control the economic concentration and centralization of state budgets, assets and capitals.

At the end of this short essay I should repeat myself: ‘right wing populism’ shows how capitalism feeds off backwardness. The cheapest solution for multinational companies is to control the state in order to stall falling production (a movement very similar to the international bank and state budgets bailouts that happened during the 2008 crisis). The world may now be facing Africa’s recent history. Do Africa’s decades of trauma confront metropolitan and central countries, as the road where they are now heading?

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.

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Kenya: A Question of Land

Kenya is moving inexorably in the direction of significant political upheaval and a long-delayed backlash unless reforms to address economic inequality are implemented.

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Kenya: A Question of Land
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Not too long ago, musician John Mũigai Njoroge was summoned by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) for uploading the song Ĩno Mĩgũnda to YouTube. Ĩno Mĩgũnda may be translated to mean “These Parcels of Land”, or, as translated in the song’s sub-titles, “This Land”. Increasingly, and amidst stifling economic stagnation at the citizen level, the spotlight is beginning to shine on the contentious matter of land. In this piece we to look at how economists have treated (or ignored) land, the economic dynamics of land in reality, the current status of our nation, and offer three possible solutions to the current state of affairs.

In one sense, land can be defined, as by Dr Josh Ryan-Collins et al in Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing, as “space, and the occupation of that space over time”, and indeed this is the most common understanding of land as we have it. However, we would do well to include in the definition of land, as Henry George did in his seminal book Progress and Poverty, not merely the surface of the earth as distinguished from air and water, but also as, “. . . in short, all natural materials, forces and opportunities”. This definition would include mineral resources such as oil, natural gas and coal; water and related resources; the electromagnetic spectrum; etc. In fact, we can think of land loosely as “that naturally-occurring wealth that man cannot produce”.

Increasingly, and amidst stifling economic stagnation at the citizen level, the spotlight is beginning to shine on the contentious matter of land

Definitions are very important and as we shall see, defining or mis-defining land can lead to economic theories/practices that are either unrealistic, unjust or (as is often the case) both.

Is land important economically speaking? The French physiocrats and the classical economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill all recognised the importance of land in understanding economics. Building on their work, Henry George wrote Progress and Poverty, a book that was second in circulation only to the Bible in the 1890s.

(Although he was not the first to state it, Henry George wrote that the factors of production are land, labour and capital. He added that, this being the case, the returns from production must necessarily be shared between/among these three factors. It seems to me that on this simple premise one could base/found the whole realm of economic study or even economic history (together with vast swathes of history proper): what proportion, if any, of the returns from production should – rightly, justly, properly – accrue to each of the factors of production: to land, to labour, and/or to capital?

We shall examine Henry George’s solution to the land problem later. At this point we shall merely state that so forceful was the power and the logic of George’s writing that, according to the late Professor Mason Gaffney, it generated a scholastic reaction that grew into neo-classical economics. Neo-classical economics chose to base itself on principles of free choice, rational actors, and “free markets” that naturally self-equilibrate through the forces of supply and demand. This brand of economics came to dominate learning, and still does. Eventually, it succeeded in conflating land and capital as factors of production. In this way, the importance of land as a factor of production was lost to the academic world and to the realm of economic theory. The results of this disastrous omission reverberate all the way up to the global financial crisis (which perhaps should more accurately have been named the North Atlantic financial crisis), but we are not on that today.

The truth is that land and capital are radically different factors of production. Crucially, the supply of land is fixed; i.e. the stock of land cannot increase as a result of rising demand for it. Only its price can rise – and it does. The market in land, therefore, cannot (justly) self-equilibrate via the forces of supply and demand. As we consider this, we stumble upon the reality that the private ownership of land, and indeed of all natural-occurring resources, is at once freedom and theft; while it is freedom for the owner of the land/resource, it is also theft from the public, because of what economists call economic rent.

(Economic rent is defined as any payment to an owner or factor of production in excess of the costs needed to bring that factor into production. In lay terms, we may define economic rent more simply as “unearned income”.)

As far as land is concerned, economic rent comprises: a) the capital gains that arise from the ownership of land and/or the private ownership of what Henry George called naturally-occurring “materials, forces and opportunities” and b) what the owner of that land can charge as rent simply because of the positioning of the land (or the value of the natural resource).

As Adam Smith stated, “As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed [i.e. become the recipients of unearned income], and demand a rent even for its natural produce”.

The result of this is a well-known phenomenon in the Kenyan economy: one buys a piece of land and hopes that soon the government will build a road nearby. The government builds a road and the land increases in value, sometimes by several factors. This increase in the value of the land is unearned income. It is economic rent. Further, not only does the land gain in value, but the rent a landowner can charge also increases without the landowner applying an iota of effort. This too is unearned income.

In fact, as Henry George points out, no government improvements are necessary in order for the value of a parcel of land to rise. The mere settling of a community in and around a parcel of land can in and of itself raise that parcel’s value – with not a stroke of work done by its “owner”. City centre land (or land in Upper Hill or in Westlands), for example, takes this to extremes.

The result of this is a well-known phenomenon in the Kenyan economy: one buys a piece of land and hopes that soon the government will build a road nearby

Any society/economy that allows a select few to earn an unworked-for income – of any form – is an inherently unjust economy. To see this truth is to begin to recognise a grave injustice: unearned income is the bane of socio-economic equity. Further, an unjust economy will naturally result in an unjust society. This is what it was about George’s writing that generated such a reaction in the halls of academe: it laid bare these inequities and proposed solutions to bring them to an end.

Without the equitable distribution of land, and without the extraction of unearned income from the hands of private interests into the hands of the public, inequalities in income – and very shortly thereafter inequalities in accumulated income, i.e. wealth – rapidly manifest themselves. Such a society very swiftly descends into that morass of wealth disparity characterised by vast differences in resources between the haves and the have-nots. There then arises that situation so succinctly described by Adam Smith, in which “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all”.

To see this truth is to begin to recognise a grave injustice: unearned income is the bane of socio-economic equity

If all this be true, then it ought to be the case – empirically, not in abstract formulaic or merely academic terms – that a more equitable distribution of land should lead to more widespread prosperity. This is indeed the case, although other factors must necessarily support such a redistribution. We shall revisit this in the proposed solutions to our current situation. Suffice it to say at this point that that which we know in our bones to be true; that which causes our Luo brothers to call their daughters Nyar-Ugenya, or their sons Ja-Kisumo; that which inspired Wahome Mũtahi, in his Whispers column, to call himself “Son of the Soil”; that indefinable intuition! certainly is true: that we are from here; that this land – all of it – is rightly, justly, and collectively ours; that each of us deserves some of it; that none of us deserves disproportionately more of it, and that very certainly nobody deserves most/all of it. This truth, try as the crashing waves of fraudulent social science might to repudiate it, stands firm, and it is corroborated by that social science of the more honest variety.

Does everybody need land?
A captious economist planned
to live without access to land.
He nearly succeeded,
but found that he needed
food, water, and somewhere to stand.*

Having established in the foregoing section that the equitable distribution of land is critical for economic justice, we wish to more certainly determine: should everybody have land? The limerick above, in whimsical fashion, answers the question – showing that while land can be put to any one of a hundred uses, it is impossible to function as a human being – to live – without the use of some land. Therefore, everyone should have some land.

How much land is equitable?

In his important book How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region, Joe Studwell found that “Output booms [in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan] occurred in conditions in which farming was essentially a form of large-scale gardening. Families of five, six or seven people tended plots of not more than one hectare”.

(Studwell does an excellent job of showing that large-scale, mechanised agriculture maximises merely profit, while small-scale, labour-intensive agriculture maximises output per acre, and thereby economic growth.)

Does Kenya currently have enough land?

While Kenya has an area of roughly 582,646 square kilometres (58,264,600 hectares), “only 20 percent of the land surface can support rain-fed agriculture (medium to high potential). About 75 percent of the country’s population lives in these areas, with population densities as high as 2,000 per square kilometre in some parts”. Further, even within this narrow arable area, the distribution of land is inequitable, for “more than half of the nation’s arable land is in the hands of only 20 percent of the population.” Such was the situation in 2006. By 2016, according to the World Bank, just 10 per cent of Kenya’s land was arable.

From the 2019 census, Kenya has a population of 47.6 million. We have a median age of about 19 years. From these figures, we can assume that the number of non-dependents requiring land for basic economic activity such as smallholding agriculture is 23.8 million people or (in a utopian situation) about 12 million families. Going by the World Bank’s statistic that 10 per cent of Kenya’s land is arable, that would leave 5,826,460 hectares (14,397,496 acres) of arable land, or about 1.2 acres per family.

While land can be put to any one of a hundred uses, it is impossible to function as a human being – to live – without the use of some land

Taking Studwell’s one hectare (about 2.5 acres) as the family unit for land, we see that there are two problems: i) that there is not enough arable land (i.e. 1.2 acres vs 2.5 acres), and ii) that what arable land does exist is not equitably distributed.

(The fact that our median age is 19 demonstrates that our unemployment situation – already utterly tragic – will only deteriorate with time. It is the single most significant problem we need to solve. Land reform – as shown below – would go a long way towards solving it.)

Which solutions are available to us to resolve these problems?

Land redistribution (land reform)

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines land reform as “measures designed to effect a more equitable distribution of agricultural land especially by governmental action”. In order to more meaningfully convey the object of land reform, this article uses the term land redistribution.

What problems would land redistribution solve? At present, the ownership of land is highly concentrated. This concentration of land ownership has a direct impact on the minimum wage. If land were more equitably distributed, so that each family unit had about 2.5 acres for agricultural use, then the minimum wage would not need to be set by government. The minimum wage would instead default to the return available to the average farmer for working their 2.5 acres of land. Any industrialist would have to offer better than that to attract workers from rural Kenya to the city. The absence of a fair distribution of land leads directly to the current “city dwellers” situation, in which we have masses of workers who walk daily from Kangemi to Nairobi city centre and back (or from Kibera to Industrial Area and back) to do back-breaking work – all for a pittance.

Joe Studwell traces the origins of the economic take-offs of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to the redistribution of land among citizens, noting that “In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, household-based land redistribution programmes were implemented peacefully, and sustained. It was this that led to prolonged rural booms that catalysed overall economic transformation”.

Which leads us to: how did they do it? Japan, in particular, implemented land redistribution by imposing a maximum 3-hectare limit for farms in almost all areas of the country. This was implemented by creating land committees on which local tenants and owner-farmers outnumbered landlords. The local aspect of these committees was of critical importance – more centralised, authoritarian redistributions, such as those that took place in Korea seemed less effective. In addition, the composition of these committees was critical for ensuring that fair redistributions took place. A situation where land is redistributed to different, already-wealthy new owners (such as members of county assemblies), or one in which the wealthy generate proxies to “redistribute” their land to, is not difficult to imagine in Kenya. Ensuring that currently landless locals (or those locals with too little land) benefit from redistribution by placing local individuals of individual integrity and probity on the land redistribution committees would be critical to ensuring that land redistribution lasts.

In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, household-based land redistribution programmes were implemented peacefully, and sustained

It is important to note that land redistribution, while monumental, cannot work on its own. It must in turn be supported by: i) strict restrictions on the future sale of land; ii) Investment in rural infrastructure (for example irrigation infrastructure, grain-drying facilities, roads to food-basket areas, etc); iii) the provision of agricultural extension services (it was once noted that Kakamega was twice as poor as Nyeri mainly because Nyeri farmers used certified seed); iv) the provision of low-interest credit; and v) marketing support (of a vastly different nature to that hitherto provided by Kenya Planters Cooperative Union, for example) – or liberalisation of marketing.

Lastly, within a society, the ownership of wealth naturally becomes concentrated over time. One-off land redistribution would not solve this perennial problem. Land redistribution must be done periodically – every 50 years being the prescriptive interval.

Land taxation

The taxation of land is Henry George’s elegant solution to the conundrum of allowing the private ownership of land while at the same time preventing the private individual from keeping to himself/herself the public benefits of this private ownership. To recap, George’s central premise is that people own the earth and its resources in common, and that returns to land (itself a metaphor for the earth and all its resources) should therefore be realised in common. This would appear to negate the concept of private ownership of land or property; Mr George’s elegant solution to allowing the private ownership of land while causing the returns to land to be commonly realised was a land-value tax – i.e. the taxation of privately-owned land based on the market value of the land alone (excluding any improvements and buildings upon it). This solution, he wrote, would take the enjoyment of unearned income arising from landownership (i.e. economic rent) away from private hands and place it in the hands of the public.

It might be worthwhile to think, for a moment, about just a few of the implications of this simple “remedy”, as he calls it. First, implementing a land-value tax would immediately make owning idle land unprofitable. Living, as we do, in a country where vast tracts of land are “owned” without being put to optimum use – indeed, to any use at all – taxing the ownership of such land would in short order cause the sale, or the lease, or the use of that land; anything to enable the payment of the land-value tax. All of these outcomes would be nationally, economically beneficial.

Placing local individuals of individual integrity and probity on the land redistribution committees would be critical to ensuring that land redistribution lasts

Second, if only land ownership were taxed, it would imply that labour and capital would not be taxed. Mr George states that to tax anything is to discourage it. This is one of the reasons why taxing land values would discourage private land ownership (unless the landowner was doing something with that land that would enable them to pay the land-value tax). Applying this principle of taxation to the other factors of production, to tax human endeavour (labour) is to discourage it, and therefore such endeavour should not be taxed. Imagine the effect on any economy of allowing people to realise the full benefit of their labour. Would this not be just?

Third, that the benefits from ownership of naturally occurring wealth, for example, should be publicly realised is another implication of Mr George’s remedy. Implementing this would mean that there would be no more private fortunes in oil, or gold, or diamonds, or the electromagnetic spectrum…

Fourth, implementing a tax based on the value of land, insofar as the value of land was determined accurately, would mean that landowners – including the owners of the most prime real estate in New York, or Nairobi, or London – would realise from their ownership of land only such benefit as accrues from their improvement of that land (e.g. by building upon it); they would not be able to benefit merely from “owning” it.

Fifth, Apple and Amazon and Google and Microsoft would not be able to evade federal taxes any longer by pretending to be operating out of Ireland, so long as they had offices (campuses!) in the United States. In other words, a land-value tax is not as easily evadable as many of the forms of taxation we have today.

Land value taxation as a single tax has not been implemented anywhere in the world, for political reasons. In as far as a land-value tax captures the economic rent arising from the private ownership of land, however, an example of the efficacy of this can be seen in Singapore, where the government owns the majority of the land and uses land-based taxes (leases and development uplift) to fund the development of that nation’s infrastructure.

Increase of arable land

Before we began to review our solutions, we noted that we have two main problems: a shortage of arable land, and an unequal distribution of what arable land we do have. The first two solutions we have looked at would redistribute what arable land we do have more equitably. We now look at how we can increase the quantum of our arable land.

Bishop Dr Titus Masika, father of the well-known gospel singer Mercy Masika, and founder of Christian Impact Mission, has done some work in this area that is at once illustrious and illustrative. Bishop Dr Masika launched what he called Operation Mwolyo Out (OMO) in the Yatta sub-county of Machakos County (mwolyo is Kamba for relief food). Yatta, home to about 150,000 people, is classified among the arid and semi-arid areas of the country. OMO saw families encouraged to excavate 20ft-deep water pan to harvest rainwater, and then use the water collected during the rainy season to farm year-round. As a result of these interventions, a community that once had food deficits now generates food surpluses.

Bishop Dr Masika’s OMO initiative demonstrates that we do not need to accept the World Bank’s “10 per cent arable land” as just another nail in our nation’s economic coffin. Amidst much injustice and inequality, we can start with what we have right now. Bishop Dr Masika emphasises the importance of changing a people’s mindset before you can change their outcomes . He states that a change in mindset is the most important step in bringing about permanent change. A radical change of mindset is as necessary in the way we think about economics, land and poverty as it was for the people of Yatta before OMO became a success. For water harvesting, while important, would not have been enough.

The late, great Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, once stated that the first job of government is to equalise opportunity. An economically undeveloped society with an inequality of opportunities is a society that is ripe for land reform. An economy/society that allows the accumulation – for a select few – of an unearned income arising from the private ownership of land is an unjust economy/society. Indeed, even where unearned incomes such as capital gains are shared quite broadly across the economy (as has happened through the democratisation of home ownership in the UK, for example), as this situation is allowed to persist, wealth concentrates among those who first had the opportunity to privately own land. Eventually this leads to inter-generational differences, where the young experience a “failure to launch” into their own homes because home ownership/tenancy becomes too expensive for young people working their first jobs.

A society that allows the accumulation of an unearned income arising from the private ownership of land is an unjust society

Typically, however, it takes moments of immense political upheaval in order for land reforms to be implemented. In Japan, land redistribution was carried out under General MacArthur’s reconstruction programme (on the advice of the great Wolf Ladejinsky) during the US occupation of Japan immediately after the Second World War. In South Korea, the US’s favoured political stooge, Syngman Rhee, enacted redistribution laws, but dragged his heels in implementing them. Matters came to a head during the 1950-53 Korean civil war; after the war, land redistribution was implemented.

In Taiwan, the Kuomintang, fleeing from mainland China, realised they would have to deal with economic inequality by implementing land reform, or perish politically. Songs like Ĩno Mĩgũnda, coupled with our current unemployment metrics (5.3 million of our young people i.e. 39% of our youth, are unemployed), and the fact that our median age is 19, are indicators that our own nation is moving inexorably in the direction of significant political upheaval.

It is incumbent upon us to implement these reforms before economic injustice is obliterated in excruciating fashion as the forces of economic inequality now acting upon our nation’s youthful population give birth to a long-delayed backlash.

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