“I’m conflicted. Sometimes I want them to just tear it down. But it’s also part of our history. If we don’t deal with the legacy of that past then we are likely to repeat the same mistakes”.
Wachira Waheire spends several of the first minutes of our interview sizing me up. As he shares this observation with me, he is guarded and measured, uncertain that he will collaborate with me until he establishes who I am and why I need to speak to him. It is Saturday morning in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and the museum coffee shop where we are meeting is buzzing. Only when I show him samples of my previous writing on my phone does he begin to relax and speak a little more freely. “You know this story is very traumatising,” he tells me. “Every time a journalist asks me to talk about it, I give a piece of myself away. I relive the experience again. It’s very hard.”
Waheire was bundled back into the vehicle and driven around for hours before he was dropped off in the bowels of a building he didn’t recognise. “I was promised a short questioning – I ended up in prison for four years. But had I not been so young and healthy I’m not sure I would even be here today,” he says, laughing mirthlessly.
This story is the 17 days Waheire spent in the tower looming over us during our interview, days in which he was beaten, tortured and interrogated before he was finally transferred to a maximum security prison, where he was held in solitary confinement for four years. In 1986, Waheire was 25 and two years out from university when Kenyan Special Branch officers showed up at his office and asked him to follow them. The officers calmly escorted him to the back of a four-wheel-drive vehicle and took him to his home. There, they found a political poster featuring an ear of corn and an AK-47 that stated that food insecurity was the root of revolution. The officers argued that that was enough to charge him with sedition. Suddenly the mood shifted.
Waheire was bundled back into the vehicle and driven around for hours before he was dropped off in the bowels of a building he didn’t recognise. “I was promised a short questioning – I ended up in prison for four years. But had I not been so young and healthy I’m not sure I would even be here today,” he says, laughing mirthlessly.
The building where Waheire was held is Nyayo House, once the Nairobi provincial headquarters and administrative heart of the city. Commissioned in 1973 by the Ministry of Works, it was initially planned as the 14-storey “Nairobi House”. In 1979, a year after he assumed office following the death of his predecessor Jomo Kenyatta, President Daniel arap Moi, also known by the sobriquet Nyayo, renamed the project Nyayo House. In a 2003 interview, the then chief government architect, the late A. A. Ngotho, said that by the time they broke ground, the decision to use the building for Special Branch offices as well as other government ministries had been taken.
Nyayo House is loaded with symbols of the relationship between the two presidents. It was for several years the second tallest building after the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, a nod to the way Moi, who served as vice president under Kenyatta, always positioned himself as secondary to his predecessor. Indeed, the word “Nyayo” is Kiswahili for footsteps – a nickname that Moi gave himself and his political philosophy to indicate that he would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. Thus the building initially conceived as Nairobi House became Nyayo House on completion, and for almost 22 years, Nairobi’s big men symbolically presided over the capital city until Times Tower was completed in 1995.
Both Nyayo House and Nyati House were at the heart of the Moi regime’s torture network, and Kenyans who remember the 1986 to 1992 period still associate the two buildings with arbitrary arrests, detentions and disappearances. Growing up in Nairobi, we avoided walking past Nyati House, especially because of rumours that you could be arrested and held incommunicado for simply looking at the building in the wrong way.
The Moi regime was on shaky grounds from the beginning, but its most severe challenge was an attempted coup by the air force in 1982 that triggered a wave of punitive repression that arguably didn’t end until the Moi regime itself ended and reached its apogee in sites like Nyayo House. Between 1982 and 1985, after the building had been finished, the government architects who oversaw the project were asked by the Special Branch to make several alterations to the original planning that would turn an office block in the heart of a major city into one of the most secretive and notorious prisons in the country. Twelve strong rooms in the basement were turned into pitch black holding cells and concrete slabs blocked elevator access to all but five floors. Access to the top three floors was blocked almost entirely, except through a single door.
In a 2003 interview with a local paper, the then police commissioner Bernard Njiinu argued that even he didn’t have a sense of the full scope of what was happening in the building. “I knew what I read in the newspapers like anybody elsewhere,” he told journalists, even though he was building a picture of his own from titbits of information he gathered independently.
Waheire gives credence to this argument. “It used to be a very busy government office,” he recalls, “but we were always brought in at night, and they made it so that the office workers never knew what was happening in the basement.” Thus, while by day bureaucrats pushed paper and traded water cooler banter, by night hundreds of political prisoners were held incommunicado in the basement, shuffled to the rooftop for painful beating and interrogation sessions, and then shuffled back downstairs for more torture in the form of sensory deprivation and environmental manipulation. Those in the offices may not have known the particulars, but certainly most of Nairobi suspected that all was not well within the building. There were too many “suicides” off the top floor. There were too many armed police officers milling about in the corridors and at the entrances, shouting at civilians to stay away from the staircases.
The scale of the operation was eventually so large that it couldn’t be contained completely and locals would swear that even the air around the building was sodden with the stench of death. The fear and paranoia it triggered is still reflected in the way Nairobians who remember that time navigate the city, leaving a wide berth around Nyayo House even if it is the shortest route to their destination. It is seared in the collective memory of the city.
Do buildings have memory? The phrase “institutional memory” generally refers to the way ideas get preserved and transmitted across a network over time. But there isn’t really a word to describe the ways in which negative energies become indelibly associated with buildings or constructed artefacts that have been used to violent ends. Yet violence like torture marks buildings not least with the physical debris of damaged human bodies: blood stains the walls and floors and soaks into the concrete; human waste in substantial quantities festers in poorly ventilated spaces.
Walking through such spaces, especially when these spaces have been built or altered to accommodate such uses, one often gets a sense of claustrophobia. Spiritualists may argue that this is the weight of tormented spirits that succumbed to unnatural deaths in these spaces, but non-spiritualists would probably observe that our perception of physical spaces is altered by the uses we associate with them.
Moreover, there’s the more ethereal sense of oppression that lingers even after the torture. Walking through such spaces, especially when these spaces have been built or altered to accommodate such uses, one often gets a sense of claustrophobia. Spiritualists may argue that this is the weight of tormented spirits that succumbed to unnatural deaths in these spaces, but non-spiritualists would probably observe that our perception of physical spaces is altered by the uses we associate with them. The philosopher Saul Fisher argues in the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy that beyond aesthetics or beauty, our experience of the built environment contributes to our state of mind – “the ways we experience architectural objects may contribute to how we comprehend, and interact with, those objects.” So an ugly building used as a space to save lives will evoke an entirely different emotion from a beautiful building used for torture.
The experience – even if second hand – of associating a building with torture, or even with deep uncertainty that is amplified by watching others’ anxieties around such buildings, shapes the way we experience these buildings. You feel it when walking through the basement of Elmina Castle in Ghana, a major stopover for the transatlantic slave trade, where hundreds of thousands of slaves were held in near complete darkness before being shipped off to slavery between 1637 and the abolition of slavery in 1814. It is present in the small rooms of Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where almost 20,000 Cambodians were tortured and killed during Pol Pot’s regime. Long after the blood stains have dried and the smell of decaying flesh has wafted, the weight of history hangs in the air in these places, altering our experience of even the most banal bureaucratic artefacts.
But does it persist forever?
Certainly, a collective memory of oppression changes the way people interact with buildings and constructed artefacts: a step is just a step until a parent tells you that it is the “naughty step” where you’re expected to wait out a time out. But buildings like Nyayo House in Nairobi or John Vorseter Square (Johannesburg Central Police Station) in Johannesburg, which both remain in quotidian use, raise the question of whether the legacy of torture is imprinted indelibly into the structures’ DNA. Like Nyayo House, John Vorseter Square was at the heart of a violently oppressive state in which political prisoners were arbitrarily detained, tortured and killed. The similarities don’t end there; John Vorseter Square is also an architecturally uninspiring building that would be left out of any city tour of Johannesburg were it not the site of so much of the apartheid state’s machinery of murder. As with Nyayo House, none of this is a secret, but governments continue to use these buildings.
It’s been 25 years since the last confirmed incident of torture at Nyayo House, and in the lead-up to the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the city has still not resolved what to do with the building. The Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) convened in 2008 and suggested that it should be turned into a museum, a move that Waheire – who worked with the commission – supports. “It’s a symbol of unfinished business because it remains there and it remains in use,” Waheire reflects. Yet, Waheire isn’t convinced that demolishing the building would give victims the closure that they need. “It should remain,” he tells me, “and they should retain the name to retain the essence. If they change the name they can change everything. It should remain Nyayo House so that the history is encapsulated.”
Memory is an idea that Waheire obsesses over, especially as he watches the state erase the truth about Nyayo House torture from the minds of younger generations by leaving it out of the current school curriculum. In other countries, such buildings are decommissioned and turned into museums – spaces where a community can reckon with an ugly chapter of its history. But Nyayo House is a staggeringly tall tower in the heart of a city struggling for space. There simply aren’t enough artefacts from the 12-room cell below and the three stories at the top to fill every space of the building as a museum.
Waheire sees a compromise, arguing that the basement alone should be turned into a museum, instead of its current use as a storage space and dumpsite for office waste from above. “The government hasn’t accepted the idea [of Nyayo House as a historical site] so they are attempting to delete that history. It’s filthy. It is a dumpsite. It was cleaned in 2013 during the [TJRC] hearings but since then …” he trails off. Preserving the memory of these dark years is Waheire’s main work that he does as a volunteer, pushing for the public to rally and protect this memory so that it may never happen again.
Nyayo House is one of a pair of buildings in downtown Nairobi indelibly marked by a legacy of torture, the other being Nyati House, a squat and architecturally uninspiring stack of gray concrete that once served as the headquarters of the dreaded Special Branch, a clandestine arm of the police force that was instrumental in arresting, detaining and torturing real or imagined dissidents during the Moi era. In a 2012 interview with a local newspaper Wanyiri Kihoro, a former detainee, observed of Nyati House that “people would get shivers just from passing by the building’s entrance. It was shrouded in so much mystery that it would seem your own personal demons came alive with each step towards it.”
Over time, stories began to leak, especially when it became impossible to ignore the sheer number of “suicides” reported at Nyayo House. It seemed strange that while no one was allowed access to the top three floors of the building, and at a time when suicide was technically illegal in Kenya, a dead body having allegedly jumped off the top floor would show up every few days. Growing up in Nairobi in the 1990s, I remember being advised to walk past the building quickly in case a body was falling.
Nyayo House, on the other hand, has at least some architectural merit. The dull orange exterior dominates the intersection of two of Nairobi’s main thoroughfares – the Uhuru Highway and Kenyatta Avenue – and its phallic symbolism is all the more prominent as it towers past the trees of the three parks that comprise the southern boundary of the central business district.
Although fundamentally an archetype of the sterile brutalism of Nairobi in the 1980s, it is not an entirely uninspiring example. Rather than a solid rectangular shape, it has a doubled-H shape, and is essentially three towers connected by a corridor. The orange of the two outer towers contrasts slightly with the dull brown of the core tower, and its corners are rounded where other towers have sharp edges. Combined with the flamboyant two-tone colour, the structure of the building adds a touch of quirkiness to the austere design.
In 1985, when it was opened, Nyayo House reflected a style that was perceptively different from the city’s Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC). The latter conformed to the flamboyance of the African modernist frenzy of the 1960s and 70s – the euphoria of the independence era leading to fanciful, extravagant designs that birthed a rotating restaurant flaring from the ceiling of a tower like an elaborate head dress, while a squat plenary hall echoing the lines of a traditional hut sits nearby. Nyayo House, on the other hand, was a concession to the pragmatism of the economic austerity of the 1980s – clean, tame lines with only the smallest concessions to artistic flare.
Both Nyayo House and Nyati House were at the heart of the Moi regime’s torture network, and Kenyans who remember the 1986 to 1992 period still associate the two buildings with arbitrary arrests, detentions and disappearances. Growing up in Nairobi, we avoided walking past Nyati House, especially because of rumours that you could be arrested and held incommunicado for simply looking at the building in the wrong way. In a 2014 interview with the local press, John Ng’aari, a pro-democracy activist in the 1980s, said that he still felt an urge to urinate in fear whenever he walked past Nyati House and that “seeing it evokes memories of the old terror days when speaking out was a crime. Amongst our prayer items in those days was ‘may God save us from Nyati House’”.
Waheire’s ambiguous position on Nyayo House is indicative of the less categorical perspective that Nairobians have towards Nyayo House compared to Nyati House. Unlike Nyati House, which is still used as a police building, and is therefore, closed to the public and shrouded in secrecy, Nyayo House has always been a mixed-purpose building. Since 1983 when the building was completed, it has been home to the Department of Immigration, the provincial administration where Nairobi residents applied for various permits and official documents, as well as the head office for the first privately owned television station in the country’s history, the Kenya Television Network (KTN). Given this expansive use, it has always been and remains one of the busiest buildings in the country, with queues for new passports and permits often snaking around the parking lot and into the street. All of this went on even while people like Waheire were moaning in misery – beaten, deprived of food, sleep and water – in the basement below.
Buildings like Nyayo House are integral to the process of administrative massacres because they allow authorities to bureaucratise the process of torture and killing and to normalise the process as a function of the state.
Ngotho, in the Saturday Nation of 5 May 2012, insisted that Nyayo House was not deliberately built for torture, but testimony given at the Kenya Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission argued otherwise. In their summary findings, the commission argued that “the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers were designed and built […] specifically for the purpose of terrorising those who were critical of, or perceived to be critical of, the established regime.” Waheire concurs. “After the 2002 change of government,” he tells me, “they tried very hard to destroy evidence of all the torture that had happened but when they tried to demolish the torture chambers, the architects told them that if they did that it would undermine the structural integrity of the whole building. That suggests that the torture chambers were part of the structure from the beginning.”
Ngotho argued otherwise. He told a newspaper in 2003 that the sound- and waterproof rooms that would become the main torture chambers were designed as strong rooms for the storage of important documents produced by the government officers upstairs. They were poorly ventilated because people were not expected to spend extended periods of time there, he insisted. Similarly, the elevators to the basement only served certain floors because only the occupants of those floors required access to the money and the secret documents kept in the basement at any time.
Another architect working on the project concurred with Ngotho. Gideon Mutemi Mulyungi told the TJRC that the rooms were initially designed to store cash and sensitive and valuable government documents, and that they were built with reinforced concrete so that they would be fire resistant, and that because of the lack of natural ventilation, air was piped in through special air vents in the roof and walls to assist in climate control.
Still, Ngotho conceded that the Special Branch did, in fact, have a hand in the final design of the building. He recalled that two senior Special Branch officers and a British national, a “Mr. Parkins”, regularly briefed his team on changes that needed to be incorporated into the structure. And to make the situation really work, the building’s administrators put in place several restrictions on the structure’s use. For instance, the original elevators to the basement only served five of the 27 floors: “those government offices that really needed them”, recalled Ngotho. When public elevators were made available, civilians were prohibited from using the staircases even to the first floor, meaning that the lifts at Nyayo House were always crowded. Eventually, the flow of everything from people to recycled air was structured around restricting access to the extremities of the building.
Eventually, the building could no longer contain its secrets. Over time, stories began to leak, especially when it became impossible to ignore the sheer number of “suicides” reported at Nyayo House. It seemed strange that while no one was allowed access to the top three floors of the building, and at a time when suicide was technically illegal in Kenya, a dead body having allegedly jumped off the top floor would show up every few days. Growing up in Nairobi in the 1990s, I remember being advised to walk past the building quickly in case a body was falling. The suicide theory held up only as long as the autocratic regime remained in power. Soon after the democratic vote in 2002, survivors and security officers who had worked in Nyayo House confirmed that those who died during the torture would be thrown off the top of the building to mask the extent of their injuries.
In a 1995 article for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, law professor Mark Osiel defined an administrative massacre as “large scale violations of basic human rights to life and liberty by the central state in a systematic and organised fashion, often against its own citizens.” An administrative massacre is particularly horrifying because it involves building a bureaucracy around human rights violations in order to sanitise them and create an illusion of legality. The political theorist Hannah Arendt first used the term to describe the horrors of British colonialism, especially in India, when colonial administrators would justify widespread murders and deportations of locals in the most sterile bureaucratic terms, a practice that extended to Nazi Germany, where SS officials kept meticulous records of the machine they built to exterminate Jews, Romas, homosexuals and other groups deemed “undesirable and irredeemable”.
Architecture is an integral part of an administrative massacre, particularly where the state in question wants a visible monument to both contain the horror and make an example of those who endure it. Buildings like Nyayo House that are geared primarily to this purpose are not designed to horrify – a remarkable building that stood out from the rest of the architecture would quickly become a focal point for protest and possibly revolt. Rather, the more banal and routine the exterior, the more citizens are likely to accept that what goes on within is a normal part of state function – even if this banality is a function of how quickly the buildings are put together by an autocratic state.
Examples of this type of building can be found on every continent. Many have been turned into museums, like Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh and the Stasi prison in Berlin. Some are still in continuous use, like John Vorseter Square. The US government’s Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba is the most notable addition to the list, although similar smaller sites, like Richmond Hill prison in Grenada, also exist. Oftentimes buildings that facilitate administrative massacres are modified from other functions, but rarely are they as architecturally striking as the Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada in Buenos Aires – the largest detention centre used during Argentina’s Dirty War from 1976 to 1983. Even though it was an educational facility like Tuol Sleng, this classical revivalist building, with its four imposing pillars, looks more like a museum than any of the other buildings on this list, and so the transition into a museum of the period was perhaps smoother.
Nyayo House was part of the administrative massacre of Kenyans in the 1980s. Unlike generalised violence in neighbouring countries like Uganda and Somalia, it percolated slowly and relied on the acquiescence of the public rather than on widespread demonstrations of force. It focused on fear as a method of control rather than outright destruction, and caused significant physical harm to a few in order to impose psychological control over the majority. It also altered the character of the city significantly – until the mid-2000s, pedestrian traffic around Loita Street was uncharacteristically light for a bustling African city, as civilians avoided walking past both Nyayo House and Nyati House in order to avoid getting caught in the dragnet of a paranoid state.
Although the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) recommended that the Nyayo House torture chambers be converted into a museum, the government has so far resisted this recommendation for many reasons. Quite simply, the state refuses to acknowledge the magnitude of the suffering it inflicted on its citizens.
Buildings like Nyayo House are integral to the process of administrative massacres because they allow authorities to bureaucratise the process of torture and killing and to normalise the process as a function of the state. It is, therefore, almost predictable that the most banal exterior should house a bloody history of violence because the form of a building that truly manifested the function of such buildings might prove too grotesque to contemplate. Similarly, the decision to use buildings close to the proximity of the city centre serves not only to speed up the process of arbitrary arrest and detention, but also serves as a visual reminder of what the state is doing. An administrative massacre relieves the perpetrator of the need to entirely mask what they’re doing: they need the public to suspect just enough so as to incite paranoia and paralysing fear.
Although the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission recommended that the Nyayo House torture chambers be converted into a museum, the government has so far resisted this recommendation for many reasons. Quite simply, the state refuses to acknowledge the magnitude of the suffering it inflicted on its citizens. Many of those who ended up in office after the end of the authoritarian Moi regime had served under that regime. Mwai Kibaki, the president who set up the TJRC, was once vice president under Moi and also served as chair of the National Security Committee that oversaw internal security at the time that the Nyayo House machine was being deployed. Beyond having knowledge, it is possible to infer that he was complicit, and thus had no incentive to adopt the recommendations of the commission. Kibaki’s successor Uhuru Kenyatta, who received the final report of the TJRC in 2013, has also failed to adopt the commission’s recommendations.
This leaves survivors like Waheire in limbo. On the one hand, they have been financially compensated following prosecutions against the state in the days after Moi left office, but, on the other hand, they sense that without a physical monument to their suffering their place in history is being systematically erased. Kenya is a young country with an average age of 18.1 years, meaning that an entire generation has already emerged since the last prisoner left Nyayo House: an entire generation that doesn’t know why people walk quickly and look up when passing Nyayo House.
Waheire believes that such collective amnesia is disrespectful and undermines the stability of the country in general. As a founding member of the Nyayo House Torture Survivors Association, he battles the state on preserving the memory of the era. (The organisation remains unregistered because the state said its mission was prejudicial to national security.) Waheire volunteers to keep information archived and organised, sharing the Kenyan story at regional and international meetings of torture survivors but is pushing back against apathy from other survivors who, once compensated, argue that the past is better buried.
The sole “good” dimension of the administrative massacre is the meticulous record-keeping that makes such memory projects possible. “We have all the information we need,” Waheire tells me. “We know 98 per cent of the names of the people who were held there and my long-term goal is at least to be able to memorialise them in a plaque or statue of some kind.”
Until then, the tower remembers for everyone. The torture cells below can be buried underneath reams of waste paper but they cannot be detached from the building, which also means that they cannot be physically erased from our collective memories.
This article was initially published in Disegno Magazine, #15, June – August 2017.
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.
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 Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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