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False Freedom: The Hollow Pillars of Liberal Democracy

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Aborted Landing
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Premises

In a now commonly known assessment F. Fukuyama, after 1989 change in world systems, predicted the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. It is the ideal system the African continent is not only looking up to, but also being either encouraged, or, in some instances forced to adopt. Saying liberal democracy, today, means a certain number of things that some people call features of liberal democracy, others call its values, others its characteristics, and so on. They include the rule of law; citizens’ rule; majority rule, minorities’ rights, individual rights; regular free and fair elections; democratic representation; freedom of speech, freedom of association and pressure groups; pluralism understood as distribution of power between competing groups, i.e. mainly political parties; freedom of religion; equality as equal opportunity to develop potential and equal say in government matters. This long list would be incomplete if it does not state that all this is ensured by constitutionalism understood as the system of checks and balances between State’s arms of power drawing up the mechanism of cooperation and consultation between them on the one hand; and on the other between citizens and State institutions.

Those who have demanded periodically “democracy now”, in Africa and in other parts of the world, were demanding the system described above. Before them, those who have struggled to overcome the excesses of single party regimes, or even military regimes, sought to embrace liberal democracy.

The above shows how there can hardly be an exhaustive definition of liberal democracy. It is commonly accepted that it relies on classical liberalism which in turn, in simple terms, would mean an ideology concerned with man’s freedom from any impositions. It is based upon the principles of liberty and equality. In addition, classical liberalism propounds a system as central to itself: private property, free market, unhampered by government rule; the rule of law; constitutional guarantee of freedom of the media and religious freedom, as well as peace achieved through trade, both domestically and internationally. If that is what is “liberal’ in liberal democracy, what would be the “democracy” part in it? It would be the universal suffrage, a strong middle class, and an active civil society. Moreover, pluralism expressed through political parties is supposed to ensure that alternation in governing is possible since it is assumed that loyal opposition would give voters the chance to get out office individuals or a party that is not performing.

Those who have demanded periodically “democracy now”, in Africa and in other parts of the world, were demanding the system described above. Before them, those who have struggled to overcome the excesses of single party regimes, or even military regimes, sought to embrace liberal democracy. Indeed it appears to create room for the sovereignty of the people to give itself a constitution; to accommodate the representation of large populations with the widest sociological diversity; to ensure the control of government is assured by the division of power with a direct control exercised by parliament, usually a bicameral one; and be open to citizens’ participation as channels for people to organize themselves according to shared opinions and ideologies made possible by political parties. Has it worked? Some say in parts yes, and in parts it is a problem.

PROBLEM IN PRACTICAL TERMS

The problem, however, is that embracing liberal democracy on the African continent has yielded progress, yes but also has created new problems. It would be enough to look at the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” in northern Africa. Moreover, the fact is and remains that the gains of multiparty politics as well as those of the recent revolutions in northern Africa in terms of achievements of social justice and peace are still questionable. Generally, in terms of what can be termed political common good understood as the different social conditions, material and non-material, that allow people as individuals and groups to develop their own potential and that of their community, small and large, liberal democracy hasn’t done much. Instead, new forms of conflicts have sprung up. At times liberal democracy policies and practices have also created social paralysis. In this aspect, one can think of some unsuccessful coalition governments that created endless bickering rather than advance people’s true development.

Generally, in terms of what can be termed political common good understood as the different social conditions, material and non-material, that allow people as individuals and groups to develop their own potential and that of their community, small and large, liberal democracy hasn’t done much.

The previous contribution to this publication alluded to the fact that liberal democracy conceptually promotes individualism which is in stark contrast with the basics of the African society based upon solidarity and hospitality. This is due to its major principles of absolute freedom and equality, which remain theoretical and impossible to translate into tangible response to people’s needs. In a bid to emulate developed societies’ life style, or rather liberal democracies’ life style for example, urban Africa is living some kind of a proxy life characterized by a growing individualism, with no other duties than seeking to maximize individual wellbeing through pronounced materialism, as well as a series of subjective rights. Why call it proxy life? On the one hand because so few have the means to actualize it. And on the other, because a much and far bigger number, on the continent, is still living very far below such standards, a fact that makes it impossible to unleash a critical mass of a middle class with decent income necessary for a stable democracy.

When it claims to be the rule of the majority, even in developed societies, including the United States of America, it often is the case that from the business world, to political institutions and municipalities, the will of the majority can find itself under a fierce control of just a few, normally a very restricted economic elite. In Western societies, the participation in political processes is similar to the law of the jungle: the survival of the fittest. The fittest here being the one with the money. Ordinary people do not see the difference their vote can make where financial power rules politics, which explains, in part, the declining number of those who actually vote. The case of recent general elections in France is an illustration of this. The same could be said of the shrinking power of organisations that used to represent ordinary people such as unions, which weakened the workers in the face of corporate power; a panorama suggesting that liberal democracy is a political system in which the free market rules. Consequently, at least in the west, the ordinary citizen looks like he is left aside. Such situation has forced even liberals like Mrs. Clinton to use, in her recent campaign, such concepts as inclusive capitalism instead; or the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders to campaign against “Wall Street”.

In Western societies, the participation in political processes is similar to the law of the jungle: the survival of the fittest. The fittest here being the one with the money.

The system is a problem if money controls politics, or if corporations control political agenda as well as the media. The resulting disenchantment is that elected political office holders do not represent the voters, they represent the interests of those who fund them. In Africa this is double jeopardy, as those who fund politicians could be, not just a small financial elite in any given country, but also foreign donors with special interests, far removed from the needs of the voters. The problem as it appears in practical terms demands that the tenets of liberal democracy be interrogated. Such an interrogation must first posit the problem in theoretical terms.

THE PROBLEM IN THEORETICAL TERMS

Asked recently about what has just started to go wrong in liberal democracies, Fukuyama said: “Well, there are several things. So one is just the fate of globalization, which actually worked very well in the aggregate. But it didn’t benefit everybody equally. You know, we’re now more than a generation away from the collapse of communism. And in a way, everybody now takes democracy for granted. And they’re very unhappy with the way that their institutions are performing, I think, both in the United States and in Europe”[1]. In the West, the reaction against globalization stems from the fact that huge swathe of the working population feels that the free market tied to the liberal democracy hasn’t worked for them at all. It has increased the power of a small financial elite to decide the fate of a political system everyone else should put up with even if it is not working for them. That is what makes the illustrious Fukuyama say that people feel the pull of taking part in tribal societies instead.

Talking about tribal societies, in Africa, we never departed from our tribal societies. There is never a need to shun one’s tribe as it does form part of one’s identity. Trouble started when channeling political pluralism in terms of political parties. In most African countries, multiparty politics drew up those political mechanisms of seizing and retaining power along tribal lines, perverting the tribe into tribalism. This permeated the only instance of political participation, i.e. elections, with the consequences known to all. The aggravating circumstance that goes with it is the sheer number of individuals that are far from being members of the so-called middle class. One could even say that what is called “middle class” in a number of African countries is the “indebted class” whose home is mortgaged, the car is on loan, school fees are on loan and, even sometimes, the furniture is on loan, etc…

However, it can’t be said that what is wrong with liberal democracy should be reduced to the social ills of where it is to be implemented. This is because, liberal democracy is also flawed conceptually. Its flaws can be summarized in the following points, proving that its main pillars are rather hollow. Coming to terms with such a reality could push the debate to seek some corrective measures, in the African context, in some of our traditional understanding of the art of government as based upon wisdom. Which pillars appear to be hollow?

1. The principle of liberty and equality

When liberal democracy is touted as the most adequate system of government, it is assumed that it is because, through the distribution and control of power, it offers greater guarantee against arbitrariness and oppression. On such ground it defends its foundational principle of liberty and equality by presenting greater protection to individual liberty and respect for human rights, which are the expression of equality. In virtue of equality all can participate in democratic governance, because all are free and equal. However, political power cannot really be exercised by all. It is necessary to hand it to someone: that is what elections do. Hence the reason why for some, with elections the purpose of public governance is achieved. This means that the purpose of the political community is to give to the individual his rights and consequently the political community has no value in itself. It is an instrument for individual interest. Here is a major characteristic of the liberal tradition, in contrast with the republican tradition. The distinction between these two should be the object of a different issue.

However, political power cannot really be exercised by all. It is necessary to hand it to someone: that is what elections do. Hence the reason why for some, with elections the purpose of public governance is achieved.

Considering the community as a mere instrument at the service of individual liberties, easily morphed into individual interests where free market reigns, is the surest way of emptying the concept of individual liberty of its content. This is because individual liberty exists within an order of liberties[2]. Individual liberty cannot be absolute as liberal democracy has made it to be. It needs a measure, without which it can become a means of violence against other people’s liberties. When individual liberty is absolute, it can easily create fertile ground for conflict of “us” against “them”, or, as it has been the case in totalitarian regimes, a case of conflict of all against all.

What is the right content of individual liberty then? It could have two meanings: fundamental human rights and prosperity for all as well as the good of each citizen. Such content refers directly to the common good, a concept that has not found room in liberal democracies, where it’s all about interests. This demonstrates further why a true content for the idea of equality cannot be found either. Indeed human beings are different. We can’t put the same value on the opinion of educated people and uneducated ones, wise elders and ignorant people, law abiding citizens and criminals, etc. More importantly those upon whom power is invested, in order to be free and equal, must recognize their own good in the common good of the people they lead. This fact clashes, once again, against the wall of individual interests be they of the few or of corporations within a liberal democracy.

The discussion of what is lacking under the pillars of liberty and equality in liberal democracy indicates or gives rise to questioning its understanding of another of its seeming pillar: the idea of what is just.

2. The idea of what is just

In liberal democracy, there is a tension between the idea of freedom, as the form of democratic life, and the idea of what is just and what is right as its content[3]. Observing today’s trends, it can be easily seen that the emphasis is always on freedom, while what is just and good remain secondary matters and, in some instances, they appear in third, fourth or even fifth place in the debate, in the name of the fact that no one wants the State to shape their idea of what is just and/or good. This position is even pronounced when there is need to understand what is just in the light of the truth. The liberal tradition does not believe that truth, especially truth about what is good and just can be known at the level of the community or in the public sphere. Liberals firmly believe that truth belongs to the realm of the private sphere. Thinking about what is truly just and truly good for all is practically un-democratic. So the question is, what is then the foundation of liberal democracy’s claim for social justice if there is no hint of a publicly, or commonly understood truth about what is just, not only for a ruling class but also for an ordinary citizen? Social justice appears then to be another hollow tenet of liberal democracy. The absence of a universal understanding of the truth not only about what is just but also about what is good, for the leader and the citizens, is one of the reasons why a number of thinkers are of the opinion that liberal democracy relies on relativism as another pillar for it as a system

3. The principle of relativism underlying the majority rule

The fact that liberal democracy relies on relativism is a contradiction in principles. This is because democracy is perceived to be the best guarantee of inviolable rights. Indeed, depriving others of their rights cannot be the content of justice and liberty. In fact it is core idea that points towards the ethical dimension that democracy can’t really renounce. However, if democracy cannot accommodate a truly universal and unchangeable idea of freedom as limited by the order of freedoms -the idea of good as personal good and common good and the concept of the truth- it remains without any other reference for political decision except the principle of majority rule. In the political arena, relativism as a pillar of liberal democracy has substituted the truth by the majority rule. And justice is left to be determined by the law, meaning what the competent organs say, even if they could declare something wrong to be just. Here is why liberal democracy has come to be defined by the rules of the game which consists in forming majorities for the transmission and alternation of power. It is no longer about the common good of those who elect the leaders that count!

Liberals firmly believe that truth belongs to the realm of the private sphere. Thinking about what is truly just and truly good for all is practically un-democratic.

The consequences of such relativism cover a wide range of facts such as populism that operates with opinion polls, when it is clear that popularity cannot be synonymous with right; partisan divides with consequent partisan legislation never meant to really achieve the common good but rather serve partisan interests; corruption in the form of clientelism where lobbies and corporations pay for favours in the form of policies; entitlements; formal and informal complex systems of non-accountability etc.

Unmasking the hollow principles of liberal democracy is a duty, if a way to solve such problems is to be found. In summary, the quick diagnosis above shows that, only a return to the ethical dimension of democracy would pave the way to solutions. However, consideration on this needs a greater elaboration which must start from the truth about the nature of political society in order to restore the true meaning of freedom and equality. Such an elaboration would also need to include: a) a discussion on the true meaning and role of “civil society”; b) an analysis of the distinction between metaphysical liberalism and political liberalism, which would also indicate a mention of c) the distinction between the liberal democracy tradition and the republican tradition.

[1] http://www.npr.org/2017/04/04/522554630/francis-fukuyama-on-why-liberal-democracy-is-in-trouble

[2] Ratzinger, J. (2006), Truth, values and power, Rialp, 6th ed., Madrid, p. 82. (in Spanish)

[3] Ibidem, p.83.

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Dr Antoinette Kankindi is a Senior Lecturer at the Strathmore Law School and a Research Fellow, at its Integrity Programme. Email: akankindi@strathmore.edu

Ideas

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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Africapitalism’ and the Limits of Any Variant of Capitalism

Stefan Ouma provides a critical account of Africapitalism as well as an assessment of the future/s it imagines, what it silences and its potential to transform African economies. Ouma concludes that the ecologically destructive and dehumanising architecture of our global economic system provides further evidence to condemn any variant of capitalism.

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In 2019, Tanzanians mourned prominent businessperson Ali Mufuruki (1959-2019). Under the umbrella of his InfoTech Investment Group, he championed the cause of indigenous ownership of businesses in the country. He was successful at his trade, representative of a group of ‘Tanzanians of African origin who have been the voice of the private sector during – and since – the transition to liberalization in the 1980s/90s.

He was also an ‘ideational entrepreneur’ who promoted the structural transformation of African economies to engender less extraverted and extractive forms of development. With the aim to safeguard the ‘gains of liberalization’, he co-founded and chaired the CEO Roundtable of Tanzania (CEOrt), providing a forum for industry leaders to constructively engage the government on policy issues. Together with his fellow countrymen Rahim Mawji, Moremi Marwa, Gilman Kasiga, he published a book to which the President himself, John Pombe Magufuli wrote the foreword: Tanzania’s Industrialisation Journey, 2016-2056: From an Agrarian to a Modern Industrialised State in Forty Years (2017).

Mufuruki also spread his ideas in a TED talk, where he debunked the myth of ‘Africa rising’ with great verve, as some critical political economists have also done. Yet despite being touted as an ‘intellectual of capital’ by historian Chambi Chachage, you won’t find the term capitalism mentioned in Mufuruki and colleagues’ book other than when another cited author uses the term. Instead, less suspicious terms such as ‘the market’ and ‘the private sector’ are put to use. After all, upebari (capitalism) and mapebari (capitalists) are still terms used widely with a negative connotation in a country where socialism is still enshrined in the constitution.

In contrast, in Nigeria, another intellectual of capital, Tony Elumelu, was far less hesitant to mobilise the vocabulary of capitalism for his purposes when he came up with the term Africapitalism in 2011. Since then, the notion has become a popular hashtag in social media, and now garnishes the titles of at least three books (Edozie 2017Idemudia and Amaeshi 2019Amaeshi et al. 2018).

Like Mufuruki, Elumelu is someone for whom capitalism has worked very well, having turned the Nigerian United Bank of Africa (UBA) into a pan-African player in the 2000s. He is now the board chairman of Heirs Holding, a pan-African private equity firm based in Lagos. For the past ten years, he has also headed a large philanthropic enterprise dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship across the continent.

Like Mufuruki, Elumelu is representative of ‘Africa’s new, burgeoning capitalist class’ – a new crop of African entrepreneurs who not only have amassed huge fortunes, but who also increasingly shape representations of the continent on matters of economic and social policy in the battle for minds in and beyond Africa. As argued in a recent post to this blog series by Nigerian historian Moses Ochonu, engagement with this new crop of entrepreneurs is often fraught with two interrelated problems: ‘One is a failure to develop an analytical toolkit that accommodates the capacious and amorphous entrepreneurial lives of Africans who were pigeonholed into the new neoliberal category of the entrepreneur. The second is a failure to adequately critique the exuberant, self-assured discourse of entrepreneurs as economic messiahs and replacements for the economic responsibilities of the dysfunctional African state.’ I am taking this finding as an invitation to critically think through Africapitalism beyond capitalism.

Originally, ‘Africapitalism’ only provided a shadowy outline of a new economic blueprint for structural change in Africa. Elumelu underlined that ‘its primary goal is greater economic prosperity and social wealth, driven by Africa’s private sector – its domestic economies, markets, and businesses.’  Its agenda, however, became subsequently more philosophically refined as part of an academic project sponsored by Elumelu’s Foundation at the University of Edinburgh School of Business.

The Nigerian academics involved reframed the Africapitalist ethos as a set of fundamental values through which capitalism is supposed to be made to work for Africans. ‘[A] sense of progress and prosperity,’ ‘a sense of parity,’ ‘a sense of peace and harmony’ and a ‘sense of place and belongingness’ were put at the heart of the Africapitalist project.

At first it seems puzzling that someone would unashamedly embrace capitalism as an ideology of the future on a continent that has historically most brutally suffered under it, and which until today – by many accounts – continues to do so. Making a case for capitalism so boldly happens rarely anywhere in the world, especially outside the UK and the US, where Milton Friedman and others have promoted capitalism as a free-enterprise system that brings humans’ true nature to the fore. Friedman even ran a TV show on it.

Originally, ‘Africapitalism’ only provided a shadowy outline of a new economic blueprint for structural change in Africa. Elumelu underlined that ‘its primary goal is greater economic prosperity and social wealth, driven by Africa’s private sector – its domestic economies, markets, and businesses.’

Even in other core capitalist countries such as Germany, politicians or business folk tend to use less controversial vocabulary such as ‘the market economy’ or ‘our economic system’ when they talk about the world they inhabit. When the leader of the Youth Wing of the Social Democrats (JUSOS) in Germany explicitly used the term capitalism in 2019 to argue that what is assumed to be God-given can actually be changed (calling for labour to own stakes in large businesses), all hell broke loose. That the term is avoided in public debate happens even more often across Africa.

Most independence governments shunned capitalism as the ideology of the colonisers, and until today, many leaders shy away from openly embracing it as the ideology of choice. Almost 30 years ago, Paul Zeleza noted that even in countries with a history of pro-capitalist development since independence, such as Kenya, politicians, entrepreneurs and academics rarely made a public case for capitalism. A recent piece by ROAPE’s Jörg Wiegratz for this series on roape.net and a 2019 intervention of the Mathare Social Justice Center seem to reaffirm the discursive invisibility of capitalism in at least that corner of the continent.

The enthusiastic promotion of Africapitalism also seems puzzling given that capitalism has become increasingly questioned as an ideology-cum-economic system that can take us into the future. The global financial crisis, all-time high global inequalities, but also the increasingly obvious ecological limits of an economic system based on infinite growth, present challenges to anyone trying to make a continued case for capitalism.

Critical books diagnosing capitalism as ready to implode, imagining post-capitalist futures or directly attacking those benefiting disproportionally from the machinations of contemporary capitalism have become plentiful, often reminding us that it is either capitalism or the planet.

The enthusiastic promotion of Africapitalism also seems puzzling given that capitalism has become increasingly questioned as an ideology-cum-economic system that can take us into the future

In the wake of the global financial crisis 2007-8, even the promoters of global corporate elites admit that capitalism has come ‘under siege.’ With debates on inequality and climate change at an all-time high, now even some of the biggest profiteers from financialized capitalism, such as investment banker Jamie Dimon, want to save capitalism from capitalism.

The Corona virus crisis is just the latest product of capitalism’s ‘blasted landscapes.’ As Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr recently argued in two widely circulating essays in the German Newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the COVID-19 pandemic is the product of the minority world’s ‘imperial mode of living’ which partly has been taken up in China and other emerging economies, and now puts the fallout on the rest of us. In a way, it may be considered the harbinger of the climate catastrophe to come – a catastrophe for which only a relatively small part of the world population is responsible (especially if environmental debt is calculated per capita and historically).

The Corona crisis also calls into question the debt-financed growth strategies of many African governments, to the extent that a group of 100 African intellectuals have called for a complete overhaul of the African variant of neoliberal capitalism, where road and airport infrastructures and other ‘urban fantasies’ are prioritized over human well-being.

At the same time, there have been various developments that help us make sense of why ‘Africapitalism’ as an idea emerged and has been taken up so enthusiastically across Africa, and reverberates powerfully even in times of Corona (Elumelu’s UBA just announced a $14 million COVID-19 relief support across Africa).

First, since 2008, Africa has come to be heralded as the last frontier of capitalism, most prominently encapsulated in the ‘Africa rising’ narrative. Although even some intellectuals of capital have been wary of the danger of a single story, such as Mufuruki himself, this narrative has nevertheless redirected the gaze of global capital towards the continent.

As the late Thandika Mkandawire pointed out: ‘Ideas matter. While not always decisive, they do have an autonomous and noticeable effect on interests and institutions.’ Indeed, many African corporate and political elites have tried to exploit this moment of increased global attention, especially the new crop of mega-rich entrepreneurs that Elumelu is part of: the Kirubis, Motsepes and Dangotes of the continent.

Since 2008, Africa has come to be heralded as the last frontier of capitalism, most prominently encapsulated in the ‘Africa rising’ narrative.

Elumelu himself seems to admit that Africa should not rise in a business-as-usual mode. To remedy potential conflicts arising from jobless growth, accumulation by resource extraction and increasing demographic pressures, it ‘is in capital’s own interest to think long-term and invest for social impact’  Why not bet on a mode of production that has, as some would say, proven to be the largest wealth-creating machine in human history?

For Africapitalists, it just depends on the variety of capitalism and how inclusive it is made. It is along these lines that promoters of Africapitalism want to free capitalism from its most excessive and socially destructive features, turning it into a win-win machine for capitalists and the communities they ‘serve’. This is supposed to happen through voluntary, private sector-driven initiatives rather than through taming capitalism through public regulation.

Second, there has been an increasing shift in development thinking over the past decade. The private sector is now being hailed as the prime agent of economic change. The entry of philanthropic entities, private equity funds, impact investors and conventional multinationals into the business of development indicates this trend.

This has been buttressed by a range of concepts that try to give capitalist activities greater legitimacy, such as ‘inclusive capitalism’, ‘corporate citizenship’, ‘social enterprise’, ‘creating shared value’, ‘impact investing’, or the ‘double/triple bottom line approach’.

Africapitalism relates to these intellectual currents, but at the same time claims to supersede them. In such an environment, it sounds increasingly natural to make entrepreneurs – as ‘wealth creators,’ ‘job creators,’ ‘innovators,’ ‘problem-solvers,’ ‘disruptors’ and ‘givers’ the prime movers of economic transformation. Yet those who also create value, be it the state or workers, are largely absent in this narrative.

Third, there are long-standing questions about how to think about Africa’s future development trajectories and through which means ‘development’ could best be achieved. The idea of Africapitalism makes a bold contribution to this debate, reinjecting African agency into the discourse of economic transformation. Many independence leaders were seriously committed to a politics of the future, creating long-term visions of how their societies should develop (e.g., Nkrumah, Senghor, Nyerere) This particular version of politics of the future faded away from the 1980s onwards, when the projects they were based on had run into economic troubles.

‘The African state,’ variously described as socialist, rent-seeking, vampiristic, centralised, clientelist, neopatrimonial, predatory, kleptocratic or failed (Mkandawire 2001: 293), was suddenly blamed for all kinds of evils and the lost development decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Statist and home-grown academic visions of societal transformation were gradually replaced by copy-and-paste adjustment practices. Issa Shivji aptly described this situation a few years ago: ‘The globalization hegemony dictated that the “villages” of the globalizing world did not need thinkers, but only purveyors of thought generated elsewhere.’  Until the early 2000s, African economies had become even greater importers of foreign concepts, something that has always been part of the (post)colonial experience.

The Corona crisis also calls into question the debt-financed growth strategies of many African governments, to the extent that a group of 100 African intellectuals have called for a complete overhaul of the African variant of neoliberal capitalism, where road and airport infrastructures and other ‘urban fantasies’ are prioritized over human well-being.

The longstanding calls for the domestication of ‘development’ moving beyond imperial Western thought, overcoming the colonisation of mind and language, as well as the more recent calls for Africentricity, Africonsciousness and Afromodernity have been responses to this predicament. The idea of Africapitalism fits with the idea that development in Africa should happen with a ‘sense of place’.

It connects with the long-standing desire of African and African Diaspora people to reassert the continent’s role in the world. Frantz Fanon once described this desire powerfully in The Wretched of the Earth, ‘….if we want humanity to take one step forward, if we want to take it to another level than the one where Europe has placed it, then we must innovate, we must be pioneers.’

While closely linked to its Nigerian origin, Africapitalism also ties into and takes inspiration from another vision for Africa’s transformation, Ubuntu economics. Both philosophies are said to ‘embed within themselves the principles of self-determination, African agency, African knowledge and an Africacentric symbolic identity’.

Both philosophies are mobilised to carve out new spaces of thought and practice from the global political economy for accumulating both economic and social wealth in Africa. But Africapitalists have no problem with the foreignness of capitalism, and for the more libertarian kind it is in fact socialist practices that are foreign imports into a context where ‘(p)rofit, trade, and entrepreneurship are inherent aspects of indigenous economic systems’.

For these libertarian Africapitalists, the capitalist ethic is a product of nature (rather than a product of history) – a finding which has been critiqued in an earlier contribution to this blog series by Horman Chitonge. ‘Africapitalism’ also can be related to the long-standing concept of Pan-Africanism, but comes across as a globally more appealing and neutral concept, as Pan-Africanism always had an anti-imperial and anti-capitalist ideological core.

So, what does the concept actually deliver for the continent (and its diaspora people) in terms of transformative, emancipatory and redistributive potential? Despite the welcome Afrocentric and Afroconscious rhetoric, Africapitalists, much like most other politicians and business folk fail to fully ‘open up the present to more than its own repetition.’

This does not deny the need for Africans to advance a more humane, place-based, and connected economy that tries to radically transcend capitalism as the continent has known it. As Mkandawire recently remarked, we should be essentially upbeat about Africa, but it ‘must be given space, or capture space, to think its own way out of its predicament’.

At a time when the true costs of climbing up the capitalist ladder are more obvious than ever; Africa is in a good position to generate real and viable alternative economic futures. But this requires much more than promoting Afrocentric entrepreneurship and needs an approach that enables us to seriously break with the coloniality of power, knowledge and being that has shaped Africa’s adverse insertion into the global political economy since the colonial period. It is only this systemic overhaul which will set African economies on a new footing.

Frantz Fanon once described this desire powerfully in The Wretched of the Earth, ‘….if we want humanity to take one step forward, if we want to take it to another level than the one where Europe has placed it, then we must innovate, we must be pioneers.’

After all, Africanization does not equal decolonization. By relying on categories that were often formed during colonial encounters (such as ‘growth,’ ‘efficiency’; ‘nature serves man as a resource’), by largely subscribing to the current orthodoxy in management and business speak, and by not being grounded in a broader alliance of social forces and ontologies, Africapitalists fail to make visible and utilise the full range of unrealised possibilities that the continent offers when it comes to thinking through capitalism beyond capitalism. They promote a world where redistribution happens because of entrepreneurs’ commitments to the idea of shared value rather than improved tax collection or other forms of redistribution.

Africapitalists also are ‘devoted to the unlikely idea that the bitter conflicts between labour and capital in the West can be replaced on the continent by capitalism informed by the humanistic solidarities of Ubuntu. They imagine a world where capitalist enterprises create economic and social value in the communities they serve through win-win arrangements. It is also a world where large foundations are tasked with economic and social transformation more broadly, despite the increasing evidence of the flaws of the venture philanthropy model/philanthrocapitalism, and the wanting labour, environmental and corporate governance track record of companies that are being cited as good examples of Africapitalism (take Zambeef or Nakumatt, for instance).

In order to revoke the current economic order, we need concerted, pan-African and radical efforts to remake African economies, which are at the same time grounded in the awareness that Africa is part of a wider global ensemble in which humans are one among many species. This does not mean that Africans must scale down on their desire to live dignified, fulfilled, and secure lives, but that anyone engaging with the future must dare to move outside a frame that may hold for only another few decades before it will fully fall apart.

Such questions may be dismissed against the background that Africapitalism is first and foremost about attaining the discursive power to shape one’s own economic destiny in a region where millions of people are yet to enjoy the material wealth of the North, or many emerging economies, and thus lack the privilege to think beyond capitalism. During such an endeavour, questions of environmentalism may be treated rather agnostically.

Yet, even though attaining the power to shape one’s own destiny and developing a set of discursive, place-based concepts that can help build alliances around a project of economic transformation are certainly key to more prosperous African futures, it can be questioned whether this should be done through practices that have historically built wealth in certain regions of the world only on the back of cheap nature, food, labour and energy elsewhere.

The COVID-19 pandemic is nature’s way to fight back, bringing the technologically sophisticated yet often ecologically destructive and dehumanising architecture of contemporary supply chain capitalism to its knees, further proves the ecological and social limits of any variant of capitalism. It is worth re-reading Fanon: ‘So comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions, and societies that draw their inspiration from it. Humanity expects other things from us than this grotesque and generally obscene emulation.’

The article was published in the Review of African Political Economy journal extended version originally published in Africapitalism: Sustainable Business and Development in Africa by Idemudia and Amaeshi (eds) 2019.

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Urban Africa Under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities

As in other neoliberal cities, the remedies for significant economic burdens are individualized and the political economy that scaffolds them often remains hidden from view. Instead, predatory mobile loans, principally targeting youth, are offered at exorbitant interest rates, the booming church industry thrives on a prosperity gospel that promises individual riches in exchange for prayers and the country’s development is projected in a number of ‘vision’ documents that promote large-scale infrastructure rather than an improvement in basic conditions for all Kenyans.

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Research on economic pressure in Africa has been approached from diverse vantage points. While economists frame ‘pressure’ as a consequence of market failures, or as a by-product of macro-economic measures such as structural adjustment reforms or technological and political change, anthropologists who zoom in on the economic pressures individuals face in their everyday lives, i.e. the lived experiences of those who are ‘under pressure’ have focused more on topics such as uncertainty and precarity. Alternatively, economic psychologists tend to naturalise pressure as an individual response to an adverse financial situation, eclipsing the varied ways pressure is intertwined with and shaped by broader societal transformations, power structures, social relations and obligations, and webs of exchange. There are currently no studies we are aware of that focus on the multi-faceted societal constitution of economic pressure in capitalist Africa, or that compare how pressure is experienced across gender, generation or socioeconomic groups.

How do we study pressure?

Our review of existing literature on economic pressure has identified two main gaps. On the one hand, most ethnographic studies focus on a particular group/community (e.g. female gig workers, urban poor, farmers, security guards, an extended family or even a few individuals). How the experiences and drivers of pressure differ across groups according to class, income, gender, geography, profession etc., is largely absent from the literature. On the other hand, studies tend to frame pressure in the context of one specific driver (e.g. agrarian change, consumer credit, financial inclusion, changes in the structure of work, unemployment, supply chain dynamics, etc.), often in a broader context of neoliberalism, commercialisation, and globalisation.

Our blog series aims to address these gaps by exploring economic pressure in a more situational and practice-oriented way, in which pressure is understood as an affect produced in and through specific geographies, temporalities, and social and economic relations. This allows us to apprehend how specific geographies such as neighbourhoods, estates, markets or cities are pressure inducing or “under pressure”. We frame economic pressure as a multi-causal and highly localized phenomenon shaped by broader geographic, social, cultural, economic and political environments, while, at the same time, acknowledging the value of a comparative approach that captures the experience of pressure across social and economic classes.

Correspondingly, our intervention – in this blog series and beyond – aims to critically engage with and counter two main positions in the literature and policy debates. First, we argue that as a social experience, economic pressure and stress are not confined to the urban poor. By widening the categories of actors (e.g. ultra-poor, poor, middle-class, rich and super rich), our analysis and debate expands the portrayal of pressure as an experience that solely affects the poor; whether it be the “hustler” striving to make ends meet on the streets of Nairobi or families using food banks in Johannesburg. Understanding the cross-class characteristics of pressure is key to understanding how it has become an ubiquitous phenomenon constitutive of capitalist society and everyday life.

Second, we question the assumptions regarding the power of individual action and choice prevalent among psychologists, behavioural economists and other social scientists working on the productive potential of hope, aspirations and self-efficacy (e.g. the work of behavioural economists such as Johannes Haushofer as well as anthropologists such as Arjun Appadurai). Instead, we take the position that economic pressure is produced through the intersection of overarching ideologies, economic structures, social webs of exchange, and the dynamics of capitalism that shape the lives of all classes in the urban population. Based on our review of existing literature and preliminary qualitative interviews conducted in Nairobi, we suggest that economic pressure is an emotional state engendered by a cognitive assessment of a real/imagined disbalance between real/imagined economic demands and the real/imagined ability to fulfil them. Crucially, the existence of economic pressure does not necessarily entail an actual disparity between demands and abilities; rather, it is a (inter)subjective experience produced by changes in an actor’s social and material environment that suggests to him or her that such a disbalance exists and is relevant, significant and urgent. Hence, we do not conceptualise economic pressure as a quantitatively measurable individual feeling, but as an affect whose constitution, magnitude and presence are a function of atmospheric changes in one’s environment. Economic pressure is thus better grasped by local idioms such as piny pek (Dholuo, “the world weighs heavy”) or ngori (Sheng, “trouble”) than through a set of objective criteria.

Where do we study pressure?

Our focus is the capitalist and especially neoliberal city. The effects of neoliberal restructuring and regimes of accumulation have been particularly inimical in African cities, which face ever deepening informalisation, inequality, insecurity, economic uncertainty and attendant excessive policing, yet continue to pulsate with the promise of possibilities. African cities are particularly fertile sites in which to examine pressure as they are agglomerations of rapid and often turbulent social, cultural and economic change triggered by late capitalism, and are home to a range of interconnected actors who experience and manage, as well as co-produce and co-intensify, pressure across class and other divides. City dwellers also experience a constellation of conditions that are distinct from their rural counterparts: they have more business opportunities and risks; face a range of infrastructural constraints, from rising housing and transport expenses to a shortage of affordable housing, water and sanitation; experience high levels of poverty, widespread under-/un-employment, and intense competition for jobs with concomitant downward pressure on wages in the context of increasing rural urban migration; are more vulnerable to urban criminals or state agents (police etc.) that rob them of their earnings or assets, and their financial demands are not fixed, but ever-changing, often with an accelerated speed, and abetted by mobile technology, the self-help industry, and loan apps that encourage financial action. In addition, urban residents are more plugged into the circuits of global capitalist culture (technological connections, media, music, wealth, digital work, etc.) and the latter’s imaginaries of prosperity contribute to the trend of restless and calculative agency.

This complex and shifting landscape of ‘pressure in the city’ demands an inter-disciplinary approach to apprehend how economic demands, obligations and constraints interweave with the social worlds and life experiences of city dwellers. This includes, on the one hand, examining the inter-relationship between available income (and saleable assets more widely) and the necessary and desired demands that actors (and their families, kin, and social networks) face. This income-demands gap (as distinguished from the income-expenditure gap) is a key catalyst of ‘pressure’. On the other hand, this requires tracking pressure across noneconomic registers – financial, cultural, social, psychological – and gaining a comprehensive picture of how these registers relate. For example, while pressure is associated with a number of common somatic symptoms such as sleeplessness, ulcers, lack of energy, depression, over-activity and burn-out, it may also create the conditions that prompt an array of actions such as gender-based violence, concealing or switching phones to avoid being observed or contacted, gambling and drinking, which can induce new psychological, financial and social pressures. Attaining a full picture of pressure — its drivers, symptoms and consequences — thus necessitates an inter-disciplinary and multi-methodological approach.

“One illness away from poverty”: Economic pressures and uncertainty in Nairobi

In the context of the pandemic, Nairobi continues to be a city of disparities. Against the looming local and global slow-down that the Covid-19 crisis has provoked, a recent poll shows that vast sections of the Kenyan population are now unable to pay for utilities (67%), rent, or medicine, can no longer remit money to dependants (79%), have defaulted on loans repayment (75%), and had to turn to food donations. Significantly, 81% of those surveyed are anxious and stressed, while 52% felt helpless and 33% angry. Indeed, the conditions urban residents face are stressful. With the large tracts of the promised Covid-19 stimulus package monies unaccounted for and seemingly never expended, the inconsistent food donations in poor communities tapering, and one million jobs lost in three months, daily life is now even more difficult to plan. But these pressures build on dynamics that existed before the pandemic. In February 2020, before the government implemented a lockdown, census data documented that 39% of youth (between the ages of 18-35) were unemployed. Likewise, over half of those employed in 2018 earned less than 10,000 Kenya shillings a month [less than $100], which is barely enough to cover basic necessities such as food, transport, housing and clothing. With privatization and the high cost of basic services such as rent, healthcare, water and, in many poor neighbourhoods, even sanitation facilities, meeting one’s every day needs is a significant financial strain. Even the middle-class are only “one illness away from poverty” due to the inordinate cost of private health care and similar shocks.

As in other neoliberal cities, the remedies for these significant economic burdens are individualized and the political economy that scaffolds them often remains off-staged/hidden from view. Instead, predatory mobile loans, principally targeting youth, the poorest and underemployed, are offered at exorbitant interest rates, the booming church industry thrives on a prosperity gospel that promises individual riches in exchange for prayers (and often significant tithes) and the country’s development is projected in a number of ‘vision’ documents that promote large-scale infrastructure (such as roads, railways, airports etc) rather than an improvement in basic conditions for all Kenyans.

It is against these realities, that, over the last few years, public discourse more and more features words such as “mental health” and “burnout.” It is not a coincidence that this vernacular is taken up at a time when most Kenyans, surveyed across geographies, genders and classes, reported that their financial status worsened between 2016 and 2019.Interestingly, during this same three year period, we observe increasing (neoliberal) efforts directed towards “financial inclusion” habitually channelled through “fintech.”

Certainly, Kenyans are finding it hard to juggle all their economic burdens, from extended families to basic necessities, let alone finance the personal and collective aspirations for home ownership, better education, cars etc. All around, across all demographics, there is personal and collective work directed towards lightening these loads, made by piny pek – a heavy world. There are bets hedged, some won and many lost; collective savings groups, gambling, debts, and other situated modes to narrativize and negotiate economic pressures. Future blog posts will detail these means of coping in more ethnographic depth, showcasing the fervent efforts people of all walks of life in Nairobi, a capitalist city, are making to ease the pressure.

This article was first published in the Developing Economics.

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