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Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition

14 min read.

PAUL GOLDSMITH reviews a selection of vantage points from pandemic literature and attempts to make sense of the partially understood coronavirus and its world-warping spread.



Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition
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I did a deep read in search of the virus and found out it is us.

Plagues and epidemics of yore were simple affairs, manifestations of evil caused by angry gods, hidden forces, or bad air. Death and survival were karmic outcomes. The pandemics of the information age are considerably more complicated. They kill relatively few but infect millions with angst and paranoia. They spawn feedback across a spectrum bookended by scientific rigour on one side and inventive conspiracy on the other. We are updated in real time with wave after wave of imperfect statistics, breaking science, experiential perspectives, and ideology-driven commentaries.

For much of the world, quarantine time is being spent on social media, watching journalists morph into screeching owls on CNN, and catching up on films and TV series – a format that now appears custom-made for lockdowns. But some of us have also used the time to study the phenomena that are sweeping away the cadences of life as we knew it, and to process its stories and tropes.

Situational analyses and political narratives

Thomas Puelo is a one-man “coronology” resource. He posted an analysis on Medium that almost overnight was translated into 37 languages. His March 19th follow-up, “The Hammer and the Dance”, made the case to immediately enforce total lockdowns (the hammer). This comprehensive call to arms beat all the university departments, institutes, and the World Health Organization (WHO) to the punch: “The world has never had to learn about anything so fast. The hammer is the best response for buying time for the fightback (the dance).”

The curves of the nations most affected created a baseline for three options: 1) do nothing; 2) mitigation; and 3) suppression. His analysis covered detailed projections of infections and fatalities, the prospects for virus mutation, political barriers to hammer implementation, and many related sectoral ramifications. Up to now the hammer and dance in the countries most affected has encompassed variations on these three strategies, influenced to different degrees by the Chinese lockdown of Hubei Province.

Puelo’s projected numbers for infections in the United States under option 1 (do nothing) are 25 million. Implementing option 3 (suppression), after the initial wave, reduces this estimate to tens of thousands. The role of the states complicates the US numbers, but taken as a whole, the million-plus currently recorded infections approximate the rate expected under the option 2 mitigation strategy. Most of the world is on the same pathway with areas of high infection rates under lockdown, with a number of countries edging into dance mode.

In addition to hosting Puelo’s updates and other in-depth posts, Medium is one of the more useful sources of information on the pandemic. Their business model generates an algorithm-driven selection of punchy short reads. Articles like the gazillion-hit “The Hammer and the Dance” are outliers in an eclectic sample dominated by personal development and the gig economy. The elite publications of the English-speaking world are still the primary source of high clout policy pieces and opinion shaping analyses.

The New Yorker’sIts Not Too Late To Go on the Offense Against the Corona Virus” is one example. After reviewing his international civil servant CV, the author, the former World Bank boss, Jim Yong Kim, tells us, in the Bank’s typical take-your-medicine tradition, “I’ve been fighting pandemics for most of my adult life.” I almost stopped reading what turned out to be a compact overview of the five weapons that need to be deployed to defeat the enemy: social distancing; contact tracing; testing; isolation; and treatment. It is a parsimonious argument based on the collective experience of front line coronavirus warriors – all of which are wealthy industrialised nations.

But the experience of recent pandemic responses does not augur well for such glib technocratic solutions in many regions. In “The Politics of Disease Epidemics: a Comparative Analysis of the Sars, Zika, and Ebola Outbreaks”, Lydia Kapiripiri and Alison Ross show why. The authors use four categories to unpack the literature published in peer-reviewed journals: attribution of infectious disease sources; responsibility for their socioeconomic distribution; credibility of evidence informing response pathways; and the decision-making informing research and development. Their findings converge on the observation that “the narratives accompanying these events contrasted power and privilege with the disproportionate impact of the epidemics on the economically disadvantaged”.

Attribution often reduced multiple causal factors to the role of ethnic minority groups, even though socioeconomic distributions for the diseases implicate poor nutrition, cramped unhygienic living conditions, and inadequate health services. During the Ebola crisis, the evidence informing interventions tended to support short-term response horizons, tracing responsibility for the outbreak to bush meat and traditional funereal customs. Here, and in other cases, this diverted attention from long-term issues, such as poor public health infrastructure.

Although poverty is the greatest risk factor in epidemics, decision-making processes instead highlight institutional policy biases prevailing in global centres of power. Kapiripiri and Ross concede that the neoliberal roots of policy biases appear to be too deep to uproot. They state that to re-balance the equation, “It is critical that narratives of those most vulnerable are represented in mainstream narratives.”

During the Ebola crisis, the evidence informing interventions tended to support short-term response horizons, tracing responsibility for the outbreak to bush meat and traditional funereal customs. Here, and in other cases, this diverted attention from long-term issues, such as poor public health infrastructure.

Global coronavirus narratives are flipping these categories. Attribution is now a focal point in the larger info war being waged by China and the United States. The response hammer has benefited from a socioeconomic distribution highlighting the array of high profile and celebrity first wave infections. Evidence and developmental decision-making processes have focused on the shared methods contributing to individual nations’ dance strategies.

This choreography is generating the diverse natural experiments underway across the world. Besides showing different pathways to recovery, before it is over, the dance is going to reveal how variations on political leadership impact on the contrasting national curves. We can also expect it to cut a path through the jungle of viral conspiracies and sweep away some of the ideological myths being propagated in its wake. For now, however, the fightback is proceeding in a world of noise and fuzzy information.

A sense of shared peril checked the forces opposed to the multilateral world order, for a while. The controversy over WHO provided an entry point for the populist insurgency to fight back. By contesting the scientific guidance behind the lockdowns, the antics of American alt-right experts have distinguished themselves from the consensus guiding the vast majority of the world’s population. But this is a sideshow.

In the N+1 journal article, “Chinese Virus, World Market”, Andrew Liu explains how China’s new elites’ pursuit of exotic food displays as a marker of wealth and status created the conditions for the emergence of the corona viruses. Wuhan, a city far from the areas of traditional wildlife consumption, became the epicentre. COVID-19 is the first capitalist-created virus to directly attack capitalism.

The Pandemic is Just Getting Started”, but we are not on new ground. The system-changing function of infectious disease is a well-documented phenomenon, and the latest chapter is being written before our eyes.

Big picture social science

The 1975 publication, Plagues and People, by William H. McNeill marked a major pivot away from the great civilizations and influential actors focus of historical scholarship. McNeill concluded that epidemics will continue to be one of the fundamental determinants of human history. Forget Bill Gates, over five decades ago, McNeill predicted that the next system shock will come from a rapidly mutating form of the influenza virus.

Jared Diamond’s first book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, originated with a simple question in 1972 proffered by a local friend in New Guinea: “Why do you people have most of the cargo and the rest of us do not?” Diamond’s answer came after two decades of research, and was published in 1994. Subtitled A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, the book underscored how Europeans’ conquest of the world originated with their long history of settled farming. High population densities catalysed a process of agriculture intensification and technological innovation. Generations of close contact with domestic livestock conferred the disease immunity that proved to be a decisive factor when they came into contact with new populations.

Diamond is master storyteller. The popularity of this book made him a popular purveyor of big picture social science. His books are displayed in all the world’s airports; his arguments have burrowed their way into introductory anthropology courses. He brings massive detail to bear on his subject. The “germs” chapter serves up an excellent overview on how the evolutionary dynamics of contagion favoured Eurasia over most of the planet’s other regions.

But there are problems beyond the undiluted environmental determinism highlighted by his critics. Guns, Germs, and Steel conveys a linear, mechanistic version of history. And, as one anthropologist remarked: “So when Europeans ‘succeed’ at colonialism, that was not their doing, nor their fault. When other societies falter, that was their choice to fail.” He who gets the head start wins the power to distribute smallpox-infected blankets.

McNeill disagreed. In a 1997 exchange in the New York Review of Books, he accused Diamond of overlooking the importance of human “cultural autonomy” in determining human development. Diamond replied that the large time-scale of his analysis necessarily smoothed out such factors.

Although this reductionism worked well when demolishing racial and cultural assumptions about the world’s vast developmental differentials, Diamond’s method shares the problems of other single matrix analyses. Small variations in initial conditions that drop out of view in Diamond’s big picture approach underpin the cultural and socioeconomic complexity of contrasting regional trajectories. Despite the weight of factual information, in the chapter on Africa, the book’s focus on linguistics, plants, and agriculture shortchanges distinctive features of the continent’s historical processes.

In “Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History”, Helge Kjekshus works within the same environmental history paradigm Diamond champions, but the research reinforces McNeill’s emphasis on cultural syntheses as one of the primary forces driving historical adaptation. Kjekshus documents in great detail the efficacy of the region’s indigenous knowledge traditions and how inter-ethnic social networks worked well to contain the scourges of Brazilian sand fleas, yaws, tsetse flies, malaria, and dengue fever, and to limit the damage from smallpox and other disease vectors.

Rinderpest, however, proved to be the exception, conforming to Diamond’s “Lethal Gift of Livestock” thesis. The rinderpest epidemic devastating the herds of the Maasai and other warrior pastoralists opened the door for colonial occupation. Monkeys, bats and pangolins are still small-time players compared to the disease-incubating contribution of cows and pigs to human history. But Homo sapiens trump the mammal crowd on the global level of analysis.

The epidemiology in Plagues and People highlighted the constantly evolving relationship between micro-parasites (e.g. bacteria, viruses) and macro-parasites like rats, livestock, and humans. This led McNeill to theorise that humankind itself is a type of disease, a parasite on its host, Earth – and warned that it could self-destruct if humans continue to over-stress their host.

Long the province of science fiction, the cultural industry now generates a constant feed of dystopian futures and zombie apocalypses. The rise of artificial intelligence is the latest source of plots based on McNeill’s hypothesis. In The Matrix, Agent Smith tells Keanu Reeves, “Humans are a virus.” In the current season of Westworld, the “Man” played by Ed Harris declares humanity to be a bacteria consuming the planet.

The epidemiology in Plagues and People highlighted the constantly evolving relationship between micro-parasites (e.g. bacteria, viruses) and macro-parasites like rats, livestock, and humans. This led McNeill to theorise that humankind itself is a type of disease, a parasite on its host, Earth…

The coronavirus pandemic, the latest example of fiction predicting reality, is also reinvigorating real world science linking the environmental costs of unbridled capitalism to the prospects of societal collapse.

Narratives of collapse and anti-climax

Jem Bendell is a professor of sustainable business practices who argues that the time for incremental responses to climate change has passed. He sums this up in a 2018 paper that proved too disturbing for publication in a peer-reviewed journal he once edited. Pandemics are a second order effect of climate change that, among other things, is bringing us into direct contact with the new ecologies we have created for bats and other wildlife species. Such narratives have become both truth and truism.

Disaster is now a common theme in Western culture. The real-life world of new viruses Richard Preston described in Crisis in the Hot Zone is actually more frightening than most of Hollywood’s monetised virus-infected zombies, including the movie version of his book. Fictionalisation is arguably one of the reasons not much has changed despite the very real prospects of ecological cataclysm. COVID-19 is the latest omen.

These second-order emergencies have sustained a curious dualism. Our universities and institutes figure out the problem, develop palliatives, and advocate sensible policies. Our governments lag behind, and citizens resist preventative measures until they are in the crosshairs of the next scourge. Epidemics trigger multinational responses only to revert, as Kapiripiri and Ross concluded, to the standard narrative.

The history of cholera is the classical example of partial response in the presence of full knowledge. Coronavirus is more contagious than cholera. The author of this Guardian long read regretted the fact that the corona story will play out the same way if we allow global health to be funded and governed by the same unredeemed colonial logic.

This is why, as Bendell stated in a recent interview, “Returning to business as usual is a “fantasy. Policy makers and business leaders must recognize that climate change will be even more disruptive than the coronavirus.” But restating these warnings at a time when a more proximate enemy threatens us can have the opposite result in a world inured to disaster inflation.

The negative implications for the long game cues up the third book in Diamond’s trilogy, Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change. Diamond builds his discussion around examples of wars, coups, and military dictatorships; natural disasters, pandemics, and famines do not feature. Plagues, as the historical record shows, disrupt and redirect more than they destroy the societies they attack.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is both enlightened historiography and great literature. The author provides the earliest written account of a plague and its impact on political events. The war was a response to decades of Athenian dominance, and for the first time Sparta had Athens on the defensive. The Athenians retreat behind the city walls, creating the crowded and unhygienic conditions contributing to the outbreak of a highly contagious disease in 229 BC.

The first wave of the epidemic killed 100,000 Athenians, but it also saved the city. When the Spartans saw the smoke of thousands of funeral pyres, they abandoned their siege and fled. The anomie that followed was yet more unexpected. Thucydides remarked, “The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”

Both the wealthy and the nouveau riche elevated by inheriting dead relatives’ property spent recklessly, assuming that death may strike any time. The social value of virtue and reputation plummeted. Non-Athenians were scapegoated and their rights abrogated. The gods did not fare much better; they were demoted. Refugees and the dying camped out at their temples. Athenians accused Apollo, the god of disease and medicine, of siding with the enemy.

The disease returned twice over the next fifteen years. Athens did not collapse, nor did it recover its former influence and glory. But different pandemics create different trajectories.

Both the wealthy and the nouveau riche elevated by inheriting dead relatives’ property spent recklessly, assuming that death may strike any time. The social value of virtue and reputation plummeted.

The Black Death wiped out almost half of Europe at the end of the fourteenth century and continued to wreak havoc across the continent over the next 400 years. The dirge composed by English satirist Thomas Nashe, A Litany in the Time of Plague, conveys the sense of resignation when the plague reappeared in Shakespeare’s London.

“Sing me some doleful ditty to the lute,” he requests the poet, “That may complaine my neere approaching death.” The bard responds:

Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.  

Rich men, trust not wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.

By breaking up the feudal order, the bubonic plague both slowed down and set the stage for European expansion. Around the same time that Nashe was composing his ditty, the diseases Hernando Cortez imported into central Mexico were killing 80 per cent of the population. The Aztec empire disintegrated.

But collapse, as defined by the case studies in Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, is not to be confused with invasions like the one that caused the slow-moving genocide reducing 24 million indigenous Mexicans to 1 million survivors a century after the conquistadores’ arrival. The book traces collapse to the point when solutions for the problems facing a society become too complicated and costly to implement.

Other archeologists studying ancient societies attribute collapse to an abrupt political change, reduction in social complexity, and their knock-on effects throughout society. Biomedical progress minimises the probability of fast-moving epidemics turning into a mass Athenian death sentence or the poet’s toxic darts. Their impact can, however, signal the directionality of processes that either result in transition to a new order or to system-deadening entropy.

Modern plagues have exacerbated global inequality, and so far this one is doing the same. It is collapsing some economic sectors and accelerating change in others. The economic damage is enormous, and based on past experience, the recovery period will be long, with serious ramifications for labour and capital. Surveillance of bodies is on the rise. The Davos elite and Xi Jinping’s cohorts will still hoard most of the cargo.

At the same time, the pandemic’s shock factor should not be underestimated. Historically, jolts like the one we are experiencing open new windows for human agency. There are promising background developments. The Lancet has called for a reformed social contract, and methodologies promoting collective intelligence are gaining ground. The carbon energy endgame is underway; the passing of the post-9/11 forever war is in sight. Women in leadership are showing the way.

Watching how the new corona-capitalism will play out is the most fascinating aspect of the pandemic. Is the coronavirus a tipping point? Will we dance our way to collective adaptation? Can a million burning pyres save the planet?

The novel and the dance

The species is at war with an invisible enemy, and the War on the Rocks experts tell us the best way to prepare for it is to read fiction:

Novels hone powers of observation and insight. They increase mental flexibility and help policymakers anticipate situations. They illuminate other mindsets, cultures, places, and times. The best ones induce a sense of empathy in their readers, and they help render policy approaches more effective and more humane.

This advice marks a radical departure from the gospel of the war on terrorism. Although 9/11 did initiate a new learning cycle, for the most part it centred on a narrow “with us or against us’” assessment of the others’ mindsets, cultures, and places. Policy approaches to the problem ended up midwifing a new generation of Islamist extremists. They created new breeding grounds for the virus. Maybe reading fiction can help us figure out some new moves.

The Plague by Albert Camus does not feature at the top of the 80 titles listed in the Goodreads selection of popular pandemic books. But its understated portrayal of a society suddenly trapped in an atmosphere permeated by dread and the absence of normality has made it the most cited work of fiction in the stream of coronavirus commentaries.

The story, published in 1947 and immediately translated into nine languages, revolves around a cast of everyday characters. The story centres on Doctor Rieux, who copes with the city’s inert bureaucracy while retaining his minimalist but positive view of humanity, the priest who blames the sins of his congregation for the calamity, the smuggler who wants the quarantine to continue, the self-pitying journalist obsessed with escape, the indifferent public officials who go through the motions and the lowly municipal clerk who tries to do what they will not, the Spanish invalid who spends his days counting peas from one bowl into another.

Literature and the domain of myth are the repositories where society’s collective knowledge and experience is stored. Camus scores high in both. He redefined heroism as ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency. For most of humanity, the moral responsibility of choosing to not be part of the problem is heroic enough. All but one of the city’s misanthropic characters eventually come around to empathising with the public’s suffering.

Watching how the new corona-capitalism will play out is the most fascinating aspect of the pandemic. Is the coronavirus a tipping point? Will we dance our way to collective adaptation? Can a million burning pyres save the planet?

If the “best novels” induce a sense of empathy in their readers, “leading to more humane and effective policies”, it is clear that Kenya’s decision-makers are reading from their own script. The government’s violent implementation and cynical exploitation of low friction policies that are working elsewhere has resulted in empty hospitals and the public’s refusal to be tested. Dauti Kahura’s reportage of a Kenyan doctor thrown out on the street in Wuhan reveals the brutal callousness of both the Chinese and Kenyan governments.

Midway through Camus’s account, the narrator takes stock: “The plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny made by the plague and the emotions shared by all.”

This is where we all stand right now. Athenian democrats are waging a defensive battle against Steve Bannon’s Spartans. All the numbers and models and deep insights notwithstanding, we still do not know where the coronavirus will lead us.

When I first read The Plague as a high school student, I understood it as an existential parable set in a small North African city. I was drawn to the story as metaphor of resistance to the Nazi occupation when I picked it up again at a university. By coincidence, I read Le Peste again six weeks before the Wuhan coronavirus story broke, and realised that is a universal allegory that could be set in any city anywhere at any point in time.

I believe if enough ordinary people listen to the right music, the dance will take us to a better place. But the narrator of The Plague, now revealed to be Dr. Riuex, ends on a cautionary note. The quarantine is over, the doctor and Grand, the redeemed municipal clerk, view the people celebrating in the streets. As they watch the townspeople’s dance of deliverance and newborn freedom, Grand remarks: “But they’re just the same as ever, really.”

As crises pass and give way to a new normalcy, amnesia soon sets in. The Nazis are restless, the virus will never go away. Great literature helps us remember, and stay awake.


Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.


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.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.



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

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

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

Let me illustrate this with a couple of examples.

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

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

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

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

Trumps Tariffs and Brexit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contradictions, questions and solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falling profit rates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The processes at work in the Global South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, to Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kenya: A Question of Land

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



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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