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The Size of Nations: How the Break-Up of Sudan Ruined the Economy, and Other Observations on Politico-Economic Geography

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Facing the biggest threat to his 30-year old monopoly on power, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir finds his regime entangled in a crisis entirely of its own making: the economic meltdown triggered by Western sanctions for the Darfur atrocities, and the loss of South Sudan, itself the result of the Islamisation of the state. The bigger question for the continent is: why do small states fare better than big ones? Here’s a clue: centralising power, especially in politically fractious Africa, is always a bad idea. By DAVID NDII.

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The Size of Nations: How the Break-Up of Sudan Ruined the Economy, and Other Observations on Politico-Economic Geography
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Sudan is on the brink, and not a day too soon. The independence of South Sudan a decade ago took with it 90 percent of total oil reserves. Even though Sudan got a good deal for the use of the pipeline including securing a compensation of $2.6 billion for future lost oil earnings, easily the biggest aid transfer from one African country to another, production disruptions in South Sudan have hit revenues hard. This shock was compounded by the effect of international sanctions and the Darfur insurgency. Sudan needed fundamental economic restructuring that it has not pursued, partly because it was also hamstrung by these two factors.

The independence of South Sudan a decade ago took with it 90 percent of total oil reserves. Even though Sudan got a good deal for the use of the pipeline, production disruptions in South Sudan have hit revenues hard.

A severe hard currency shortage has taken its toll on the country’s production capacity. Shortages stoked inflation. The government compounded the problem by tightening monetary policy, starving the economy of credit. Nowhere is this more evident than in agriculture, plagued by lack of credit, fuel shortages and deterioration of the capital stock. Data published by the FAO show food insecurity rising sharply (see chart).

Late last year, President Omar el Bashir dissolved government and appointed a leaner one that he said would respond to the economic crisis—too little, too late. Inflation is now running at 70 percent. Demand management of supply shock inflation was never going to work. One of the new government’s first actions was to devalue the Sudanese Pound; it slid from 28 to 47 pounds to the dollar. A year and a half ago, it was exchanging at 6.7 pounds to the dollar. With an economy in meltdown, a hungry population, few friends and powerful foes, Khartoum has very limited options and nowhere to turn.

Sudan’s problems are patently political. In a nutshell, it is the failure to find a political formula to hold together a huge, culturally and geographically diverse country. For whatever reason, the ruling elite in Khartoum has pursued Islamist hegemony. This is what ultimately led to the break up with South Sudan.

Before its break up, Sudan was Africa’s biggest country at 2.5 million square kilometres. At 1.86m square kilometres it is still the third largest, behind Algeria (2.4m) and the DR Congo (2.34m). The old Sudan is about the size of the five biggest EU countries (France, Spain, Sweden, Norway Germany plus the UK), and if we start from the other end, Sudan would have fitted 36 of Europe’s 50 countries starting with the Vatican (0.44 sq. km) all the way to the UK (249,000 sq. km).

Sudan’s problems are patently political…the failure to find a political formula to hold together a huge, culturally and geographically diverse country.

Neighbouring Ethiopia is also experiencing political convulsions. Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country after Nigeria, with a population of 100 million people. Though never colonised, Ethiopia is a fractious nation that struggles to hold itself together, with secessionist movements in Ogaden and Oromia regions. Eritrea managed to break away. DR Congo, Africa’s second largest country now, has just held a very African presidential election two years late. The war that has raged there for the last two decades ranks as the most deadly conflict since the Second World War.

At the other end of the scale, and as this column has previously observed, Africa’s smallest countries are also its most successful. The Freedom House Index 2018 ranks ten African countries as fully free/democratic (Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, Sao Tome & Principe, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia) of which only one, South Africa is a big country. The average population of the ten countries is 13 million – 8 million when excluding South Afric – less than half the continental average of 21 million. Geographically, Botswana (pop. 2.3m) and Namibia (pop. 2.5m) are peculiar in that they are physically large countries with small populations. Excluding South Africa and these two, the average size of the other seven is 100,000 sq. km, against a continental average of 536,000 sq. km.

The old Sudan is about the size of the five biggest EU countries (France, Spain, Sweden, Norway Germany plus the UK), and if we start from the other end, Sudan would have fitted 36 of Europe’s 50 countries…

Countries rated as “partly free” average 354,000 sq. km and 26 million people. Those ranked “not free” average 800,000 sq. km. and 24 million people. Of eight countries that are over a million square kilometres (Algeria, DR Congo, Libya, Angola, Chad, Mauritania, Sudan, Niger) seven are ranked “not free”— Niger is the exception. There are five small countries ranked as unfree, i.e. less than 100,000 sq. km (Burundi, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Swaziland), six if you include Eritrea, which is just over the 100,000 sq. km threshold, out of a total of 22. Well governed African countries are almost invariably small, while badly governed ones are predominantly large.

When it comes to governability, size does seem to matter. And as it turns out, governability has considerable economic payoffs. Africa’s “free” countries have increased income per person by three times more than the rest of the continent since 1990 (see chart).

Nation-states like to project themselves as sacrosanct, immutable entities. Few political principles are proclaimed with as much fervour and fury as territorial integrity. It is an illusion. The United Nation membership of sovereign nation-states stands at 193, up from 51 founding members in 1945. The number of nations has increased 3.8 times, faster than the world population (2.9 times) Nation formation was at its height during decolonization (1950-80) growing from 60 to 154. (see chart). There was another surge after the collapse of the Soviet empire (1990 – 2000) when another 30 nations emerged. Since then only Eritrea and South Sudan have joined the ranks. But there is a pipeline of close to 70 dependent territories with nationhood potential and aspiration as well as pesky secessionist movements on every continent. Brexit could beget an independent Scotland.

Nation-states like to project themselves as sacrosanct, immutable entities. Few political principles are proclaimed with as much fervour and fury as territorial integrity.

In a 1995 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper On the Number and Size of Nations (expanded into a book The Size of Nations), political economists Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore develop an economic model of nation formation. The core question they ask is: what is the optimal size of a nation, or put another way, how big should nations be?

They postulate that the essence of nations is the provision of a “public good” called government.

Government is a fixed cost which is financed by taxing people. Fixed cost means that there are economies of scale—the larger the country the less the cost per citizen. But people are also diverse. Different communities will have different preferences. A community in a dryland will value water; a coastal fishing community, maritime security; a trading community roads throughout the territory, and so on. In this scheme of things, the calculus of nation building entails balancing the economies and diseconomies of scale.

Alesina and Spolaore consider two political orders by which nations could come about, namely democracy and autocracy.

In democratic nation building, communities would be free to choose. If they are unhappy in a particular nation, they can call a referendum. To illustrate, think of the world as consisting of 1000 communities of interest – let’s call them nationalities, ethnic groups if you like – with a population of 100,000 each. The cost of setting up government is a trillion shillings. Further still, government can only be at one location, let’s call it the centre, and the benefits of government are directly proportional to proximity to the centre. You can think of the centre as geographical or cultural distance, or both.

It stands to reason that people would be happiest if each nationality had its own government, but this would come with a price tag of Sh.10 million per citizen. It would also be immensely inefficient, as the total cost of government would be a thousand trillion shillings. Conversely, a world government would cost each citizen only Sh.10,000. As per our closeness to government assumption, the communities farthest from centre of the world government would be obliged to pay the same tax and receive very little benefits. They would be marginalized.

Let’s begin with a configuration: take 10 nations of 100 communities. Think of the political geography as a circle with governments located at intervals of 50 communities i.e. governments located in the middle of 100 communities. The communities closest to governments get 1.5 times what they put in. Benefits decline by 2 percent of the tax (so that community number 25 on the line gets exactly what it put in. Those farther along the line get progressively less until the 50th community, which gets only half what it put in.

If the neighbouring border communities would persuade the other “losers” to secede they end up being at the centre of a new circle of countries, resulting in double the countries with half the population. But this would mean paying double the tax, but because they are smaller countries there are fewer communities that are marginalized overall. We can surmise that under democratic order, this political calculus would continue until the benefits of proximity to government balance out with the higher tax per citizen.

The other political regime is autocracy, which Alesina and Spolaore call a Leviathan order a la Hobbes. In this order, the state is a protection racket, where residents of a territory agree to pay tribute to a warlord in exchange for protection from predation by other warlords, along the lines of Mancur Olson’s “roving” and “stationary” bandit model. A Leviathan has two objectives. First, to extract as much tribute as it can without triggering revolt and second, to expand territory – market share, if you like. Territory can be gained by conquest or offering neighbouring communities a better deal than the resident warlord.

It turns out that Leviathan’s problem is analogous to an oligopolistic industry (a market with a small number of players) As with oligopolistic markets, the first best solution is a cartel. The logic is as follows. War is expensive. So is predatory pricing whose most likely consequence is to trigger price wars which hurt every player. Leviathans would do best by sitting round a table and carving out territories amongst themselves. This logic seems to accord with the 1885 Berlin Africa conference and the Peace of Westphalia of 1648.

The Alesina-Spolaore model yields three propositions on nation formation:

First, neither the democratic order or autocracy achieves the ideal number of states. Democracy leads to too many small states and autocratic order leads to too few.

The second has to do with the impact of free trade. Consider the case when there is no trade between countries. Without trade it is economically advantageous to be a big country on account of a bigger market. This will add to the disadvantage of being a small country over and above the high overhead of governing itself. But with free trade, borders lose economic relevance. Small countries get to have their cake and eat it, like Switzerland, which trades freely with the EU, and has the highest average income in Europe despite not being a member of the EU. It should not surprise that it is Britain, long accustomed to having its cake and eating it, that finds itself in the Brexit predicament.

The third proposition is that decentralization can mitigate the fragmentation dynamic inherent in the democratic order. Decentralization mitigates the complexity of diversity. With decentralization, the centre provides those public goods where economies of scale are significant, while the local governments take care of those whose prioritising will vary widely across the different constituent parts.

…With free trade, borders lose economic relevance. Small countries get to have their cake and eat it, like Switzerland, which trades freely with the EU, and has the highest average income in Europe despite not being a member of the EU.

What to make of all this? Let’s do the math.

The modern nation state is a European invention. In this regard, Europe provides as good a benchmark of organic nation-formation as there is. The United States is a natural experiment of self-forming nations. The European countries average at 164,000 sq. km including Russia and 126,000 excluding Russia with average populations at 15m and 12 million respectively.

However, the typical European country is between 40,000 and 100,000 sq. km with populations between two and ten million people. American states are not that different, averaging 146,000 sq. km and 6.3 million people, with only three states with populations over 20 million (California, Texas and Florida).

The “natural” nation-state it seems is of the same order of magnitude as Africa’s small successful states. The governable African country would seem to be in the eSwatini (17.000 sq. km)- Ghana/Guinea (240,000 sq. km) ballpark.

How to hold onto and sustain plunder of such massive territories in the face of expanding political freedom, globalization, huge diverse populations and ecological pressure? Leviathans have their work cut out.

Africa. Average size of country: 607,000 sq. km including the Sahara desert, 423,400 excluding the Sahara desert—3.4 times and 2.6 times the European and US respectively—consistent with the handiwork of a plunder-maximizing Leviathan cartel. Average population currently is 24 million, but Africa’s population is projected to reach 2.5 billion in 2050, which works out to 50m per country.

How to hold onto and sustain plunder of such massive territories in the face of expanding political freedom, globalization, huge diverse populations and ecological pressure? Leviathans have their work cut out.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy

If Rwanda is to attain its stated ambition to become of a middle-income country by 2035 driven by the knowledge economy, then it must inject significant investments in the education and related sectors.

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Rwanda has shown commitment to bring improvements to its education sector. The development of Human capital that involves the enhancement of the education and health sectors was one of the main pillars of Rwanda’s development programme launched in 2000 to transform the country into a middle income state driven by the knowledge economy by 2020. Many developed countries joined in to financially support Rwanda to fulfil its development ambitions.

But while Rwanda did not meet its target to transform into a middle-income state by 2020, it has nevertheless made progress in the education sector that should be recognised. The country has now near-universal access to primary education with net enrolment rates of 98 per cent. There are also roughly equal numbers of boys and girls in pre-primary, primary and secondary schools in Rwanda. Compared to other sub-Saharan African countries, Rwanda has made great improvements in the education sector based on the gains made in primary school gross enrolment, out-of-school and retention rates and considering that the country came out of a genocidal civil war in the 1990s. Those of us living and travelling across the country can also see that the government of Rwanda has built more schools across the country to address congestion in classrooms.

However, education in Rwanda is faced with serious challenges which, if not addressed, the country will not attain its ambition to become a middle-income by 2035 and a high-income by 2050. The World Bank’s comparison with middle- and high-income countries, to whose ranks Rwanda aspires to join, shows that Rwanda lags far behind in primary and lower secondary school completion levels.

The gains made in education are not equally distributed across Rwanda. There are, for instance, wide disparities in lower secondary education by income and urban–rural residence. Whereas lower secondary school gross enrolment ratio level is 82 per cent in urban areas, it is only 44 per cent in rural areas. Moreover, transition rates between primary and lower secondary education are 53 per cent in urban areas, and 33 per cent in rural areas. School completion is 52 per cent among the richest quintile while it is 26 per cent among the poorest. Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.

The standard of education in Rwanda is another major challenge. At the end of Grade 3, 85 per cent of Rwandan students were rated “below comprehension” in a recent reading test, and one in six could not answer any reading comprehension question. In my view, the quality of education has been partly affected by the abrupt changes in the language of instruction that have taken place without much planning since 2008.

Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.

Learning levels in basic education remain low in Rwanda.  Children in the country can expect to complete 6.5 years of pre-primary and basic education by the age of 18 years. However, when this is adjusted for learning it translates to only about 3.8 years, implying that children in Rwanda have a learning gap of 2.7 years. This is a concern.

Education in Rwanda is also impended by high levels of malnutrition for children under 5 years. Although there have been improvements over time, malnutrition levels remain significantly high at 33 per cent. Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings. It also deprives the economy of quality human capital that is critical to Rwanda attaining its economic goals and sustaining its economic gains. In 2012, Rwanda lost 11.5 per cent of GDP as a result of child undernutrition.

Because of low learning levels and high levels of malnutrition in children under 5 years, Rwanda has consistently ranked below average on the World Bank’s Human Capital index since 2018, the year the index was first published. HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens.

If Rwanda is to develop the competent workforce needed to transform the country into a knowledge-based economy and bring it into the ranks of middle-income states, the government must put significant public spending in basic education. This has not been the case over the past decades. According to the World Bank, Rwanda’s public spending on primary education has been significantly lower than the average for sub-Saharan African countries with similar coverage of primary school level as Rwanda. This low spending on primary education has translated into relatively modest pay for teachers and low investment in their professional development which in turn affects the provision of quality education in Rwanda. The government recently increased teachers’ salary but the increment is being eroded by, among other things, food price inflation in Rwanda.

Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings.

Going forward, Rwanda’s spending on education needs to be increased and allocated to improving standards. Considering that the underlying cause of the high rate of malnourishment in children is food insecurity, the government needs to spend more on the agriculture sector. This sector employs 70 per cent of the labour force but has received only 10 per cent of total public investment. Public investment in Rwanda has in the past gone to the development of the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions sector rather than towards addressing pressing scarcities. This approach must be reviewed.

Increasing public expenditure in education and connected sectors should also be combined with strengthening accountability in the government institutions responsible for promoting the quality of education in basic schools and in promoting food security and livelihoods in Rwanda. This is because not a year goes by without the office of the Rwanda auditor general reporting dire inefficiencies in these institutions.

Strengthening institutional accountability can be achieved if the country adapts its consensual democracy by opening up the political space to dissenting voices. Doing so would surely enhance the effectiveness of checks and balances across institutions in Rwanda, including in the education sector, and would enable the country to efficiently reach its development targets.

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No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States

Adam Mayer praises a new collection, Liberated Texts, which includes rediscovered books on Africa’s socialist intellectual history and political economy, looking at the startling, and frequently long ignored work of Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu and Makhan Singh.

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No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States
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Liberated Texts is a magnificent, essential, exciting tome that feels like a bombshell. This incredibly rich collection is a selection that is deep, wide, as well as entertaining. The book focuses on twenty-one volumes from the previous one hundred years, with a geographical range from the UK, the US, Vietnam, Korea, the Peoples Republic of China, the Middle East, Ireland, Malaysia, Africa (especially East Africa), Europe, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union, focusing on books that are without exception, foundational.

The collection is nothing less than a truth pill: in composite form, the volume corrects world history that Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States offered for the sterile, historical curriculum on domestic (US) history. The volume consists of relatively short reviews (written by a wide collection of young and old academics and activists from every corner of the globe) but together they reflect such a unified vision that I would recommend Liberated Texts as compulsory reading for undergraduate students (as well as graduates!) Although the text is a broad canvas it speaks to our age (despite some of the reviewed book having been written in the 1920s).

Each review is by default, a buried tresure. The writer of this very review is a middle-aged Hungarian, which means that some of the works and authors discussed were more familiar to me than they would be to others. For example, Anton Makarenko’s name was, when the author grew up in the People’s Republic of Hungary, a household word. Makarenko’s continued relevance for South America and the oppressed everywhere, as well as his rootedness in the revolutionary transformations of the Soviet experiment, are dealt with here marvellosly by Alex Turrall (p. 289). In loving detail Turrall also  discusses his hero the pedagogue Sukhomlinsky’s love for Stalinist reforms of Soviet education (p. 334).

There is one locus, and one locus only, where death is given reign, perhaps even celebrated: in a Palestinian case (p. 133) the revolutionary horizons are firmly focused on the past, not on any kind of future. The entire problematic of Israeli society’s recent ultra right-wing turn (a terrible outcome from the left’s point of view) is altogther missing here. Yet it is difficult to fault the authors or editors with this (after all, they painstakingly included an exemplary anti-Nazi Palestinian fighter in the text, p. 152) but it might be in order to challenge a fascination with martyrdom as a revolutionary option on the radical left.

In every other aspect, Liberated Texts enlightens without embarrassment, and affirms life itself. Imperialism is taken on in the form of unresolved murders of Chinese researchers in the United States as a focus (p. 307), and in uncovering the diabolical machinations of the peer-review system – racist, classist, prestige-driven as it is (p. 305).

The bravery of this collection is such that we find few authors within academia’s tenure track: authors are either emeriti, tenured, very young academics, or those dedicated to political work: actual grassroots organizers, comrades at high schools, or as language teachers. This has a very beneficial effect on the edited volume as an enterprise at the forefront of knowledge, indeed of creating new knowledge. Career considerations are absent entirely from this volume, in which thankfully even the whiff of mainstream liberalism is anathema.

I can say with certainty regarding the collection’s Africanist chapters that certain specialists globally, on African radical intellectual history, have been included: Leo Zeilig, Zeyad el-Nabolsy, Paul O’Connell, Noosim Naimasiah and Corinna Mullin all shed light on East African (as well as Caribbean) socialist intellectual history in ways that clear new paths in a sub-discipline that is underfunded, purposely confined to obscurity, and which lacks standard go-to syntheses especially in the English language (Hakim Adi’s celebrated history on pan-Africanism and communism stops with the 1950s, and other works are in the making).

Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu, Makhan Singh are the central authors dealt with here. Rodney is enjoying a magnificent and much deserved renaissance (but this collection deals with a lost collection of Rodney’s 1978 Hamburg lectures by Zeilig!) Nabolsy shows us how Nyerere’s Marxist opposition experienced Ujamaa, and Tanzanian ’socialism’. Nabudere – a quintessential organic intellectual as much as Rodney –  is encountered in praxis as well as through his thought and academic achievements in a chapter by Corinna Mullin. Nabudere emerges as a towering figure whose renaissance might be in the making right at this juncture. Singh makes us face the real essence of British imperialism. Nabudere, Babu and even Hirji’s achievements in analysing imperialism and its political economy are all celebrated in the collection.

Where Shivji focuses on empire in its less violent aspect (notably NGOs and human rights discourse) powerfully described by Paul O’Connell, Naimasiah reminds us that violence had been as constitutive to Britain’s empire, as it has been to the Unites States (in Vietnam or in Korea). An fascinating chapter in the collection is provided by Marion Ettinger’s review of Richard Boyle’s Mutiny in Vietnam, an account based entirely on journalism, indeed impromptu testimony, of mutinous US soldiers tired of fighting for Vietnam’s landlord class.

Many readers of this anthology will identify with those veterans (since the collection appears in the English language) perhaps more than with East Asia’s magnificent, conscious fighters also written about in the book. Even in armies of the imperialist core, humanity shines through. Simply put, there are no imperialist peoples, only imperialist states.

Zeilig’s nuanced take on this important matter is revealed in Rodney’s rediscovered lectures. Also, the subtlety of class analysis in relation to workers versus peasants, and the bureacratic bourgeoisie profiting from this constellation (p. 219) brings to mind the contradiction that had arguably brought down Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s anti-imperialist president who nevertheless found himself opposing working class demands. Rodney’s politics in Guyana invited the same fate as Sankara, as we know.

Nabolsy’s review on Hirji’s The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher touches on very interesting issues of Rodney’s role especially in the context of Ujamaa and Nyerere’s idiosyncratic version of African socialism. Nabolsy appreciates Nyerere efforts but analyses his politics with great candour: Ujamaa provided national unification, but failed to undermine Tanzania’s dependency in any real sense. The sad realization of the failure of Tanzania’s experience startles the reader with its implications for the history of African socialism.

On an emotional and personal level, I remain most endeared by the Soviet authors celebrated in this text. So Makarenko and Sukhomlinsky are both Soviet success stories and they demonstrate that this combination of words in no oxymoron, and neither is it necessarily, revisionist mumbo-jumbo. Their artificial removal from their historical context (which had happened many times over in Makarenko’s case, and in one particular account when it comes to Sukhomlinsky) are fought against by the author with Leninist gusto.

Sukhomlinsky had not fought against a supposedly Stalinist education reform: he built it, and it became one of the most important achievements of the country by the 1960s due partly to his efforts. The former educational pioneer did not harm children: he gave them purpose, responsibility, self-respect, and self-esteem. The implication of Sukhomlinsky and Makarenko is that true freedom constructs its own order, and that freedom ultimately thrives on responsibility, and revolutionary freedom.

As this collection is subtitled Volume One, it is my hope and expectation that this shall be the beginning of a series of books, dealing with other foundational texts, and even become a revolutionary alternative to The London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, both of which still demonstrate how much readers crave review collections. Volumes like Liberated Texts might be the very future of book review magazines in changed form. A luta continua!

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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We Must Democratize the Economy

In the UK, prices for basic goods are soaring while corporations rake in ever-bigger profits. The solution, Jeremy Corbyn argues, is to bring basic resources like energy, water, railways, and the postal service into democratic public ownership.

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Jeremy Corbyn: We Must Democratize the Economy
Photo: Chatham House, London
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On Thursday, December 15, the Royal College of Nursing went on strike for the first time in their 106-year history. Understaffed, underpaid, and overworked, tens of thousands of National Health Service (NHS) nurses walked out after being denied decent, livable pay rises. Hailed as heroes one year, forced to use food banks the next, nurses’ wages have fallen more than £3,000 in real terms since 2010; three in four now say they work overtime to meet rising energy bills.

People will remember 2022 as the year that the Conservative Party plunged this country into political turmoil. However, behind the melodrama is a cost-of-living crisis that has pushed desperate people into destitution and the so-called middle classes to the brink. We should remember 2022 as the year in which relative child poverty reached its highest levels since 2007 and real wage growth reached its lowest levels in half a century. (Average earnings have shrunk by £80 a month and a staggering £180 a month for public sector workers.) These are the real scandals.

For some MPs, this was the year they kick-started their reality TV careers. For others, this was the year they told their children they couldn’t afford any Christmas presents. For energy companies, it was the year they laughed all the way to the bank; in the same amount of time it took for Rishi Sunak to both lose and then win a leadership contest, Shell returned £8.2 billion in profit. SSE, a multinational energy company headquartered in Scotland, saw their profits triple in just one year. Profits across the world’s seven biggest oil firms rose to almost £150 billion.

Tackling the cost-of-living crisis means offering an alternative to our existing economic model — a model that empowers unaccountable companies to profit off the misery of consumers and the destruction of our earth. And that means defending a value, a doctrine, and a tradition that unites us all: democracy.

Labour recently announced “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people.” I welcomed the renewal of many of the policies from the manifesto in 2019: abolishing the House of Lords and handing powers to devolved governments, local authorities, and mayors. These plans should work hand in hand, to ensure any second chamber reflects the geographical diversity of the country. If implemented, this would decentralize a Whitehall-centric model of governance that wastes so much of this country’s regional talent, energy, and creativity.

However, devolution, decentralization, and democracy are not just matters for the constitution. They should characterize our economy too. Regional governments are demanding greater powers for the same reason an unelected second chamber is patently arcane: we want a say over the things that affect our everyday lives. This, surely, includes the way in which our basic resources are produced and distributed.

From energy to water and from rail to mail, a small number of companies monopolize the production of basic resources to the detriment of the workers they exploit and the customers they fleece. We rely on these services, and workers keep them running, but it is remote chief executive officers and unaccountable shareholders who decide how they are run and profit off their provision. Would it not make more sense for workers and consumers to decide how to run the services they provide and consume?

As prices and profits soar, it’s time to put basic resources like energy, water, rail, and mail back where they belong: in public hands. Crucially, this mold of public ownership would not be a return to 1940s-style patronage-appointed boards but a restoration of civic accountability. Water, for example, should be a regional entity controlled by consumers, workers, and local authorities, and work closely with environmental agencies on water conservation, sewage discharges, the preservation of coastlines, and the protection of our natural world. This democratic body would be answerable to the public, and the public alone, rather than to the dividends of distant hedge funds.

Bringing energy, water, rail, and mail into democratic public ownership is about giving local people agency over the resources they use. It’s about making sure these resources are sustainably produced and universally distributed in the interests of workers, communities, and the planet.

Beyond key utilities, a whole host of services and resources require investment, investment that local communities should control. That’s why, in 2019, we pledged to establish regional investment banks across the country, run by local stakeholders who can decide — collectively — how best to direct public investment. Those seeking this investment would not make their case with reference to how much profit they could make in private but how much they could benefit the public as a whole.

To democratize our economy, we need to democratize workplaces too. We can end workplace hierarchies and wage inequalities by giving workers the right to decide, together, how their team operates and how their pay structures are organized. If we want to kick-start a mass transfer of power, we need to redistribute wealth from those who hoard it to those who create it.

Local people know the issues facing them, and they know how to meet them better than anyone else. If we want to practice what we preach, then the same principles of democracy, devolution, and decentralization must apply to our own parties as well. Local party members, not party leaders, should choose their candidates, create policy, and decide what their movement stands for.

Only a democratic party can provide the necessary space for creative and transformative solutions to the crises facing us all. In a world where the division between rich and poor is greater than ever before, our aim should be to unite the country around a more hopeful alternative — an alternative that recognizes how we all rely on each other to survive and thrive.

This alternative is not some abstract ideal to be imagined. It is an alternative that workers are fighting for on the picket line. Even before the nurses went on strike, 2022 was a record-breaking year for industrial action. Striking workers are not just fighting for pay, essential as these demands are. They are fighting for a society without poverty, hunger, and inequality. They are fighting for a future that puts the interests of the community ahead of the greed of energy companies. They are fighting for us all.

Their collective struggle teaches us that democracy exists — it thrives — outside of Westminster. The government is trying its best to turn dedicated postal workers and railway workers into enemies of the general public — a general public that apparently also excludes university staff, bus drivers, barristers, baggage handlers, civil servants, ambulance drivers, firefighters, and charity workers. As the enormous scale of industrial action shows, striking workers are the general public. The year 2022 will go down in history, not as the year the Tories took the public for fools, but as the year the public fought back. United in their thousands, they are sending a clear message: this is what democracy looks like.

This article was first published by Progressive International

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