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Saba Saba at 30: The Struggle for Progressive Alternative Political Leadership in Kenya Continues

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The struggle for a prosperous, democratic and stable Kenya is not over and despite having successfully fought for a new constitution, three decades after Saba Saba, power is still largely imperial, exercised in a brutal and unaccountable manner by a political elite who have in the last decade taken every step to undermine it.

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Saba Saba at 30: The Struggle for Progressive Alternative Political Leadership in Kenya Continues
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Three decades ago, driven by a quest to reclaim their sovereignty and recalibrate the power relations between the state and society, the people of this country went to the streets to push for political and constitutional reforms, a major inflection point in the history of our nation. Through a protracted, peaceful struggle by Kenyans in the country and in the diaspora, the country finally transitioned into a multi-party democracy.

The struggle is not over; Kenya’s politics have taken a backward trajectory, moving towards dictatorship in the midst of an intra-elite succession struggle that could descend into violent conflict, chaos, and even civil war.

Kenya is a fake democracy where elections do not matter because the infrastructure of elections has been captured by the elites. There is a danger of normalising electoral authoritarianism, where the vote neither counts nor gets counted. The Judiciary is under constant attack and disparagement by the executive while parliament is contorted into a body increasingly unable to represent Kenyans and provide oversight over the executive’s actions. The security services are unleashed on the poor and the dispossessed as if they are not citizens but enemies to be hunted down and destroyed.

A range of constitutional commissions are in a state of contrived dysfunction while our media business model is failing, accelerated by political interference. Grand corruption—perpetrated by a handful of families and by the elites collectively—has been normalised and the fight against corruption has been politicised. In the creeping descent into dictatorship, civilian public services have been militarised and the 2010 Constitution that was in many ways a culmination of the struggle that started on 7 July 1990 when the late Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia called for a meeting at the Kamukunji grounds in Nairobi, is being deliberately undermined.

We have a duty and a responsibility to defend Kenya’s constitution; to resist efforts to undermine devolution in particular; to resist those determined to continue looting an economy already on its knees; to stand up against efforts to brutalise, dehumanise, and rent asunder the essential human dignity of Kenyans as a people.

Three decades is a generation. The generation that voted for the first time in 1992 is a venerated demographic that is 48 years old today. It is the generation of freedom (the South African equivalent of the “born-frees”), and a significant part of the cohort that participated in the struggle as teens or young adults. It is the generation that bore the brunt of the struggle for freedom but which has been denied the opportunity for real political leadership. That part of its membership that has had access to state power is drawn from the reactionary wing of the group—the scions of the decadent YK’92 and drivers of the “NO” campaign against a new constitution.

Despite having successfully fought for a new constitution, three decades after Saba Saba, the frustration felt by this generation and its children runs deep. Why? Power is still largely imperial, exercised in a brutal and unaccountable manner, as institutions flail and falter. The country is still ethnically divided, the fabric of our nationhood is fraying and its stability remains remarkably and frighteningly fragile. Foreign domination, exploitation, oppression is still with us. Poverty and inequality still reign as a tiny economic aristocracy consolidates wealth at the top, while a large pool of the poor underclass expands at the bottom. Why is this the case? Why, after three major successful transitions over three decades—multipartyism in 1992; power transition in 2002; and a new constitution in 2010—are we still being frustrated by our politics and economics? Why is our quest to advance Kenya as a prosperous, democratic and stable country floundering? I see five main reasons why Kenya’s democratisation and development have been stymied.

First, and most importantly, is the moral bankruptcy of Kenya’s elite. It is the loyal facilitator of our continued colonisation by the imperialism of the West and the East. We have a political elite who—together with their acolytes in the middle classes—view this constitution as inconvenient and who have in the last decade taken every step to undermine it, now even audaciously threatening to overhaul it. This mythmaking of how the constitution “doesn’t work for us”; or how it is “expensive” (despite analytical evidence to the contrary), or how it “does not promote inclusivity”, is basically political mischief-making that must be roundly denounced and firmly rejected.

But this hostile attitude by the political class towards the constitution should not surprise us. The constitution was imposed on them by the people through a people-driven process. And we must remember that they proposed more amendments to it on the floor of the House than there were articles in the constitution. To be sure, when the political class finds a constitution, a law or an institution to be an inconvenience, that is a clear indicator of success.

We must actively resist the schemes by the political class to hijack, mangle and wreck the constitution, and thus remove the checks that make the exercise of political power onerous. The constitutional product is only as good—and as secure—as the process that creates it. And whereas we must salute the decision of Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga to stop the grandstanding and step back from the brink to save lives, the framework for dealing with the issues that created the problem in the first place (such as electoral theft right from the party primaries to the general election, ethnicity, police brutality and vigilante massacres) should have been broader, more structured, and more inclusive than the present process which is private, exclusionary, unstructured and partisan.

The moral bankruptcy of the political elite is pushing us into a false choice between “dynasties” and “hustlers”—a very superficial and shallow narrative masquerading as a class-based political contest yet it is merely a joust between gangs. It is a (mis)-framing that obscures the underlying forces that create underdevelopment, instability and violence and those who benefit from the end result. We must not buy into this misframing of our political choices, whose guile in placing a confederacy of familiar surnames on one side, and a well-known economic rustler of public assets on the other, seeks to hide the common denominator of those two groups: the plutocrats within the state that are the beneficiaries. Both are extractive and extortionist, only distinguished by the differences in their predatory styles and their longevity in the enterprise of shaking down the Kenyan public. This is a club, a class of state-dependent “accumulationists” and state-created “capitalists” united by a history of plunder of public resources and unprincipled political posturing, and only divided by the revolving-door cycle of access to the public trough.

My second argument as to why, despite the many progressive political and constitutional transitions the country still feels restless and dissatisfied, has to do with the performance and the posture adopted by parliament. Whereas the judiciary has emerged as an effective and consequential arm of government since 2011, simultaneously playing defender and goalkeeper of the constitution, parliament, has since 2013, and even more so now, acquiesced as an adjunct to the executive. In a complete misreading of the presidential system, parliament sees itself as an extension rather than a check on the executive. The senate is even worse; instead of playing its constitutive role of protecting devolution against the excesses and encroachment of the national government, senators got into the most parochial contest of egos with the governors, bizarrely siding with the executive to stream-roll and undermine devolution. It took the judiciary, through a number of bold decisions, and the public, who rallied around devolution, including in the ruling party’s backyard, to save devolution from an early collapse.

Third is the suboptimal output from devolved governments. Devolution has been good but is not yet great. Because of a hostile national government and endemic corruption in the counties, devolved governments have not performed optimally although, compared to the central government’s record of the last 50 years, they have made a big difference in people’s daily lives. Although devolution has been revolutionary, a combination of frustration from the top (especially from the Treasury the Devolution Ministry (particularly the first one) and the Provincial Administration) and the extremely poor and corrupt leadership of some governors have delayed the devolution dividends.

I dare say that without the strong backing of the judges—a raft of decisions by the High Court and two decisions by the Supreme Court on the Division of Revenue Bill—devolution would long have unravelled. These decisions are part of the reason for the animosity towards the judiciary that we have witnessed in the last decade.

Fourth, political parties have not been operating optimally. Political party primaries have been heavily rigged and violent, which has undermined people’s faith in the democratic process. Further, the Political Parties Fund is operated in an opaque manner, with the size of the allocations to some parties being equal to the allocations that are given to some counties. The disorganisation and privatisation of parties is nurturing a feeling of despondency and a lack of belief in parties, yet our constitution envisages a party-based constitutional democracy.

Fifth is the country’s economic collapse due to mismanagement. This economic failure preceded the COVID-19 pandemic. Never before has the country witnessed such a spectacular mismanagement of the economy. There is absolute incoherence and inconsistency in the public policy priorities. From a glitzy manifesto that has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance, to the Big 4 Agenda, the Nairobi Regeneration Team, the Anti-Corruption, we are all over the place, and are now consumed by succession politics. We have a ballooning debt that is unprecedented in stock (over Sh6 trillion), in composition (much of it expensive commercial debt); and in impact (Eurobond monies are yet to be accounted for).

In this context, it would be extremely foolish to think that individuals who have been partners in this mismanagement could be plausible alternatives. The authors of the last seven years of corruption, debt, and underdevelopment are known and so, if the country is to stand a chance of realising the benefits of the transitions that it has undergone, then it would be utter tomfoolery to consider parading any of these characters as the agents of that change.

Our Constitution is not defective. The quality of our elite is—fatally so. The problem is not in the structure of power as expressed in our constitutional architecture, but in the exercise of power in the conduct, choice and decisions that leaders—and to some extent the masses—make. The structure of power does not command us to have a President, Speaker, Prime Minister (that is what the Majority Leader would be in a parliamentary system), Attorney General, Chief of Defence Forces, Director General of Intelligence, Head of Kenya Police, Director of Directorate of Criminal Investigations, Governor of Central Bank, Commissioner General of Kenya Revenue Authority, and Auditor General, all from one region.

It is the exercise of that power, both by the nominating and confirming authorities, that allows for this construction of an ethnic hegemony at the heart and in the commanding heights of state affairs. This is not to question the competence and patriotism of these compatriots; it is to question the effect of this apparent singular concentration of competence in one ethnic identity on the fabric of our nationhood. The absolute necessity for diversity and inclusion in public positions and policy cannot be gainsaid. That is how you create a strong and united nation. The argument that changing the constitution will, ipso facto, foster inclusivity is a false one. With an already expansive government of 22 ministers, over 40 Principal Secretaries, parastatal chiefs, and an expanded leadership in both Houses of Parliament, how come we are still not able to be inclusive?

Vuguvugu la Mageuzi (VUMA) or Kongomano la Mageuzi. These are possible names of a transformative movement made up of all the social movements that exist in the country and that, going forward, would tackle a number of issues.

First, the middle class civil society must reactivate its engagement and build strategic and effective alliances with grassroots movements and the over 40 social justice centres countrywide to keep both national and county governments in check and create a strong central defence for the constitution. Indeed, the countervailing power of the civil society must be strengthened.

VUMA should be the crucible for the development of alternative leaderships drawn from such movements as The Artist Movements of cartoonists, film makers, singers, poets, and song writers; 100 Days of the Citizens’ Assemblies; Congress for the Protection of the Constitution; DeCOALonise; Friends of Lake Turkana; Inuka Kenya Ni Sisi, Okoa Mombasa, Kenya Tuitakayo Movement and SwitchOffKPLC. There are many others in formation: the movement to protect the rights of tea workers in Kericho; the movement to protect the cane farmers in Western Kenya; the movement to protect devolution in the NFD; the movements that defend community land from commodification; farmers revolts against crony capitalism in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya; and the movement to withdraw our troops from Somalia, among others.

Second, the movement must give voice and support the Council of Governors’ demands for the arrears in development funds that the national government continues to refuse to disburse.

Third, this is a good moment for the emergence of an alternative leadership for Kenya. The political elites are in fear of each other and there is a hurting stalemate in their relationship and negotiations. We need to invest in the rupture of those negotiations.

Fourth, we need to support a principled and fair fight against corruption, both at the national and county levels, and establish whether public policy and the law have been used for public good or private gain.

Fifth, we also need to set up at least three Judicial Commissions of Inquiry, the first one being on the public debt incurred since independence so that we can establish the rationale, basis, terms, impact and beneficiaries of these debts. This includes Ken-Ren, Goldenberg, Anglo Leasing, SGR, Eurobond and other scams. The second one should be on all government technology projects from IFMIS to OT-Morpho, to Huduma Number to E-Citizen. The third commission of inquiry should target police brutality and the vigilante and police massacres of 2017, especially in Western Kenya and in the slums of Nairobi.

Sixth, we should revisit all the solutions devised by the Saitoti Report; the Akiwumi Ethnic Clashes Report; the Ndungu Land Report; the InterParty-Parliamentary Group Report (particularly its unfinished business); the Truth and Justice Commission Report; the Kreigler Report; the Kroll Report; Kofi Annan’s Agenda 4; the Waki Report and all the reports developed by the civil society as solutions to our societal problems. That rich and robust material should be debated and refined for implementation.

Seventh, we must undertake mass civic education on the contents of the 2010 Constitution with a view to triggering the citizenry to demand its implementation;

Eighth, we must form a united front with political parties that are against imperialism and baronial rule and their respective narratives.

Ninth, we must nurture a political party or political parties that will contest for political power in the interests of the motherland.

And lastly, we must ensure that the failure of the ruling elite to secure the social and economic rights of the Kenyan people as provided for under the constitution (the right to food, housing, water, education, health, social security, employment) during the ongoing pandemic is an important lesson about the kind of leadership this country should not have.

The future of the constitution and our democracy will depend on the quality of leaders the country elects. That is when the full dividends of Saba Saba and 2010 will be fully realised. As the United States has shown, even constitutions, institutions, and customs that have been nurtured over hundreds of years can come easily undone by a rogue leadership and a pliant public.

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Dr Willy Mutunga is a public intellectual and former Chief Justice of Kenya.

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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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