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The Return of the Taliban: What Now for the Women of Afghanistan?

9 min read.

The American experiment in Afghanistan failed, but why should women and girls pay the price?



The Return of the Taliban: What Now for the Women of Afghanistan?
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There have been a lot of knee-jerk reactions – particularly from liberals – about the United States’ hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. Those who oppose US military intervention in foreign lands say the withdrawal couldn’t have come sooner – that invading Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington was a mistake and staying on in (“occupying”) the country was an even bigger mistake. They argue that US military intervention in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia and other places has been disastrous, and that these interventions reek of imperialism.

Well and good. But everyone who has something to say about the poorly planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan, including the Taliban and President Joe Biden, has failed to answer these questions: What would the women of Afghanistan have wanted? Why were they not consulted before the US president made the unilateral decision to pull out troops from Afghanistan? And what gives Biden and the all-male Pashtun-dominated Taliban leadership the right to make decisions on women’s behalf?

I was in Kabul in 2002, some three months after the US invaded the country and ousted the Taliban from the capital city. I spoke with many women there who told me that they were relieved that the Taliban had left because life under the misogynistic movement had become unbearable for women and girls. Girls were not allowed to have an education so girls’ schools had to be run secretly from homes. The Taliban were known for barbaric public executions and for flogging women who did not wear burqas or who were accused of adultery. Theirs was an austere, cruel rule where people were not even allowed to sing, dance, play music or watch movies.

Twenty years of war, beginning with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent US-backed insurgency of the Mujahideen (mujahidun in Arabic—“those engaged in jihad”) in the 1980s (which later transformed into the Taliban movement), not to mention the US invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks, had left Kabul’s physical infrastructure in ruins. Entire neighbourhoods had been reduced to rubble and no one quite remembered any more whose army had destroyed which building. The only buildings still left standing were the mosques and the Soviet-built apartment blocks housing civil servants. In 2002, Kabul Municipality had estimated that almost 40 per cent of the houses in the city had been destroyed in the previous fifteen years. Solid waste disposal barely met minimum standards, and running water and electricity were luxuries in most homes.

After the Taliban fled the capital and went underground, an estimated 3 million girls went back to school. At that time, the average Afghan child could expect only about 4 years of schooling. By 2019, this figure had risen to 10 years. Today, more than 13 per cent of adult women in Afghanistan have a secondary school education or higher. Women’s participation in the political sphere also increased dramatically; in 2019, nearly a third (27.2 per cent) of parliamentary seats were held by women.

No wonder women around the world were shocked and dismayed to see how easily Afghan women and girls were sacrificed and abandoned by the world’s leading powers. “My heart breaks for the women of Afghanistan. The world has failed them. History will write this,” tweeted the Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad on 13 August 2021.

As Taliban fighters were gaining control of the capital Kabul on Sunday, 15 August 2021, an unnamed woman living in the city wrote the following in the Guardian:

As a woman, I feel I am the victim of this political war that men started. I felt like I can no longer laugh out loud, I can no longer listen to my favourite songs, I can no longer meet my friends in our favourite café, I can no longer wear my favourite yellow dress or pink lipstick. And I can no longer go to my job or finish the university degree that I worked for years to achieve.

There have been reports of Taliban fighters abducting and marrying young girls, and ordering women not to report to work. Afghan female journalists fear for their lives; many have gone into hiding. The sale of burqas has apparently skyrocketed.

The argument that women in other countries also suffer at the hands of men, and experience gender-based violence does not fly with many Afghan women who have been fighting for the rights of women for the last two decades. For one, there is no law in any country in the world, as far as I know, that denies women an education or bans them from working outside the home. Women in these countries may not yet be truly free, but at least they can rely on the law to protect them. All the gains Afghan women have made over the last two decades will now be lost. I do not for one second believe that the rebranded Taliban emerging in Afghanistan have become feminists overnight, despite their pro-women rhetoric at press conferences. Mahbouba Seraj, an Afghan women’s rights leader, told TRT World that what is happening in Afghanistan is “going to put the country two hundred years back.” “I am going to say to the whole world—shame on you!” she stated.

A series of failures 

That is not the first time the US has abandoned Afghanistan. After Russian forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the US pulled out as well, leaving the Mujahideen, which it had been funding, to its own devices. Yet, in 1979, when Russian forces entered Afghanistan, the US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski had described the Mujahideen as “soldiers of God”, and told them, “Your cause is right and God is on your side.” The Mujahideen transformed into the Taliban, and imposed its severe rule on Afghans during the latter part of the 1990s.  It also became a den for terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda.  The US essentially created a monster that launched the 9/11 attacks 22 years later.

Afghanistan has had a long and turbulent history of conquests by foreign rulers, and has often been described as the “graveyard of empires”. But it has not always been anti-women. In 1919, King Amanullah Khan introduced a new constitution and pro-women reforms. The last monarch, Zahir Shah (1933-1973), also ensured that women’s rights were respected through various laws. But when Shah was overthrown in 1978, the Soviet Union installed a puppet leader. This gave rise to the anti-Soviet Mujahideen, who gained control of the country in the 1990s and eroded many of the rights women had been granted.

There have been reports of Taliban fighters abducting and marrying young girls, and ordering women not to report to work.

There are many parallels with Somalia, which also enjoyed Russian support under President Siad Barre. When the Soviets switched sides and began supporting Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, the US gained more influence, but it could not install democracy in a country that had descended into warlordism after Barre was ousted in 1991. After American soldiers were killed in Mogadishu during the country’s civil war in 1993, the US withdrew from Somalia completely. Conservative forces supported by some Arab countries filled the void. When a coalition of Islamic groups took over the capital in 2006, they were quickly ousted by US-backed Ethiopian forces. Al Shabaab was born. As in Afghanistan, the US had a hand in creating a murderous group that had little respect for women.

After the US invasion in 2001, instead of focusing on stabilising and rebuilding Afghanistan, President George Bush set his eyes on invading Iraq on the false pretext that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had links to Al Qaeda and was harbouring weapons of mass destruction. That war in 2003 cost the US government its reputation in many parts of the Muslim world, and turned the world’s attention away from Afghanistan. Bush will also be remembered for illegally renditioning and detaining Afghans and other nationals suspected of being terrorists at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay.  This ill-advised move, which will forever remain a blot on his legacy, has been used as a radicalisation propaganda tool by groups such as the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS).

The international community is now sitting back and doing nothing, even as it is becoming increasingly evident that the world is witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe that will have severe political repercussions within the region and globally. The international community of nations, including the UN Security Council, cannot do anything except plead with the Taliban to not discontinue essential services, which is a tall order given that three-quarters of Afghanistan’s budget was funded by foreign (mostly Western) aid. The Taliban was allowed to take over the country without a fight. And all the UN Secretary-General could do was issue statements urging neighbouring countries to keep their borders open to the thousands of Afghans fleeing the country.

The mass exodus of Afghans, as witnessed at Kabul’s international airport, is a public relations disaster for the Taliban. It shows that not all Afghans welcome the Taliban’s return. As the poet Warsan Shire wrote about her homeland Somalia, “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark”. Afghanistan has once again become a failed state.

The longest war 

The impact of the Taliban’s capture of the country is already being felt.  The exodus of Afghans is creating a refugee crisis like the one witnessed in 2015 during the civil war in Syria. The US and its NATO allies have essentially created a refugee crisis of their own making. This will likely generate anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments in the US and Europe, and embolden racist right-wing groups. It is also possible that Afghanistan will become the site of a new type of Cold War, with Russia and China forming cynical alliances with the Taliban in order to destabilise the West and to exploit Afghanistan’s vast natural resources, which remain largely untapped. Girls’ education will be curtailed. No amount of reminding the Taliban that Prophet Mohammed’s wife Khadija was a successful businesswoman, and that his third wife Aisha played a major role in the Prophet’s political life will change their minds about women. Women and girls are looking at a bleak future as the Taliban impose punitive restrictions on them that even the expansionist Muslim Ottoman Empire did not dare enforce in its heyday. Afghanistan will become a medieval society where women remain voiceless and invisible.

The worst-case scenario – one that is just too horrific to contemplate – is that terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al Qaeda will find a foothold in Afghanistan, and unleash a global terror campaign from there, as did Osama bin Laden more than two decades ago.

As in Afghanistan, the US had a hand in creating a murderous group that had little respect for women.

The irony the US having invaded the country two decades before, ostensibly to get rid of Islamic terrorists, Biden has essentially handed over the country to the very group that had harboured terrorists like Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. “President Joe Biden will go down in history, fairly or unfairly, as the president who presided over a humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan,” wrote David E. Sanger in the New York Times. (To be fair, it was not Biden who first opened the doors to the Taliban; President Donald Trump invited the Taliban to negotiations in Doha in 2018, which lent some legitimacy to a group that had previously been labelled as a terrorist organisation.)

Dubbed “America’s longest war”, the US military mission in Afghanistan has cost US taxpayers about US$2 trillion, one quarter of which has gone towards reconstruction and development, though critics have pointed out that the bulk of this money was used to train the Afghan military and police, and was not used for development projects. The military mission in Afghanistan has also come at a huge human cost; 3,500 soldiers and other personnel from 31 NATO troop-producing countries and 4,400 international contractors, humanitarian workers and journalists were killed in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2020.  Thousands of Afghan lives have also been lost. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan estimates that at least 100,000 Afghans have been killed or wounded since 2009.

Was the US and NATO intervention in Afghanistan worth it?  Should the US and NATO have stayed a bit longer until the country had well-functioning and well-resourced institutions and until they were sure that the Taliban had been completely routed out? I think so, because I believe that ousting the Taliban was as ethically correct as eliminating ISIS and defeating the German Nazis. The problem in Afghanistan is that the Taliban were never defeated; they simply went underground.

Women and girls are looking at a bleak future as the Taliban impose punitive restrictions on them that even the expansionist Muslim Ottoman Empire did not dare enforce in its heyday.

There is no doubt that the “liberation” or “occupation” of Afghanistan by the US-dominated NATO mission in Afghanistan brought about some tangible benefits, including rebuilt and new infrastructure,  the growth of a vibrant civil society and more opportunities for women. But the US’s support of Western-backed Afghan governments that are generally viewed as corrupt by the majority of Afghans may have handed the Taliban the legitimacy and support they seem to be enjoying among the country’s largely poor rural population, just as installing highly corrupt Western-backed governments in Somalia in the last fifteen years gave Al Shabaab more ammunition to carry out its violent campaign. The Taliban is also recognised by some neighbouring countries, notably Pakistan, which is believed to be one of its funders, and which receives considerable military and other support from the US. This raises questions about why the US is aiding a country that is working against its interests in another. This Taliban-Pakistan alliance will no doubt be watched closely by Pakistan’s rival India.

Afghanistan, unfortunately, is a sad reminder of why no amount of investment in infrastructure and other “development” projects can fix something that has been fundamentally broken in a country. Like Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion, it may fragment along tribal or sectarian lines and revert to a civil war situation. Under the Taliban “government”, Afghanistan may become a joyless place where people are not allowed to listen to music, dance or watch movies – where enforcement of a distorted interpretation of Islam casts a dark shadow on the rest of the Muslim world. And Afghan women and girls will once again pay the heaviest price.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).


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.



Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy
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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.



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.



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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