In 2018, at the height of my public engagement on the competency-based curriculum, the concept of homeschooling gained prominence media discussions on education. In a few interviews, journalists asked me if homeschooling was an alternative to CBC and public schooling. I answered from my experience of having taught homeschooled students in my university classrooms in both the US and Kenya, saying that some of the students whom I consider outstanding were homeschooled.
In hindsight, I now see that I was naïve, and that I fell into a trap that I did not know I had fallen into. I understood the trap after I criticised a media report on homeschooling and received an unexpected and persistent backlash from homeschooling parents.
Before I talk about the news report, I need to clarify the following. I am not making a personal critique of the parents involved or their children. In a free world, making this caveat would be unnecessary, but not in Kenya which has such an entrenched anti-intellectual and passive-aggressive culture that is used to bully and harass Kenyans when we dare to discuss anything social. The first response in the anti-intellectual and passive-aggressive toolkit is usually to brand commentary on social phenomena as attacks on specific people, or in Christian parlance, as “judging others”.
Secondly, education is more than just the personal choices of select families. I will address this neoliberal ideology of choice further in the article, but for now, let’s say that the project of education is a complex one where we must ask not only about individuals, but also about the society. Education requires complex thinking, which once again takes us back to Kenya’s anti-intellectual public and institutional culture, a culture that seeks to alienate complex thinking from public discourse. And finally, by virtue of that argument, a debate on whether children should go to an institution or school at home is not the interest of this article.
Education mumbo jumbo
Following the closure of schools last year to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the government and the complacent Kenyan media offered parents the option of covering the curriculum at home. The manner in which this endeavour was packaged is troubling, because it mixed terms which seasoned educators know refer to different types of education. On their twitter handle, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) talked of “home based learning”, which misleads parents into thinking that they now have access to homeschooling which normally only a minority can afford. However, what KICD was really offering is curriculum content that is broadcast on radio and TV. In yet another tweet, KICD introduced yet another term, “digital curriculum” while announcing content available on the KICD cloud.
The media played its part in this muddying of the Kenyan public awareness. KTN reported about a homeschooling family that was teaching an unnamed curriculum to the children. In a twist that once again made CBC and homeschooling strange bedfellows, the parent talked of choosing homeschooling to develop the children’s “talent”, an argument which the government has also made about the new education system.
The concept of talent is problematic. “Talent” gives parents the impression that their children are receiving an arts education and that the education system is addressing parents’ desire for opportunities that do not emphasize academic performance. In reality, however, “talent” in the new education system refers to the pathway for children whose performance might most likely be determined by their limited access to resources.
For an arts educator like me, this jumble of different elements of education was too much to bear. I ranted on Facebook that the middle class are in over their heads, and that they were choosing to run away from the public education system without understanding the philosophical implications of the education choices they were making for their children.
Head start in an unfair race
I was not surprised by the parents who responded that teaching is best done by parents, because this argument, again ironically, was also made by KICD when they were marketing CBC as unique because of its “parental involvement”. “Parental involvement” in CBC found fertile ground in the middle class, which had, for the 40 years that the American evangelical movement has been in Kenya, consumed family enrichment programmes such as James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family”.
What I did not anticipate was the persistent rebuttal of certain Kenyans who refused to address the points I was making.
Their first line of defence was that I don’t know what I am talking about because I have not met any homeschooling parents, and I should only comment on homeschooling when I meet them. They did not clarify how they determined that. They would repeat this line even after I pointed out that sample size, a question of method, still did not respond to the philosophical question I was raising. When I insisted on my position, they started talking about me in the third person on my wall, about my character and what colleagues say about me. For a group of people who insist that their education raises Christian children, this conversation was weird.
I was not surprised by the parents who responded that teaching is best done by parents.
When the snide comments on my wall persisted, I asked why it was so important that I support homeschooling, even against my own conscience. Because I am a prominent voice on education, I was told.
That answer struck me as odd. As an advocate of good public education, especially for the poor, why would my voice on education matter to homeschoolers? After all, I had been emphatic that we should have a public education system that is so good, that parents would choose a different type of schooling for reasons other than running away from the public system.
More than that, what I was saying about arts and education was not at all new. The argument I made about “talent” as a replacement for the arts is the same one I had made when criticizing the public education system.
That was when it occurred to me that for my critics, my argument was fine as long as I restricted it to the public education system, because then I articulated a case for homeschooling as the alternative to the public school system. That is what the media was referring to when they asked me about homeschooling. It was essentially another way of asking, “How do I protect my own children from this clearly botched public system?”
At some point, some were brazen in their assumption that I was a voice for homeschooling. At various times, homeschooling advocates reached out to me, tried to twist my tweets as support for homeschooling, and were adamant in refusing to listen to my clarification that criticizing public education did not mean I was advocating for homeschooling. Others even reached out to me to join a court case they were pursuing to get the government to include homeschooling in the Basic Education Act.
The exchange on Facebook made me realize that there was a pattern in the behaviour towards me. Even in encounters with homeschooling advocates two years ago, they were politely and patronizingly rude, refusing to engage in my arguments despite my responding to theirs. I now understand that they were trying to shut me down from commenting on homeschooling since I was their PR person in their justification as to why they were avoiding the public education system.
So far, I have mentioned two points of convergence between CBC and homeschooling: the idea of talent, and the emphasis on the nuclear family as the primary space of education.
There is a third convergence between CBC and homeschooling: the neoliberal ideology. Neoliberalism is an ideology that is committed to destroying the social aspect of life. Its vision of humanity was famously articulated by Margaret Thatcher as follows, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” The goal of neoliberalism is to fragment society so much, that individuals become independent and isolated atoms that never collaborate. And the reason is obvious: collaboration is always a challenge to power and profit.
Others even reached out to me to join a court case they were pursuing to get the government to include homeschooling in the Basic Education Act.
Neoliberalism is a complete contradiction to education, because education is necessarily an affirmation of society. When we take children to school, it is because we want children to relate with the world and people outside the family. So there is no education without all of us asking, together, with whom children will interact, and what we want for all the children, not just for some children.
This means that the best education for individuals is the education that wants the best for society as well. What disturbs the status quo about my thinking on education is not that I am opposing the government programmes. It is that I am saying that for us to have a coherent, humane education system for individual children, we must think about all aspects of society – including the economy – differently. At the risk of sounding absolute, there is no good education for a child if there is no good education for all children.
If, as my critics say, they want the best education for their children, then they must articulate a vision for SOCIETY that goes beyond them trying to force me to accept that an individual (bourgeois) family is a substitute for society. Yet at every turn, they block that conversation and get upset when I insist on it.
Which leads us to a deeper, more disturbing paradox.
The homeschoolers want to have their cake and eat it. They want to privately benefit from ideas on how to treat individual teachers and the classroom, but they want those ideas removed from the social thinking from which it springs. They want to use social thinking to give their children a head start in a privatized status quo. That is why my ideas are useful to them when I’m talking about teaching and children, but not when I ask broader social questions that influence decisions about content and teaching in the classroom. But for me, one comes from the other. Social thinking and how we educate children are inseparable, hence the need to bully me by restricting my discussions to the public education system.
So in essence, homeschooling and government schooling are not opposed; they are collaborators. Homeschooling gives children not an alternative, but a head start in meeting the demands of KICD and the private sector. As one advocate put it, with homeschooling, “good moral and mental habits, high academic achievement and success in career are almost guaranteed.” Questions about whether the government or economic system we have is human, fair or efficient, is outside their purview. After all, to afford homeschooling, one is already doing well in the system as it currently exists. So if the private sector says it wants not just certificates but also a compliant character that is, ironically, authentic, homeschooling gives children a head start in moulding such a person.
This means that in an environment of extreme inequality where only 2 per cent of Kenyans have a university education, homeschooling will create a hyper social class has lacks either the interest or the worldview to improve the public education system, because they benefit from having an edge in it.
Homeschooling and mainstream media
This collaboration between homeschooling and public schooling becomes clear when one examines media reporting on homeschooling. Using the discussion on homeschooling on NTV Kenya’s morning show Living with Ess as a sample, a number of common features emerge from these shows.
The shows which host a discussion on homeschooling are the morning shows that are typically about lifestyle. On NTV, it was Living with Ess, on KTN recently, it was Morning Express, and on Ebru TV, it was on Being Mommy. The fact that the hosts are mainly women, and that homeschooling is associated with motherhood, as on Ebru TV, shows a clear imperial and evangelical ideology about the role of women in the nuclear family.
These types of broadcasts necessarily imply that there is no debate or critique of homeschooling, as we would expect of the more overtly political shows. Similarly, the same type of show essentially packages homeschooling as a lifestyle choice or consumer product, when homeschooling is fundamentally a political choice.
At the risk of sounding absolute, there is no good education for a child if there is no good education for all children.
For instance, in the Living with Ess episode, homeschooling is presented as shielding children from the competitive culture that dominates institutionalized education. Yet, as I have explained, the reality is that children who are homeschooled ARE still competing. They are just getting an edge over the others. This is confirmed by the show providing a list of American celebrities and an interview with an employee who was homeschooled.
The symbol of advantage of homeschooling is typically arts education, subjects that the Ministry of Education, the media and the private sector typically fights against through misrepresenting the arts and frustrating artists. The end result is that children in public schools are unlikely to get an arts education, a situation that is highly discriminatory against poor children but is politically deliberate.
The ideology of homeschooling is the neoliberal ideology of choice, which ignores the reality that options for choice are not equally available to all. Some time back, the media reported about a woman from a poor Nairobi neighbourhood who was arrested because she chose not to take her children to school for religious reasons. This discrimination becomes glaring when one considers that homeschooling in Kenya is largely informed by religion.
I’m sure I have disappointed some parents who may have wanted a balance sheet about the pros and cons of public or institutionalized education and of homeschooling. But what I am saying, in essence, is that with education, we cannot avoid political questions about what kind of society we want. The lesson of COVID-19 is that our standard of living is only as good as the standard of living of the poorest among us.
It takes a village
So in conclusion, let me clarify the following: Parents perform a unique role in children’s lives that cannot be replicated by any form of schooling. Lessons of identity, character, love and work ethic are taught by parents and extended family. No school can provide those. It is this love that should compel parents to make political demands of the public education system and of public culture as a whole.
Homeschooling is not simply about learning from parents alone. Whoever designs or informs the curriculum which the parent is teaching the child also has a huge role in moulding the child’s consciousness. While many Kenyans may think that this does not matter for children, it has political and psychological implications when the children become adults, and not just for the children, but for the entire society. Therefore, homeschooling is not the absence of state in a child’s education; it is a choice about what kind of state.
Accessing curriculum materials online is not necessarily homeschooling, or “digital learning”. Accessing digital materials is simply that, and it is no different from using a textbook. It does not necessarily translate into better education.
Online learning refers to education conducted almost entirely online, when meeting physically is the rare exception rather than the norm. Kenyans should know that online learning success rate is terrible, especially for adults who do not already have a strong background in the traditional face-to-face learning.
The media and KICD are misleading the public when they refer to use of materials online or on broadcast media as “digital learning”. The desire for online learning is a project that the president has flirted with since he was the Finance and the Education Minister in the Kibaki government and it is designed to deny poor children in public schools access to education provided by human teachers.
The ideology of homeschooling is the neoliberal ideology of choice, which ignores the reality that options for choice are not equally available to all.
That parents are the best teachers of children is a claim that is not necessarily true and is definitely not ideologically neutral. The claim comes from a specifically ideological project, and for Africans, especially those who use the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, this ideological project is troubling.
Incidentally, the same argument applies to CBC, where the state has decided to intervene directly in families in the name of promoting “parental involvement”, but the involvement is modelled on the Eurocentric middle-class Christian nuclear family. If anything, one would argue that in Kenya, homeschooling ideologically paves the way for privatization of public education.
Homeschooling converges with CBC in its ideology of talent, parental involvement and employment. It therefore does not offer alternative education but simply an alternative venue and facilitator.
Although parents often feel that they are making a practical choice between homeschooling and institutional education, my argument here is that this is not a real choice. Homeschooling is as good, or as flawed, as public schooling.
At this time of the COVID-19 pandemic this analogy may, hopefully, warn us against complacency about public education. Just like the middle class is vulnerable to a pandemic if the poor don’t have healthcare, it is also vulnerable to the cost of ignorance when the poor are getting a bad education. And public education is wider than schooling. It includes culture, festivals, arts, research, publishing, public libraries, public spaces like parks, museums, playgrounds and halls. In other words, anywhere where people can get together and learn from each other.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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