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A Diasporan Oromo Visits Kenya: A Reflection

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Being from the Ethiopian side of the border, travelling and getting to know my people on the Kenyan side has brought me back down to earth regarding the way I have previously viewed the Borana Oromo.

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I left Oromia just before turning two years old and I grew up among the first Oromo people to call Melbourne home. I vividly remember the days when we were so few that, in Clayton South, the suburb in which I spent 16 years of my life, there was an Oromo family on almost every block. Being such a small community, we didn’t scatter across the breadth of the city but huddled together in a small enclave for safety, support, and the comfort of familiarity. In those days, weddings, birthday parties, funerals, and other community events were attended by people from all the regions of Oromia who made up our little community.

But as our community grew in number, and as the number of people from every region of Oromia grew, I started to see a divide in how we congregated. By my mid-teens, I was almost completely disconnected from the spaces and networks that included Oromo people from outside the Arsi region, where I come from. Naturally, as I reached adulthood, I attended cultural and community events on my own initiative rather than at the invitation of my family. I started to learn about my community all over again. And in the course of this experience, I was never directly and deliberately taught who the Oromo are, who I was as an Oromo, and how and why other Oromo people were different, or the same, to my family. 

Whereas this learning is experiential for one growing up in Oromia, there are gaps when this way of learning is transferred to the diaspora, or even to urban areas in Oromia, and so more recent generations are developing different tools and spaces for learning Oromo identity, culture, and history. What I did learn experientially though, were the nuances that make one a person from Wallaga, another from Haararge, Shewa, Arsi, etc.

Still, l had little knowledge regarding the Borana Oromo. As one who developed Oromomumma (Oromo identity) in the diaspora, and as someone who has spent over a year and a half living in the homes of Borana and Orma Oromo in Kenya, my relationship with this part of my community has developed in an intriguing and adventurous way, and it holds a special place in my heart.

I met Addee Jiloo, a Borana woman, in my early twenties. Each time I had attended Irreechaa (an Oromo thanksgiving festival), it was Addee Jiloo that led the procession to the water. If a woman needed her Gutino (Borana cultural dress) tied at an event, we would frantically search for Addee Jiloo. If we had public events, she would be the one conducting the coffee ceremonies. In many ways, she was collectively identified as a keeper of cultural knowledge, a leader of cultural practice, and an advisor on cultural affairs.

Over the years, I remember repeatedly hearing that “Borannii Hangafaa Oromo”, that the Borana are the oldest of the Oromo. This refers to the position Borana and Bareentu, as the first sons of Oromo, hold as the moieties of the Oromo nation. I had also come to learn that the Borana were among the few Oromo to still practice the Gadaa system, one of the greatest cultural assets of the Oromo nation.  To me, the Borana felt almost like a thing of legend, a mystery to be revered and respected. They seemed to know things about being an Oromo that others didn’t. They seemed to have succeeded in preserving practices that the rest of us were no longer connected to. They seemed to be Oromo with the kind of defiance, resilience, and resistance that I wanted to embody. Although, from what I could see, it seemed like the Borana did so without the existential effort I sometimes felt it took to embody Oromummaa.

Language

I stayed with a Borana family for a few months when I first moved to Nairobi, but for the first few weeks of my stay, I had almost no idea what anybody was saying. I was used to most Afaan Oromoo dialects and Addee Jiloo’s dialect never sounded very different from anybody else’s, so my Kenyan experience sent me into a state of severe culture shock. With time, however, I became used to the difference in dialect and was able to improve my communication and now you can probably detect the influence of the Borana dialect in my spoken Afaan Oromoo.

In many ways, she was collectively identified as a keeper of cultural knowledge, a leader of cultural practice, and an advisor on cultural affairs.

Almost simultaneously with this sense of shock came a sense of overwhelming awe and admiration. Afaan Oromoo is a language that you feel. It is poetry in motion. Intimate, alive, revealing.  I found this exemplified in the Borana dialect.

When I first heard my host answer the phone and greet the person on the other line with, “Qileensii urgooftuu?” Is the air fragrant? I almost wept. Welcoming a guest, the Orma of Tana River along the northern Kenyan coast, say “Diyaadhaa”, come closer, be close. This is a common saying among the Borana and Orma people, and I experienced it frequently during my stay in Tana River. If language is supposed to connect us, I think that the breadth of the Oromo language does so profoundly, and the dialect spoken amongst the Borana and Orma achieves this objective to grand effect.

Traveling up north

When I travelled to northern Kenya, I was bubbling with expectation. I remember sitting at a small shop trying to recover from the long journey, and striking up a conversation in Afaan Oromoo with the shop owner. He responded in a mix of Swahili and Afaan Oromoo. We continued talking and I told him that I was an Oromo from the other side of the border. This meant, well, not much at all to him.

I had expected a dramatic reunion. What I got was a shopkeeper who was not surprised or touched in any way by my presence. The cultural and linguistic relationship that we shared, despite the borders, was not profound for him. The reason that this surprised me was that, when I visited Tana River, there was a palpable sense of connection with everyone I met, for the very reason that we had a shared identity across borders.

Given that I was closer to the border of Oromia and I was in a place that was, in many ways, more engaged with the Oromo cultural and political identity, I think I expected this sense of connection to be amplified. What I experienced after leaving this shop showed me that it was actually because of the consequence of this proximity to Oromia’s border and the political landscape of the area at large, that meant that Oromos connecting and sharing experiences across borders was no special occurrence.

I sat for lunch in the compound of an ordinary looking house. As we ate, a friend, someone who had grown up in the town we were in, began to tell me stories about where we were. In 2002, the house we were in was the target of a bombing by Ethiopian government forces. Luckily, nobody was home. Chief Ibrahim Abdi Dido and his family lived in the house at the time. In the same year, Chief Buke Liban, Chief Taro Sora, Chief Denge Okotu, Chief Huqa Guled, Boru Jiloo, Sheikh Hassan (Moyale), Qasim Abdi and many others were similarly targeted by Ethiopian government forces and in most cases, these community leaders, and oftentimes, their families, did not survive.  Although I knew a little about how the Ethiopian government targeted Oromo people across the border in Kenya, including the kidnapping and assassination of political refugees in urban centres, the arrest and extrajudicial killing of young people, and the displacement of communities, in the months that followed, I learned that the extent and severity of this persecution was far greater than I had first understood.

When I first heard my host answer the phone and greet the person on the other line with, “Qileensii urgooftuu?” Is the air fragrant? I almost wept.

Through listening to the stories of the many people I met on my travels, I also learned that local cultural leaders played and continue to play a role in this persecution by collaborating with the Ethiopian security forces. This was sobering to understand because it resembled the dynamic that’s been at play across Oromia since the onset of Abyssinian colonisation, whereby Oromo people, including local leaders, have opted to participate in the violence perpetrated against their own people.

My experience in northern Kenya brought me back down to earth regarding the way I viewed the Borana Oromo. I was in a place where the people were living with the challenges and consequences of choosing to live their Oromoness every day. Just as it would be incredibly weird for me to go to Wallaga or somewhere in Eastern Haragee or Balee and start wandering around asking people if they thought it was wonderful that we share a language, culture, and political reality (which I have never done), it was weird for me to do so in northern Kenya too.

The Oromo of Ethiopia and the Oromo of Kenya are, in many ways, fighting the same fight. Both make huge sacrifices for the political struggle, and suffer the consequences of this, along with enduring the consequences of simply being an Oromo in relation to the Ethiopian state, political activity or not. The indifference of the shopkeeper I met at the beginning of my travels makes sense. He experienced the same, if not more, breadth and depth of Oromummaa as I did; there was nothing novel I offered him in being an Oromo from the other side of the border.

The Borana-Gabra conflict 

When I arrived in northern Kenya, I remember getting off the bus from Nairobi and wondering why on earth it had dropped me so far away from the town I was going to, only to learn that it was an Orma-owned bus company, and they were careful about infringing on the territory of the Borana. The same person who told me the story about the house in which we ate lunch has lost family to protracted conflict between the Borana and Gabra people. When I asked him what the root cause of the conflict was, he said, “It just started a long time ago. We speak the same language, we are the same people, but a feud that started between a few, a long time ago, has continued on.” I didn’t know if the origins of the conflict were as vague as my friend described them to be, or if his description is just how the existence of the conflict feels to someone who has suffered because of it, but I did come to learn that access to resources like water and land between nomadic pastoralists (Borana) and settled subsistence farmers (Gabra) and ongoing political power struggles play a huge role in the enduring and deadly conflict.

Lamu

Many years ago I spent some time in Lamu and I met two Orma people on the Island. At the time I thought that it was just a bizarre coincidence that they were there but I now know that the Orma have been living in the northern coastal region of Kenya since the late 1800s.

Being from the Ethiopian side of the border, a landlocked country, it is very interesting for me to think that I share a language, history and, even if only in small ways, a culture with a people that have lived along the coast for over a century. The Oromo worldview places great emphasis on our relationship with and duty towards land. As one develops the essence of Oromummaa, I believe that a person intuitively connects with this worldview. From this perspective, learning that we are connected to a people whose relationship to land is connected to the ocean — there is just something about that that stirs something in me.

I was in a place where the people were living with the challenges and consequences of choosing to live their Oromoness every day.

Who we are as a people is infinitely complex. I am talking about the Oromo, of course, but I think I’m also talking about us all. If I have learned anything over the past year and seven months, it is that I will only ever keep living and reliving this one truth: people, their stories, and their lived realities are not linear, rigid, or made to be easily and simply comprehended. Life exists on a continuum of relationships and storytelling. I want to remain willing to relate to who people are, as they are, rather than clinging onto what I have constructed of a people through imagination, hearsay, and the effects of groupthink. I want my analysis of the world to shift and change as I learn and grow, and I want my posture of service to people to also shift and change as I learn anew. Getting to know my people on the other side of the border has taught me that state violence is pervasive, unconfined by borders, and resistances adapt accordingly. I also learned that I can do little to effect real and lasting change if I do not cultivate my ability to meet the complexity in individuals and in communities with a willingness to learn and an openness of heart and mind.

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Soreti Kadir is an activist, storyteller and facilitator.

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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
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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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