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Uganda: What Went Wrong With Human Rights Discourse?

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Human rights are not “politics” as such; they are what comes up as an issue once politics fails. To avoid, or even fix a human rights crisis, one must have a clear political program. 

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Uganda: What Went Wrong With Human Rights Discourse?
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It may be difficult to recreate a sense of just how central human rights issues were to Ugandan politics, and therefore how instrumental they were in building and feeding the legend of the National Resistance Movement (NRM).

Between 1962 and 1986, Uganda was caught in an entrenched and mounting human rights crisis that characterized all her national life. Everything was about disappearances, detentions, bans, exiles and executions. It was our defining feature and something that, due to its very heart-rending nature, was also easily turned into media material.

This fully matured during the reign of General Amin where the combination of wholesale political exclusion, Western racism, and a mounting economic crisis led to a virtual carnival of language and imagery that really entrenched the notion of rights violations as being Uganda’s fundamental problem. The 1980-1985 anti-Obote war was merely the final point of that. Beyond the political differences, human rights violations were the struggle’s lowest common denominator: they were accessible, human, unifying.

This is where the NRM became important, because its unique selling point in Uganda politics was as being the entity that finally “found the medicine” that enabled the country to solve this problem and therefore allowed us to move on to other things. This is of course completely untrue as everyone can now see. However, the point is not that it has become untrue through some backsliding over the years; the point is that it was never true. All that has changed is people’s perception of the same things.

If we are to put it in modern terms, we would say that human rights was NRM’s “brand”; the thing that defined its public identity. So, what went wrong?

One perhaps needed to have been there, alive and aware, at the time of the NRA victory, to fully understand this.

However popular Robert Kyagulanyi is now as an inspiring insurgent figure, his popularity is nothing compared to that which a youthful and inspiring Yoweri Museveni enjoyed between 1985 and maybe 1990. This speaks to just how significant the arrival of the NRM was: Museveni, and the various smaller versions of himself to be found in his various war-hero commanders, were virtual gods.

Nothing wrong could be said about them. One risked insults, ostracism, physical violence and open ridicule for making even the most basic negative remark. And this not from the regime itself, but from ordinary members of the public. I know, because I was at the receiving end of all that throughout the 1980s and beyond (even at the extended family level). It’s what developed my interest in education issues, because it was then that I first fully realized that the Ugandan education system is designed to train people in how to not think, and therefore not reason, and that, in particular, there is nothing as manipulable as an excited [wo]man, especially one that considers themselves “educated”.

As said, the image is completely undeserved of course, despite what even some opposition and wider human rights activists say: that the regime has “started” human rights violations with the abductions and other things we now see. This is very uninformed in many cases. In other cases, it is just very intellectually dishonest.

NRM human rights violations began immediately after they took power and have never stopped. A good early example of the actual view of their leadership on the matter was the warning to “lock up [the media] under the [Milton Obote created] 1967 Detention laws, if they continue to malign the good name of the NRA” given by none other than new president Yoweri Museveni himself, on the 18th of February 1987.

NRM human rights violations began immediately after they took power and have never stopped.

The venerable journalist Tony Owana was one of the victims of the attitude back then. Other victims of the true nature of the NRM were Jacob Oulanyah who was among the students shot by the Ugandan police during a peaceful demonstration against Makerere University cost-cutting; and Charles Rwomushana, whose 1995 parliamentary ambitions were summarily crushed during the election campaigns by the violence from the supporters of his NRM big-shot rival.

As said, what has changed, in the main, is the wider public perception of the violations. So the real problem with these abductions is that the logic, framework and arguments for human rights were themselves abducted a very long time ago. And their custodians did not file any complaints at the time. Now these new victims do.

For example, Charles Rwomushana, despite his unfair treatment by the NRM (and incidentally having been, he claims, also among the aforementioned demonstrating students), went on to a long career in our famously partisan state intelligence services, and now spends his days as a media contortionist speaking for the opposition on the behalf of the government (I think. Or something).

The late Mr Oulanyah of course went on to become an NRM voice in his home area, and through them, was elevated to parliamentary speakership.

Mr Owana is a dedicated cadre of the NRM of decades. He once told me that his detention (in a military barracks) had been as a result of a news source misleading him with information. He did not seem to have an opinion on the manner of the detention itself.

Again, the point was not that human rights were not being violated back then. Rather, that the then generation of young activists that saw the violations first-hand decided that they could live with them while in pursuit of other things.

A very pertinent example is a recent tweet by veteran women’s rights activist Winnie Byanyima who began her political career as a dedicated NRM cadre, before famously falling out with it and becoming an opposition stalwart. She was commenting approvingly after an encounter with one Ms Jane Francis Abodo, Uganda’s current Director of Public Prosecutions.

“@EBBairport lucky to bump into Uganda’s Director of Public Prosecutions & introduce myself. One of many brilliant young Ugandan women in senior public roles. I don’t usually agree with the man in the hat, but on giving young women opportunity to lead I [salute emoji] him!”

Those three short sentences carry a universe of meaning in regard to the death of human rights as a constitutional concern.

Of course “the man in the hat” being referred to is President Museveni. And indeed, he was present in the form of an official portrait hanging on the wall behind the two ladies in the photo accompanying the tweet.

This suggested the VIP lounge at the airport. Which would be the logical place for two high-powered personages (Ms Byanyima is currently the head of a United Nations Agency) to be while traveling.

Ms Abodo’s office currently sits at the heart of Uganda’s mounting human rights debacle.

First, the current wave of abductions is an attempt by the regime to sidestep the legal requirement of due process in which somebody is expected to be properly arrested, informed of the charge against them, detained in an official place, have access to both family and legal representatives, be presented in court within forty-eight hours, and have the state respect whatever rulings the court makes in the case.

With abductions, few, if any of these things happen. In the instances where – due to some kind of pressure – the abductees happen to end up presented in court, it is often well beyond the 48-hour deadline, and they are presented bearing visible signs of torture.

Second, some of the accused end up being sent on remand. But this is often because the state requests more time to complete its investigation against them. This has become a cycle in most of the cases.

Under Ugandan human-rights based law, the only destination for a person duly arrested is a court. And the only person that can determine that is the Director of Public Prosecutions.

This is simply not happening. Some abducted people, like the National Unity Platform activist Olivia Lutaaya, have not been seen or heard from by anyone at all in over two years. Others have been discovered dead, their bodies surreptitiously dumped in mortuaries. Others still have been found basically held hostage in secret places, where they remain even after discovery. Yet others lucky enough to have been presented in court, have become locked in the endless remand-court-remand cycle.

Under Ugandan human-rights based law, the only destination for a person duly arrested is a court.

In all these cases, the office of the DPP is in a position to make things better. As sanctioned by the Human Rights Enforcement Act 2019, it could refuse to proceed with any case involving any person who was not properly arrested; shows signs of torture or ill-treatment; has been held incommunicado at any one time, has been held beyond the constitutionally stipulated time; or whose case does not come with enough evidence to immediately proceed to full trial.

In short, Madam Abodo, as Director of Public Prosecutions could simply insist on a strict adherence to the constitutionally laid-down provisions concerning, well, prosecution.

She has not done this.

In the meantime, this wave of terror has had a chilling effect on political activism. Citizens simply know that if they fall into the clutches of the state, nobody can tell what will happen next and for how long.

Madam Byanyima is likely to be more aware than most of the meaning and impacts of such travesties, given that she is married to – and has struggled alongside – Dr Kizza Besigye, perhaps the most abducted, arrested, detained and otherwise officially mistreated opposition figure of modern times, in his 20-year quest to unseat that very same “man in the hat”.

It is not unreasonable therefore to have expected issues more pressing than the pleasure of seeing “young” (in fact, Madam Abodo is nearly 50) ladies being entrusted with “senior roles” to have been uppermost in her mind on catching sight of the official who is basically aiding and abetting these travesties and, moreover, doing so at the behest of a regime headed by the very one who appointed the delinquent official. Instead, she is saluting him, and effectively reducing the long-running opposition suffering at the hands of his regime to “disagreements”.

Citizens simply know that if they fall into the clutches of the state, nobody can tell what will happen next and for how long.

Supposed to be the NRM’s crowning moment, nothing in the new NRM constitutional dispensation was lauded more than the whole array of gender-based policies that were embedded in it. Nothing, not even the brutalities of the then ongoing war in the north could distract donor and intelligentsia attention from this.

One could therefore say that Ugandan feminism’s terminal destination was always that: to be perched in a big but fully impotent job awarded by a dictator, because the human rights “inclusions” of the new constitution simply served to create a bigger tent into which a greater array of middle-class interests could be accommodated in an orderly fashion.

And this is why a state that boasts a constitutionally-provided National Youth Council is seeking to crush a wave of youth-based activism, why it can claim this high level of women’s participation in national affairs while also disappearing a mother of a young daughter, not to mention the accusations of sexual assault by former abductees.

We can now begin to reflect on whether this was indeed, in fact, a betrayal: it was never about the status of human rights; it was always about the right to status.

In this respect, perhaps Uganda is now catching up with Kenya, the lead example of the sacrifice of fundamental rights on the altar of acquired petit-bourgeois respectability that first began with the debasing of the struggle for Independence.

A repeat was when Kenyan public discourse underwent something of a reboot following the 2007 post-election violence. Human rights concerns became more urgent, and a need to accommodate longstanding grievances among the wananchi was recognized.

In a sense, the anger of the ordinary people momentarily breached the then comfortable citadel of elite-owned Kenyan politics. With the successive presidencies of the very two men initially accused of having had a hand in fomenting the opposing sides of the violence, it seems an adjustment has been made in order to return to the old normal.

There is a silence around both the post-election violence and the failure to address the issues that caused it, and the lack of full accountability thereafter. There are, however, a lot more positions to be elected and appointed to, and a lot more opportunities to build careers on one platform or another created by the issues that arose from the violence.

As one Kenyan analyst just put it to me, “The post-election violence accelerated the birth of the donor-organized liberal 2010 constitution. A very distorted document, but consistent with postponing any conversation on federation by gifting elites on the periphery with guaranteed cash from the centre. The effect was to massively expand the political class, turning politics into a full-time career. Notice that the Bill of Rights have for all intents and purposes been trashed [and] there has been worse police brutality, including torture, murder and disappearances…”

There is a silence around both the post-election violence and the failure to address the issues that caused it.

Uganda’s current rising generation of political actors facing the brunt of the abductions and torture can be said to be paying the bill for a similar silence that their parent’s generation consumed in this manner, in two ways.

First, they young are engaged in a handicapped discourse because those in charge do not know the issue, and second because those that do, cannot tell them about it because of their past collusion. The most critical point missed, therefore, is that human rights are not “politics” as such; they are what comes up as an issue once politics fails. But to avoid, or even fix a human rights crisis, one must have a clear political program. It is very hard to develop one if one does not know the difference.

This was how the 1987-2002 war in northern Uganda was treated like an issue taking place in a foreign country among people we did not know. Those who know the politics that gave rise to the war were not telling, and those experiencing the actual violations of the war had no political understanding of it.

The 1995 constitution was where all this bad history was finally neutralized and this fresh thinking was formally institutionalized. It came with the broadest of definitions: youth, women, people with disabilities were all given space and consideration. The donors loved it, calling it the best constitution in the world. Human rights were at the very heart of the new constitutional order.

This was how the 1987-2002 war in northern Uganda was treated like an issue taking place in a foreign country among people we did not know.

That constitution is now the dead horse that Justice Sekaana was trying to get to stand up and walk with his admonishing of the State Attorney during a December 9th High Court mention of yet another case of abduction. “Release them, or charge them. They cannot be kept incommunicado,” he groused.

This, in country that wrote such a principle (again) into its constitution against a background of a whole Chief Justice having once been abducted. Justice Sekaana’s having to state the basics shows just how dead human rights now are.

And that is the thing: NRA in power was always going to be a human rights violator. It never really had a choice, given the expectations of the Western corporations that installed it in power. For them to get rich, the population must be either bought, or silenced. This makes human rights abuses the policy, not an accident.

Nothing went wrong, apart from us being a country of slow learners further burdened by absentee teachers.

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Kalundi Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

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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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