Monday, April 30, 2012

Two tribes

Every weekend, I try to fit in a couple of exercise sessions at the American Recreation Association gym in Kampala. It's a quiet gym, often unoccupied, which gives me the opportunity to listen to BBC World Service while cross-country skiing or walking briskly on an inclined treadmill. And, during one such session earlier this month, I was lucky enough to listen into an interesting 30-minute BBC documentary covering the annual Royal Economic Society meeting, focusing on the future for the dismal science.

As an exercise in pontification and speculation, there was much to admire: in particular the chutzpah of the speakers in their rebuttals of the suggestion that economists (if not to blame for the financial sector meltdown) ought to have detected warning signs in advance. Yet the most interesting features of the discussion were the omissions. There was, for example, little mention of the unrelenting growth of the financial sector, especially in terms of its ever-increasing share of total profits derived from business activity at the expense of employees dependent on salaries and wages. Or the incorporation - through globalisation and the increasing economic power of China and India  - of a huge amount of cheap labour into the global economy. Taken together, these facts can only lead to one conclusion: namely that the exploitation of the global workforce by the owners of the global capital markets is accelerating at a rapid rate. Yet, Marx was absent from the discussion.

Since the collapse of the Soviet empire 20 years ago, the stealthy march of capitalism now dominates the entire globe. Its leaders - whether by design or by accident - have discovered the power of the media to colonise and dominate the mind. They have muzzled alternative political views through the marginalisation of the "loony left" and the rubbishing of Marx. They have poured scorn on the study of the liberal arts, and replaced education with the training of workplace skills, once the responsibility of the employer to deliver. We are now engaged in a race to the bottom where the losers are the poor. There are now some signs, especially in south-east Asia and continental Europe, that growing inequity is leading to social unrest (see the pictures in this BBC link ) but the strangle hold over the media and the systems for political command and control is becoming ever-stronger.

And what are the implications for Africa?  Well, despite the good news being peddled by many African governments which focus on economic growth rates, little is being said about the distribution of wealth. I suspect that the GINI co-efficient (which measures the unevenness of distribution of wealth) is rising in most countries. And, of course, Africa's abundant natural resources are up for sale to both old and new sources of capital....... It's hard to see how inefficient African economies can compete in global markets, except by reducing the only cost under their control: the cost of labour. Add an ever-increasing supply of school-leavers to the supply of labour, and the message becomes clearer: either accept a very low-paid job, or don't enter the labour market and go back to the land.

Received wisdom suggests that George Orwell's timeless satire, Animal Farm, is a satire on the corruption of the communist state in Russia - and the parallels are easy to draw. But Orwell himself refused to endorse this conclusion. I re-read this great book recently, and was struck by its simple treatment of the triumph of greed over innocence and idealism, and of the corruption that power brings, and of the sameness of people in power. Its immortal final sentence reads: the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. A couple of years ago, Lucy Oriang wrote a thoughtful column in Kenya's Daily Nation. "There are" she wrote "only two tribes in Kenya: the rich and the poor." She might as well have been writing about the whole world.

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