Politics of inequality in Africa

Anthony Atkinson

Anthony Atkinson

Stanely Mushava Literature Today
Book: Inequality – What Can Be Done?
Author: Anthony B. Atkinson
Publisher: Harvard University Press (2015)
ISBN: 978-0-674-50476-9
****

The middle wall between the haves and the have-nots occupies real estate in the cultural imagination of every generation. It has drawn a storm of intellectual sledgehammers in the lapse of history yet it still stands, defiant and impregnable.

From Plato’s call that no one be four times richer than the poorest of the poor, to syndicated manifestos, and terabytes of protest art, inequality continues to evade the most potent moral anti-virus.

In Zimbabwe, the three top-earning CEOs, ironically at the helm of mediocre parastatals, earned $535 499, $43 693 and $37 050 respectively before Government intervened with a salary cap in 2014.

On the contrary, workers were being begrudged even their measly stipends months on end, an injustice which, to this day, has not quite abated.

Political ear candy has not thawed poverty’s stranglehold on the disenfranchised majority,and recent developments have only further privileged power and capital.

Close by, South Africa is among the world’s most unequal countries, thanks to a complicated colonial legacy.

A shady collusion between the post-colony and capital is responsible for a Gini coefficient – that is, income dispersion index – of close to 60 percent, about 10 percentage points ahead of the first runner-up.

However, while much has been said about the one percent versus the 99 percent in Africa, it seems all that might be known of inequality has come to be clichéd, and the most aggravated economic atrocities normalised.

If that is the case, then Anthony Atkinson’s 2015 book “Inequality: What Can Be Done?” is a timely refresher.

Inequality talk is lost in a generic cloud, sometimes lined with macro-economic indices but rarely anchored on solid alternatives.

There has not been sustained effort to empirically situate the debate and to set forth concrete solutions.

Widely lauded as the father of inequality research and one of the leading scholars in the field, Atkinson takes on an old problem from new angles.

“Inequality: What Can Be Done,” the crowning work of decades of research, rejects the assumption that inequality is a natural phenomenon or the default state of the world and outlines a series of policy proposals aimed at bringing about a shift in the distribution of income towards less inequality.

“The world faces great problems, but collectively we are not helpless in the face of forces outside our control. The future is very much in our hands,” Atkinson points out.

Although parts of the book stand apart as Euro-specific, it is widely applicable in the main and particularly pertinent for this continent where inequality is not a posh discourse but a site of suffering.

The opening section of the three-part book undertakes a diagnosis of the problem of inequality and invokes public concern over the extent of the problem. It sets out the economics of inequality, with the lay reader in mind, and anticipates a raft of proposals for the following chapter.

Atkinson appeals to phases in history where inequality has markedly declined. The lessons of history suggest that equality can be brought about by a reduced income gap and effective redistribution to enable both equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.

Atkinson argues that market incomes are not forces over which players have no control. On the contrary, corporates and policymakers are the drivers of distribution and it is their mandate to reduce market income inequality.

In the subsequent sections, Atkinson sets forth a wide-ranging action plan, anticipates possible objections and forestalls them.

He advocates for a proper balance of power among stakeholders as a matter of government policy to guarantee workers’ rights. An explicit government framework for reducing unemployment backed by guaranteed public employment at the minimum wage to those who seek it is also advanced as a measure to reduce inequality.

That has an ambitious ring but may be largely actualised if innovation becomes the fundamental mantra across government departments.

Atkinson also proposes a more progressive rate structure for personal income tax, with marginal rates of tax increasing by ranges of taxable income, as well as a broadening of the tax base.

He also calls on rich countries to raise their target for official development assistance to at least one percent of gross national income. Africa will however benefit more from a concerted demand for value for its resources instead of unsustainable handouts.

Some of the proposals of the book appear aimed at troubleshooting capitalism instead of essentially disrupting the Babylon system, hence detached from the crying need of the developing world.

Inequality on this continent, facilitated by imperialist tentacles, vested interests of global capital,and post-colonial maladministration, threatens to offset what gains can be actualised from piecemeal reforms and to jeopardise the upbeat Africa Rising trajectory.

Not much has changed since Kwame Nkrumah called out the “hard core of bourgeoisie who are analogous to colonists and settlers” as the bunglers at Africa’s independence feast.

Decades into self-rule, inequality remains a painful reality thanks to this “small, selfish, money-minded, reactionary minority among vast masses of exploited and oppressed.”

In the US, the top one percent receives around a fifth of total gross income, which averages 20 times the class’ proportionate share. Within that one percent again, the top one percent – 0,01 percent of the whole – also gobbles up around a fifth of the total income.

“This means that 1/10 000 of the population receives 1/25 of the total income. The upper tail of the distribution has some resemblance to a Russian ‘matryoshka’ nested doll: wherever we slice the distribution we find the same inequality being reproduced within the remaining top part,” observes Atkinson.

This self-replicating set-up is particularly tragic in Africa, where there are disenfranchised millions at the base of the pyramid, a politically and commercially anchored middle class in-between, and global capital at the top.

Tom Burgis, writing in “The Looting Machine,” provides an incisive assessment of the ravages of the global capitalist juggernaut in Africa.

“Where once treaties signed at gunpoint dispossessed Africa’s inhabitants of their land, gold and diamonds, today phalanxes of lawyers representing oil and mineral companies with annual revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars impose miserly terms on African governments and employ tax dodges to bleed profit from destitute nations,” observes Burgis.

“In the place of the old empires are hidden networks of multinationals, middlemen and African potentates. These networks fuse state and corporate power. They are aligned to no nation and belong instead to the transnational elites that have flourished in the era of globalisation. Above all, they serve their own enrichment,” he points out.

Resolving inequality on the continent requires, in addition to routing out corruption in high places, concerted resistance to unfair trading deals by African leaders whose countries are currently benefiting less than 10 percent their resources’ worth.

Zimbabwe’s model of resource nationalism is a bold stride into a more equal future but it has been undermined by lack of support from African peers, economic sabotage by Western powers and corruption by the ruling elite.

It has been seldom acknowledged but unity and integrity by the black leadership, beyond the rhetoric, are requisite pillars for equality to be established on the continent, especially given the determined resistance by imperial capital.

Inequality has a global character, although advances in technology ensure exclusive headaches for countries like the US where machines are displacing people from the professional spaces, improving the productivity of corporates but reducing the employability and economic choices of workers.

With the march of the robots into formerly human spaces, enhancing profits but dis-empowering workers, Atkinson proposes harnessing technology to improve the life chances of workers and consumers instead of the other way round.

  • Stanely Mushava blogs at upstreamafrica.blogspot.com.
Pin It