Social democracy

We have looked into three main strands of political thought: conservatism (keep what is there or revert to some prior situation), liberalism (freedom from state intervention), and socialism (equality for all, means of production owned by the state). We also looked into the concept of populism: simplify issues and get popular support.

The three main directions in politics were developed in the 18th and 19th century as the modern state in Europe took shape. When Karl Marx founded socialism (or communism, in his days these were the same) he lived in England and saw how in the industrial revolution the capitalists were profiting and the laborers were living and working in increasingly conditions. He said: this cannot go on, at some point the industrial laborers are going to stop this, take over the state and create a state where everyone produces as he can and consumes as he needs. History worked out differently.

The great Marxist revolutions were not in industrial states, but in mainly agrarian ones: first in 1917 Russia, which after the revolution grew to be the Soviet Union. Later in 1949 in China, which at that time was not industrialized at all. In Eastern Europe and China there was nothing like democracy and the old fashioned regimes were oppressive, so the only way open for the laborers to get improvement was through revolution.

In the industrialized countries of Western Europe history took a different turn: because there was some kind of democracy, the laborers could get gradual improvement of their lot, with political parties representing them, and with trade unions standing up for their cause. Also, after 1917 the capitalists in Western Europe became scared of the revolution spreading from the Soviet Union to Western European countries, so they were willing to do concessions to laborers demands.

In Western Europe there were socialist political parties organized, and these worked to create a socialist economy through democratic means. Over the years they made a lot of headway, and in the 1970s in most Western countries, even the United States, labor conditions were pretty good even for lowly educated workers. In the UK a lot of industries, like mines, railways and others were owned by the state. The trade unions were powerful institutions with close ties with the Labour Party. The Conservative Party (Tories) had to go along with this to a certain extend. In other western countries the socialist parties were working on a new model of socialism, in which not all companies were owned by the state, but a lot of them owned by private share holders. These companies did generate a lot of wealth, part of which was used by the state for the general welfare of the population. They had good public education, public health care, social work, public housing programs. Public utilities like electricity and water supply were owned by the state. The private sector was tightly regulated with collective labor agreements stipulating good working conditions. A reasonable minimum wage would be government controlled. Pensions would be government guaranteed, or collectively bargained for all workers in a certain sector.

This new type of political arrangement was called: SOCIAL DEMOCRACY. So the economy would be running largely in a capitalist way, with private sector companies running most industries. ON the other hand the state (government) would be a powerful player in the economy seeing that the poor were not too poor, and that children from poor parents could get a decent education and have an opportunity to improve their situation.

All this means that the state played a big role in the economy, and in making sure that all inhabitants of the country got an opportunity to share in the wealth of the country. There would be conscious efforts to make sure everyone had an opportunity to get his/her share of knowledge, power and income.

Social democracy is part socialism, part capitalism. It is less popular now than it was before 1980. But the Northern Countries: Denmark, Sweden and Norway still run largely this way and have a great standard of living, proving that this type of economy can run well in the long term. They also have low levels of inequality, and score very high on the Human Development Index that UNDP uses to measure the level of development in a country.

In Malawi, a social democrat politician would have a good legacy to work with, but it is only on paper, it is not being implemented anywhere near enough. A social democrat would look into inequality, and ensure that incomes were more equal, that education and health services were delivered better. That the civil service would improve its efficiency. A better pension scheme would need to be developed for Malawi to become social democrat. And labour laws would have to be enforced: an end to child labor, and a much better minimum wage, that would have to be strictly enforced. The Unions would have to improve their efficiency, and would be included in policy talks between the private sector, government and the workers. IN the tripartite talks, new policies would be agreed upon, that would work for workers, private sector companies and the general population. Overall, corruption would have to be prevented and fought. A social democrat would make sure the judicial system will work for everybody, rich or poor. The exponential rise in cost of education would be stopped by social democrats. In general: society would be more equal, with good opportunities for all. But if the ruling class keeps refusing to give up its privileges, a social democrat would turn to Marxism, and start strong action for the improvement of the situation of the poor. These action would first be demonstrations, court cases, and strikes. If this does not make the ruling class give in, harder action may be contemplated.


Fight the power!

As the hip hop group Public Enemy told us even in the 1980s we need to “fight the powers that be” from time to time. And the time is now. Again Escom is raising its prices against a background of the highest electricity tariffs in the region. Kapito of the Consumers Association of Malawi calls it stupid, and says “It seems that Mera is colluding with Escom to rip of poor Malawians instead of focusing on protecting the interest of consumers by ensuring that Escom improves its services first before calling for tariff increase.”

Electricity up

Electricity up

Note that Kapito does not raise the question of tariff increase per se. He seems to agree with that. What is happening at Escom is neo-liberalism, but that is not questioned by Kapito. He seems to not understand the ideological underpinnings of the tariff increase. What is happening is the commoditization of basic necessities: these are not viewed as something every Malawian should have regardless of income status. They are seen as merchandize that can bring profits to the private sector. So the tariffs are not based on what a Malawian can afford, but they are based on the maximum profit that the capitalist can make. This is a condition for the grants from the neo-liberal Millenium Development Corporation from the US. In the neo-liberal (capitalist) logic government should be made ultra small and everything should be priced according to free market (capitalist) logic. This way life becomes better for the rich and worse for the poor. But in neo-liberal thinking, government has no obligation to the population, other than paving the way for unlimited capitalism. By accepting the grants from the US Millenium Development Corporation, the Malawian government has surrendered its population to the free market thinking that the US are consistently trying to impose on the whole world, for the profits of US companies.

We see here how a Malawian government does not appear to consider the ideological background of a grant, it simply accepts without having a long term strategy. If our political system would facilitate ideological thinking we would not have accepted these conditions anyhow. We should have a healthy debate on the long term consequences of this type of decision. And that is where the system is falling short: our politicians have no ideological background or thinking, so they do not analyse the underlying objectives of donors, in this case pulling Malawians into the international capitalist free market system that favours the rich and powerful (like the US and its citizens) and victimizes the poor and dis-empowered: the large majority of the Malawian population.

We have a huge need for ideology.

Executive blooper

Our government shows a remarkable ineptitude in its dealings with public opinion. We all remember the NAC gate/ journalist bribe scandal, we remember that the president did not supply us with an explanation for a bloated delegation to the UNGA (instead he banged the table exclaiming: “THIS NONSENSE HAS TO STOP!” Now we see another weird move: a government financed counter demo against a minuscule demonstration led by activist Billy Mayaya.

This would be worth no more than a smile if it were not for two things:

  1. The kwachas used to bribe these few Civil Society Organizations are exactly the tax kwachas that are supposed to be used to supply the tax payer with the services the government owes them I return (remember the social contract). So instead of using these kwachas for an executive vanity operation, they should be used to supply us with health care, education and security. Blooper.
  2. The government funded demonstration had nothing more to support than President Mutharika’s support for the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). Talk is cheap and a President supporting uncontested SDGs before doing anything about implementation is meaningless. Remember how the President congratulated himself for missing 4 out of 8 MDGs (Millenium Development Goals, the precursors of the SDGs)? Our country has plenty of wonderful policies. On paper. In the drawers at Capital Hill. But not implemented on the ground. That is where the real problem is: implementation is lacking. Where are we on the Green Belt Initiative? Where are we on the cement and iron sheets subsidy? Where are we on the goal of a teacher-learner ration of 60? Where are we on drugs supplies to our hospitals? All of these do not get beyond a small token effort, and some of that is donor implemented. So if the executive has nothing more to offer than a verbal endorsement of an uncontested international initiative (not even a Malawian Executive initiative) than we are in deep trouble.


I have been trying to explain a number of political ideologies, and their implications for Malawi. We have

  • Conservatism: conserve (keep) what is there, or change only very slowly.
  • Liberalism: liberty from state intervention
  • Socialism: the state redistributes power, knowledge and wealth, so equal opportunities are realized for everyone.

These major directions have dominated western politics since the industrial revolution from the late 18th century. But there is an interesting political phenomenon that keeps popping up, that is not so much a political ideology as a political style. The style influences the type of politics that can be populist, but it can be anywhere on the political scale of left-right (or socialist vs either conservative or liberal).

Populism means (from the same root as population) appealing to the people, and in this case the people is taken as meaning the “common person”. This means political ideas are explained in simple terms, often very simplified, and often so simplified that they do not work when implemented. Populist movements usually do not have long staying power: the simplicity of the ideas and style usually attract people with simple minds who may lack the skills to run the organization well enough for it to stay around.

In the current political climate of the world, populism is usually right wing (which means conservative in American terms). A recent example of a short lived American right wing populist movement was the Tea Party. It had simple economic ideas: small government, so abandon welfare policies, cultural policies, state subsidized health care and education. Enigmatically they did not oppose agricultural subsidies (maybe because of the farmers in their constituency). At the moment Donald Trump is the leading populist in American politics.

In South Africa, left wing populism is practiced by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) under charismatic leadership of Julius Malema. He holds on to the 1955 Freedom Charter, which advocates for economic transformation so the poor get their rightful share of national wealth. Unfortunately Malema in actual practice is as corrupt as the elites he fights against, and in his home province of Limpopo there is very little development as a consequence of the corruption.

In Europe the current wave of populism is mostly anti immigration (which gives it racist, and xenophobic undertones). There are successful populist parties in Belgium (the Flemish Interest is even tribalist in that it wants to split up the country!), France (National Front), Denmark (Danish People’s Party), Netherlands (Freedom Party), Norway (Progress Party), Sweden (Sweden Democrats) and others. They have in common that their constituency is mostly white, lowly educated, indigenous, low income and more male than female. Many of these parties have connections with Fascist and strongly racist (xenophobic) organizations, but the successful ones keep a distance from these organizations.

Usually European populist parties promote:

  • Anti elitism: the current ruling class is elitist (highly educated and high income) and does not represent the interests of the “common people”
  • Anti immigration (they are xenophobic): immigrants are seen as an economic burden and a threat to local culture
  • Nationalism: anti European Union, closing borders for foreign influences be it people, goods or culture
  • Charismatic leadership: strange is that the movements are anti elitism but internally not democratic themselves, but they all have a top down structure. (see how Trump ignores the democratic party structures of the Republican Party, and if he is not endorsed by the Party he will run independently)

If we look at Malawi, we see some of the hallmarks of populism being strong:

  • nationalism (here usually called patriotism, for instance President Mutharika recently: Mutharika)
  • undemocratic internal party structures
  • Anti immigration is not that strongly represented in the discourse, but it does pop up sometimes when a number of illegal aliens is rounded up, or when a foreigner (often of Asian descent) is suspected of a crime.

Interestingly, we do not find much of the anti elitism in the discourse. Even though the media are often strongly critical of the government policies, there is no sense of anti ruling class sentiment. The distance in power, income and education between the large majority of the population (with 85% small holder farmers) and the ruling class is very long in Malawi. But we find no systematic criticism of the whole ruling class as the way it functions. We see some analysis by political scientists and commentators about cronyism, clientele politics, corruption and more, but we see no populist sentiment organizing against the political (and economic) class. See how the leader of the opposition, the honorable Reverend Lazarus Chakwera, accepted a brand new luxury vehicle against a general government ban on buying vehicles as a means of austerity.

Maybe an idea for a political success: a populist movement that goes against the current ruling elite, and represents the people, with simply worded policies, preferably lead by a person from the common people?


The Malawian parliament has just spent 300M kwacha on four luxury vehicles. This against a government ban on this type of spending. Legally it appears there is nothing possible: Parliament decides on its own budget. But it clearly shows that the ruling class is not changing its ways: conspicuous consumption remains the norm.

Parliament blows k300M

What is remarkable about this spending though, is that one vehicle is meant for the leader of the opposition, MCP politician reverend Lazarus Chakwera. This depoliticizes the move, and makes criticism ineffective: the Parliamentary opposition has allowed itself to become accessory to this affront of common sense and insult to the people of Malawi suffering from severe poverty.

What would be a better way of showing Christian compassion from the Reverend than to refuse the vehicle, and ask the money to be put to use for the suffering poor? Or even better: sell the vehicle at a charitable auction, and donate the money to a charity, say an orphanage. That would put the other politicians in their place and surely deliver a lot of goodwill (=votes!) to the reverend and the MCP!

GAY! Evangelicals are softening stance.

Today the Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM) published a press statement on same sex marriages. In it they make a few interesting concessions to same sex relations. They remain opposed to legalizing same sex marriage (or gay marriage) but they do state:

“We recognize every person’s individual autonomy in regard to sexual choices.” This cannot mean anything else, in this context, than decriminalizing same sex relations. They only oppose the state recognizing same sex marriage.

Also they state: “… nor can freedom for some mean limiting freedom for others.” Does this mean that freedom to have heterosexual contacts cannot mean stopping others from having homosexual contacts?

This is a step in the direction of normalizing same sex relations, by the EAM, no less. Nowhere in the press statement does EAM object to the MSM (Men having Sex with Men) friendly services provided for in the agreement between Malawi and the Global Fund on HIV/Aids, Malaria and TBC, just signed by President Arthur Peter Mutharika himself.

If we see this in the context of development, then we are going in a liberal direction. Some 60 years ago developed countries were still developing in this regard, and most had anti-homosexuality laws. That is actually where the anti homosexuality law in Malawi came from: it is a colonial law inherited from the British colonial masters. On the other hand the thoroughly Malawian constitution guarantees freedom from discrimination on any ground, and respect for human rights.

American politics

In the US politics works slightly different from Europe. There is hardly any socialism/communism. The socialist/communist movement was strong in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, but not in politics. It was strong at the grass roots, with trade unions, pressure groups, news papers and such. It declined considerably during WW II, and the remainder was mostly wiped out in the 1950s by Senator McCarthy with his Un-American Activities hearings.

This leaves a space in American politics on the left side, the side that believes that government has the task of looking after its citizens, especially those that are less well off. The closest to this is liberalism, so in American politics liberal usually means social liberal. American liberals believe government has a job to do in caring for the population. For instance: the liberal President Obama has improved health care access for the poor and average American (Obama-care).

Liberals in the US usually believe in individual liberty, so they are mostly pro choice, pro gay marriage and for equal rights for ethnic minorities (African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans etc).

They believe government should actively support equality with affirmative action, equal rights legislation, equal pay for ethnic minorities and women. Also they believe government should to a certain extent support the poor with subsidized housing, subsidized job training and more.

Liberals are usually in the Democratic Party.

Those who believe in a very small government system (comparable to some liberals in Europe) are called libertarians in the US. They believe government should limit itself as much as possible. It should fight crime, protect private property, enforce contracts (to make capitalism work) and carry out foreign policy, but not much more. They believe government has no role to play in fighting poverty, other than staying out of the economy to let capitalism take its course. Care for the poor, they believe, should be done by private entities, like churches, NGOs, corporate foundations and such. In the US there is a small Libertarian Party.

The real opposition to liberals in the US are the conservatives. They can be conservative in the literal sense of conserving what is there, but usually in the US conservative means that they want to return to some imaginary idealized past, when the US were supposedly better. They are strongly nationalistic, and strongly pro business, which usually works out pro Big Business because big businesses are more powerful than small ones. They oppose programs for ethnic minorities, women, the poor etc. They advocate for a small government and consequently low taxes, which usually takes the form of tax cuts for the rich rather than the whole population. Contrary to their idea of low taxes though, because of their strong nationalism they are pro army spending, which grows big government spending on that side. They are pro unilateral interventions, which means attacking other countries if this serves the “national interest” (which can be defined in many different ways). For instance the conservative President George W Bush attacked Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that are still going over ten years later, and necessitate big government spending.

American conservatives are pro Christian Church, specifically pro conservative evangelical churches, the type of Christianity that has recently been imported to Africa, and is also catching on in Malawi as a foreign influence. These churches are often called the “Christian Right” as opposed to more socially responsible traditional churches. In Malawi reverend Nicky Chakwera (son of politician Lazarus Chakwera) is trying to promote this newly imported type of Christianity with a column in Malawi News, and on internet.

Some of this type of conservatism is present in Malawi, in the Christian Right, but economically it is not catching on at all: government here may be weak compared to western governments, but they hold on to extensive regulation of the economy (to the chagrin of the private sector represented in the MCCCI) though regulations are intermittently enforced. There is strong support for socialized medicine in Malawi, but a lot of it is donor funded rather than government funded. The same goes for education. On the other hand, social conservatism (opposition to gay rights, for instance) is present in Malawi.


Fees must fall protests!

There are times to be calm, and there are times to be militant. Militant does not need to mean violent, it means standing up for your rights. Just like the great Bob Marley sang: Get up, stand! Stand up for your rights! Get up, stand! Don’t give up the fight!

We can learn something from the way South Africans organize themselves against injustice. IN the past they have successfully fought a French water company over high tariffs, the company has left South Africa, without the profits they were hoping to make off the South African people.

Now the South African students have decided that enough is enough. They have a President who takes enormous lots for himself. Read here about Zuma’s residence

Then the government finds it has not enough money for education, and they crank up the University fees by unreasonable percentages. Sounds familiar? That’s what is happening here, only here it is also secondary education, as well as University.

South Africans are not so easily taken for a ride, they protest in an organized way when they are being treated badly by their nominally democratic government.

But we? Are we going to accept the bad policies that are being thrown upon us, while the President takes a 106 member delegation to the UNGA? Flying by private jet? What can we expect from the Civil Society Education Coalition, Mr Kondowe?


Most of us will have read it: Confessions of an economic hit man. For those who have not: in it Perkins (the author and the “Economic Hit Man”) describes how the US are abusing lending to get political leverage over poor countries.

The method is quite simple: Perkins as an economist produced reports that were overly optimistic about the economic advantages to be created by big infrastructural projects, like electricity generation. The projects would be financed by the US or their allies like IMF or World Bank. Then the poor country would be saddled with a big BIG HUUUGE loan. Because the reports were overly optimistic the economic advantages do never materialize and it appears impossible to repay the loan. So the poor country has to “restructure” the loan with the US who abuse this power to get political leverage over the poor country. The government of the poor country is by then in such dire straits they cannot do otherwise then prescribed by the US. Handy for international power politics!

This should all be clear to us by now, right?

Today we read in the newspaper a story about Malawi taking out 1.5 BILLION U$ on loans from China, mostly for an electricity project. That looks familiar, doesn’t it? The total government spending of Malawi per year is less than 1 billion, so these loans are going to be impossible to service by Malawi, that should be clear to all experts. So our government is happily putting the head of Malawi in the noose that the Chinese government is dangling before us.

Did they not read the classic book? Did they not understand it? Or don’t they care and do they have a mentality like: we have only bad news, let’s act like this is development, so we have something to show for and when the loan is to be repaid there is going to be another government anyway: their problem, not ours. After us the deluge!

Politics in Malawi

In western politics we have seen three major directions. In Malawi and in many other African countries this seems to not apply. This may have to do with the way society is built up.

In western countries, very roughly speaking, the liberals represent the business community, the socialists the laborers, and the conservatives the “old money” and often also the highly trained professionals like doctors and such. The major part of Malawian society is the smallholder farmer. They do not feature much in western society. So who would represent them?

It seems the ruling class, high up politicians, business leaders closely allied with them and top civil servants, represent themselves, more than the population. So even with nominal democracy, the majority of the population is not represented in government, and their interests are not taken care of, apart from a little hand out here and there. The ruling class often connives with neo colonial powers, to the advantage of their personal wealth and the  colonialists. Paladin got the Malawian uranium for a bargain, by paying Bingu wa Mutharika. Monsanto is getting access to the market in Malawi. Their seed varieties need heavy use of Monsanto products like pesticides and fertilizer.

In the west the population has forced a certain level of good governance from its leaders by organizing in trade unions. This works best in big companies with a lot of laborers in one site, who can discuss their problems and unite. This has improved working conditions, because capitalists were forced to give in to collective action.

The Malawian society has not (yet?) passed through this phase, and we are partly in a feudal structure, where the land is divided up by the chief. The politicians come into the village occasionally, dishing out favors to some, and withholding to others. In this situation it is difficult to organize and create collective action.

In the Arab Spring we saw heavy use of digital technology, mostly smart phones, to organize. But these masses were much higher educated and less poor than the small holder farmer in Malawi.

The big question is: how can we organize the small holder farmer, so he/she can stand up for his/her rights? How do we get the small holder farmer into active political representation? The answer may be in the Latin American model, where Che Guevara, Simon Bolivar, Evo Morales, Lulla da Silva, Hugo Chavez and others have come to move to a representation of the poor. Another model was developed by Mao Zedong in China, organizing the small holder farmers, which eventually culminated in China being the biggest economy of the world, eliminating a lot, but far from all, poverty.