Lessons from Africa: The Parasites of Economics

A lot of my recent writing has been on the subject of economics – but I never had any formal training in the subject. I didn’t even do it at school let alone university. However, my quite considerable understanding of economics has been acquired through a combination of circumstances that makes my knowledge of it second to none. Let me explain.

For the last few years I’ve done a lot of reading about economics. This grew out of the few years of self-education I did before that on the subjects of history and politics which, apart from many other fine and useful lessons, showed me that I needed to understand more about economics in general, and banking in particular.

I often say that once a child knows how to read the best thing they can do to obtain a really good education is to leave school immediately (not that a child has to go to school to learn to read of course – it’s just that as far as I’m concerned the most useful thing schools normally do is teach young children how to read). Many highly respected thinkers have thought along similar lines for many years. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, said: “Men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education.”

A subtle quote saying basically the same thing came from the writer Gore Vidal: “Why is it that I have never met a dull 6-year old, and I have never met an interesting 16-year old?”

Although teaching myself economics and monetary theory has been very, very helpful, that wasn’t the best part of my education in these subjects. My economics education actually began many years ago – not that I knew it at the time. It was a particularly valuable grounding – a grounding that some people have had, but not that many; because I was raised in colonial Africa and lived there for over twenty years. So I have seen first-hand how the economics game is played – through the eyes of the 1%, which by definition is a fairly rare perspective.

I’m very glad to say that as one percenters go, my tiny family was towards the bottom of the barrel. In fact it’s probably more accurate to say we were with the two percenters, or maybe three percenters even. I mean, our house didn’t even have its own swimming pool!

Prior to 1965 Rhodesia was pretty much your standard British colonial country. It was controlled from London through its official on the ground, The Governor, and a puppet government that could be relied upon to Do The Right Thing, and which also gave to the local one percenters the illusion of control (it was the one percenters in London who were really calling the shots). All of the positions of power in the country were occupied by white-skinned males, most of whom were either British expatriates or came from established families with mainly British backgrounds (having a British background was important, but not as important as having the right skin colour). All police officers were white (constables were black, but the officers were white) and the name of their force was the British South Africa Police, harking back to the private company that originally colonised Rhodesia – the British South Africa Company (BSAC).

The BSAC was modelled on the long-established and highly profitable British East India Company, with an operating style that is closely and unsurprisingly copied by today’s empire builders. It’s a model that was pioneered centuries ago by all the “great” colonial powers – the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch had all tried it long before the British arrived on the scene. It’s a very simple model where tiny handfuls of very privileged people made vast personal fortunes whilst the costs of their profiteering was met by ignorant taxpayers in the home country who picked up most of the bill for the military muscle that enforced the plundering.

As well as ensuring that only white people controlled the police force in the Rhodesia of my day, only white people controlled the army and air force too – under the very watchful eye of Her Majesty’s government prior to 1965 (Rhodesian army officers were trained at Sandhurst). There was a very fine regiment of black African soldiers, the Rhodesian African Rifles, but all their officers were white.

All of the managerial jobs in the country were done by white-skinned people. Most white people had very, very comfortable lives. Most of us had good sized houses – detached properties with at least three bedrooms, usually situated on at least quarter of an acre of land. About one in ten of these properties had its own swimming pool, and many also had their own tennis courts too to provide white people with something to do to occupy their many idle hours in an almost perfect climate; and all of these properties, even the poorest ones, were kept clean and tidy by at least one black-skinned servant. If there was a white man in Rhodesia at that time who did not live like this – except maybe by choice – I certainly never saw him or heard about him.

On the other hand all of the real work in the country was done by black-skinned Africans. All of the hard physical, essential, work – labouring, cleaning, factory work, mining – basically anything a white man didn’t want to do – was done by black people. The white bosses would “manage” things for a while from the comfort of their well-padded seats in spacious offices before dropping in for a few hours at the ubiquitous whites-only sports clubs that dotted every corner of the land, and prior to retiring for the evening to their very comfortable homes to be waited-on hand and foot by their black-skinned servants who, after they were no longer needed from their 12 to 14 hour day of servitude, would retire for a few hours rest to their “kias” – tiny tin-roofed sheds tucked away in some remote part of the white-man’s garden where they sweltered in summer and froze in winter, and where they couldn’t be seen from the white-man’s house.

Rhodesia was a very wealthy country. About the only thing of real importance it didn’t produce for itself was oil. Almost every other useful mineral could be mined there; and almost any edible plant would grow there. Food and potable water were plentiful and inexpensive. But possibly its greatest source of wealth was a huge super-abundance of human labour. There were about twenty black people for every white person; but it was the white people who were in complete control of the country.

Because the white people were relatively new to that part of Africa (they’d only been settled there for about seventy years), the black African majority still lived relatively independent lives in that most black people had some sort of link with the land – most had links with some part of the country where family members still produced their own food and owned their own livestock. But if black people wanted money, to buy the things that only white people provided, they mostly had to work for white people. So given the fact that there were so many black people, relative to whites, the cost of labour was truly bargain-basement.

So the institutionalised racism that I grew up in was manufactured in London. It had produced a country that was very similar to all its other colonial possessions, a country comprising white people who mostly didn’t seem to do very much, living in the lap of luxury: well dressed, idling their time away in big comfortable houses or in country clubs, where they were waited on hand and foot by black people – black people who lived in tiny hovels and who were often barefoot and clothed in rags; black people who were expected to work whatever hours their white masters demanded, for a pittance of a wage that barely kept them alive, and who were often separated from their rural families for months and years at a time. Although this fine example of a thriving capitalist economy was all around me for the first twenty three years of my life, I never saw the injustice of it. It was all completely normal. In 1980, a year after I left Rhodesia, I spent a couple of months working on a kibbutz near Nazareth, which could not have been more different from what I was used to, and I started to think. Although I didn’t yet know it at the time, my early years had been giving me the very finest education in economics that was available.

More than twenty five years would pass before the second part of my economics education would begin in earnest; and that was thanks to Tony Blair.

In March 2003 I was plodding along in a very cushy job in the civil service. For the amount of useful work I did, and but for the want of a good climate and abundant black slaves, I could almost have been working in the Rhodesia of my youth. I have always been interested in politics. Given my early years that might seem a little ridiculous, but it most certainly isn’t; and those years were every bit as invaluable to my political education as they were to my economics education. Because for my first twenty years of life, when I was being conditioned to accept blatant racism as politically acceptable, and plundering exploitation as sound economic practice, what I was actually learning was how NOT to do things.

Anyway, on the 20th March 2003 Tony Blair addressed the nation to let them know that in spite of the fact that a million people had marched through the streets of London to say they did not support his war with Iraq, he had just ordered the British military to go to war anyway.

I promptly wrote out my resignation from my comfortable civil service job. I didn’t want to work for such a government any longer. I had long been thinking about designing a new political model. The time had come to get serious, and get active. I started reading. I’d always read fiction, but now I started reading some heavy-duty non-fiction.

A couple of years later all of the so-called “experts” who had either supported Blair’s war crimes, or at the very least kept quiet about them, bleated sorrowfully about how they’d been misled. I sort of knew exactly what they meant, because most of us white-skinned Rhodesians had been similarly tricked forty years earlier. The common link between the Rhodesia of my youth and Blair’s Britain was the deceit of trusted leaders, leaders with many centuries of experience practising deceit and treachery. No matter whether or not these great leaders actually believed their lies; the simple fact was they were lies.

So were the lies of my Rhodesian leaders and the lies of Blair’s government aberrations? Were they rare and exceptional deviations from otherwise benevolent and honest systems of government? Of course they weren’t. They were and are systems of government that were and are as old as the hills, mirror images of systems used by every empire that’s ever been. They were and are all about ruthless exploitation of the weak by the strong for the financial benefit of the very, very few.

One of the most powerful controlling illusions that our trusted leaders use is the illusion that they can be trusted. We’re conditioned from birth to trust those who control our lives – not only trust them, but worship them. During the Roman Empire mortal emperors were converted by the PR machines of the day into immortal gods so they would continue to be worshipped long after they were dead. All European countries have histories that extol the virtues of kings and queens, and all over the continent heroic statues and paintings can be found of these people, all suggesting greatness. People from all over the world are encouraged to gawp at the vast palaces, castles and chateaux built to accommodate these “great” leaders – and never learn about the massive campaigns of murder, plundering and looting that always, always paid for each and every one of these monstrosities. This is how we are all conditioned to trust our leaders, to believe that no matter what, they are really on our side; and when it comes down to it they will defend us with just as much loyalty as we’re expected to show them. It’s a total lie. When things go wrong the first people out the door are always, always, our trusted leaders, trampling on the heads of those who supported them and clutching as much of their ill-gotten loot as they carry. How do I know this? Well, quite apart from the abundant proofs of history, Africa gave me first-hand experience of it. I saw it happen.

When I was a young lad growing up in Rhodesia the British Empire was rapidly collapsing. In the space of a mere dozen years or so Britain lost control of India and most of its possessions in Africa. If you were a white person living in British-run Rhodesia in the early 1960s the writing was clearly on the wall: the game was over. In 1965 the Rhodesian government declared independence from British rule, and sent London’s governor packing. The days leading up to that fateful decision were the last opportunity that Rhodesia’s ruling white leaders had to salvage the situation. They could have abolished the institutionalised racism upon which their society was founded and created a new, just, multi-racial society where black and white could live together in harmony. There was surprisingly little hatred of white people by black people: many black people had been used to social injustice long before the white man showed up – especially in the south of the continent where the powerful African tribes were ruthlessly tyrannical. So in the Rhodesia of 1965 there was much goodwill that could have been harnessed to the benefit of the country as a whole, and in that one brief window of opportunity the white leaders of the country could have rescued the situation. To be fair, they did make a small token gesture; and the new constitution of November 1965 does propose a model of government where black people had some formal political power for the first time in the young country’s history. But it was too little, too late. It provided new token political powers – but no significant economic reforms. It was an effort to acknowledge the inevitability of black political power, whilst keeping the wealth of the country firmly locked-up in white hands.

And so the battle lines were drawn. For the next fifteen years a bloody civil war would be fought. I was there throughout that time. Most of us white people believed absolutely in what we were fighting for. We were blind to the vast social injustice that had always surrounded us. That was “normal” for us. We all trusted our leaders so much that we all obediently joined the army to risk our lives fighting a war that could not be won and, which was even worse, kill for a war that could not be won. A very few white people did see an alternative path towards social justice, and tried to encourage others to follow it; but as is invariably the case when this happens, their numbers were too small and they were widely viewed as cranks and traitors.

But whilst the long years of senseless war dragged on, and the inevitable conclusion drew ever closer, there was one hugely important difference between white combatants and black combatants: most of us whites knew that we could, anytime we liked, just pack up and leave. We didn’t have to fight. We could just move to South Africa (a temporary option at best), or the UK, or America or Australia; and as the years passed by the numbers of white people doing exactly that rose from an insignificant trickle to a raging torrent. And this experience provided me with one of the most important economic lessons I eventually learnt: the 1% always know that come the final reckoning they will not have to live with the consequences of their actions – they will always be able to run away to somewhere safe.

But if that was never going to be an option for Rhodesia’s white people, if in 1965 we all knew there would never be anywhere else safe to hide, we would have had to do something radically different – or face annihilation. But knowing that we could always “take the gap”, or “take the chicken run”, or any of the other colourful expressions that were current at the time for running away from an unnecessary war whenever we felt like it, we could continue inflicting the pain; because although the rewards were much smaller than the “good old days”, they were still far better than most of us could expect if we lived somewhere else where we might have do some real work for a living, somewhere we might not even have black slaves at our beck and call twenty four hours a day.

A very similar situation exists today in most western countries. O.K we don’t have deadly civil wars raging on our own doorsteps, but we do have a greedy and ruthless 1% who totally control our economies; and we do have a 1% who know full well that they will never have to live with the consequences of their ruinous economic policies, and that as soon as they feel they have nothing left to plunder, and the militarised police state they’ve created to facilitate their plundering starts to be too unpleasant for them to live in, they can simply pack their bags and join their ill-gotten loot in whatever offshore tax-haven they’ve stashed it.

Most of the 1% who run the western world won’t know what they’re doing – just as we didn’t know it in Rhodesia half a century ago. It’s just normality for them. You just enjoy the good times with scarcely a thought for anyone else, making all sorts of feeble excuses to justify the unjustifiable to each other. But if the freedom to flee for today’s 1% were suddenly made impossible, if they knew that they or their children would have to live with the consequences of their actions, they would have the same two choices that we would have had in Rhodesia: provide real social and economic reform or face annihilation. The alternatives that don’t exist when the 1% still have somewhere to run would suddenly be found as soon as their escape routes were slammed shut.

Not only is this lesson not taught in any economic textbook, the very opposite lesson is taught instead. Budding economists learn about the virtue and absolute necessity of capital being able to move freely anywhere in the world (accepting, obviously, that any such “freedom” will be defined and controlled by the Empire and only the Empire; those who question the Empire’s primacy – such as Iran say, or North Korea, or Cuba – are forbidden free currency movement). No, today’s bright young economists learn all about the iniquity of currency controls and foreign exchange regulations. Of course they do. How else can the 1% hope to get away with the outrageous injustices of their economic policies – their IMF-imposed Chicago Models, their trade sanctions and their “Austerity” plans?

So my basic grounding in economics – that I didn’t see at the time even though it was all around me – eventually showed me how the world really works, from the perspective of the 1%:

You plunder for all you’re worth whatever part of the planet you have at your control. You steal all the natural resources you can get your greedy hands on, and sell at extortionate prices water and energy to people who can barely afford to feed themselves. You keep for yourself as much of the loot you make from all this as you possibly can. You control the political and legal system such that no annoying bureaucratic obstacles appear – such as currency controls or paying taxes. You exploit the labour market, importing desperate immigrants and encouraging high birth rates of poor people to ensure a permanent supply of impoverished people prepared to sell their labour in whatever conditions for whatever pittance you’re prepared to pay them. You prevent them from joining trade unions or combining to press for improved conditions. You collude with your one percent buddies in the media to ensure that all of this is sold as virtuous and even benevolent actions, and get them to make movies and TV shows where real-life captains of commerce and industry are portrayed as heroic role-models whose ruthless practices should be admired and copied by all young people. And most important of all, you make sure you can always escape to wherever it is you’ve buried the treasure you make from all your “enterprise”.

I have to say, we did have currency controls in Rhodesia. By trying to plot our own independent course in 1965 (albeit a misguided course) we immediately joined the likes of Cuba and North Korea as international pariahs. Trade sanctions were imposed which included foreign exchange controls, making it very difficult for white Rhodesians to move their wealth. If white people had been able to easily get money out of the country no doubt the exodus would have happened even sooner than it did. But by 1965 it was already too late. The die was cast. Although we did not know it at the time, the power of the Rhodesian white man was already finished. White men were still in control of that beautiful country – but they lived many thousands of miles away. For Rhodesia the brief window of opportunity had closed and there was no turning back.

Our small family had almost no material wealth to move out of the country. The wealth I personally acquired was mine forever, and no one would ever take it away from me. It took the form of the experience of spending the most formative years of my life in one of the most fantastic places on Earth, at a time of great historical significance. When I eventually arrived in England as a young man of 23, I only had about £100 to my name – maybe less; and I was heartbroken at having to leave a shattered country I loved very deeply, but had only started to understand when it was too late. Unbeknownst to me at the time, however, I also had under my belt one of the finest educations in economics that anyone could wish for – an education which, together with over ten years of further intensive independent reading, has equipped me to take on any of the so-called “experts” on the subject. For I now know how the game is played. It’s played by the 1% using rules invented, written, controlled and policed by the 1%, to benefit the 1%. The time for re-writing the rules is here and now.

John is a writer and political activist based in England. He can be contacted through his website. His main contribution comprises three free-to-use works-in-progress: The People’s Constitution, The School of Kindness, and EnMo Economics . Read other articles by John.