“Labour and capital are one on Sodor”: on the economics and politics of Thomas the Tank Engine

Thomas and friend.

When my second child arrived, I didn’t have time to do much writing. What I did have time to do, though, is watch an awful lot of Thomas the Tank Engine with my eldest. Often early (very early) in the morning.

It may just be sleep deprivation, or maybe something deeper, but the more I watch Thomas, the more questions are raised in my mind.

There’s been plenty written on the politics of these stories. What I think is missing (sleep deprivation alert) is a consideration of some of the economic, financial and business questions raised.

Before proceeding, I should be clear that the Thomas I am considering is the modern, CGI edition, in particular seasons 13 and 14. This is not the Ringo Starr voiced Thomas of my own youth. Things have moved on in the fictional (but strangely well developed) island of Sodor, although much remains constant.

The place to start is with the railway company itself. For many days I couldn’t fathom its ownership structure. I think it’s pretty clear that it is not a listed entity. The company engages in all manner of pursuits but few of them seem focussed on shareholder value.

If the company is listed, I would argue it suffers from corporate governance problems of the highest order.

There are elements of a stakeholder model at work. Whilst there is little evidence of a works’ council, the interests of the staff do seem to be taken into account at times. Suppliers are clearly valued and there is a certain long termism at work. Profit, in the short term at least, is very much a secondary consideration. Maybe the Rhine flows through Sodor? But this theory is too neat.

It could also be that the firm is state owned. I can’t rule that out but it raises bigger questions as to the nature of the state on Sodor.

It’s perhaps most likely that the company is privately held: privately held but closely entwined with the political forces of Sodor. Sodor is very much a one company kind of town and it isn’t hard to image how the railway firm would yield immense political power.

If it is privately held, then presumably the owner is the Fat Controller himself, Sir Topham Hatt.

As an aside, I am curious as to that “Sir” - was he knighted as part of an aristocratic embrace of the forces of capitalism on Sodor? Is that knighthood a way of tying the modern bourgeois into the remnants of a feudal state?

Perhaps, but this I think this is to look down the wrong end of the telescope. Sir Topham’s mother is ‘The Dowager’. I suspect he was never knighted at all but is in fact a hereditary baronet.

This is not an attempt to head off political change by binding in the new industrialists. Sodor is at an early stage of development, the industrialists themselves come from the aristocracy.

There is no evidence of an active credit market on the island. The capital to build this railway came from the old holders of power and wealth.

The current governance of the island is complex. The industrial – and possibly the real political – power is clearly held by Sir Topham. Whose animation, it is worth noting, resembles Bob Hoskins as Khrustchev in Enemy at the Gates. (Might this be important? Perhaps.)

Then there is the duke. He is ferried from time to time between his main residence and his summer house. Whilst clearly a figure of symbolic importance, it is unclear if he holds any real de facto or de jure power.


The real complication comes in the office of mayor. I am uncertain what powers he holds and equally in the dark on the manner of his appointment.

The only explanation that really works for me is as follows. Sir Topham, or perhaps his ancestors, were once rich but minor members of Sodor’s gentry. They built the railway and have been expanding it ever since. The duke may rule in name but not in deed. The mayor is but a democratic fig leaf that camouflages the real Sodor.

Sir Topham’s industrial and political powers are closely linked. The railway survives by virtue of its monopoly. Any profits are continually reinvested in expanding the track network of what is frankly an already ludicrously over-serviced island.

Real competition would kill the railway. There is of course Bertie the Bus providing one competing service, but some evidence suggests this is but a charade. Whether there is formal collusion or not, Bertie and the railway avoid direct competition.

The situation with the narrow gauge interior line, run by the Thin Controller, is more clear cut. The two controllers regularly meet. If Sodor had a competition authority (not that Sir Topham would ever allow this) this would be an open and shut case.

The odd thing about Sodor and its railway is the continuing use of steam power. Clearly alternatives are available. There are Diesel engines at work, but they are limited to pulling freight and shunting trucks. They are certainly not allowed anywhere near passenger lines. Given the sentience of the engines themselves, this may reflect special privileges for the so-called “steamies” – an extreme form of demarcation that is clearly crying out for structural reform.

The fact that labour and capital are, in the form of anthropomorphised engines, one on Sodor complicates any analysis.

But I think the driver of the use of steam is not to do with a two-tier labour market. Rather it is emblematic of the poor state of technological advancement on the island as a whole. In one episode an electric train is introduced, only for his battery to run out as none of the others understand how he works. Sodor is a place that struggles with modernity.

Clearly the adoption of new technologies is not widespread. One can guess at the productivity performance of Sodor and it looks grim.

The silver lining is that the Island maintains something approximating full employment. The cloud is that living standards appear to have stagnated since the early 1980s.

Economists do not fully understand the long term drivers of productivity growth. But the lesson of Sodor is this: over investing in a technologically backward, sheltered and protected from competition railway is not the road to prosperity.

And yet despite stagnant living standards the people/engines of Sodor appear content. Indeed it is unclear if they get paid at all – instead they seek meaning and joy in a Stakhanovite desire to be “really useful engines”. The great trick of Sir Topham is to employ engines who essentially evoke the image of the New Soviet man in the service of a proto-capitalist, semi-feudal enterprise.

Duncan Weldon is an economist, currently head of research at the Resolution Group.

This article originally appeared on Medium in 2015, and appears here with permission.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.