It’s the poor wot gets the blame By William Bowles

7 June 2003

As some wag pointed out, if Iraq was the world’s leading producer of broccoli, there would be no ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’.

I’m not an economist but I live in a world ruled by economics, even if the ‘rules’ are vague and open to a vast array of interpretations. But what I do know and it can’t be disputed, is that the world is incomparably richer now than it has ever been before. Moreover, this is not a new phenomenon; it’s part of the history of human ‘progress’ (however you want to interpret the word). Gaining advantage over nature, getting more for less is so integral to being human, that most of us take it for granted. And ever since the industrial revolution, using machines to do work has accelerated the process by many orders of magnitude, to the point whereby we now produce more wealth than has ever been produced in the entire, combined history of our species.

Until the 20th century, it could be argued that there was not enough wealth to go around and this was used as an argument to justify the unequal distribution of whatever wealth was available. Those who defended the capitalist way of life would (and amazingly, still do) argue that this is result of some ‘natural law’, survival of the fittest, taking their cue from the natural world of predator and prey, to justify the existence of rich and poor.

But over the years, this argument has been more and more difficult to justify, with opponents of the ‘law of the jungle’ pointing to the fact that the rich countries consume such huge amounts of just about everything out of all proportion to the size of their populations and further, that most of the wealth comes from countries that are amongst the poorest, whether this be raw materials or increasingly, products in all their bewildering diversity that we, in the developed world consume with so much gusto.

The 20th century saw for the first time, coherent attempts at creating an alternative to the ‘law of the jungle’, socialism. And in the beginning, so successful were these attempts that the capitalist world was determined to defeat them, and by whatever means, whether this was direct intervention, sabotage, embargoes, propaganda or ultimately, war. That socialism survived as long as it did, is some kind of miracle and in my view a testament to its potential.

But with the power of hindsight, we can see that its major weakness was that it invariably came about in countries that were extremely poor and under-developed economically. They had moreover, weak or non-existent civil societies upon which to build entirely new and untried economic and political structures. The combination of under-development and determined external opposition ultimately led to their collapse.

But the ideas that drove them have not disappeared, nor have the reasons for their existence. Indeed, it can be argued that there are now even greater reasons, not the least of which are the obscene displays of wealth in the developed world. As the world has obviously gotten incomparably richer, the pressure to distribute the wealth more equitably is growing.

Interestingly however, is the obvious contradiction expressed by the developed world, led by the USUK, which uses ever more extreme measures to hang on to its privilege as the demands for redistribution grow. And the increasing desperation of the poor is expressed by the use of ever more desperate measures. This is in no small part, the result of the failure of socialism to live up to the expectations of the poor of the world. And in turn, the ‘war on terror’ is but the most obvious expression of the increasing desperation on the part of the developed world to hang on to its advantage. It’s no exaggeration to say that the world is polarising at an alarming rate. And as we all know, this polarisation is impacting on the populations of the developed world as well.

Increasing repression at home is directly related to the fact that projecting imperialist power abroad needs to be ‘sold’ to the populations of the developed world, and as we have seen, this is no longer a ‘done deal’. The increasing divergence between not only the populations, but also the governments of ‘old Europe’ and the ‘new world’, has led to a new paradigm, which in turn, has led to probably the most concerted propaganda campaign ever waged on the part of imperialism, to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of its populations.

The experience of the Cold War years no longer holds for this new epoch even though the imperialists initially tried to ‘recycle’ the tried and trusted tactics of the Cold War period. The propaganda offensive is now expressed in the nature of the way they have been forced to sell their policies through the use of a convenient ‘invisible’ and elusive enemy, the ‘terrorist’. And the ‘terrorist’ moreover who comes from a world that the West knows nothing about (nor has ever wanted to). The ‘Arab’ world has defied penetration by the West, not only because the imperialists deliberately maintained repressive regimes because it suited their purposes, but also because of the ingrained racism that permeates Western thought. ‘Terrorists’ therefore, are also ‘alien’ in every sense of the word, which makes selling them to an uninformed and misinformed public that much easier.

This new epoch marks a real watershed in our planet’s history, as it is occurring at a critical period when the sheer scale and power of economic ‘progress’ threatens to destabilise the planet which has sustained us for millions of years. One could argue that we are at a point of historical ‘convergence’ of critical events that have been building for the past century or more. Will we in the developed world, face up to these issues? Will it take the total collapse of the ecological balance in order for us to wake up to the reality (by which time, might it be too late)?

The rise of the ‘anti-globalisation’ and anti-capitalist movement, whilst a growing force, without roots based in viable political and economic strata of the developed world such as labour movements or progressive political institutions, remains isolated and marginalised. As ever, the youth are at the forefront, but the youth are not a class or even classes. Yet the anti-war movement which has grown up around the invasion of Iraq, is without precedent in contemporary times. Does it signal the rebirth of a new progressive movement? Or will the benefits of privilege that we enjoy in the developed world seduce us into accepting the new imperialist world order at the expense of the vast majority of the planet?

Without a ‘beacon’ to guide and inspire us, we face an uphill struggle. How does one formulate a programme of solidarity such as the one we had in the sixties, centred around the struggles of the liberation movements of Africa, Asia and Latin America and the rise of the global capitalism?

At one point, the environmental movement was seen as a focus, but I for one, was always sceptical of this approach and I still am. Narrow, sectarian approaches to global problems that embrace an entire range of issues are obviously not the solution, yet global problems can only be tackled locally and herein lies the contradiction that we face. How does one combine the two? Sexy though the slogan, ‘think globally, act locally’ is, it not only requires an all-embracing philosophy to power it, it also requires a global/local network to realise it. Are networks of global solidarity a possibility and how would such networks operate at the local level? Unlike global capitalism which is united through financial, production and distribution networks and the national political classes that operate locally on its behalf, we are fragmented and generally quite poor in resources if not enthusiasm. Indeed, we can’t even agree on a common philosophy in this post-communist period.

The World Wide Web, of which I can claim to have played a (small) part since well before its realisation, is only one component of a possible network of transformation. Whilst it facilitates the movement and exchange of information on a global scale and almost in real time, that has the potential to coordinate actions, it still requires local structures of action to carry them out. Is such a global ‘political party’ of transformation possible? How would it work? On what basis would it formulate policies and translate them into actions? On the most mundane level, how would it finance itself?

Frankly, I’m suspicious of such ‘grand designs’, having seen the results and experienced them myself. Yet given the global scope and power of the forces ranged against emancipation, do we have a choice?

But to bring my wanderings back to earth, one tends to think of change as something that takes place within the scope of a lifetime. And the idea of struggling for something that doesn’t directly threaten one’s immediate existence, is difficult to communicate and to relate to.

Yet increasingly, it would seem that only a ‘movement’ of global dimensions has the potential to not only challenge the hegemony of global capitalism, but to successfully develop and unite such a diverse range of interests.


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