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The destructive forces of global capitalism
THE WAVE of anger which swept through Seattle against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting last November, has continued on its course.
Seattle was a breakthrough. Dozens of diverse campaigns came together for the first time. The activists were beginning to draw the conclusion that 'the system' itself was at fault; that the struggle had to go beyond the single-issue level. Protesters denounced untrammelled global capitalism - "globalisation". Its agencies - the WTO, World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), above all - were the target.
This represented a giant leap forward in the way people view the world. Common cause was identified between environmentalists, trade unionists, landless peasants and young people internationally.
THE CAPITALIST system, which has ruled the world largely unopposed since the Stalinist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe disintegrated a decade ago, has failed to raise the living standards of the majority of the world's peoples. On the contrary world inequalities between rich and poor have grown as the pressing needs of the world's poor have become even greater.
Although the Socialist Party did not support the brutal totalitarian dictatorships which existed in these Stalinist states of the Soviet world, we recognised that they represented a rival economic system to capitalism. The balance of power between the two superpowers - the US and Soviet Union - held the world in an uneasy stand-off. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, capitalism declared itself the undisputed champion of the world. The cold war had ended. The US was the only superpower left and it flexed its muscles in the Gulf war, with US President George Bush pronouncing the construction of a "New World Order".
The promise to the world was that capitalism would benefit everyone. The rich would, 'naturally', get richer, but there would be a 'trickle-down effect', meaning the poorest countries and peoples would also gain. On top of that, the end of the cold war would provide a 'peace dividend' enabling money previously earmarked for military expenditure to be spent on social programmes.
The experience of the vast majority of the world's six billion people, however, has shown up these statements as cynical lies. The world is an even more dangerous place than it ever has been before - with the Balkans continually on the brink of war, a nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan, insurgency in Latin America, and so on. The dominance of the US has further exacerbated the polarisation of wealth between countries and within countries themselves.
GLOBALISATION MEANS the opening up of the world economy to the multi-national corporations and finance institutions based in the rich capitalist countries of the northern hemisphere. This is far from being a mutually beneficial arrangement, despite the claims of the world's richest man, Bill Gates. Speaking at the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Australia (see opposite), Gates said that "world trade is the mechanism that's allowing these poor countries to get enough wealth to start taking care of very basic human needs." (Guardian, 13 September) He denounced the protesters outside the conference hall.
Globalisation, however, resembles more a pack of bloodthirsty predators ripping the heart from its prey gorging themselves in some obscene feeding frenzy. The dominance of US imperialism has allowed its ruling class, along with its hunting partners from Japan and the European Union (EU), to stalk the world with impunity. The WTO, IMF and World Bank, as well as NATO and the United Nations, are used to impose their will.
Third World debt, for example, is used to enforce the domination of the rich countries. It has also been the catalyst for an upsurge in bitter opposition to the way the 'market' operates.
ON 8 SEPTEMBER, Horst Kšhler, managing director of the IMF, announced a 'new deal' to relieve the debts of the world's poorest countries at a meeting in London with 30 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities along with Britain's finance minister, Gordon Brown.
Kšhler said 20 countries should qualify for debt relief by the end of the year. Yet even last year's Cologne summit of the G7 countries (US, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Canada and Italy, who between them account for 70% of world production) promised faster debt relief for 24 countries. Kšhler was clearly trying to defuse the debt issue in the run-up to the Prague summit.
The Cologne initiative was a con-trick from start to finish. The G7 promised to write-off $100 billion, yet more than half of that target figure was part of previous agreements and so far only $32 billion (£23bn) has been written off. (And much of that had previously been written off or had been deemed 'unrecoverable', in any case.)
Zambia is one of the countries expected to enter the debt relief programme in October this year. But IMF papers leaked to Oxfam show that Zambia's interest payments will actually rise from $136 million (£91m) in 1999 to $235 million in 2002, when payment on another IMF loan falls due. In fact, in 2002 Mali, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia will all be paying more in debt payments to western creditors than they spend on basic education. All these countries are part of the debt relief programme.
Over the last 20 years, and accelerating in the past decade, the rule of untrammelled capitalism has continued apace. The pursuit of neo-liberal policies has meant that state assets have been privatised and multi-national corporations have been given free rein to exploit the world's resources - human and natural. Social, employment and environmental protections have been undermined or scrapped.
Loans and aid granted by the West is tied to so-called Economic Structural Adjustment Programmes drawn up by the IMF.
The dismantling of tariff barriers which were used to protect national economies, the privatisation of state industries, and the cutting back of food subsidies and essential services, were all conditions of the loans. In other words, the economic management of the debtor countries has been handed over to a small group of Western financiers. They dictate what is produced and where. For example, African countries have been forced to grow cash crops in demand in the northern hemisphere, coffee for example, instead of food to feed their people.
Globalisation has also led to the increased polarisation of wealth within the advanced capitalist countries. An estimated 45 million people in the US live below the poverty line, and 32 million have a life expectancy of less than 60 years. In the EU, at least 50 million people live in poverty.
Worldwide there is a growing wave of anger at the brutal results of neo-liberalism. During the Seattle demonstrations even US president, Bill Clinton, felt compelled to wag his finger accusingly at the multi-national corporations. This attempt at populist posturing fooled no-one. But what it indicates is that 'free-market', globalised capitalism is widely perceived as an unjust, brutal and undesirable system.
But what is the alternative?
CALLS HAVE been made to curb the rampant multi-national corporations in defence of people's health and safety, working conditions, in the fight for democratic rights and to save the natural environment. Some of these calls are for protective measures. These, however, mean the defence of national capitalist interests. Whether a country's economy is run by a powerful western-based multinational, or a home-grown boss, makes little practical difference to a worker or peasant struggling to eke out a living. Allowing a national ruling class the freedom to exploit 'their own' working class cannot be the answer.
In any case, countries in the neo-colonial world can never really be independent of the globalised neo-liberal world. The powerful West, backed up by their international agencies set the agenda for the world economy. National regimes which seriously threaten the control of the advanced capitalist countries are quickly pressured into line by the denial of aid or loans, or the refusal to trade with them in goods they may need to buy or sell.
That is not to say, however, that protectionism is a phenomenon of past history which will never be repeated. Changes in the current economic situation will provoke changes in policy. A significant economic downturn would see protectionist pressures increase. The tendency would be towards measures to safeguard the regional blocs which have been developed - centred around North America, the EU, and South-East Asia.
In this situation, the weaker and poorer countries will be further pushed to the margins of the world economy, their goods unable to penetrate the rich markets. There can be no doubt, however, that this would further fuel the anger and opposition to the effects of globalisation. As the Financial Times recognises: "If anti-market sentiment is so strong when economic growth is robust and globalisation remains far from complete, what might happen in a downturn as globalisation grinds on and unemployment figures rise?' (11 September)
Neo-liberal, free-trade policies reflect the logic of global capitalism. Many organisations and campaigns oppose the vicious effects of neo-liberalism - campaigns supported by socialists.
But socialists also recognise the need to oppose the capitalist system as a whole. Capitalism cannot provide for the needs of the world's peoples, whatever policy it is pursuing at any particular time. Against the profit-hungry domination of corporations and destructive anarchy of the market economy we counterpose the need for planned economies on a national and international basis.
This is not a call for the return of top-down, bureaucratic planning epitomised by the former Soviet Union. Planning can only work on the basis of the full democratic participation of working-class and poor and oppressed peoples.
Temporarily, the collapse of the Stalinist state reinforced the illusion that capitalism was triumphant globally. For the last decade, billions of people have experienced first hand what that really means. Opposition to the IMF, World Bank, WTO and WEF is an indication of a steadily strengthening movement against capitalism as a global system - a sign that there is a growing search for a radical, long-term solution. That sentiment can find its expression in rebuilding the forces of socialism internationally.
In The Socialist 22 September 2000: