Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The advance of capitalism

The Material World column from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

The advance of capitalism throughout Europe proved to be a disaster to all the old institutions of feudalism. The feudal landlord was displaced by a capitalist one. The once all-powerful land owners were now to be rivalled for power by the merchants and industrialists of modern capitalism. In a series of epoch making changes in Britain we had the Enclosure Acts and the Highland Clearances. In many places centuries old villages were replaced by sheep enclosures as agricultural labourers were forced into the growing towns and cities of capitalism to seek a pitiful existence. It’s what Marx described inCapital in 1867 as the "so-called primitive accumulation". As he so aptly put it: "The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process." It is still going on in parts of the world.

Primitive accumulation

A recent Channel 4 programme entitled Unreported World, Peru: Blood and Oil, depicted the bloodshed and military violence that has accompanied the Peruvian government’s decision to auction off large parts of the Amazon countryside that has been used for thousands of years by the indigenous people. "For the first time isolated indigenous groups are uniting to fight the government's plans to auction off 75% of the Amazon - which accounts for nearly two thirds of the country's territory - to oil, gas and mining companies. ... These would allow companies to bypass indigenous communities to obtain permits for exploration and extraction of natural resources, logging and the building of hydroelectric dams." (London Times, 9 October).

In another part of the Amazon region capitalism’s lust for profit was carried to an even more awful extreme – the complete destruction of the Akuntsu people. A once proud group of several hundred now have only five survivors. "Much of the Akuntsus' story is – for obvious reasons – undocumented. For millennia, they lived in obscurity, deep in the rainforest of Rondonia state, a remote region of western Brazil near the Bolivian border. They hunted wild pig, agoutis and tapir, and had small gardens in their villages, where they would grow manioc (or cassava) and corn. Then, in the 1980s, their death warrant was effectively signed: farmers and loggers were invited to begin exploring the region, cutting roads deep into the forest, and turning the once verdant wilderness into lucrative soya fields and cattle ranches. ... The only way to prevent the government finding out about this indigenous community was to wipe them off the map. At some point, believed to be around 1990, scores of Akuntsu were massacred at a site roughly five hours' drive from the town of Vilhena. Only seven members of the tribe escaped, retreating deeper into the wilderness to survive." (Independent, 13 October)

Ruthless system

The recent speed-up of the development of capitalism inside China has also led to even more misery for the working population of that part of the world. In an effort to compete with more established industrial nations the Chinese owning class have ruthlessly swept aside small peasant-like production for the mass production of modern capitalism. The resultant displacing of labourers and the mammoth increase in water and air pollution has led to a near catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.

The World Bank recently estimated that China has experienced an annual industrial growth of 10 percent over the last 25 years, and reckoned the number of deaths from pollution alone in 2007 as 760,000. To grasp an inkling of this social disaster it is probably better to look at two local horror stories than quote mere statistics.

"The residents of Shuangqiao village say that their homes are now nothing but places in which to wait for death. In the paddy fields surrounding this small community in Hunan province, southern China, the rice is neglected and strewn with weeds. The vegetable plots stand empty, stripped of the green beans and cabbages that were grown as cash crops. Underfoot, the earth has been poisoned to a depth of 20cm (8in). The water in the wells is undrinkable. Tragedies like this – the legacy of China's rush to get rich – are all too common. Yesterday more than 600 children in Shaanxi province were found to be suffering from lead poisoning caused by a nearby lead and zinc smelter. The plight of Shuangqiao, however where three people have died and 509 are sick from poisoning by the heavy metals cadmium and indium, produced by a nearby factory, has drawn wide-spread attention since residents took to the internet to air their grievances." (London Times, 15 August)

What lies behind this seemingly callous action by the owning class on their own national working population? It cannot be mere coincidence that the price of indium soared from $600 (£360) a kilogram in 2003 to $1,000 by 2006. China now meets 30 per cent of world demand and at its peak the Xianghe factory produced 300 kg of indium a month. Capitalism is an insatiable monster as far as profits are concerned. Human misery is of no concern where the profit motive reigns supreme.

One farmer's plight summed up the hopelessness of the situation when he was told by officials that his land would be unusable for 60 years but that he could grow non-edible crops such as cotton or trees to clean the soil. "Farmer Yang has abandoned hope, "It's the children, the children," he lamented. "We want our children to have a future. We have to leave."