Thursday, March 12, 2020

Troubled Waters (2011)

Book Review from the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Crude World. By Peter Maass. Penguin. £10.99.

The delta of the River Niger is an enormous wetland, once a flourishing ecosystem with a wide range of life forms. But now it is not a wildlife sanctuary: rather it is a horrendous landscape of ruined villages, devastated populations and roving armies. The reason for this is simply the delta’s vast oil reserves and the prospects for wealth and power that these entail.

This is but one clear example of the ‘resource curse’, which states that countries dependent on the export of resources such as oil are susceptible to more corruption and warfare but less freedom or economic growth. In this enlightening book, Peter Maass surveys a number of cases and shows how oil rarely produces benefits for those who live in the places where it is found.

In Equatorial Guinea, for instance, the discovery of offshore oil led to enormous riches for the dictator-president Teodoro Obiang. Few local workers were employed in the exploring and drilling work, and massive profits were made by American companies like Exxon. The US government, and various lobbying groups, played their part in supporting Obiang and keeping him friendly to American business. This is particularly important as Chinese companies start flexing their own oil-producing muscles.

In Ecuador Texaco was able to do more or less as it wished, since the officials of the newly-formed state oil company knew next to nothing about oil. The natural gas that came to the surface with the oil was just burned off, which can be deadly for both people and environment. Rivers and land have been contaminated and the government left with massive debts.

The profits, of course, go to the oil companies and their owners. Lee Raymond received $686 million for his thirteen years as chief executive of Exxon-Mobil, while billions went to share-holders. As Maass points out, oil companies in fact do not ‘produce’ oil, they simply take it from the ground. Extracting, purifying and transporting oil are complex tasks (performed by skilled workers), but selling oil to realise the profits is not difficult. What is needed in the first place is a licence from the local government to explore and extract oil, which is why the oil industry is usually rife with corruption and works closely with diplomats and generals to ensure this kind of access.

So a substance used to provide fuel and warmth also causes wars and destroys the environment. Inevitable consequences of a world that belongs to a privileged few and is driven by profit.
Paul Bennett

Tunisia – people power, but . . . (2011)

From the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
The new regime won’t be able to improve the lot of the population.
The lightning rapidity and relative ease with which Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was chased out of Tunisia in January, is a clear testimony not only of the power of the masses but also (though unknown to many) how vulnerable and cowardly many a dictator is. Hours before his ignominious flight, Ben Ali appeared on television visibly shaken and pleading with the people to give him time to address their problems. Too late; the masses were already up in arms. It is said that the capitalist system digs its own grave. But it does not do so willingly. It is an inevitable fate that it must fulfil; it developed the internet to enhance its insatiable crave for profits but, ironically, it is the same internet that the masses will use as a collective organiser to mobilise the exploited to bury the system. The present upheavals in the Arab countries are one such example.

Elsewhere in the Arab lands, this defiant action of the Tunisians sent frosty shivers down the spines of the other dictators and, apprehensive of a possible domino effect, some of these rulers started making jittery reforms to avert a similar (and deserved) fall.

In Tunisia, discontent with the government was deep and widespread, cutting across class lines. The low income earners had no hope of escaping poverty because the government had no way of providing them with jobs. The middle income earners had little chance to improve its lot because the government had so badly sapped the economy that there were few government services and the development of business was virtually impossible except for the few who had close ties with top officials. Many of those who did no more than merely question or complain about injustice were thrown into jail. Many useful people were turned into beggars.

Pernicious adulation
These dramatic events in the Arab lands (and they are still unfolding) also reveal, in black and white, the negative role that the corporate media play in the struggle for the emancipation of mankind. On the eve of the uprising, one would have thought, going by what the media wanted the world to believe, that Tunisia was a kind of heaven-on-earth. For instance, in 2002, a number of ‘Special Reports’ on Tunisia were published in New African – so far the leading English language magazine in continental Africa –  that need some paraphrasing and scrutiny here. They were, in the main, prepared by one, Anver Versi.

According to him, visionary political leaders like Ben Ali are saviours and so when Ben Ali took charge of the country 15 years ago, he called the process The Change. Many at that time took the words at their literal value; most at that time did not fully grasp what he meant. When one looks at Tunisia at that time and what it has become today, one feels the full, stunning impact of the words,

The Change:
“These 15 years have seen one of the most remarkable transformations in modern history of the world. From a country teetering on the brink of social economic and political collapse, Tunisia today is on the threshold of entering developed world status. And this was achieved without any miraculous discovery of gold or oil. The country has also not borrowed heavily to finance its growth, neither has there been any ‘Marshall Aid’ from wealthy nations. Growth has been maintained at a steady 5% per annum despite a four-year drought. Industrial efficiency has been gained without the loss of employment. The infrastructure has quadrupled. Education is universal and incomes have increased by 400%. Eight out of ten households own their homes and there is hardly any poverty. The rights of children are protected by law. An advanced social security programme is in place.”
Versi wrote further that “in Tunisia the term ‘solidarity’ is not a political slogan for organised groups. It stands for the principle ‘one for all and all for one’. ‘Solidarity’ means that you are never alone; your problems are not yours only; you are not isolated but part of an intricate chain. Since a chain is as weak as its weakest link, it is everybody’s duty to ensure that the weak links become stronger with each passing day.” Versi added that according to Ben Ali, the National Solidarity Fund, which is the vehicle used to reintegrate marginalised groups, has been so spectacularly successful that delegations from virtually all corners of the globe arrive almost every week to study how it works. It is a remarkable journey undertaken at a dizzying speed. A miracle indeed!

The above pernicious adulation typifies the mercenary media’s manipulation of public opinion which, unfortunately, is swallowed hook, line and sinker by many. But even if that was actually the reality in Tunisia only a few years ago, how could the situation of the majority of the people be so messy today? To be able to reconcile this rather bizarre equation, one needs to consider the inner workings of the trap set for Tunisia (and indeed all peripheral states) by the capitalist system..

Free trade with the EU
Tunisia was the first country to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. According to the terms of the Agreement, the EU and its Association partners would introduce a Free Trade Zone in 2010. This would mean that tariffs and other protective barriers would be eliminated. This was way back in July 1995. The Agreement provided that Tunisia would be given enough time and room to adjust its national structures to fit into the partnership. It would also not surrender its competitive advantages, such as its cheap labour. Naturally, a less developed nation joining an advanced economic market such as the EU has as many advantages accruing from it as there are dangerous pitfalls. One thing, however, is clear: removal of tariffs and deregulation always leads to the importing of cheap goods from the West which greatly damages local production.

But the Tunisian rulers, and that is always the bait, were made to believe that with time they could compete on an equal footing with their European counterparts. The Agreement also provided for a 12-year transition period after which it would come into force for the implementation of the free trade arrangement. However, Tunisia had started dismantling tariffs on industrial goods in 1996, two years before the agreement came into force in 1998. It would therefore be able to enter the Free Trade Zone by 2008.

The EU opened an office in Tunis and the grants started flowing in. A 40-strong team from the European Commission flew in. Its function was to carry out EU policies and co-ordinate with Tunisian authorities. They would work together with the Tunisian Ministry of Co-operation and Investment and provide technical management assistance to improve productivity. They were also to budget aid money against reforms and disburse funds after checking that targets had been met. They would also link with lending institutions like the World Bank for more loans. The office then proceeded to open up trade services such as insurance, banking and other commercial and professional set-ups.

That marked the beginning of the end. The government failed to understand that the tighter the grip of the capitalists on industry, the more intense is the poverty of the masses and the more marked are the riches of the few.

Decorated donkeys
Coming back to the crisis, the demonstrations continued in spite of the ignominious flight of Ben Ali. This is understandable because those individuals who, in one way or the other, helped mess up the lives of the ordinary people were the same who came back as the interim government; a clear case of the decorated donkey still being an ass.

But one thing is obvious; no matter who are brought in to assume leadership of the country, the plight of the ordinary Tunisian will not see any significant improvement. The so-called opposition are no better than the likes of Ben Ali. At the beginning of 2002, for instance, the opposition parties and some civil organisations were invited to contribute to the framing of a draft constitution before it was put to the public to vote on. Later, the secretary-general of the Popular Unity Party (PUP) one of the six opposition parties, Mohammed Bouchiha, gleefully commented that the reforms marked the crossing of the Rubicon and signified a point of no return in the development of modern Tunisia. “The system has now been changed as we demanded,” he said.

On the issue of the reforms dropping the limitation on presidential terms, Bouchiha said, defending the open system, “That was an irrelevancy; the clause was brought in when President Ben Ali revoked the President-for-Life system introduced in the latter stages of Habib Bourghiba’s administration. But if the electoral system is fair, why should the public be denied the opportunity to vote in the candidate of their choice as many times as possible?”

Now, observers across the anti-capitalist spectrum may enthusiastically welcome the courageous action of the people but the fact is that the opposition is not a unified ideological entity. It is a random collection of (often irreconcilable) groups whose interest in getting rid of the government only happens to coincide now. Though such an amorphous group may be able to seize power, they can hardly help the masses as they do not have any common and well-thought-out agenda except that they want to see the back of the leader. And even if they are able to hammer out some sort of radical programme, they will soon be forced to make concessions to the same ruinous capitalist world around them as there is virtually no possibility that massive foreign aid will be offered them to alleviate the poverty of the populace.

Thus, the untold hardship visited on the masses and which necessitated the mass action can only be possible (and will always be so) under the capitalist system. This system is based on an insignificant minority of the world owning all the means of production and distribution of wealth i.e. land, factories, transport and communication networks, the media, etc. These few individuals control all the wealth of the world whereas the majority have nothing and have to work for the owning class to continue making their profits. It is this sort of relations that is the source of all the suffering in the world.

Therefore, it is only when this profit-driven system is abolished and replaced with a system that is operated on the basis of ownership of the world’s resources by the whole of humanity that such uncalled for situations in society can be done away with. But this cannot be achieved except when there is a concerted action on a global scale. Individual countries may rise up and chase away their leaders but it does not solve the problem. It is only when the majority of mankind and in particular the working class understand the capitalist system and, based upon this understanding, decide to do away with capitalism and replace it with a better mode of organising society (call it socialism) that the human race will be really human. For, such a socialist system will be run on the basis of collective ownership of the world’s resources for the use and benefit of all.

Greasy Pole: Grow up and understand (2011)

The Greasy Pole column from the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

You can’t help feeling sorry for coalition ministers with their sleepless nights and restless days having to do something they call Taking Tough Decisions even when these lead to thousands of people catapulted into unemployment, agonising over whether to pay the rent or mortgage or buy food or try to keep warm in the winter. So it helps to know that, at any rate for those struggling ministers, there is another way. Some spin doctor in the deeper recesses of Westminster has come up with the idea that the victims of current policies might regard themselves as less repressed and impoverished if they could accept it all in a more mature and perceptive manner. One great advantage of this reasoning would be that it promises to be stunningly cheap to operate. Another is that any residual resentment by penurious benefit applicants and the like might well be stifled by their feelings of guilt at their own inadequacy in accepting reality.

Here, for example, is Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, seemingly unshaken by his being abruptly transmogrified from the focus of a national mood of “Cleggmania” into “the most hated man in Britain”. The tension between the LibDems and their patient fans was aggravated by the fact that Clegg had led his party into the coalition along a path of dishonoured pledges and his excited complacency at holding so eminent a governmental post. Last November, before the Commons voted on the proposal to increase the university tuition fees, Clegg wrote to the President of the National Union of Students and, after asserting that the government’s intention was that graduates on lower incomes would be better off than now, stated that “I believe it is crucial that all of us are able to ensure that people know the true picture”. Take note of the use of words like “crucial…all of us…ensure…true picture…” designed to imply that anyone who does not fit into this compliant mould has defects which are – well, crucial. This argument might be more effective if it was not put by the same Nick Clegg who, when he was touting for votes during the general election, said that to raise tuition fees would be “a disaster”. So while we consider how to maintain a maturely informed attitude among the confusion, can we also settle where we place Clegg? Are we impressed that he eventually admitted the LibDems (including himself) should have thought more carefully before signing those flamboyantly reckless pledges? Or would it be more instructive to remember that this confession was a response to lost votes and the fact that Cleggmania had decayed into a septic memory of a disreputable past.

Which brings us to the Deputy Prime Minister’s deputy who, while never embellished by Cablemania, has coincidentally been reduced from the world’s most immaculately insightful economist to piteously Vincible Vince. Among a procession of savaging blunders in early November Cable boasted to two undercover reporters from the Daily Telegraph who came to his constituency surgery pretending to need his advice that he had the power to scupper Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to completely take over BSkyB and that to get his own way in the coalition he could operate the “nuclear option” of threatening to resign from it. Although supposedly a hardened political operator, the terror of affluently bonused bankers, Cable seemed powerless of suspecting that he was being set up precisely to embarrass himself in such an unwise, almost terminal, style. An outraged David Cameron swiftly relieved him of these feverish delusions – and of some of his ministerial responsibilities. But he clung on as Business Secretary, in which post he had brushed aside the protests at the planned rise in tuition fees: “I think a lot of the people who are protesting actually don’t understand what’s being proposed. It doesn’t actually affect them – we’re talking about a system of graduate contribution that will only affect people who start going to university in a couple of years’ time”. There are however problems for anyone eager to give any weight to Cable’s views in this matter since he has himself demonstrated a distinct confusion in understanding – at times declaring himself to be in favour, then against, the rise in fees, then that he would abstain from voting (there are no prizes for guessing that, when he came to it, ambition overruled and he obediently supported the rise). But how are we to regard anyone so susceptible to trickery and confusion, who nevertheless tells us that we “don’t understand” our everyday problems?

From the other bit of the coalition David Cameron, in what seemed like a fit of exasperation, hit out at the opponents of the “reform” of what are called public services (in which this government is merely following Labour’s policy). Cameron’s complaint is that the critics need to grow up and realise that what counts is the standards of the service rather than which organisation – state, private, charity – delivers it. Well growing up – although not in the way Cameron means – is mostly a useful, not to say necessary, process from which a certain education is assumed to follow. But until that happens we must work with the outrageous fact that an Old Etonian, ex-member of the vandal Bullingdon Club such as Cameron can lecture us about maturity when he is unable – or perhaps reluctant – to confront the fact that the working class exist under continual pressures of survival in their everyday lives. Dependency on employment in order to survive is a vastly educative, maturing experience. For example the housing charity Shelter recently reported that some 3 million people have problems paying their rent or mortgage, which means that millions of people live under the persistent threat of being homeless. According to Shelter’s chief executive “thousands of people are hanging on to their homes by the skin of their teeth…”. That is the kind of experience which should be enough to result in such enlightenment about capitalism as to be mightily serious for the Tories, Labour, LibDems and all other supporters of this chaotic, degrading social system.

Zambia: the riots in Barotseland (2011)

From the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

The events that took place in Western Province on 14 January strongly and correctly underpin that Zambia’s politics are tribalist – that tribalism in Zambia exists and is partly instigated by self-seeking politicians through inciting disgruntled ethnic groups in order to advance their political objectives.

What is called nationalism comes to emphasise political allegiance to the state. Political states in Africa were mapped out by European imperialist nations under the guise of economic interests and military influence. Thus African kingdoms and empires were brutally decimated and different ethnic groups were forcibly integrated into colonial states and protectorates.

British imperialism (colonialism) was politically, religiously and poetically lampooned as bringing civilisation. What is known today as Zambia consists of 72 ethnic groups and the Lunda-Luba speaking tribes comprise 90 percent of Zambia’s population. Politically and linguistically the Bemba remains one of the dominant tribes. The Lozi and Tonga remain linguistically and culturally differentiated from the Lunda-Luba complex tribe. It is undeniable that rigid ethnic and tribal patterns exist in Zambia today as a major factor determining the strength of political parties.

The Barotseland Agreement was enacted on 7 May 1974 in London between the then Prime Minister of Northern Rhodesia Kenneth Kaunda, the Litunga of Barotseland and the British colonial government. The document in itself signified the end of British protectorate of Barotseland and entailed the incorporation of Barotseland (Lozi) into a self-governing independent state of Zambia under the leadership of Dr. Kenneth Kaunda. There is nothing sinister about the Barotseland Agreement that needs to be revised today as a way of protecting and safeguarding the political and economic aspirations of the Lozi-speaking peoples of Western Province,. Thus recent calls for political and ethnic separation of the Lozi-speaking people from Zambia is mainly propagated by a bunch of political hooligans without any viable backing from the political fraternity.

It may be juxtaposed that calls for revising the Barotseland Agreement and the consequent bouts of mob violence that took place in Western Province in January were partly the outcome of economic backwardness that still prevails in Western Province. The mob went berserk, stoning vehicles and damaging public property. The police replied with live ammunition and two lives were lost.

What we are now saying is that economic underdevelopment that prevails in Western Province was the main motivating factor behind the violence that took place otherwise than political dissatisfaction with the Barotseland Agreement as such.

Political rebels within the ruling MMD have blamed President Rupiah Banda for having seemingly deviated from the political legacy of the late Levy Mwanawasa – economic development through tackling corruption and money laundering. Banda by himself does not command any ethnic group nor parliamentary constituency. He was only hand-picked from UNIP political retirement by Mwanawasa to the position of vice-President in 2007.

Favoured by political fortune Banda automatically became acting President when Mwanawasa died in 2008. In the presidential elections held in 2008, Banda managed to win with a mere majority of 350,000 votes against Patriotic Front president Michael Sata and became the fourth president of the republic of Zambia.

Apart from the Bemba, the Lozi and Tonga have played a prominent rĂ´le in Zambia’s domestic politics such that any beleaguered political pronouncements on events taking place in Western Province tends to elicit feelings of Lozi tribal parochialism against the ruling MMD. Because the violent mobs in Western Province were attacking non-Lozi we may infer that there is any ethnic rebellion there.

It is sad to note, come 2011 general elections, the majority of workers and students in urban areas of Lusaka and the Copperbelt will massively vote for Michael Sata of the PF, whereas the peasants in rural village communities will vote for the MMD. The people who live in towns believe that PF leader Sata will achieve economic miracles in the belief working conditions in Chinese-owned mines will improve and new jobs will be created. Those who live in rural village communities are content with fertiliser subsidies, new schools and paved roads and will vote for the MMD.

But wealth and power under capitalism can only be realised through legalised exploitation of some people by others. This is a complete contradiction of socialism that envisages a future society in which economic and political privileges will not exist because goods will be produced for consumption and not or sale – while racial and ethnic taboos will not prevail because there wouldn’t be political leaders nor class interests to defend.
Kephas Mulenga

50 Years Ago: “Democratic” Portugal (2011)

The 50 Years Ago column from the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

The recent seizure of the Santa Maria by an armed group led by Captain Galvao, on the instructions of the exiled General Delgado, has focused attention on Portugal.

The Portuguese monarchy was overthrown in 1911, and after 15 years of political instability Dr. Salazar came to power. Amongst those who supported him were Captain Galvao and General Delgado. The regime in Portugal— Britain’s “oldest ally” —is one of dictatorship, where only one political party is permitted and opposition is suppressed. The office of Prime Minister, held by Dr. Salazar, is the top job, with that of President merely the state figure-head. (  . . .)

General Delgado’s avowed aims are first to oust Salazar. He says that he wants to lessen the economic gap between Portugal’s tiny minority of wealthy families and her desperately poor working population, and to democratise the colonies; to have universal suffrage both in Portugal and the colonies and vastly to improve education. Portugal is the least industrialised country in Europe, and Delgado may well have been reflecting that it is essential to have an educated working class in order to develop industrially.

The Socialist sympathises with aspirations to political democracy, but there is no guarantee that Delgado’s professed aims would be achieved if he succeeded to power in Portugal, nor is there any guarantee that in a private property society, democracy, once obtained, will remain in being. He may, like many political candidates, be only dangling a bunch of carrots in front of the donkey’s nose, in order to obtain personal support. It is possible that Delgado is voicing the aspirations of a new stratum of Portuguese society, a capitalist class whose needs, namely an educated working class, are directly opposed to those of the entrenched, almost feudal aristocracy administered by Salazar.

(from ‘News in Review’, Socialist Standard, March 1961)