Monday, June 27, 2022

War and capitalism in Africa (1999)

From the September 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The president of Zambia, Frederick Chibula, recently declared the “dawn of a new era for Africa”. Such comments have become something of a regular occurrence amongst African and international “leaders”, including that messiah of the “new world order” Bill Clinton. The latest round of platitudes coincides with a period of instability and armament amongst the competing representatives of African capitalism.

Despite the signing of accords which appear to declare the desire of capitalist interests to accommodate each other’s interests in Sierra Leone and the Congo, Chibula made his comments at a time of simmering conflicts across Africa including a savage war between Ethiopia and Eritrea and a rampant civil war in Angola. Even in Sierra Leone and the Congo the accords thrashed out seem likely to fail, with international “peace-keeping” forces (the US and western Europe) not being committed as the interests of their ruling classes are not threatened.

Unlike the huge resources deployed to Kosovo where Western leaders wish to “protect” the Kosovo Albanian population from mass slaughter as a pretext for extending their influence in the Balkans at the expense of Serbia, the hypocritical face of capitalism is revealed once more. A blind eye and an arrogant shrug greeted and continues to greet the mass killing in Africa (in the case of the Sierra Leone conflict the British government was in fact implicated in the supply of arms to the conflict in contravention of its own “rules”, as if such things exist in capitalism’s wars).

Ethiopia and Eritrea
It is in the little-mentioned conflict (the press coverage being remarkably little) between the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments that Bill Clinton’s “new leaders of Africa” have revealed the degree to which the politicians of capitalism will sacrifice the lives of working-class men and women in the interests of profits. Originally intended as the leaders of a regional alliance for the US against the “threat” of Islamic Sudan, Presidents Issaias of Eritrea and Meles of Ethiopia descended into a quarrel in May 1998 ostensibly over a small area of barren and mountainous terrain. In reality it was over Eritrea’s new status as a potential African Singapore threatening Ethiopia’s commercial interests (principally coffee) and aims for economic self-sufficiency and protectionism.

Taking advantage of its coastal status and Ethiopian cheap labour and launching its own currency, to counter what it saw as an overvalued Ethiopian currency which hindered it exports, Eritrea began to threaten the interests of Ethiopian capital. Becoming landlocked in 1993, following the overthrow of the dictator Mengistu and Eritrea obtaining independence, Ethiopia perceived a threat to its cheap labour market from the new-independently Eritrea’s processing export industries and cheap Eritrean imports, and thus began to impose tariffs. The territorial boundaries between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which had previously been a matter of little formal control and even convenient administration by local authorities on either side of the borders, began in such circumstances to be marked by claims of encroachment and eventually an act of aggression which sparked off a war which may have already claimed as many as 50,000 lives.

In a country racked by civil war and droughts where the majority of men and women exist in dire poverty, its leaders see their interests served by spending vast sums on armaments and mobilising hundreds of thousands to mass slaughter. The death toll in this conflict between capitalists using working class cannon fodder has been particularly high with a ratio of dead to wounded of one-to-one (the average for most modern wars being one dead to three wounded). According to the Economist (8-14 May) “the death toll is high because the combatants use the weapons of the Korean war, the tactics of the first world war and the medical treatments of the 19th century”.

With war of course comes the massive displacement of populations with, in this instance, many tens of thousands of Eritreans forcibly ejected from Ethiopia. As with all wars the Ethiopia-Eritrea war has competing capitalist interests at its root and the mass slaughter and suffering of its workers as its consequence.

Central and southern regions 
This conflict, however, is only part of a general increase in tension between African governments whose interests are perceived to lie in the increased militarisation of the continent. This was most particularly evident in the central and southern regions. Indeed the wars in the Congo and Angola appear to be threatening to draw these regions into full-scale sub-continental war. Angola has threatened Zambia with invasion over its ruling-class support for the UNITA rebel opposition in Angola, a position also supported by some members of the South African ruling class. The Mugabe regime on the other hand supports intervention on the side of the Angolan government. Tension still runs high over the war in the Congo, with Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Chad drawn into the conflict in support of President Kabila and Uganda and Rwanda on the side of the anti-Kabila forces. Conflict over the Caprivi Strip between Namibia and Botswana also poses a threat, with the Zimbabwean ruling class supporting the former and the South African ruling class supporting the latter.

The underlying cause of this increase in tension is in the economic crisis facing the two most powerful economies of the region, Zimbabwe and South Africa, in the face of the global economic downturn. The ensuing economic competition between the rival ruling classes has forced the two governments to attempt to form regional alliances. Such action is taking on an increasingly military character with the Zimbabwean government, backed by Namibia, justifying its intervention in the Congo on the grounds of securing markets at the expense of South African multinationals. In another example of capitalist robbers fighting over their ill-gotten gains South Africa, backed by Botswana, asserted its influence over Lesotho to protect the interests of its ruling class following attempts by the Lesothon population to overthrow the existing dictatorial regime.

In such circumstances an ominous regional arms race is beginning to take place, with South Africa announcing at the end of 1998 a re-armament programme worth 20 billion rands. Botswana, South Africa’s main regional ally, has also been conducting a re-armament programme including the construction of a US-assisted military airbase. Zimbabwe, under the pretext of the conflict in the Congo, has also been spending billions of dollars on re-arming with its most recent purchase being over $1 billion-worth of Russian military equipment. A similar massive re-armament has taken place in Angola as a consequence of the intensifying civil war. It seems that the increasing trade war taking place between the capitalists of southern Africa may result in yet another war in which the workers fights for the interests of capital.

In the era of the “New World Order” capitalism once again proves itself to be an uncontrollable and destructive system of society. A system which accords the majority slave status and then expects them to die for their masters’ interests. The only solution to war and to the miseries of capitalism in Africa, as in the rest of the world, is for the working class to organise for common ownership and democratic control, a society where the root cause of war in the economic and strategic rivalry of a minority owning class is removed and the production and distribution of wealth is conducted in the interests of the whole community—Socialism. It is time the working class struggled for its own interests.
Colin Skelly

Population: Feeding the Six Billionth (1999)

From the September 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the year 1800, there were one billion humans alive. Seventy years ago, the world had two billion human inhabitants. Thirty years ago, that figure had doubled to four billion. On October 12 of this year, at 1.24 am New York Time, the UN Secretary General will announce to the world that the six billionth human has been born.

By all accounts, the six billionth baby will be born into a life of poverty and misery. While the population trend in the industrialised world is stability or declining numbers—with Europe’s population, for instance, expected to drop by 25 percent in the next 50 years—97 out of every 100 children born live in the developing world.

At present, the increase in the world’s population stands at some 78 million per year. By the year 2050, Earth is expected to have 8.9 billion human inhabitants, with the UN forecasting that the global population will level off at about 11 billion round about 2120.

Come this October, we can no doubt expect a glut of newspaper articles highlighting Kofi Annan’s statement, many in the Malthusian tradition, arguing that population cannot grow beyond the means of subsistence and that we can expect increased rivalry for scarce resources, civil unrest and a breakdown in law and order. We can expect to be reminded that we cannot grow the food for increased future generations and that the world’s fresh water supplies are dwindling.

Firstly, under capitalism rivalry for resources, scarce or in abundance, has always been the norm. Secondly, it is important to point out that what scarcity there is—whether it be food or water—is artificially brought about.

It is no state secret that food is not primarily produced to eat. It is produced for the market and with a view to make profits. The 1.3 billion humans in the underdeveloped world who go without food on any given day do not constitute a market because they cannot purchase what they need. Hence, we find governments ordering land to be taken out of production because the surplus cannot be sold at a profit. We find governments the world over ordering the destruction of mountains of food to keep prices high. We are informed of the dwindling supplies of fresh water, but the technology has existed for quite some time to enable us to convert sea water into fresh water for irrigation and domestic use.

The paradox that there is hunger and thirst in the midst of plenty was hinted at as far back as 50 years ago when the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation was formed. Its first Director General, Lord Boyd-Orr, observed in the Times of 22nd July 1949 how:
There was no difficulty about producing enough food for the present population of the world, or even twice that number, but the problem was, could politics and economics arrange that the food that was produced was dispersed and consumed in the countries that needed it?
The problem becomes not one of feeding the world’s growing population, but of organising production and distribution on a rational basis. While we can expect the Malthusian prophets of doom to remind us that every new child means an extra mouth to feed, they will neglect to add that it also means an extra pair of hands, an extra brain, capable of contributing to the common good .

Socialists ask whether the present social system will allow these hands and this brain to be used wisely, to produce the extra wealth needed for a growing population. So long as the market system prevails the answer is no. Capitalism is not only a system of artificial scarcity, it is also a system of organised waste. Countless millions of workers are to be found in the armed forces, many more in the security and law and order business, with many times that number employed in the field of commerce and finance.

And its not as though there is a problem with there being enough workers to produce what we need. It has been estimated that within 25 years, just 2 percent of the world’s population will be able to produce everything needed—and this takes into account the insane and artificial constraints imposed by the profit system.

Present and projected increases in the global population only pose a problem under the conditions imposed by capitalist society—the laws of profit first and can’t pay, can’t have. Socialist society will see an end to the “planned and subsidised under-production” that President Kennedy observed almost 40 years ago. It will see an end to scarcity and a removing of the artificial barriers that presently curb production. Socialist society will ensure that the resources of the Earth are used in a manner that ensures every man, woman and child is adequately fed, clothed and sheltered—something capitalism has never been capable of overseeing.
John Bissett

Caught in the deep (1999)

TV Review from the September 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bizarre though it may seem, English cricket—and the televising of English cricket—so accurately reflects the wider economic and cultural changes of British society in recent years that it is simply uncanny. For those who care to remember, leisurely games of cricket on the village green were central to John Major’s vision of a society at ease with itself, along with warm beer and old ladies cycling to church on Sunday mornings. And while Major’s vision was overtly anachronistic, cricket has always tended to embody much that is considered to be distinctively “British”: the old Gentlemen versus Players class distinction, the quiet civility of the English tea, the resolute application and grit of the undefeated all-day batsman, and—more often than not—the stiff upper lip of those in extreme adversity. Of course, the game has changed over the years along with wider society and few would disagree that it has become harsher, nastier and more competitive. English cricketers have been, if we are to be charitable, poor at acclimatising to the new conditions. Today there is something of the metaphoric frightened rabbit about them as they are repeatedly showered under a hail of West Indian bouncers, spun out of their senses by passing magicians from the sub-continent and battered by the explosive and inflammatory verbals of the Australians.

Cricket in England had always been an essentially timeless phenomenon—like the “season”, Wimbledon, Last Night of the Proms and much else. That TV coverage of cricket reflected this is fairly obvious. Few could have died of excitement at the sound of John Arlott and Jim Laker coaxing England towards a draw on a dank Tuesday afternoon at Old Trafford. High drama it certainly wasn’t, though perhaps one of the finest accolades given to them by a critic was that they at least made five days of sitting in an armchair watching the grass grow seem like a veritable pleasure, and indeed for a few million every summer it was. But now the BBC have lost the Test Match coverage franchise for the first time—along with so much else too—and things are not quite the same. The greying, sedate affair hosted by the BBC has left the field of play, retired hurt, to be replaced by something altogether more brash.

A loud appeal
Channel 4’s cricket coverage has certainly blown away a few of the old cobwebs. Indeed, just as the new technology of capitalism constantly serves to revolutionise that system from within, so at last (though more prosaically) has TV cricket coverage been revolutionised by elements of that same technology so as to accurately reflect the dynamic of society as a whole. From the “speedster” and the close up action replay through to the “snick-o-meter”, Channel 4 is knocking on the door of the twenty first century, bringing to sports lovers the aids to comprehension and the sheer excitement that befits a technologically advanced civilisation. And yet there is a downside, as there always is in the market economy.

While the technological advancements of civilisation open up whole new vistas, so at the same time does society itself become less “civilised”. Not only does Channel 4’s coverage come with a good deal of the brashness we have come to associate with so much else of the fast-food culture we inhabit, but it extends to breaking point public tolerance of commercially-orientated TV. The advertisements that have crept into cricket and other sports over recent years, from the advertising hoardings at the grounds and the sponsoring of competitions and then teams, to the painted advertisements on the pitch itself, have now been supplemented by particularly insidious versions of the ubiquitous TV commercial.

As each session of play in a Test Match lasts for at least two hours, usually without formal interruption of any sort, the advertisers had a headache reconciling the needs of the game and of the viewer on the one hand with the dictates of the market and profit on the other. Their solution has been to run a 20 second-or-so commercial every few overs of play, completely untelegraphed to the audience. There is no programme theme music, no couple of seconds of silence as the programme “card” comes up by way of warning—in fact, there is no warning at all. It is effectively a bizarre, elongated version of subliminal advertising. It is immensely irritating and not surprisingly, has been almost uniformly condemned. Yet, ironically, without the increasingly bizarre adverts for cars and bottled lagers which now infest the screen during cricket coverage, there would probably be no improved coverage of the type Channel 4 have been able to provide.

There may be more important examples of the irrationality of capitalism and of how the market system is unable to properly use the technology it has helped develop so as to meet human needs, but few illustrate it so graphically as the changes undergone by cricket coverage, and exemplified by Channel 4. Cricket is now a more compelling TV sport than it ever has been, except that it is ceaselessly undermined with adverts which seek to distract and intrude rather than genuinely inform. Just as the market gives with one hand, so it takes back with another because the rational planning of human services will always be a secondary consideration quite some way behind the making of profits.

One final thought: does the cricket “third umpire”—called upon to make adjudications with the help of a TV monitor and replays—have to sit through some near-subliminal rubbish while he tries to make a decision over a marginal run out? Somehow we think not. And is he doesn’t have to, then why the hell should we?
Dave Perrin