Monday, 26 July 2010

Dark Brown Thoughts

Gordon Brown has just given his first major speech since loosing the UK elections. He was speaking in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, and was pumping up the future of Africa. In an attempt at self-depreciating humor he said he "spent some time as a politician before becoming a community organizer." This sent a little shiver down my spine - a community organizer? He goes on to say that he wishes to see the creation of an "African century".

"Future growth in the world economy, and future jobs in the developing world, will depend on harnessing both the productive potential and the pent-up consumer demand of this continent."

"There is an alternative to a decade of low global growth which would fail to meet both the development needs of Africa and the growth needs of Europe and America."

There is an underlying assumption here - an assumption that lies at the very heart of capitalism. Continual economic growth. In this case 'world' economic growth and the 'growth needs of Europe and America." These are linked to the "development needs in Africa." To the naive cynic this might imply that if Africa's development needs are to be addressed, we better make sure that the economies in Europe and America continue to grow. Otherwise the aid tap may be turned off and Africa can go fend for itself.

Perhaps I am being too cynical, for Mr Brown also addresses development in his speech. I shall quote verbatim from the BBC (link provided at the bottom):

Turning his attention to the developmental aid given to Africa, he said this needed to increasingly focus on private sector wealth creation, and not just providing services for the poor.

"The job of aid is to kick-start business-led growth and not to replace it," he said.

"And so I believe we need to focus not just on poverty, but on wealth."

Not just providing services for the poor, hey? Is that because we have dealt with that problem already? And the job of aid is to kick-start business-led growth? Is that where I should presume my donations are going? I'm not against business per se, but there is business and there is business. Are we talking about business that is started at the grass roots level? One that employs local people at decent wages and provides benefits and profits that feed back into local communities? Or are we talking big business? American and European business that can fly in, charge a lot of money, hire 'expertise' from overseas, and send the profits back outside of Africa? They may, almost as a side-effect, leaving something useful behind. They may, or they may not. What they leave behind is not the main point of the exercise. The extraction of profit is.

One of the suggestions Mr Brown had was "the rapid expansion of internet access in Africa". I presume that would have to be provided by European and American companies, as only they have the expertise and size to enable such a grand plan. I guess that internet surfing would distract people from the lack of infrastructure, health, education, electricity and water that so many suffer in Africa. It could distract them if they could find somewhere to plug their non-existent computers in. I love the Internet. It teaches me countless things, and wastes countless of my hours. I do prefer, however, safe drinking water, access to food, access to health services, and a whole raft of other things I have come to take for granted. Once those have been provided across the African continent, I'll be the first to say "Let them surf!"

The corner-stone of modern capitalism is perpetual growth. Perpetual growth allows for profit, that can be reinvested to maintain growth. Some of the profit, of course, also goes into private hands to maintain lavish lifestyles. A little bit of it even goes into paying the workers who underpin the whole structure, so they can maintain their basic lifestyles - if they are lucky. The central contradiction in modern capitalism is that it is occurring within a strictly finite system. Finite resources. At some point perpetual growth bangs up against finite resources. You can delay the moment - and we do - with technological innovation. Yet that is a delaying tactic, not one that solves the underlying contradiction. And that contradiction is already becoming very obvious in the effects of climate change and resource conflicts.

The problem is not that there is not enough money in the world. It isn't that there is not enough food, or water, or land in the world. The problem is in the distribution of those resources. The current world economic system is primarily designed to funnel money from the masses to the minority elites. From public funds to private funds. Those in the elite will always be able to buy access to dwindling resources, whilst the rest can fend for themselves (or more often than not, fail to fend for themselves and suffer the consequences). I have heard the catch-phrase 'sustainable growth' and it is a good idea. If it was taken seriously. A better phrase would be 'sustainable practices'. I have a feeling that the 'growth' in 'sustainable growth' is only there to make it palatable to modern capitalism - for its underlying assumption is growth - and any cost.

Let's slip in to la-la-fantasy land for a while. Let's say an evil terrorist virus infected the whole world. It made world leaders throw up their hands and say: 'Terrorism has won. We give up. We are going to stop all funding of anti-terrorist activities and put that money into something useless, like meaningful development aid'. That money is more than enough (if wisely spent) to meaningfully tackle the most common killers in the world. Provision of clean water for all. Provision of adequate food for all. The eventual eradication of water borne diseases, malaria, HIV, tuberculosis to name but a few. The provision of basic health care and education for all. All those silly little things referred to in the UN Declaration on Human Rights.

Of course the terrorists would take their cue and started killing indiscriminately across the globe. Because that's what terrorists do, right? Thousands, tens of thousands would be slaughtered now our security services were not looking after us. It would almost be enough to distract us from the millions and tens of millions that were being saved by our silly little development projects. Some brave journalist might even say the obvious. "Look, its nice that all those people are being saved from ignoble deaths, but they are the wrong people. Look at all all those people dying from terrorism in the West!'

Let's go further into la-la-land. If there was a meaningful redistribution of wealth and resources, such that everybody had access to the basic needs of life and liberty, would there still be such an motivation for terrorists. If everyone had the access to those things required for a life with dignity, including the freedom to practice their own religion, would there be as much support for terrorist activities? For terrorism, like all highly organized groups, requires the support of people. And if the support is not there - they have a hard time getting anything done.

OK - time to wake up. The fight against terrorism is not going away - it is far too profitable (for some). It also directs money away from development aid - which is not as profitable. Politicians and the Business behind them are going to continue supporting the main tenant/contradiction of perpetual growth until something snaps. And then those with the money and power will look after their own interests - and the fluffy talk of democracy and human rights will fade into the background as 'tough decisions' are made.

Why did I wake up with such dark brown thoughts today?

Brown says global economy reliant upon growth in Africa

Friday, 26 March 2010

Reading habits, writing non-habit

For a while I have been suffering from literary constipation - nothing coming out. I am thinking of changing my blog's subtitle 'To create the habit of writing, irregardless of quality' to something that more clearly reflects the realities of my writing habits. It seems I am stuck between two bad ways of thinking. One has been previously described by Henry Miller - the desire to write literature. That is, to write something of the quality of the writing of authors I admire. The second is to write accurately - to write non-fiction that has been researched to the level of good journalism. Both reflect a failure to write because I don't think I am good enough (in terms of either quality or accuracy). In short - I lack faith, I am fearful of criticism, I lack motivation. Objectively I recognize both these bad habits, and that they should not stop me from posting blog entries. Just reading other blogs is enough to see that there are many who disregard such concerns with abandon. Unfortunately, I am not currently among them.

Constipation can occur because nothing for a long time is going in, or despite something going in, nothing is coming out. My affliction is definitely the latter. So much goes in. I am given a mild boost in the knowledge that my head churns, gurgles, even seethes with sentences, metaphors, starting paragraphs etc… Now and then are short explosions where a few paragraphs are expelled - written down and saved but never published. Literary flatulence.

Just over a year ago (12 March 2009) I posted a list of books I had read whilst in Vietnam. For the sake of my own memory, I thought I should update the list to include those I have read since then. I have missed many out - having been returned to their rightful owners or just forgotten for the moment. I also also spent a lot more time this year reading online news, blogs and marginalia of the web - which has cut into my 'real' reading time more than I would have wanted. Still, I feel blessed to have had the time to read so many good (and a few awful) books. These are listed in no particular order:

The Pornographer's Poem - Michael Turner
Hospital - Toby Litt
In Defence of Food - Michael Pollan
Good Germs, Bad Germs - Jessica Snyder Sachs
The Botany of Desire - Michael Pollan
Omnivore's Dilemma - Michael Pollan
Tropic of Cancer (reread) - Henry Miller
A Pale View of Hills - Kazuo Ishiguro
A Personal Matter - Kenaburo Oe
The Silent Cry - Kenazburo Oe
First Abolish the Customer - Bob Ellis
Common Wealth - Economics for a Crowded Planet - Jeffrey D. Sachs
The End of Poverty - Jeffrey D. Sachs
Economics Explained - Robert Heilbroner & Lester Thurow
Naked Lunch (reread) - William S Burroughs
Footsteps - Pramoedya Anata Toer
House of Glass - Pramoedya Anata Toer
The Great War for Civilisation - Robert Fisk
Middle East Illusions - Noam Chomsky
Rogue State - William Blum
Perfect Spy - Pham Xuan An
Bias - Bernard Goldberg
The Political Mind - George Lakoff
Lipstick Jihad - Azadeh Moaveni
Requiem for the Sudan - J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins
What is the What - Dave Eggers
America Town - Mark L. Gillen
Ghost Wars - Steve Coll
The Road of Lost Innocence - Somaly Mam
The Fugitive - Pramoedya Anata Toer
All That is Gone - Pramoedya Anata Toer
The Wisdom of Whores - Elizabeth Pisani
The Great White Shark Hunt (reread) - Hunter S. Thompson
Pathologies of Power - Paul Farmer
Where the Ashes Are - Nguyen Qui Duc
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer

Currently Reading:
The Hidden Connections - Fritjof Capra
The Giants - J.M.G Le Cleszio
The Slap - Chirstos Tsiolkas
Philosophical Investigations (rereading) - Ludwig Wittgenstein