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