In 50 facts that should change the world journalist and BBC television producer Jessica Williams has written a book that hints at the scale of suffering across the planet. The proliferation of wars, poverty, hunger, disease, repression and the threats to the environment are evidence of the state of the world in the early 21st century. Any alert reader, concerned about the picture painted in this book, will be disappointed by the means proposed for changing the situation. The approach of 'alternative worldism' is served up here, another variation of the 'anti-globalisation' activism that is no challenge to the capitalist order of things.
Small groups and governments
The author tells us about the mess the world's in. There are short essays on the proportion of the world at war, the widespread use of landmines, the size of military budgets, and the number of countries that use torture, executions, imprisonment and CCTV surveillance. Women appear as victims of domestic violence, genital mutilation, prostitution and eating disorders. There are child soldiers, children forced to work, children in poverty and children expelled from school. Cars kill; oil's running out; and billions of plastic bottles are discarded without any thought for the consequences. Meanwhile, drugs, pornography, mental illness and suicide show how people cope with modern life.
In an introduction Williams tells us that the facts "are not immutable truths. It's not too late to change the way the world acts. But we need to act soon. Some of the facts need major shifts in thinking, while others require governments to start taking their responsibilities to the international community seriously". This is a book for 'activists' and pressure groups that live in a world where governments and corporations will change their ways if only consumers "keep in mind the idea of thinking globally, acting locally". It "doesn't have to be about big gestures" because a commitment to recycling, to shopping for Fairtrade products and investing ethically might be "small things", but "they do make a difference".
War isn't fair
It's not startling to be told that there are dozens of wars going on in the world that affect the lives of millions of people. But for war to stimulate a questioning about the state of the world it is necessary to look at the real causes of armed conflict.
50 facts partly blames the struggle for natural resources for wars, but otherwise takes them for granted. It says that it's "vital to ensure that both states and NSAs [non-state actors] are aware of their responsibilities". After wars there should be disarmament and criminal courts that will "remove the perception that combatants can carry out crimes against civilians with impunity". Also "because rebel groups will try to infiltrate civilian groups" it is "crucial that fighters and bystanders are kept clearly separated". But while "the big military powers have little idea of how to deal with these new adversaries" they should try "to protect civilians as much as possible".
Given the overwhelming evidence of modern warfare's indiscriminate mass brutality it's tempting to reject such remarks as laughable. Yet what have the 'anti-war' demonstrations of recent years over Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine/Israel amounted to? They have pleaded for capitalist governments to alter their imperialist policies; to opt for conventional weapons rather than nuclear, chemical or biological means; or for resources to be turned from 'warfare to welfare'.
Capitalism doesn't 'fight fair'. The ruling class of every state will use every weapon at its disposal to defend its interests. Criminal courts will dispense the justice of the victor. The UN is not an impartial body but an arena that's an integral part of imperialist conflicts. The idea of carefully separating "fighters and bystanders" is as absurd as expecting capitalism to disarm without a revolution.
The invisible working class
This book sows the illusion that governments can act in the interests of the exploited and oppressed, that the worst aspects of war can be curtailed, that for poverty to be reduced it's only a matter of will.
Williams suggests that for the policies of governments or corporations to change it's just a matter of exerting pressure. Governments are supposed to respond to the popular will, companies to market forces unleashed by 'ethical consumers'. However, one of the problems posed in 50 facts is that there's decreasing interest in the electoral process, especially from the young.
Williams thinks it necessary to "make politics seem relevant and worthwhile". She's convinced that there's a potential for political involvement because younger people boycott products, take part in events to raise money for charity and especially embrace mass activities (runs, bike rides) where they can see themselves as part of group "making a difference". If people don't trust politicians then the parties must make sure that "young voters ... receive all the information they need to understand the issues".
If people don't trust politicians or bother to vote it's because they've worked out that politicians lie and that elections don't change anything except the colour of the government. Young people have fewer illusions in the power of the ballot box, but not yet any real appreciation of what can change the world.
The view of the book, far from being inspiring, is potentially very depressing. There are all-powerful states 'opposed' by small groups that might possibly influence them. There is no history of past struggles to show what is possible. There is no perspective for what human society could actually be like.
The most obvious omission from the 50 facts view of the world is the working class. There is slavery, forced labour, bonded labour, child labour, but no reference to the working class, the class that sells its labour power for wages. While we're treated to the vision of a ruling class defending its position, and the degradations of capitalist society, there's not a hint of what it means for the working class to defend its interests.
50 facts adopts the 'think global, act local' slogan. But the local actions of individual voters or consumers are completely incorporated in the mechanisms of capitalist society. There is only one force that can think globally and that is the working class, an international class with the same interests across every national frontier that can only defend its interests in an international struggle. It's the only force that can take on capitalism, a system that exists across the globe. That is a perspective for the future struggle of the working class.
Many people are worried about the state of the world, but because there have not been any major working class struggles in more than a decade are not entirely convinced of a class analysis of society. Marxism doesn't depend on immediate events but on the whole history of the class struggle. Understanding the real forces at work in capitalist society is part of that struggle. Against pleas to put pressure on implacable governments the case for a working class revolution is overwhelming.