The forthcoming British presidency of the G8 - and the accompanying summit in Scotland in July - has been the focus of a campaign to ‘Make Poverty History’: a coalition of ‘the great and the good’. Churches, charities, trade unions, and a galaxy of celebrities are calling for fair trade, debt-relief and improved aid. Huge parades and rock concerts are being planned, their stated aim being ‘to make the politicians care’. And the politicians are already falling over each other to show how caring they really are, with Gordon Brown leading the way by announcing increased aid for the ‘developing’ world.
Trade under capitalism is inherently unjust
The first plank of the Make Poverty History campaign is ‘unjust trade’: “the rules are rigged - loaded in favour of the wealthiest countries and their business interests. So no matter how hard people work in the developing world, or how much their countries produce, trade relationships benefit the rich world most.” Yes, trade is unjust, but there can never be ‘fair trade’ under capitalism, a system where a wealthy minority - the ruling class - own and control the means of production used to exploit the working class, who have nothing to sell but their labour power. However hard workers toil, in the ‘rich countries’ as well as the ‘poor’, the relations of wage-labourer to capitalist can only benefit the latter!
Yes, the rules of international trade are rigged in favour of the more developed countries. But why is this? Basically, because the laws of capital dictate that wealth will always concentrate around the most competitive and technically advanced poles of accumulation. And these laws function even more ruthlessly in periods of economic crisis. When the period of reconstruction after World War II closed at the end of the 1960s, capitalism was once again plunged into a deep economic crisis, with rising unemployment, stagnant growth rates and spiralling levels of debt. The largest economic powers have systematically used the international institutions (G8, IMF, World Bank) to deflect the worst effects of the crisis onto the weaker economies on the peripheries of capitalism. To expect these institutions to operate in any other way is like trying to persuade a shark to convert to vegetarianism when it’s about to bite your leg off.
What’s more, the deepening of the economic crisis works to sharpen the economic and imperialist rivalries between all nation states, and any initiative by one capitalist power to ‘re-write’ the rules of international trade is aimed at weakening the position of its rivals. This is precisely the goal of the British bourgeoisie faced with the economic and military might of the US. Finally, just a brief glimpse of the history of Africa shows how the great powers have led the destruction of the continent through endless imperialist conflicts that have done so much to contribute to the suffering of the poor.
However, while the poorest countries have suffered the worst, this does not mean that those who work and live in the ‘rich world’ are having a fine time of things! Throughout the ‘rich countries’ unemployment is rising, pensions and the social wage are under attack and extremes of poverty and wealth continue to increase. No capitalist state can overcome the inherent contradictions in the economy any more than a man can jump over his own shadow. Capitalism - a bankrupt, decadent system - is completely responsible for the levels of poverty throughout the planet and is utterly incapable of reform. Calls to re-write the trade rules do nothing more than foster the illusion that the capitalist system could function without ruthless cutthroat competition.
Debt-relief and aid are instruments of imperialism
The second plank of the Make Poverty History campaign is the call to ‘Drop the Debt’. According to the MPH campaign, “The United Kingdom has shown welcome political leadership in unilaterally cancelling 100% of the debt owed directly to it by many of the world’s poorest countries... It must now push other countries to follow its lead, and use its influence to ensure that the debts of the poorest countries are cancelled in full.” This quote expresses very clearly how the question of debt-relief is closely tied up with the ‘use of influence’: flexing imperialist muscles to get rival nations to follow the strategic and economic interests of the power concerned. This is what Britain’s “political leadership” really boils down to – seeking new ways of gaining power and influence. With such ‘generous’ gestures, debts are often just restructured, not cancelled, and many countries have refused to accept the poisoned chalice, having seen the restructuring policies they have to implement.
The situation is even clearer when we consider the third plank of the MPH campaign: the need to “deliver more and better aid”. To begin with, the Asian Tsunami crisis demonstrated that offers of aid are more often than not empty promises – with donors failing to give the full amounts pledged. And when the money is provided, it normally comes with numerous strings attached: demands to ‘reform’ economic and political structures in ways designed to benefit the countries providing the aid. Recognising this reality, the MPH campaign demands that “Aid needs to focus better on poor people’s needs. It should no longer be conditional on recipients promising economic change… Aid should support poor countries’ and communities’ own plans and paths out of poverty.” But once again: why should the capitalist providers of aid be concerned about the needs of the poor? Their motive for providing aid is not the elimination of poverty but the defence of their economic profits and imperialist influence. This whole do-gooding ideology serves to spread the dangerous illusion that this brutal system of exploitation can ever function for different motives.
False anti-capitalism and the communist alternative
There is no doubt that many will go to the anti-G8 protests because they are genuinely angry and disillusioned about the state of the planet and the direction in which capitalism is taking it. However, far from being ‘anti-capitalist’, the role of the official campaigns is to divert any questioning away from a radical critique and reflection on the root causes of these ills. The history of the last hundred years has made it perfectly clear that the present social system is dragging mankind towards economic, ecological, and military disaster. Not only can capitalism not exist without poverty, looting the environment and war - these scourges are getting worse and worse. There is no basis whatever for hoping that those who run the system will or can change it for the better.
But this is no reason for despair. Capitalism, for all its horrors, has created the possibility of mankind uniting into a world community, of using the vast technical knowledge developed under this system to eliminate poverty and useless toil all over the planet. But:
- this can only be done if mankind’s productive forces are freed from the economic laws of capital. Which means not the achievement of an impossible ‘fair trade’ between nations, but the abolition of trade and of nation states, the elimination of wage labour, money, and production for profit,
- such a huge social transformation can only be the result of a world wide revolution. The world’s wealth is held ransom by the capitalist class and they will not give it up without a fight,
- the only path that leads to revolution is the class struggle of the exploited, who have the same interests in all countries, and who have no interests in common with their exploiters.
International Communist Current, June 2005