Brandt, cant and the banks

In October Margaret Thatcher went to Cancun, there to enjoy the Mexican sunshine, attend some splendid banquets, and make pious noises about the millions who starve to death in the Third World. Reagan represented the American capitalist class; Zhuo Ziyang, the Chinese dictatorship; and assorted Arab sheiks showed up to threaten their fellow exploiters with further oil price increases. As one dignitary after another arrived at the conference centre to talk about holding future talks, the victims of the poverty trap continued to perish, oblivious that the masters of the world had convened to talk about them.

The problems of the so-called developing countries are of a magnitude not easy to comprehend. Approximately two-thirds of their populations are malnourished, receiving less than the essential 2,500 calories a day. Thirty million people die of starvation each year, which on average means that one person starves to death every second. In Africa, one fifth of all children die before their first birthday and only a quarter of the population has access to clean water. Diseases in these countries are the direct result of squalid living living conditions and lack of adequate health services. In India for one, cholera and typhoid are widespread killers. Statistics can neither describe the suffering nor express the waste which are hallmarks of nascent capitalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In February 1980, the Independent Commission on International Development presented to the United Nations a report entitled, North-South: A Programme For Survival. The report is a striking indictment of the poverty of capitalist thinking about the problems engendered by their system. The Commission, chaired by Willy Brandt, and including such sterile minds as Edward Heath and Olaf Palme, was accurate only in its depiction of the plight of the poor in the developing countries. They recognised that irrigation is desperately needed; that pure water supplies and pumps are required; that more energy resources are wanted; that new educational facilities are necessary. Having highlighted these needs, the report then proposes solutions within the inhibiting structure of the world-wide profit system.

Under capitalism, investment in production is dependent upon the expectation of profit. Food is produced if it is likely to be sold: if there are no buyers, then there is no “market demands”. So, even though people are starving, they do not “demand” food unless they constitute a profitable market. To the simple mind it might seem obvious that if there is enough food to satisfy the starving and according to United Nations statistics, there is a capacity to feed the world’s population several times over — then they should be given access to the food. But such a solution would be too simple for the Brandt Commissioners, who realise that the present system is geared towards the profits of the few rather than the needs of the many.

Brandt and Co. are not in the charity business; the purpose of their mission is to open up new areas of the world to be exploited for profit. It is not the poor who will be better off at the end of the day, but the bankers and the industrialists (despite all the cant about the moral righteousness of overseas aid, which anyway constitutes only a small fraction of government expenditure in comparison with such “priorities” as the armed forces). More than two-thirds of financial loans to the developing countries since 1977 have been private bank loans with onerous terms and debt-servicing burdens. Between 1979 and 1981, debt-service payments for non-oil producing developing countries stood at 120 billion dollars, on top of rising trade deficits.

From a capitalist point of view, the Brandt report is progressive; it recognises the massive, largely uncultivated wastelands of Africa, Asia and Latin America as potential areas for rapid exploitation. With world capitalism in the midst of one of its periodic crises (and not looking like coming out of it soon), such a plan offers some hope. It should not be forgotten that the minority groups who own and control the developing countries are not starving themselves. They are generally affluent dictators who have had no electoral support from the people they rule. This however will not deter the “liberal” capitalists who support the Brandt proposals from sitting round conference tables with them and engaging in trade deals. By bringing the rulers of the developing countries into the international capitalist market, the “aid” agencies are helping to strengthen their own economic system:

  They (the aid agencies) are based on the upholding of the existing international and national framework of the developing world . . . The international agencies cannot accept changes in developing countries which might endanger existing patterns of international trade, foreign private investment, the regular servicing and repayment of debts, and other more or less general concerns of the capitalist developed or creditor countries. (Teresa Hayter, Aid As Imperialism, Penguin, 1971.)

Of course, the rival imperialist superpower, Russia, has long been engaged in precisely the same “aid” business as the West. Russian state capitalism has succeeded in “liberating*’ the rulers of developing countries from one gang of creditors to another. The Brandt report is seen by some Western bankers as a way for the west to compete with the Russian Empire in the bogus liberation game.

The real losers in all of this are the world’s poor. Poverty is by no means only a problem for “under-developed” countries — it is a worldwide working class phenomenon. Every single wage slave, whether he lives in the midst of advanced “free enterprise” or the relative backwardness of Bangladesh, is never free from the threat of being one of tomorrow’s hungry. The vast majority of the world’s population, who do not own or control the means of producing and distributing. wealth, are only ever entitled to have access to what they can buy. It is a dangerously insecure existence and it is madness for the workers to look to the bankers to change it for them.

Steve Coleman