1990s >> 1999 >> no-1135-march-1999

World View: ‘City of Despair’, ‘American Prosperity’, ‘The Wasted Century’

City of despair
“The Japanese city of Osaka looks like a scene from a grainy black and white film about the Great Depression,” writes Leeroy Betti in the Western Australian (6 January). “Scores of cardboard and plastic shanties line the footpaths for block after block.” Thousands of men stand around open fires, many offering all kinds of rubbish for sale; others arrive as early at 5am outside the Imamiya Labour Centre, hoping to find jobs for building projects.

Officially, unemployment in Japan is 4.4 percent, or just on three million, but, says Betti, “the real jobless rate could be closer to 12 percent, according to some US economists”. And, he continues, “as the worst recession in Japan’s postwar history bites deeper, construction jobs, like those in other sectors, have dried up”. Moreover, many company executives are concerned at losing their jobs.

Betti concludes:

“As Japanese authorities search optimistically for signs that the economy will bottom out in 1999, its ninth year of stagnation, they could be caught unprepared for a burgeoning social crisis among those for whom time, hope and money already has run out.”

They may be whistling in the wind. Production in Japan, as elsewhere, is not geared for the satisfaction of people’s needs (Japanese workers need new homes while construction workers stand idle in Osaka), but with a view to profit for those who own the means of production. And without the likelihood of a profit, production will be curtailed or, ultimately, cease altogether, resulting in a surplus of the means of production and commodities on the one hand, and a surplus of unused labour-power, and mass unemployment, on the other. Indeed, in Japan, again as elsewhere in much of the world, too many commodities have been produced, not as compared with the actual needs of the overwhelming majority of the people but compared with their purchasing power. And workers in Japan, as well as Korea, Malaysia, Russia, and now Brazil, are discovering the hard way.

Is it not more than time that they organised to replace the chaotic, planless, society of capitalism with one in which rational planning, and the satisfaction of needs, social and individual, are paramount?


American “prosperity”
Are most Americans prosperous? Are they “middle class”? Is the United States “a nation of shareholders”? Do most Americans actually have a stake in the country?

Despite popular belief, most Americans—members of the working class—are not rich; and, over the last ten years, their living standards have deteriorated quite dramatically. John Schmitt, economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC, writing in the Guardian (18 January) exposes the myth of American prosperity. For example, he mentions that despite the hype, most Americans do not own any shares:

“According to most recent available data from the Federal Reserve, 60 percent of households in 1995 did not own shares, directly or indirectly, including the US equivalent of unit trusts and pension funds. Many of those who do own shares own very few.”

About 72 percent of American households had direct or indirect ownership, or holdings, worth less than 5,000 dollars. During the 1980s, shareholdings rose quite dramatically, but from very low levels. Professor Edward Wolff has suggested that between 1989 and 1997, shareholdings more than doubled; but “the typical US household held only $7,800 in all forms of investment. And in 1997, the top one percent owned shares worth $2.5 million, while the next nine percent held shares valued at $275,000”. However, a typical household’s assets (such as the house in which they lived, and its contents) were worth about $90,000.

Against this Schmitt notes that:

“Debt levels have rocketed. Between 1989 and 1997 the typical household’s debts rose $8,200, after adjusting for inflation. The increase in debt exceeded the total value of the same household’s shares at the end of the period.”

Furthermore, against the apparent assets of many American workers, their liabilities in the form of mortgages on houses and apartments, car loans and numerous credit card debts, demonstrate that they are not only largely propertyless in the means of living, but are permanently in debt. With the recent crisis in world capitalism, and its increasing effect in North America, the situation for most American workers may well get worse in the near future.

Prosperous they ain’t!


The wasted century
According to the UN, now at the end of the 20th century, of the world’s population of some 6 billion, over one billion lack access to safe drinking water while 800 million don’t get enough food.

Why is this? Is it because we don’t have the resources to produce the extra food, pipes and pumps, and health facilities? No, since the resources are there. Here are the views of two prominent scientists:

“Industry’s problem will be to find sources of energy which are inexhaustible and can be restored with a minimum of effort. Until now we have produced steam with the help of chemical energy released by burning coal: but coal is difficult to mine and its deposits decrease from day to day. Man should turn his thoughts to the utilisation of solar heat and heat from the earth’s interior. There is reason to hope that both sources will be used boundlessly. To bore a well of 3,000 to 4,000 metres is not beyond the powers of present-day engineers, let alone those of the future. The source of all heat and of all industry will thus be unlocked and if water is taken into consideration as well, all imaginable machinery on earth could operate, and there would not be any noticeable decrease in this source of energy in hundreds of years”.


“It is the energy of the sun, stored up in coal, in waterfalls, in food, that practically does all the work of the world. How great is the supply the sun lavishes upon us becomes clear when we consider that the heat received by the earth under a high sun and a clear sky is equivalent, according to the measurements of Langley, to about 7,000 horse-power per acre. Though our engineers have not yet discovered how to utilise this enormous supply of power, they will, I have not the slightest doubt, ultimately succeed in doing so; and when coal is exhausted and our water-power inadequate, it may be that this is the source from which we derive the energy necessary for the world’s work”.

These statements, however, are not recent. The first dates from 1894, from a speech by the French chemist, Marcelin Bertholet; the second from the inaugural address to the 1909 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science by Sir Joseph Thomson, physicist and Nobel Prize winner. (Both were quoted by the German Social Democrat in the last edition of his book Women and Socialism in 1912, part of which was translated into English in 1971 under the title Society of the Future).

What these statements show is that, at the beginning of this century, humanity possessed the knowledge of how to harness natural resources so as to have produced enough to adequately feed, clothe and shelter the entire world’s population. But it didn’t happen of course. Capitalism existed then just as much as it does today, and the aim of capitalism is not to satisfy people’s needs or raise their standard of living.

The driving force of capitalism is to make a profit for those who own and control the means of living so that they can further increase their wealth by accumulating it in the form of additional capital. This does lead to an increase in productive capacity and, in some parts of the world, has led to increased living standards. But nobody can claim—the UN statistics quoted at the beginning show this—that capitalism has been able to produce and distribute enough so that every man, woman and child on this planet is adequately fed, clothed and sheltered.

If the common ownership and democratic control of the world’s resources had been established at the turn of the century—and there was no reason why it couldn’t have been had a majority in Europe and America so wanted—then the production of food and basic amenities would soon have been increased and no one would have died this century from starvation or poverty-related disease.

Instead, capitalism continued, and not only did millions die of starvation and preventable disease but millions more died in two world wars and a non-stop stream of smaller localised wars, fought out between capitalist states over trade routes, markets, investment outlets and sources of raw materials. Millions more died as victims of colonial oppression or in concentration and slave labour camps run by dictatorial regimes such as those of Stalin and Hitler.

All this was unnecessary. It could have been avoided. But it wasn’t. The big question now is: will humanity waste the 21st century in the same way that the 20th century was?

Leave a Reply