The making of global poverty

It is sometimes called the Third World, though now expressions such as ‘the South’ or ‘the Majority World’ are felt to be more acceptable. Equally, ‘developing countries’ is seen as more accurate than ‘underdeveloped’. Yet whatever label is used, it cannot be denied that much of the Earth’s population endure lives of poverty and squalor, of undernourishment that often crosses into famine, of insecurity and lack of opportunity. Their lives are often brutally short, with life expectancy far below that in wealthier countries (just 37 years in Sierra Leone, for instance, against a global average of 67 years). Each year around 14 million children die in the Third World, mostly from entirely preventable diseases. But such conditions have not always existed, nor has there always been such a chasm between rich and poor parts of the world. For capitalism created, or at least exacerbated, these inequalities, by the way in which it exploited pre-capitalist societies as it was expanding across the globe in search of markets, raw materials and labour.

The slave trade, for instance, was perhaps the worst example — it can only euphemistically be called a ‘trade’. Labour supplies were needed in the new colonies, especially in the Caribbean, but the native inhabitants were not strong or healthy enough to provide this. The solution was to ship labour power from Africa, not as ‘voluntary’ immigrants but as slaves, captured in battle or purchased from local rulers, transported in appalling conditions and forced to work on plantations. British capitalism in particular benefited from the slave trade: its products and profits helped towns like Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol to develop industries such as shipbuilding, cotton processing and sugar refining, for colonies were forced to send their produce to England and forbidden to manufacture anything locally. Banks such as Barclays and Barings were set up with profits from slavery. ‘The West Indian islands’, says Eric Williams, writing of the late eighteenth century in Capitalism and Slavery, ‘became the hub of the British Empire, of immense importance to the grandeur and prosperity of England.’ And at the same time Africa was impoverished, as it was usually the youngest and fittest who were abducted, thus depopulating the land and leaving the old or infirm, who could not cultivate the farms adequately. Africa’s population scarcely grew between 1650 and 1900, while Europe’s increased fourfold.

In addition, the Third World was a source of raw materials which fed the ever-growing demands of European capitalism. Africa, for instance, supplied groundnuts, cotton and rubber (nowadays it’s diamonds, timber, oil and rare metals). Profits from all this were repatriated, leading to further development in Europe rather than in Africa. Cotton goods and soft furnishings manufactured in India were enormously popular in seventeenth-century Europe. But the cloth industries in India, Africa and elsewhere were deliberately destroyed, primarily by British capitalism, both to do away with potential rivals and to open up new markets. In one area of the Philippines, for instance, the British vice-consul deliberately forced the replacement of locally-produced textiles with machine-made British ones, and encouraged production of sugar for export. All in all, Third World industry was undermined or at least kept on a low level while western capitalism forged ahead, partly on the basis of its colonial profits. In 1830, China was responsible for 30 percent of world manufacturing output, and India for 17 percent; by 1900, these shares were down to 6 percent and under 2 percent, respectively, while over the same period Europe’s share rose from 34 percent to 63 percent.

The end of the nineteenth century saw widespread droughts and famines, the Late Victorian Holocausts of Mike Davis’ book. Though figures can only be estimates, perhaps fifty million died in China, India and Brazil alone, as food was exported to the West, and local agriculture was disrupted by a mixture of ignorance and intent. In North Africa in the 1870s, peasants were forced to sell their livestock cheap to French dealers in order to stave off starvation in the short term. In other cases new taxes that had to be paid in money were introduced, forcing peasants to become wage-labourers. While the British rulers of India were lavishly celebrating Victoria’s sixty years as queen in 1897, wheat was being exported to Britain or left to rot in railway sidings, and poorhouses were being set up to further punish the destitute. (The Socialist Party’s predecessor organisation, the Social Democratic Federation, was the only grouping that consistently protested against the suffering being inflicted on India’s peasants.)

One of the most notorious events of the Western creation of the Third World was the Scramble for Africa (which can be roughly dated 1876-1912). This took place partly for strategic reasons: Britain needed to control both the Cape of Good Hope and the Suez Canal in order to ensure access to its Indian Empire. In addition, tropical produce was being exported to Europe, and there were many raw materials available cheaply — Germany needed access to cotton, oil, cocoa and rubber, for instance. Revenue could be boosted by taking over the tax and rental income of local ‘chiefs’, and forced labour could only increase profits. King Leopold of Belgium’s exploitation of the Congo, supposedly carried out to do away with the remnants of slavery, was the most extreme example. Edmond Morel, the journalist who exposed the extent of Leopold’s scheming, described what was happening as ‘a secret society of murderers with a King for a croniman’. African rulers often gave their lands away in return for old rifles and strings of beads, or unknowingly signed a treaty in English or French that contained different provisions from that in the local language. Lord Salisbury, British Prime Minister during much of the Scramble, prided himself that Africa had been carved up with no European power firing a shot against another (and African troops employed by Europeans did much of the actual fighting against other Africans). Salisbury’s policies served the British ruling class well:

‘He had certainly made sure that the lion’s share of new colonies and protectorates — fifteen out of thirty — went to Britain. If his preoccupation had always been to give Britain the strategic advantage, it was fortunate for Britain that he also gave it most of Africa’s most profitable territory: the gold-mines of the Transvaal, the teeming markets of the Niger, the tea and coffee of Uganda, the cotton of Egypt and the Sudan.’ (Thomas Pakenham: The Scramble for Africa)

Thus British capitalism benefited at the same time as Africa was impoverished. All in all, it cannot be argued that underdevelopment is due to Third World countries not (yet) enjoying the benefits of capitalism, that they have missed out on development by missing out on capitalism. The truth is that their current condition is a result of the role they played in the development of capitalism. Africa and many parts of Asia and South America, were colonised, formally or informally, for the sake of the European powers, whose ruling classes grew rich on the profits of this exploitation, in addition to the surplus value they extracted from workers ‘at home’.

Paul Bennett

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