Socialist Worker

War, famine: two brutal faces of imperialism

Issue No. 1819

FIFTEEN million people are starving in southern Africa. More than 30,000 children die every day around the world from preventable diseases. Five times as many people die from AIDS every day as died in the World Trade Centre. So world leaders are getting ready to spend hundreds of billions of pounds on a war to crush Iraq. These are the two faces of imperialism - war and hunger.

The governments of a handful of powerful countries, headed by the US, dominate the globe. These governments stand behind the 200 multinational corporations whose combined revenues are greater than those of 182 nation-states that contain four fifths of the world's population.

The US and its allies decide what happens at the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organisation and other international bodies. The same powers can also direct United Nations policy through their control of the Security Council. Often the sheer economic strength of the US is enough to bend others to its will.

If a Third World country wants money from the IMF then it must submit to 'structural adjustment'. That is IMF code for introducing charges for health and education, slashing welfare spending, slashing subsidies on basic goods and opening markets to giant firms.

Even when the effects of that are devastating, the IMF then demands yet more blood. Capitalist leaders are unmoved by the sight of starving children. They are the collateral damage of the programme for business. It is not just the Third World that gets this treatment. Argentina is going through its sharpest ever economic crisis.

People are reduced to desperate schemes, such as selling telephone cables ripped from the streets for recycling, in order to survive. Over half the Argentinian population now live below the official poverty line. Yet still the IMF demands more sacrifice, more 'tightening of belts'.

There are times when economic pressure is not enough to enforce the demands of the world's dominant powers. Weaker states may not go along with what these powers want. They may be late with debts, or raise the prices of raw materials that the dominant world powers depend on.

Weaker states may chafe at having military bases imposed on their territory, oppose the spread of GM foods, or refuse to give total freedom to multinationals to operate on their territory. Such 'insolence' is particularly important if it occurs in a region like the Middle East, which is so crucial for the supply of oil.

Control of oil helps the profits of US firms. It also enables the US government to pressure its competitors. When weaker states rebel the US needs a combination of cop, bailiff and thug - the military.

As New York Times foreign correspondent Thomas Friedman says, 'Markets function and flourish only when property rights are secure and can be enforced, which in turn requires a political framework protected and backed by military power.' Francis Fukuyama, in his book The End of History, celebrated what he called the triumph of capitalism after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

He admits, 'Microsoft or Goldman Sachs will not send aircraft carriers to the Gulf to track down Osama Bin Laden - only the US military will.' Weaker states will be given the choice of accepting the oppressive power of the most powerful countries or facing annihilation. The ruling classes in these weaker countries will usually give in, collecting their own slice of the loot.

They do not suffer like the majority of the population. In Mexico a study released this month showed top executives earn 124 times more than ordinary workers. In the US the difference is 27 times.

Imperialist power is not new. As soon as capitalism spread from a nationally-based system to a global one, the strong countries needed to have a way of 'showing the natives' who ruled. British naval bombardment reduced the Egyptian city of Alexandria to rubble and ash in 1882.

This atrocity cleared the way for colonial control of Egypt. Similar massacres took place across the world as the Great Powers extended their influence.

Imperialism is a particular phase in the development of capitalism. Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, called imperialism 'the latest stage of capitalism'.

Competition among capitalist firms forces them to invest resources in expanding their operations in order to produce more cheaply. Some succeed, some go under. Surviving firms get bigger as they drive out rivals. Whole economies come to be dominated by a small number of huge firms. Capitalist cooperation grows between industrial firms and the major investment banks.

There is an increased tendency for business and the nation-state to merge too. The state-business partnership of one country clashes with the same set-up in other countries. This sets the stage for the world to be plunged into slaughter again and again. That is why capitalism will always produce the horrors of war and hunger - until we end it by refashioning society so that need, not profit, is the driving force.

We shall prevail

'WE ARE starving, we are reduced to beggars, and the world is focused on pulverising Iraq because it has offended the interests of the US. Malawians are dying because of debt, because of the world bankers telling us to sell food, because of policies of governments imposed by the West. Does the death of an African child matter so much less than the prestige of President Bush?

When the colonialists came to Africa they described its people as 'barbarous'. If we 'discovered' the US today how could we describe a society so obsessed with visiting war and death upon other people when they could be doing something to end the suffering across the world? I do not know if Iraq has 'weapons of mass destruction'.

I do know Israel does and others do. But I also know that what the West is doing to Africa is 'mass destruction'. Debt is a weapon, the power of the multinationals is a weapon, the bankers' terms are weapons. Let us have a war to obliterate these weapons.

To everyone who is demonstrating against the war, I say thank you and more power to you. It is truly human to stand with the poor of the world against the power that comes from bombs and missiles. I have no doubt that if we stand together then we shall prevail against injustice.'
Mzimasi Makiniki, Malawian debt cancellation campaigner

Betrayed promises

'A YEAR after the US and its allies started bombing Afghanistan following the 11 September tragedy, President George W Bush is once again threatening Iraq. US threats of war come just weeks after the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) hosted in South Africa.

At the WSSD world leaders, including US secretary of state Colin Powell, made promises to eradicate poverty, protect the environment and bring about a better life for all. The war talk by Bush and lack of criticism by world leaders is a total contradiction of the promises made in Johannesburg.'
Percy Ngonyama, Campaign Against Military Spending, South Africa

Facts that damn their system

  • World military spending last year: $839 billion.
  • US military research budget: $75 billion.
  • Stealth bomber project: $48 billion. Cost per bomber: $2.2 billion.
  • To prevent 500,000 malaria deaths a year: $1 billion.
  • Annual cost of universal provision of basic services in developing countries: $80 billion.
  • Annual cost of providing healthcare and nutrition to everyone in the world: $15 billion.

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Article information

Sat 28 Sep 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1819
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