FOR WE who live on this planet under capitalism, there is the daily drip, drip, drip of frustration and resentment. And then, with eerie regularity, there are the horrors of famine, plague and war. The horrors have their roots in the daily apparatus of pedestrian human suffering. Thirty years ago I became a socialist and a revolutionary. Two things drove me to it.
The first was the Vietnam War. I grew up an American, a patriot. But the movement against that war grew so big that the truth about the cruelty there came out.
Before it was over, my country had killed three million people, many of them children, many of them burned alive. I still remember the night I decided I would not go to Vietnam. I walked by a river, alone, and cried all night, for the patriotism I had lost.
The other was famine. I lived in Afghanistan from 1971 to 1973. In the north the rains failed, and families lived on boiled grass soup. Foreign aid came in-bags of grain. The provincial governors made great piles of grain in the towns, and put soldiers round the piles. They sold the grain to the starving at ten times the usual rate.
A friend of mine, a French man, asked those peasants why they did not storm the piles of grain. They said, ‘Because the king will send his airplanes to bomb us if we do.’ Those planes were a gift from the Russians, but the pilots were trained in Texas in the US. The world system was starving those people.
When I returned from Afghanistan to Britain I joined the International Socialists (the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party). In the 30 years since, the horrors continued. In Afghanistan the people overthrew the king, but this was followed by 25 years of invasion and civil war, a million dead and six million refugees.
In Iraq there were eight years of a war with Iran that killed a million in trench warfare. In 1991 the US invaded, and the bombing killed 100,000 or 200,000 Iraqi conscripts, others were buried alive by bulldozers. That bombing concentrated on the water and sewage system. Twelve years of sanctions have killed at least 500,000 Iraqi children. That’s not my figure. I got it from a talk by a doctor at the top US Harvard school of public health. She went to Iraq each year and weighed babies, and they kept getting lighter. Those deaths were all for oil.
In Africa the wars in Angola and Mozambique began as struggles against colonialism. Apartheid South Africa invaded. Even after Nelson Mandela went free, the wars went on and on for diamonds and oil.
In Congo the guess is that two or three million people have died in the last few years in a war for minerals, above all for coltan, a rare and valuable substance essential to modern telephone systems and video games. There were wars in Cambodia, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Indonesia, Yugoslavia, Kurdistan, Chad, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Chechnya, and more.
Not all these wars are caused by superpowers. All the little powers of the world want their share too, because we live in a system based on force. Usually, if you live in a lucky country, you don’t notice that. All you see is the daily system. I live in London.
Stop and look around the tube carriage in the morning on the way to work. See the blankness on almost every face. This comes from the emptiness and boredom of jobs we don’t control. You can see it in how people look at the clock, how manual workers hate punching in, or how we come home and sit in front of the television and drink beer and watch junk to recover from work.
In the last 20 years neo-liberal economics has tightened its grip at work. This tightening grip has its human face in the power of the line manager, and an epidemic of bullying at work. Millions of us have cried in the toilet, bored our husbands and wives night after night, and been driven from our jobs, feeling like failures. Without our fear at work the system couldn’t control us.
In the late 1960s an elected Communist government in the Indian state of West Bengal announced that the police would no longer be sent in to settle disputes in workplaces.
Instead, the people who worked there should settle their problems together. The Bengali workers invented the ‘gerow’-when they needed something from a manager, they surrounded him or her, non-violently, and the manager couldn’t go for a piss until the workers got what they sought. Weak managers held out for an hour, tough managers for 18 hours.
The Indian central government suspended the state government and sent the police and troops into the factories. For a moment, we had seen what can happen in a workplace without fear. The employers need that fear for a reason. They are driven to make more and more profit.
They always compete with other corporations. Each company must grow or die. The system at work relies on everyday fear and force when they need it. Force also lies at the heart of a world system that relies on war and a world cop. The war on Iraq was planned as a war for US corporate control of oil. But Bush and the US ruling class have talked it up so much that now far more rests on the outcome.
WORLDWIDE, the dominance of the new global economics is identified with the power of the US army and the US corporations. If they win in Iraq, privatisation and financial institutions like the IMF will let rip.
If mass opposition to this war can humiliate that power, then the new neo-liberal economics will be brought into question. Nowadays in Britain employers are adopting a US policy. When they sack someone, two people walk with her to her desk.
They stand as she clears it, and then they walk her out of the building. As she goes, each of her mates is too afraid to stand up and shake her hand. Maybe, if we stop this war, someone who walked in a great demonstration will stand as they march that woman out of the building, and shake her hand, and say how they’ll miss her.
Then others can stand, and crowd round, and make her feel human, and feel some dignity themselves. But we need more. All my life I have seen the bombers on television. Each time I imagine the fathers and mothers who will cry that night for their dead children.
That endless recurring horror has its roots in competition and fear. To stop this horror now, we must stop this war. To stop the endless wars, we have to change the system.
Jonathan Neale is an activist, a writer and a member of the coordinating committee of the European Social Forum
Class struggle toppled apartheid