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Vaccine disparity—is imperialism in workers’ interests?

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As India’s health system collapses under a new wave of Covid-19, Socialist Worker examines whether Western workers are gaining from the way imperialism operates
Issue 2753
Queuing to refill oxygen tanks in New Delhi as supplies run dangerously low in India
Queuing to refill oxygen tanks in New Delhi as supplies run dangerously low in India (Pic: PA)

The horror of India’s second wave of the ­coronavirus seems to know no bounds. Scenes of desperate people seeking oxygen cylinders and ­non-existent hospital beds have sent a wave of anguish around the world.

India’s biggest cities are now even running out of wood to cremate the bodies of the dead.

What kind of world allows one country to vaccinate almost half its citizens in record time, while in another the inoculation programme is barely off the ground?

This is the question many in Britain are rightly asking. For some on the left the question is not difficult to answer.

The rich countries of the West rob the poor ones and the spoils are divided, ­however unevenly, between them.

Workers and the poor may suffer hardship in these advanced nations, but they are far better off than most in the Global South, they insist.

And, because they receive a share of the loot, workers in the West have been able to secure themselves a right to vaccinations. Meanwhile most of the rest of the world is forced to go without.


They are reaping the fruit of imperialism, the argument continues.

There is no doubt that the most economically advanced nations have exploited the poorest ones.

From Spain’s stripping gold and silver from South America in the 16th century. To Britain’s looting of India’s vast wealth that began in the 18th century—the seed money for capitalist development was plunder.

That theft continues today. It can be seen in unfair international trade practices and the privatisation of state assets that end up cheaply in the hands of multinationals.

And it’s seen in the loan shark-like lending that forces poor countries to hand control of their economies to international bankers.

The historic and the contemporary have combined to create today’s rich and poor countries. And the strongest use their economic and military muscle to make sure it stays that way.

But there are important points to make about this process.

Imperialism as a system is not confined to only the most powerful.

It pushes all nations, big and small, to engage with it, even if only as a lesser partner.

India, though economically much weaker than Britain, seeks to dominate neighbours it considers enemies, such as Pakistan.

And it acts paternalistically towards others it wishes to dominate, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Its rich and powerful have investments scattered ­throughout the world, exploiting both people and resources to make profits. And the state has a huge, nuclear-armed military machine to make it a force to be reckoned with.

In their drive to be the ­leading force in South Asia, India’s rulers hope to insulate themselves from Greater Asia’s strongest power—China.

It’s true that the biggest and most powerful ­imperialist powers bully those below them in the pecking order, and that power is far from equally distributed.

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But attempts to see the world simply as divided into ­imperialist and non-imperialist nations are a mistake.

Imperialist robbery is best understood as part of a complex system of global rivalry.

Second, while coveting resources and dominating others is important to all capitalist nations, the main source of profit for the system is another form of stealing.

This is the exploitation of labour.

Profits are made when ­capitalists put workers, machines and raw materials together to produce goods for sale. Workers are the source of the value created, but their wages account only a small percentage of what they’ve made.

The remainder is unpaid labour that becomes the source of the bosses’ profits.

The importance that bosses attach to their ­workforce corresponds directly to the amount of profit they create, and how easily “replaceable” they are.

In wealthier countries—in the West, but also other states that developed rapidly in recent times—huge concentrations of machinery are combined with vast investments in research.

This allows bosses to make even greater profits and accumulate even more wealth, using relatively small numbers of highly skilled workers.


Each individual worker is exploited to such a degree that they produce much more profit for the system than hundreds who toil long hours for pennies in the poorest countries.

And it means skilled labour becomes a valuable commodity in its own right—one that must be afforded a degree of protection.

Major investments are required to produce a highly trained workforce, to maintain its health and allegiance to the firm.

For that reason most of the ruling class in the Global North are committed to a fairly advanced form of health provision.

Even in the US, where there is no free national health service, big employers tend to offer health insurance as part of their pay package.

They simply cannot afford for the people that make them huge profits to be off sick for long periods. Or to be too poor to be quickly patched up and sent back to work.

That’s why Britain spends over 7.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product, the value of all the goods and services it produces in a year, on healthcare.

It is for that reason that the vast majority of major ­employers want their staff vaccinated against Covid-19, and an efficiently organised programme to make it happen.

The situation in India and many other poorer countries is different.

Capitalist development in India was terribly hamstrung by British colonialism that lasted until 1947. Whatever surplus could be made from the poor in India, either on the land or in production, was quickly exported to Britain.

There it lined the pockets of the rich.

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But the British poor, forced into the new wave of factories in the 18th and 19th ­centuries and languishing in slum housing, never saw a penny of it.

Indian capitalism was ­therefore in a much weaker position to invest in the latest machinery and to research the latest productive techniques.

Instead it was forced to use large pools of cheap, lower skilled labour as a way of competing on the global market.

In this situation, the surplus that each worker contributes towards the Indian bosses’ profits is generally much smaller than in economically advanced countries.

In turn, the boss considers each worker as being of little value and relatively easy to replace.

That is a crucial reason why public health spending in India accounts for just 1.26 percent of Gross Domestic Product—and why the poor barely receive any medical care at all.

This is one of the most important reasons why India, despite being a vaccine manufacturing powerhouse, has not rolled out a vaccination programme on a scale required.

It is not ordinary people in the West who have robbed India of a decent vaccination programme. It is a system of economic priorities that spans the globe which is responsible.

And although globally different workers have different experiences, being at the mercy of profit isn’t a positive for any worker.


Increasingly the certainties that capitalism and ­imperialism were once able to offer ­workers in the most economically advanced nations are fading away.

For many people, secure jobs on good pay and pensions are relics from the past.

Capitalism’s crisis means each generation now faces the prospect of a harder life than their parents and grandparents, and that is a source of huge ­bitterness—as yet untapped.

The collapse of legitimacy of the system in both the Global North and South opens the prospect of a fight against the system across the world. It can unite workers in countries both rich and poor.

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky willed the collapse of the imperialist British Empire.

He talked of how the combination of struggles in Britain and its colony India might lead to a new and better society.

“If we take Britain and India as polarised varieties of the capitalist type, then we are obliged to say that the ­internationalism of the British and Indian proletariats does not at all rest on an identity of conditions, tasks and methods, but on their indivisible interdependence,” he said.

“Successes for the liberation movement in India presuppose a revolutionary movement in Britain and vice versa. Neither in India, nor in England is it possible to build an independent socialist society.

“Both of them will have to enter as parts into a higher whole. Upon this and only upon this rests the unshakable foundation of Marxist internationalism.”

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