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Make Capitalism History?

Two hundred thousand hands are raised to the sky, not for Heavenly salvation, but for Earthly justice; linked together in great chains that stretch as far as the eye can see and bond friends and strangers alike. It’s four in the afternoon, summer 2005, and I’m up to my knees in mud and who knows what else, standing in a field in the middle of the rolling Somerset hills. An aging farmer takes to what is perhaps the biggest stage in the world, accompanied by none other than the former Boomtown Rats front man turned international anti-poverty campaigner. And as Bob Geldof urges the masses crowded before Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage to march with him on Gleneagles to ‘make poverty history’, there is a feeling of hope amongst us all; a feeling that perhaps we really can do it, that perhaps this isn’t all some naïve dream.

Less than a year later, the Make Poverty History campaign has wound itself up. And now that the dust has settled and the mud has dried, we must ask ourselves some searching questions. Its disbanding should not, of course, be seen as a failure in itself, regardless of the wisdom of the decision. Make Poverty History was always intended to be a campaign specifically focussed on 2005: the twentieth anniversary of Live Aid and, crucially, the year that Britain held the presidencies of both the EU and the G8. And the star that burns shortest, burns brightest. Or at least that seems to be their reasoning behind it. But did they burn brightly, or did they crash and burn?

Certainly the campaign met with some limited successes in achieving debt relief for the poorest countries and an increase in aid. However it failed miserably in arguably its most important long-term goal: trade justice. Fundamentally it failed to make poverty history. But is this so surprising? Charitable initiatives can only go so far. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a strong supporter of the campaign, in fact I’m wearing a white band around my wrist as I write. And that’s not to say that charity is worthless, and that we should all sit around waiting for the revolution. In a world where thousands die of starvation every day, I find it hard to understand those who denounce charity. If the problem of poverty can be likened to a brain tumour, then charity is a pain killer. But as vital as this may be, it cannot cure the disease; it can only help to alleviate its effects.

Make Poverty History was, of course, a multifaceted campaign and to its credit it did seek to go beyond charity orientated fundraising and calls for increased aid in looking to the long-term causes of poverty. However the unwillingness of the leaders of the world’s richest countries to commit to the necessary reforms highlights a significant point. We cannot expect global capitalism to paper over its ugliest cracks. Despite efforts to soften the blow to the world’s poor, through fair-trade campaigns, charity, development programmes and the like, poverty can never be made history within the present economic system.

Poverty is an essential component of globalised capitalism. The ills of sweatshop labour, for example, are well documented. Sweatshops are perhaps the starkest symbol of the callous inhumanity of unchecked market forces. Indeed the organisation No Sweat describes them as “modern, global capitalism stripped bare.” These brutal workplaces are, however, also the best demonstration of a Marxist critique of capitalism. When a single pair of Nike trainers are sold in the West for more than the average monthly wage of the workers who produce them, it is not hard to see how the system is exploitative. But workers in the developing world have little choice. Sweatshop or starvation. Nor is the lot of poor farmers much better, locked into unfair trade relations and paid only a fraction of the value of their produce whilst, at the same time, having to compete with subsidised Western goods dumped into their economies.

Capitalism does not simply create and sustain poverty through such exploitation, but also depends on it. With the establishment of minimum wages, health and safety regulations and welfare provision funded by higher rates of taxation in the West, companies can no longer depend on cheap and expendable labour in their parent countries. The developing world provides them with armies of the desperate and the poor, who are unprotected by such Western benefits because these countries need the foreign investment and know that the companies can threaten them with relocation. Capitalism relies on poverty to keep developing countries and their populations in such dependant positions, where Western corporations are best placed to make the greatest profit.

The poverty of the developing world allows for the prosperity of the developed. If everyone is middle class these days, that’s because production has been exported, but the exploitation of workers is stronger than ever. It is in the interests of the rich nations and of capitalism itself to keep the developing world in poverty, and the rules of the game are stacked against the poor precisely because of this. Make Poverty History succeeded in highlighting many of the most crucial issues that face the world today, but within the present economic system their efforts were doomed to failure. Perhaps the only way we can ever truly make poverty history, is to make capitalism history.

Salman Shaheen

Posted by: skip
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