Posts Tagged ‘Africa

18
Jan
11

What’s It Going To Take?

At my college, I’ve been trying to get a number of products (made by immoral companies or through unethical means) boycotted, both by the campus and by the students. It hasn’t been going so great.

My fellow students are more than willing, when I come knocking at their doors, to sign my petitions, but overwhelmingly that’s as far as they’ll go. More often than not they sign without even asking what I’m trying to do or tell me that they need time to think it over (which has been just a euphemism for “go annoy someone else”). It’s not that I’m ungrateful for having as many signatures as I do, but the real issue here is getting my peers to make a conscious change to the way they live their lives- to make an ethical statement. In all honesty I’d rather have them not sign at all than sign without actually joining the boycotts.

But that’s a bit off topic- here’s the real problem.

I don’t think the moral lines could be more clearly drawn in such a situation. We have companies that have killed for profit, selling their products here on campus, and in the stores and markets across the world. These two companies make junk food, their products are easy to substitute or give up entirely. I and my fellow activists merely ask that our peers stop spending their money to these unethical corporations.

And yet we’ve had almost no response.

It’s not an issue of necessity, where our peers are forced to buy certain products. It’s not an issue of availability- there are plenty of perfectly good (or at least, less harmful) substitutes to the boycott products. It’s not an issue of trust- we don’t want donations. The issue is that my peers just don’t care!

And here seems to be the problem- people don’t care much either way if the beverage they’re drinking came from a sweatshop in Colombia, or if the chocolate they’re eating was harvested by ten year-old slave-laborers in Central America. Perhaps it was best said in the film Hotel Rwanda, when one of the characters comments “…When people turn on their TVs and see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and then they’ll go back to eating their dinners.”. Other than a shallow, fleeting expression of shock or sadness or horror, no one seems to be moved to action.

Perhaps it’s that my peers (and Westerners in general) simply don’t expect anything from the third world other than disease, poverty, starvation, war, and genocide. Just a couple days ago, I saw this advertisement for the New York Food Bank (linked here)- in it, one of the spokespersons states “hunger happens in the third world- not in New York City”. Granted, the statement was made to make a point about the very real presence of hunger in New York, but it bugged me nonetheless. I appreciate them dealing with the issue of hunger in New York, but are they saying it’s acceptable elsewhere? I want to think it was just a poor choice of words on their part, but this kind of mentality does indeed exist. It’s a kind of unconscious racism- the idea that these places always have been miserable and always will be. The idea that there’s no hope. Again, Hotel Rwanda hits the nail on the head when a UN colonel says to the protagonist “You’re black. You’re not even a nigger. You’re an African.”. Perhaps the reason we can’t get people to care is because they just don’t believe the oppressed peoples of the world are capable of ever living in better conditions.

Or maybe that’s not the case. Maybe it’s that people are just distracted by other things. We’re bombarded every waking moment with messages telling us to lose weight or to gain weight or to lighten our skin or to darken our skin or to get a better clothes or a house or a better car and better insurance to protect those things. Perhaps it’s easy to lose track or get our priorities confused, and we start valuing a specific brand of soda over the lives of farmers in India.

Or maybe it’s that people just won’t care unless they themselves are the ones being oppressed and exploited. Maybe we’re so selfish and self-centered that the only motivation we’ll ever have to make the world a better place is when we’re the ones bruised, bloody, and starving. Maybe that’s the only wake-up call I and peers will ever really respond to- a lashing from the sweatshop overseer for falling asleep at our station, or the jab of a soldier’s bayonet for having been born the wrong race. Is this how things are going to be? The people who can help don’t care, and the people need help aren’t able?

At this point in the post, I’d usually throw out some kind of appeal or call to action, but I just don’t know what to say. What is it going to take to wake the world up? What’s it going to take to spur people into action? The movies, the poetry, the charity, the music- it helps for a while and briefly seizes our attention, but we soon get bored and forget. The powerful stay powerful, the powerless stay powerless. The rich get richer and the poor get left further behind. Again, what do we- what do I need to do?

Advertisements
01
Dec
09

The Myth

Perhaps the greatest lie originating (and arguably, perpetuated by) Capitalism is the idea that the wealthy are wealthy because they are intelligent, disciplined, and hardworking and the poor are poor because they are ignorant and lazy. As a result, if a man in a business suit and flawless grammar knocks on your door and asks if he can use your bathroom, chances are you’ll let him. You probably wouldn’t do the same for a man in a ragged bathrobe whose grasp of the English language was sub-average. Indeed, the quality of treatment you offer people is usually determined by what social class they hail from. We make assumptions about people based on whether or not they seem to be poor, middle-class, or wealthy.

Quite simply, we’re bigots.

And not without reason either. If a person is less willing to let a homeless man into his house than a man who is (or at least, seems to be) doing quite well for himself, then the person’s fear is not completely unfounded. A wealthy man has less reason to rob you than a poor man. Crime rates, alcoholism, and drug abuse are highest among the lower classes. Likewise the poorer classes tend to have the lowest levels of education. Statistically speaking, yes, you are more likely to be mugged by a poor person than a rich one, but so what? Bigotry is never tolerable, no matter what. So what if you’re more likely to be mugged if you get a poor guy into your house instead of a rich one? You don’t know either man. Maybe the man in the bathrobe is an honest, honorable person who’s had a run of bad luck. Maybe the man in the suit is a sociopathic murderer or a con artist. Judging people according to how wealthy they are is, no matter how you look at it, wrong!

So why is it that we’re prejudiced to trust the middle-class and wealthy rather than the poor? Is it because the poor are ignorant and criminal while the wealthy are intelligent and decent? Of course not! The poor aren’t poor because they’re criminals; the poor have high crime levels because they are poor. Sure the poor man is more likely to mug you, but is that because of him or the fact that he’s cold and hungry? Obviously there are those who are poor because of their own issues- all humans have a propensity towards greed and indolence. At the same time, it is ridiculous to claim that the poor are only poor because they’re lazy. It’s the poorest of the poor who have the heaviest workload. Across Africa, Asia, Latin America and yes, even Europe, Australia, and North America there are millions of those who for ten hours a day for wages of less than a dollar a day! There’s a reason we call them the Proletariat– the working class! It’s because they’re the ones doing all the actual work. They do the farming, the mining, the sweeping, the building, the cleaning, the producing and manufacturing! Why on earth would we even dare to consider these people to be lazy?

Because we’re lazy.

As I’ve said, humans are lazy. More often than not we don’t take the time and effort to investigate something for ourselves; we simply make assumptions or believe whatever our leaders and the media feed us. Since the poor are poor and unable to afford decent (if any) healthcare, we immediately assume that the poor are simply dirty. Since the poor can’t afford decent (if any) educations, we immediately assume that the poor are ignorant and stupid. Since the poor are poor and can’t always afford food/medicine/etc., many are forced into lives of crime- we immediately assume that the poor are naturally criminal. But laziness isn’t the only reason we don’t ask why the poor live in poverty.

Humans are also naturally arrogant. The idea- no, the myth– that the poor are poor because they are lazy makes us feel better about ourselves. We’re where we are because of our efforts! We’re wealthy because of our intelligence, our skill! We’re where we are because of our work-ethic, our self-discipline, and our decency!

Egotistical lies.

We’re where we are because of our own efforts and the efforts of our parents and their parents before them and because of the state of the world we live in and the class we were born into. Personal effort makes up about ten percent of it- the rest is accident of birth and dumb luck. A person pulling himself to the top from nothing is such a rare event that we make a major Hollywood film out of it. If you’re born poor, chances are you’ll stay poor no matter how hard you work unless you get not one but a whole chain of lucky breaks. If you’re born into a middle-class family, you’re probably going to stay middle-class unless you get a bunch of lucky breaks (though less than if you were poor). If you’re born into wealth and privilege than you haven’t done anything to deserve your life and don’t have to do anything to maintain it. Like I said, it really comes down to accident of birth. If you’re lucky, you’re wealthy, if you’re not, you’re poor and probably will be poor for the rest of your life. The Caste System isn’t exclusive to Hinduism.

So in short, don’t believe in the fairy-tale that the wealthy are the best of society and the poor are the worst, or that the poor are poor only because of their own efforts. We are, for the most part, fixed in our place by statistical chance- individual effort has very little effect on us.

It isn’t fair, is it? Only a sadist or an idiot could honestly state that this is an ethical system. Most of us simply shrug our shoulders and say that “life isn’t fair” or “that’s just the way things are…”. I say that when someone’s been murdered, we can’t stick our hands in our pockets and say “life isn’t fair”. I say that when any injustice has been committed, no matter on what scale, the only ethical course of action is to establish justice. Yes, life isn’t fair- but maybe that’s because no one’s doing anything about it!

16
Sep
09

The Common Good

It has been postulated by some that the way to a true utopia is the privitization of all industry. To these people, I present this BBC article as evidence that unregulated companies don’t exactly have the common good as their top priority.

Article linked here.

07
Jul
09

Marx and History

If one were to read the works of Marx, or indeed, any major Communist writer, one would find that large portions of the publications are dedicated to criticizing (or often, lambasting) Capitalism and Capitalists. Even this blog has almost as many anti-Capitalist arguments as it does pro-Communist. This of course leads to issues with the Communist image- Marxists are often perceived as self-righteous, angry, and destructive malcontents bent on ripping apart the fabric of society. Perhaps on some level this is true, however, there is a simple and often overlooked factor that contributes to all this: Marx’s theory of history.

In his works, Marx describes his theory as “Historical Materialism”. Now the term “materialism” is often misinterpreted (particularly by members of the religious community) to mean atheistic, worldly, and Darwinist. As I’ve said, this is a misinterpretation. In this case, “materialism” merely means “pertaining to resources” including capital (money), land, and most importantly, people. While Marx’s description of his theory is more than slightly complex and long winded, it can be broken down and simplified.

According to Marx’s theory, the history of the world is shaped by economics and politics, the pair of which are- as Marx claims- inseparably linked. Humanity once lived in a state where the elite- the aristocracy, nobility, and royalty- controlled their nations and the wealth of their nations. The middle class is almost nonexistent and the remainder of society not fortunate enough to be born to the elite are slaves or feudal serfs and peasants. Eventually, as kingdoms become less warlike and more permanently established, merchants, bankers, etc. will be created, resulting in the middle-class or as Marx called it, the “Bourgeoisie”.

As time progresses, the public will become increasingly dissatisfied with the system of monarchy and aristocracy and revolt, creating a democracy. While the elite class will still exist, due to the fewness of their numbers, the political power they once wielded will be limited, and the wealthy and numerous Bourgeoisie will dominate society. In this new society it is not claims to divine heritage or noble blood that count as power but money. The Bourgeoisie will compete viciously with each other in the attempt to gain as much money as possible, and in the process the proletariat (working class) will be used and exploited by the upper-classes. The proletariat themselves living in a state of “wage-slavery”, bound to work for whatever pay is available in order to survive.

After so long, the proletariat will be unable to take any more exploitation and violently revolt- toppling the class system and establishing a single-class society where all wealth and resources are shared equally: Socialism. The state- which controls the public- will wither away and be replaced with a system of government where the public controls the state. Marx defines this state of egalitarianism, public property, and democracy as “Communism”. Marx states that when Communism is achieved Historical Materialism ends (at least for those living in the Communist system).

So what’s that have to do with anything? How is any of this relevant to why Communists always rant against Capitalism? As we can see from Marx’s view of history, Communism is meant to be the correction of Capitalism. Communism isn’t meant to be a form of government more comfortable or efficient than Capitalism- it’s the replacement of Capitalism. According to Marx and his view of history, Communism is the completion of Historical materialism- as inevitable as the change of the tides or the rotation of the earth. The reason Capitalism is constantly railed against by Communists is because, according to Marxist philosophy, Capitalism is a wall that needs to be knocked down before a door can be put in. Capitalism must be removed in order to be replaced with Communism.

“But what about the flaws in Marx’s reasoning?” one might ask, “The Chinese and Cuban people revolted and yet neither of these Communist countries have had the governments wither away or the class systems disappear.” In answer to that, one must remember that neither of these countries are Communist but rather semi-Socialist dictatorships. “If they’re Socialist, then shouldn’t they be on the brink of Communism?” Not at all. One must also remember that the definition of “Socialism” has changed since Marx’s time. Marx used the word to describe the abolition of private property in favor of public property- today the word “Socialism” refers to an economic system where property is largely controlled by the state, rather than individuals or the public. One might also argue that Marx’s theory of history is flawed due to the existence of various tribal societies that have shared property and no class system. Now this is undeniable- across the globe there are people groups that live without private property or the class system however one must keep in mind that these are societies are not democracies. Granted, many are ruled by general consensus however without a voting system, consensus does not equate democracy. A neighborhood might generally agree to regularly cut their lawns, but this doesn’t make that neighborhood a democracy. “That’s all well and good,” one might state, “but Marx’s predictions still haven’t come true. Capitalism has been in the US for well over two centuries now and there hasn’t been any revolt, any collapse in society!”. This is absolutely correct, though by no fault of Marx. In Marx’s time, each country had it’s own social strata- there was the French elite class, the French Bourgeoisie, and the French Proletariat, the English elite class, the English Bourgeoisie, and so on. Marx predicted that the Proletariat would rise up and overthrow the classes above. The reason this hasn’t happened is because of a sudden shift in the class system. Due to globalization, countries and their economies are no longer independent of each other. What affects the middle-class in France will affect the middle-class in England, Germany, Russia and so on (to varying degrees, according to what the event is and how related the countries are economically, culturally, and politically). With this sudden merge of the nations of the world, classes have merged as well, creating the same three-class system only on an international level. Yes, each country has a working class, but in general the majority of actual mining, fishing, forestry, agriculture, and manufacturing is done by workers in the third world. France no longer looks to the French Proletariat for utensils but to China. England doesn’t hire English miners to gather coltan but to Congolese workers. When an American buys a t-shirt, chances are that the cotton it’s made of was grown in Syria and manufactured in Taiwan. In short, as a result of internationalization, there is an international proletariat (primarily the third world), an international Bourgeoisie (such countries as Bulgaria, Mexico, Estonia, Ireland, etc.), and an international elite-class (Japan, Switzerland, Monaco, Kuwait, etc.). Yes, the “Proletariat” of the US aren’t likely to revolt, but that is because on a global level, the American proletariat are wealthy. Even the poorest person in America, England, or Denmark is well-off compared to the average Sudanese person. Does the class system still exist as Marx knew it? No. Does that make Marx incorrect? Not at all. Marx stated that the proletariat would, once conditions became poor enough, revolt against upper classes. This statement works whether you apply it to 1840s England or the contemporary third world. Does this mean that the third world will eventually invade the Bourgeoisie and elite countries? No, but if the publics of these countries were to seize control of their governments, declare their national debts nil, null, and void, and throw out all foreign industry (as Castro did to the US owned sugar companies in Cuba) then the rest of the world would be thrown into chaos. With the formerly indigent countries no longer willing to work in the fields, mines, or the sweatshops, the rest of the world would have to look to the Bourgeoisie countries to become the new proletariat, started the revolutionary cycle all over again until the global class system disappears and Communism encompasses the globe.

Does this mark the end of history? The beginnings of a global, one-government society where crime, hunger, and war have been eliminated? The answer is a resounding no. Marx claims that this will be the end of Historical Materialism– history as affected by wealth and the class system. History- the unbroken chain of events from the beginning of time to the end of it- marches inexorably on.

22
Jun
09

Fareed Zakaria’s Capitalist Manifesto

The June 22 issue of Newsweek displayed a cover similar to what one might find on a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital or Che Geuvara’s Guerrilla Warfare. In reality, it’s just the opposite, bearing the title of “The Capitalist Manifesto”.

The central article of this issue was acclaimed journalist Fareed Zakaria’s “In Defense of Capitalism”, in which the author makes an eloquent, though logically unsound, vindication of the system.

For example, one of Zakaria’s primary arguments is that in order to avert economic crises (such as the current recession), “there’s a need for greater self-regulation…”. This is faulty by both the standards of Communism and (ironically) classic “Capitalism”. From a Communist perspective, one could argue that regulation isn’t the issue, it’s the system itself. An economic system based on self-interest will, inevitably, create more losers than winners. Even with regulation (be it self or state regulation), the “survival-of-the-fittest” process will be simply slowed, not altered. From a classical or “pure” Capitalist standpoint, Zakaria’s statement is also flawed since regulation, in any way, shape, or form, inhibits the growth of the free market. And even if one were to ignore the arguments against Zakaria’s statement (from both ends of the political-economic spectrum), one would be forced to ask whether or not “greater self-regulation” is even feasible. Humans have a hard enough time keeping themselves on their diets or giving up smoking, how can one be expected to self-regulate something as gargantuan as the economy? Again, the laissez-faire will argue that Capitalism shouldn’t be regulated and the Communists will argue that Capitalism shouldn’t exist period.

Now if it were the only flaw in Zakaria’s argument, then it might be excusable as simple idealism- a problem every system has to some degree. Sadly, this isn’t the case and there are plenty more defects plaguing the article.

At one point, Zakaria asserts that “What we are experiencing is not a crisis of Capitalism… Finance screwed up, or to be more precise, financiers did… Finance has a history of messing up”. Now before we can pass judgment on this statement, we have to dissect it first. Capitalism is, as described in previous posts, a system in which the end goal is capital, i.e. money. Finance is the current state of that capital, and financiers are those who deal in the exchange and/or circulation of money. In more simple terms, Zakaria has claimed that “The system isn’t to blame for the current situation being bad, it’s the people, and the situation is going to be bad a lot”. While this might sound reasonable, let’s take the logic behind this and apply it to a different scenario. Using Zakaria’s reasoning, one could look at a disease and claim that it’s not the fault of the treatment or the medicine the treatment requires but the patients who are to blame for not recovering. Of course, this is ridiculous. Anyone with a basic grasp of algebra can tell you that when there’s a problem with the result there must be a problem with the equation. Even if an advocate of Capitalism were to argue that the system is made up of humans and humans are naturally fallible, he or she would still arrive that the same conclusion (“therefore, Capitalism is naturally fallible”)!

And there’s more.

Zakaria claims that “over the past quarter century, more than 400 million people across Asia have been lifted out of poverty”. Now there are several issues with that statement in and of itself, not counting it’s wider implications. Firstly, there may or may not be any connection between these people’s rise out of poverty and Capitalism. Firstly, by simply redefining the word “poverty” one could technically determine the percentage of the world that is “impoverished”. Secondly, if poverty is defined by a person being paid less than one dollar a day, that said person could be “out of poverty” by being paid one dollar and one cent, rather than ninety-nine cents. Just because he or she is no longer in poverty, doesn’t mean his or her life is in any way improved. Thirdly, one must keep in mind that four-hundred million people have been [allegedly] lifted out of poverty in Asia. Zakaria fails to mention that poverty levels in Africa and much of the rest of the world continue to rise. Even if one were to look at Asia alone, at what cost has it dragged itself out of poverty? South East Asia has one of the highest levels of prostitution and sex-slavery in the world, and sweat-shop labor is rampant in the rest of the continent. All in all, Capitalism may have lifted many people out of poverty, but the number is negligible compared to the number of people still destitute, starving, and homeless.

In short while Zakaria’s article is well-written, in all honesty, the arguments made in the defense of Capitalism are unsound. Zakaria makes as good of a defense of Capitalism as Don Quixote made a good assault on the windmills, though in Don Quixote’s defense, he thought the windmills were evil giants, whereas Zakaria has no illusions of the nature of the system he’s defending.

09
Jun
09

The Success of Capitalism

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro commented “They talk about the failure of Socialism, but where is the success of Capitalism in Africa, Asia, or Latin America?”.

This is the topic that will be explored here.

At first, it would seem that Castro’s comment- made in 1991- is now outdated. After all, in Asia Capitalism seems to be doing extremely well. Japan has become a world superpower, China (a semi-Capitalist, semi-Socialist country) has one of the highest export levels on earth, and Thailand and much of South-East Asia has made massive profits off of tourism. All in all, it would appear that Capitalism has done wonders for Asia.

Or has it?

Japan, as the world’s second largest economy, has done very well for itself. In almost every respect, Japan has benefitted from Capitalism, depending on one’s definition of what is and is not beneficial- a question that will be addressed later. However, when compared with most other Asian countries, one might very well be led to conclude that Japan’s success is an isolated phenomenon.

Take China, for instance.

As previously mentioned, while China claims to be a Communist country, in reality China could be best described as a semi-socialist dictatorship with high levels of privatization. Quite simply, modern China, despite it’s cultural and political heritage, is Capitalist. And Capitalism has not been kind to China, as is clearly evidenced by the rampancy of sweatshops, child labor, and questionable marketing techniques (such as the notorious poisoned milk scandal in 2008, or lead-painted toy exports in 2007). While one might argue that this not due to Capitalism but to a lack of government regulations however one must keep in mind that Capitalism- pure Capitalism- is one without regulation, as repeatedly argued by Smith, Freidman, Rand, and so on.

And it’s not just China.

Sweatshops and child labor are present in most countries (though to varying degrees), but it doesn’t end at mere repeats of Dickensian nightmares. Though present in every country on earth, the sex trade is particularly bad in South East Asia, most notably Thailand. As described in the previous post, Capitalism is defined as the buying and selling of goods or services for profit- the emphasis on services being key here. Both voluntary and forced, prostitution is a widespread “industry”, for lack of a better term. While some might argue that prostitution is the “oldest trade in the world”, one must still question whether or not this makes it right. After all, it was once Roman practice to leave unwanted children out under bridges, but the fact that was practiced for hundreds of years doesn’t justify it. Or perhaps a person could argue that the sex trade isn’t a result of Capitalism, but if it isn’t, what is? Would these women be selling themselves for free? Would brothel owners auction off women and girls without the incentive of profit? Capitalism’s point is capital– profit. With the profit taken away, there’s not point in buying or selling goods or services- sex included.

And this is only Asia.

In Africa and South America, colonialism, or rather “neocolonialism” is still present, though in far more subtle ways. While sweatshops and sex-trade are present in both Africa and Latin America, Capitalists seem to be less interested in the profits they could make in the countries so much as the profits from what they take out of the countries. Ivory from Kenya, diamonds from Sierra Leone, minerals from Peru, wood from Brazil, and so on in an almost endless list. Corporations, mostly Western, suck Africa and South America dry of its resources in exchange for nominal pay. A person in the DRC could work in a mine for coltan ore in dangerous conditions for long hours and receive less than a dollar for his work- enough to keep him alive, but not enough to allow him to find better work. These conditions, if imposed on Western workers, would lead to riots, but in South America and Africa, corporations are capable of taking advantage of poor living conditions to create a almost limitless workforce of unskilled laborers and bleeding these countries of their natural wealth. An advocate of Capitalism could argue that a coltan miner being paid a dollar is better than the same person being paid less- that these countries are still better off with neocolonialism than without. To this I must ask whether a child is better off prostituting herself than starving. Just because a person, country, or continent is marginally better off doesn’t mean that its treatment is in any way justifiable.

While the world can talk of the “fall of Socialism”, I suggest that one cannot speak of the success of Capitalism either.