How can hunger, poverty, and suffering through preventable or curable disease be ended?
Share the world’s food production equally, and everyone would be well-nourished. Add on some extra production achieved by reducing the subsidies given in Europe and the USA to farmers not to produce. Add more by giving plots of land to some of the one-third of the world’s workforce who are unemployed, or get only scraps of work, and also giving them the equipment to produce with. Cut the huge waste in food that is over-processed or over-transported for the world’s well-off. Then everyone could feast when they wanted.
Divide the world’s existing output equally - making no assumptions about cutting the waste today from arms build-ups, unemployment, and production of “consumer” absurdities — and each person would have roughly the income of a middle-class person or better-off worker in a poorer European Union country, Estonia for example. Not luxury, but decent basic comfort and some access to culture — a radically different and better life than that suffered by hundreds of millions.
Who could carry out such comprehensive “levelling” right now? Probably no-one. A radical levelling-up, however, is possible, and could go together with cutting today’s waste.
In the late 90s it was estimated that a tax of just four per cent on the 225 biggest personal fortunes in the world would pay for setting up access to food, drinking water, education, and health care for everyone in the world. To maintain regular nutrition, clean water supplies, and sewage for everyone in the world would cost about as much each year as is handed back to the rich in Britain alone each year from the cuts in top tax rates made since 1980.
Millions of people live in desperate poverty, not because bringing clean water, or cheap food, or a school and a clinic, to their villages or shanty towns is too huge a task — but because, in a capitalist world, virtually all investment goes into feeding spirals of prosperity in other parts of the globe.
To invest in producing baubles or bombs in California, for example, makes capitalist sense. You have a large consumer market at hand, and a tremendous advertising industry to sell the baubles, or the richest government in the world to buy the bombs. You have skilled, healthy, well-educated workers. You have ready access to high-quality supplies, repairs, spare parts, ancillary services, and communications.
To invest in building a luxury hotel, or an office for an international bank, in the capital city of a poor country, may make capitalist sense too. But to invest in allowing children in the poorest areas of the world to grow up healthy and educated? There’s no profit in it. Who would pay?
Capitalism is a machine for increasing inequality, both between different social classes in the same country, and between countries.
Who can push through the “levelling-up”?
While it produces inequality, capitalism also produces a class whose social conditions drive it to fight for equality and levelling-up: the wage-working class.
The wage-working class is concentrated in large workplaces and cities. It holds the links in the chain of global-market production in today’s capitalism.
Its conditions push it into daily conflict with the capitalists over wages and conditions of production. Out of that conflict grows organisation, trade-union and other.
Those workers’ organisations can be neutralised by complacent or timid full-time officials who gain too much control in the workers’ organisations, but whenever workers mobilise themselves on a large scale, they usually develop policies for democracy, equality, and social solidarity.
In many countries, and on a world scale, wage-workers — especially wage-workers with some regularity of employment — are not the poorest people. Sometimes better-off workers choose to defend their own little relative advantages rather than show solidarity.
But even in Europe, where the workers’ movement has long suffered from a clogging layer of officialdom, history shows a recurrent pattern of trade unions first being formed by the more skilled, better-off workers, and then becoming a lever for raising the standards of the whole working class, including the jobless, the disabled, and the old.
Many of the world’s poorer countries now have strong trade-union movements, mostly products of the last 30 years or less: Indonesia, South Korea, South Africa, Brazil. In China underground workers’ movements are mushrooming. Not counting those underground movements, there are now more trade unionists in Asia than in Europe.
And worldwide, the wage-working class is probably now the largest social class on the planet — about a third of the global population — for the first time in history.
Workers’ rights, workers’ mobilisation, and workers’ solidarity are the key driving forces which can end poverty. If the organised working class can establish conscious human control over the wealth that it has created - at present held by the bosses of the great multinationals and international banks — then we can achieve conscious, collective, human control over the major investment decisions worldwide.
The working class can break the grip of capital’s inbuilt drive to increase inequalities, and set investment towards providing everyone with the basis for a healthy, educated, productive life.
What’s inadequate about the “Make Poverty History” campaign to push the G8 governments to concede more aid, more trade justice, and more debt relief?
If we can win more aid (without IMF or World Bank strings), more debt relief (without similar strings), reductions in the rich countries’ barriers against imports from poor countries, and cuts in their subsidies to exports which ruin livelihoods in poor countries, that is good.
But as long as the campaign is focused on persuading the top capitalist rulers to loosen up a bit, it is very limited. Blair, Bush and the rest will not reverse capital’s inbuilt drive to increase inequalities any more than the Pope will start campaigning for atheism.
The aid business, for example, is also shaped by the priorities of profit. The big powers give aid where it is most diplomatically advantageous, not where it is most needed (the USA gives most, for example, to Israel and Egypt), and much of it is tied to purchases from multinationals of whatever they most want to sell, not what the local people need. At the other end of the chain, capitalist governments in poor countries siphon the aid into prestige projects and corrupt personal luxury.
OK, so we should instead say: “Smash the G8”?
If anti-G8 demonstrations got large enough that the G8 leaders could meet only on remote islands, or via electronic link-ups, that would be satisfying to those of us who hate Blair and Bush for the greed and hypocrisy they represent. It would not particularly help the world’s poor, or the world’s workers.
And there is something wrong with the idea that the world’s poor can be saved by some thousands, or tens of thousands, of dedicated activists fighting the police on their behalf at various capitalist meeting-points across the world. Isn’t it better to aim for self-emancipation through solidarity.
But everyone can help by buying “fair trade” goods?
“Fair trade” is only 0.01% of the goods exchanged globally each year, and there is little realistic prospect of it becoming much more. The activists for equality and democracy are mostly relatively poor. To see our buying power as our chief lever for changing the world is an odd choice. It is in our organising power, not our buying power, that we can hope to challenge the rich.
Do we have to choose? Can’t we pursue pressure on the G8 governments, “smash the G8” demonstrations, “fair trade” shopping, and campaigning for workers’ solidarity, all at the same time?
Up to a point, yes. Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty will be there on the “Make Poverty History” and anti-G8 demonstrations, and many of us would choose to buy fair-trade coffee and tea.
But since the energy and the numbers of activists are limited quantities, at some point there is a choice. A choice of priorities, anyway. It is illustrated by the way that “Make Poverty History” groups stumbled into promoting wristbands produced under sweatshop conditions by workers in China denied trade-union rights. For us, the struggle by those workers in China for their rights is not a side-question which can be forgotten in the midst of a busy campaign, but central.