Starvation – the inability to buy the things to sustain life – is still stalking Africa.
George Soros is one of the great men of capitalism. He’s the Chairman of Soros Fund Management, a Hedge Fund that is estimated to have assets of approximately $27 billion, and the vehicle that has enabled him to become the 35th richest person in the world. He’s admired in the financial world as the “The Man Who Broke the Bank of England” when he pocketed a reported $1 billion in 1992 from the Black Wednesday UK currency debacle. He’s renowned for his philanthropy and as a supporter of liberal ideas. He has been described as a “distinguished thinker”. Consequently people take notice when he asserts that: “Most of the poverty and misery in the world is due to bad government, lack of democracy, weak states, internal strife, and so on” (www.woopidoo.com).
It’s fortunate that Soros decided to become one of capitalism’s speculators rather than a doctor, because his diagnosis of poverty and misery is simply a list of a few of their symptoms. The business Soros is a “respected” member of, and his charitable interest in Africa through the Soros-affiliated organisation, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, coincided with a BBC report last year (8 June) that: “Hedge funds are behind ‘land grabs’ in Africa to boost their profits in the food and bio-fuel sectors… Hedge funds and other speculators had, in 2009 alone, bought or leased nearly 60m hectares of land in Africa – an area the size of France”. The word ‘profits’ in the BBC’s report is the cause of ‘poverty and misery’.
Global food prices have hit all-time highs during the past year, which is the driving force behind the African “land grab”. The BBC reported (23 June) that: “The World Bank says that since June last year, rising and volatile food prices have led to an estimated 44 million more people living in poverty, defined as under $1.25 (£0.77) a day. It estimates that there are close to one billion hungry people worldwide”. The G20 ministers two-day meeting in Paris in June did nothing to resolve any of these problems, as the same BBC report went on to say: “They have agreed to look at new rules to tackle food price speculation. However, it remains to be seen whether these will be adopted. This is because any moves to target speculators in the food commodity markets will have to be agreed by G20 finance ministers at a later date.” Not very good news then if you’re starving now.
Duncan Green, Head of Research for Oxfam GB gave his appraisal of the G20 meeting on his blog (www.oxfamblogs.org): “Verdict on G20 food summit? Dismal, please try harder.” And Deborah Doane, director of the World Development Movement said: “The UK government’s stance in defence of excessive speculation is untenable. It must put its weight behind European plans for regulation, putting the needs of hungry people before the profits of banks like Goldman Sachs and Barclays Capital”(wdm.org.uk).
Africa is the embodiment of capitalist exploitation. For almost four centuries it has been systematically plundered for its raw materials and human labour. Although the African slave trade dates back to the 7th century with the Muslim conquest of the southern Mediterranean basin, and was also a well-established part of the institutional structure of African society, it never gained any real economic momentum until it came into contact with European traders.
By the middle of the 17th century capitalism was throwing off the fetters of European feudalism. Britain was at the forefront of that change. The agrarian capitalist of the past few centuries was giving way to the industrial capitalist, and the African slave trade played a leading role in the growth of that embryo.
At the start of the eighteenth century the British trade in slaves was dominated by London-based merchants, but after 1730, Bristol and finally Liverpool saw the majority of slave ships sail from their ports to acquire their human cargo. The returning cargoes were the product of the slaves’ labour: sugar, tobacco and the industrial input – raw cotton. This set in motion a dramatic expansion in intercontinental trade, vital to the development of capitalism. The importation of sugar, tea and tobacco were the foundations of consumer expansion, as was their re-export. As was to a larger extent the production of cotton, which was a significant factor in America's primitive accumulation of capital and their advance towards a capitalist state.
The trade in human labourers thrived until the early nineteenth century. Throughout this period the death knell for slavery was steadily being rung by the growth in wage labour. With slavery the slave is the commodity, with wage labour the labour-power of the worker is the commodity, the buyer of which is the capitalist and the seller is the labourer. The price of that labour-power is the wage paid to the labourer.
The emergence and expansion of waged labour was the defining element in the growth of capitalism. Within the space of a few centuries a substantial segment of global society had undergone a transition from one means of feeding, clothing and sheltering itself to another. The trade in African slaves and the concomitant growth in consumer commodities created new capital, new markets, new technology, new mercantile methods, and helped to bring about the exponential growth in waged labour. However, the conclusion of the legalised trade in African slavery simply led to a new quest for profits.
The historian J R Seeley argued in 1883 that “Britain acquired an empire in a fit of absence of mind”. Germany, France, Portugal, Spain, and Belgium must also have been visited by the same malady, and at exactly the same time. Most of Africa was colonised by the European powers by the time of Seeley’s book. New markets and new materials to profit from have to be continually sought. When located they must be protected by the state. That is the logical solution to an economic imperative integral to capitalism. State-backed capitalists and speculators, like Soros, throughout Europe had common aims in the late nineteenth century – expansion into Africa.
The natural resources freely available in Africa were a prize that most capitalists would logically covet. An illiterate and unorganised labour force was an added incentive. Draconian work methods were imposed on the workforce to extract those resources that made contemporary European factories seem almost genteel.
There’s an Ibo saying “when two Brothers fight, Strangers always reap the harvest”. That encapsulates the aftermath of European imperialism in Africa. From Algeria to Zimbabwe almost every African state has been affected by war for decades. The control by small elites of natural resources remains the prime cause for much of the slaughter, poverty and misery which are by-words for the daily lives of many, many Africans. Western capitalists and speculators, remain as firmly entrenched in Africa today as they were during Cecil Rhodes’s era who summed up the capitalist view of Africa: “We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories” [brainyquote.com].
Modern land grabs
A new impetus is driving capitalism’s elite – how they can profit from mass hunger. The Observer reported last year (7 March) that a “land rush” in Africa: “ has been triggered by the worldwide food shortages which followed the sharp oil price rises in 2008, growing water shortages and the European Union's insistence that 10 percent of all transport fuel must come from plant-based biofuels by 2015… Leading the rush are international agribusinesses, investment banks, hedge funds, commodity traders, sovereign wealth funds as well as UK pension funds, foundations and individuals attracted by some of the world's cheapest land.” But it isn’t just land that’s of interest: “the Saudi investment company Foras, backed by the Islamic Development Bank and wealthy Saudi investors, plans to spend $1bn buying land…but is also securing for itself the equivalent of hundreds of millions of gallons of scarce water a year. Water, says the UN, will be the defining resource of the next 100 years”.
Even the academics are not shy when it comes to turning a profit, as the Guardian reports (8 June): “Harvard and other major American universities are working through British hedge funds and European financial speculators to buy or lease vast areas of African farmland in deals, some of which may force many thousands of people off their land, according to a new study.”
China began its search for raw materials much earlier as the BBC reports. “In almost every corner of Africa there is something that interests China. The continent is rich in natural resources that promise to keep China's booming, fuel-hungry economy on the road. There is copper to mine in Zambia, iron ore to extract in Gabon and oil to refine in Angola.” But like all such reports the writer is compelled to include the benefits for the workers: “Many Chinese firms employ large numbers of local workers but wages remain low. However, there is evidence that workers are learning new skills because of the availability of Chinese-funded work. Taking advantage of low labour costs, the Chinese are also building factories across Africa. Observers say Beijing appears ready for the long haul in Africa” (26 November 2007). And why wouldn’t they have every intention of staying? Cheap, unorganised labour, and an abundance of nearby natural resources is the fulcrum that creates new capital. A few Chinese capitalists will enrich themselves, but the African workers who produce those riches through their labour power will live out their lives in poverty and misery.
Slavery is still with us or what is nowadays termed “forced labour”. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are at least 12.3 million people in forced labour worldwide; 660,000 of those in Sub-Saharan Africa. As much as slavery is alive so too is the slave mentality – imploring the master to be kind. However, the master is capitalism and it is out of any organisation’s or individual’s control. It cannot be legislated away. There is no lever to be pulled or button to be pressed that can make it more humane.
The World Development Movement asks its supporters to become involved by cycling from London to Paris, recycling your phone, putting WDM in your will, getting green energy, and investing ethically. I’m sure that George Soros and his class are trembling in fear at their proposals.
Starvation caused by poverty – the inability to be able to buy the commodities that can sustain your life – seems to be looming large for a great many of our fellow human beings. Anyone who genuinely wants an end to poverty has to confront the cause. The cause is the profit system. Capitalism. The only cure is a socialist revolution, not a bicycle ride to Paris.