Historic con trick

The G7's 'historic deal' to cancel the debt of some of the poorest countries is a fine example of what happens when genuine mass sentiment is taken over by the ruling elite - and turned into its opposite. Tina Becker says that communists must reject the politics of charity

What a marvellous exercise of spin we have witnessed in the last week over the Gordon Brown-brokered "historic agreement" on debt cancellation. "A victory for millions" was The Observer's ever so neutral front-page headline (June 12). The BBC website comments that "today's deal will be seen as a triumph for Mr Brown, who has cajoled sometimes reluctant G7 countries - the G8 minus Russia - to back his plan" (June 12). Bob Geldof was overjoyed that "tomorrow 280 million people will wake up for the first time in their lives without owing you or me a penny. This is also a victory for Gordon Brown personally" (The Guardian June 13). Brown and Tony Blair have managed to convince pretty much the whole planet that their deal will be a first step to 'make poverty history'. In reality, it will do no such thing. The deal consists mainly of one thing: a lot of hot air. It most definitely is not "historic". The G8 summit in Cologne in 1999 promised almost $100 billion in debt relief for the poorest countries - and guess what? Most of it never materialised and the money that did find its way to Africa did nothing to alleviate the crippling poverty that is the lot of millions. The 'new' £22 billion package for 18 countries, which will almost certainly be given the nod at next month's G8 summit in Gleneagles (and then by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank), includes loans that will not mature for another 40 years. In fact, those 18 countries between will 'save' a measly £1.5 billion that they would normally have spent on annual debt repayments - if they actually made the payments. Most of the debt of those extremely poor countries spiralled out of control precisely because they could not afford to meet debt repayments and took up new loans just to cover them. It is still unclear how the G8 countries will cover their share and it is expected most will simply juggle their books. Britain's share of the debt cancellation programme (about £70-90 million per year, payable over the next 10 years) is part of an aid programme that Gordon Brown committed the government to back in August 2004. George W Bush has announced similar methods of giving money that had been pledged for aid, but not yet specifically allocated. Africa's total debt stands at £300 billion, but the countries that will now 'benefit' are not necessarily the poorest - it is those that have previously become eligible for the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, which was set up by the World Bank and IMF in 1996 and relaunched after the Cologne G8 summit. Under this scheme, only those that agree to 'good governance' can, for example, expect their debts to be halved. The 18 countries have already had their bilateral debts to rich countries written off under the HIPC, but still had to serve debts to the World Bank and IMF (which are now being covered by the G8 countries, thanks to some 'newly discovered' money in the IMF's coffers). 'Good governance' in this context is a term of truly Orwellian proportions. It sounds like a programme for the efficient provision of basic infrastructure, healthcare and education, a programme that combats graft and waste. But the finance ministers' statement explains that in order to qualify for debt relief, 'developing' countries must "tackle corruption, boost private-sector development" and eliminate "impediments to private investment, both domestic and foreign". So in reality 'good governance' achieves the opposite: it demands large-scale privatisation (as with Bolivia's gas supply) and the corollary - drastic cutbacks in social provision. It is not hard to see how this creates a fertile breeding ground for more corruption, qualitatively inferior services and even more intense exploitation and poverty - after all, private capital will have to make a profit. Big-hearted politicians Africa is a headache for bourgeois politicians and a black spot for capitalism. It certainly is not the hot weather that has made Africa poor, nor is it simply an accident of history - it is the result of ruthless pillage at the hands of swarms of slave-traders and merchant capitalists who, with the help of their national governments, knew no bounds when it came to bleeding a whole continent dry. After the end of formal colonial occupation, most African countries were simply left to rot (apart from a few that were of strategic interest during the cold war). Much of the continent has been so poor that the workforce remains unsuited to the needs of modern capital. Today's deal is part and parcel of reshaping the world in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It must be viewed in the context of capitalism's secular decline, Bush's 'war on terrorism', the attempt to bring the Middle East in line and stop Iran and North Korea from becoming nuclear threats. Now Africa is being put on a drip-feed in the interests of capital. The British government has pushed the question of debt so hard for two reasons - and both of them have very little to do with their big-heartedness or real concern for human life. Firstly, there is Tony Blair's looming retirement. While he still defends the decision to go to war against Iraq, it is hardly the thing he will want to be remembered for. After all, polls showed that over half the population was against it at one stage. But a moral crusade against world poverty - who can say no to that? With this 'deal' in his pocket, Blair can go out with a bang - while at the same time setting the stage for Gordon Brown as his successor. The former German chancellor Willy Brandt secured his 'place in history' with the so-called North-South Commission's Brandt report, published in1979, which first suggested that the 'first world' should commit 0.7% of its GDP to aid for the 'third world'. Hardly anybody remembers today that Brandt had to resign from office in 1974 because his personal assistant, Günter Guillaume, turned out to be one of the most valuable secret agents East Germany ever had. Secondly, and most importantly, it is an incredibly popular agenda. The aftermath of the tsunami disaster showed how many people are profoundly concerned for the plight of their fellow human beings. The massive scale of the donations gave an inspiring glimpse of the level of solidarity that we would expect in a socialist world. Thousands of people will be travelling to Edinburgh with the heartfelt desire to 'do something' against the perverse situation where massive overproduction and profound poverty coexist. Clearly, there is genuine mass sentiment - but one that has parasitically been used by the government for its own purposes. What is lacking in this sentiment is a clear, working class programme that could prevent such incorporation from above - a programme that actually challenges the system itself rather than attempts to treat its symptoms. Franciscan self-sacrifice, muslim zakat, the modern charity - while they have been supported out of a real desire to help fellow human beings - have one thing in common: they preserve and positively strengthen the exploiting social structures which condemn the many to utter poverty. Rich and poor The role of communists in this real, but incredibly naive, movement is not an easy one. So removed have people become from real working class politics that charity is now the latest, almost unchallengeable, answer to problems. Forgotten are the times when the Chartists, the trade union movement and 19th century socialists like Helen Macfarlane raged against the politics of charity: "We feel humiliated and pained when a beggar stretches out his hand to us for 'charity' - that insult and indignity offered to human nature; that word invented by tyrants and slave-drivers - an infamous word, which we desire to see erased from the language of every civilised person" (quoted in D Black Helen Macfarlane New York 2004, pp48-49). Instead of charity, comrades like Macfarlane (the first translator of The communist manifesto into English) proposed solidarity with her fellow human beings across the globe - a demand that is today as important as it was then. But class politics are almost completely absent today. In the charity drive, workers in different countries are pitched against each other as part of 'the rich' or 'the poor'. The real class divisions in countries like Britain are forgotten, and instead there is an overwhelming moral pressure that we must stick together with Gordon Brown to combat poverty. Only by rediscovering class again can we find a way out of the misery that has entrapped billions of people in poverty - here as well as in Africa. War on Want's Nick Dearden is profoundly wrong when he assures us that "the world's leaders do have the ability to wipe out poverty" (Red Pepper June 2005). Africa is poor not despite, but because of, capitalism. Capitalism is based on exploitation and uneven development. There must be rich and poor. An end to poverty and exploitation is only possible with the end of this and all other forms of class society. While for the last seven or so years we have seen the slow rebirth of a potentially very powerful movement from below, the working class as a subjective force (that is aware of its power) is non-existent. While the working class does, of course, exist as an objective entity, it has no consciousness as a class for itself, a class that can make history. Most trade union branches are defunct, with many members viewing their union as not much more than a provider of cheap insurance cover. The Labour Party - more tightly controlled than ever by the right wing - is a hollow organisation at the base. Its local branches have long since ceased to bring together working class militants. This period, which we have characterised as a period of reaction, started in Britain with Margaret Thatcher's strategic victory over the miners with the defeat of the Great Strike of 1984-85. None of the working class struggles that followed had much chance of success. The anti-poll tax campaign was a partial exception, but it did not produce an alternative force capable of leading a radical movement to transform society. In other countries, there were also strategically important clashes. On a global level, it was, of course, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc between 1989 and 1991 which heralded what Fukuyama dubbed in 1992 "the end of history". The collapse of the USSR brought with it a massive defeat for our class - not because these states represented socialism or working class power. In fact, they were exactly the opposite: anti-socialist, anti-working class and highly bureaucratic. Their collapse was a defeat for the working class, because the idea of a possible alternative lay buried in the ruins. The organised left was in disarray. Most groups shrank dramatically, and many disillusioned members left politics altogether. Other organisations simply closed down. "There is no alternative" to the market and capitalism, Thatcher pronounced. Capitalism had won: the 'natural order' of things could now freely unfold. This was a myth that was bound to come to an end sooner or later. In 2003, we saw a political revival when over 20 million people demonstrated across Europe against the war on Iraq. But today's political hegemony of the charity-mongers shows how far we still have to go. Father Geldof There are some comparisons we can draw with the political situation the Bolsheviks encountered in 1905 and the attitude they took to Father Gapon. Georgi Gapon was a priest from a peasant background and the protégé of Zubatov, the chief of the Moscow police and promoter of non-political trade unions. However, Gapon led the mass demonstrations on January 9 1905, when the tsarists troops killed over a thousand people - known as Bloody Sunday. Krupskaya explains the different attitudes of Lenin and Plekhanov towards the priest: "One could simply have ignored Gapon, reckoning in advance that nothing good will ever come from a priest. That is what Plekhanov did, for instance, receiving Gapon extremely coolly" (N Krupskaya Reminiscences of Lenin New York 1970, p111). But Lenin's attitude had no trace of moralism because of his desire to connect with the masses and understand what moved them. Lenin was not only non-sectarian in his attitude to the mass movement, but went out of his way to meet Gapon and try to influence him. But the Bolsheviks' relationship with Gapon - sensitive though it might have been - was not one of diplomatic accommodation. It fact, they wound "an iron ring" around him - "a ring from which he could not have broken loose even if he had wanted to", according to Trotsky. Thus, because of communist agitation and pressure based on their programmatic intransigence, the petition Gapon intended to submit to the tsar on that fateful January day contained - as well as humble pleas about such matters as workshops open to the winter weather - the revolutionary demand for a constituent assembly elected by "universal, secret and equal suffrage". Having exposed Gapon as an agent provocateur (though possibly an "unconscious" one), and a "ringleader" of the government-sponsored Zubatov society ("sponsored by the government in order to demoralise the proletariat by systematic monarchist propaganda"), Lenin explained shortly after the 1905 uprising the attitude of the Bolsheviks to the priest and the movement he led: "The policy of the social democrats [communists] in regard to this new leader was self-evident: to maintain a careful, guarded, sceptical attitude towards this Zubatovist; in any case, to participate vigorously in the initiated strike movement (even though it was initiated by a Zubatovist); to popularise energetically the social democratic views and slogans" ('Revolutionary days' CW Vol 8, Moscow 1962, p105). This is exactly the kind of attitude communists should take when it comes to the humble and reformist message that Bob Geldof and the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign are putting forward. Of course, there is no revolutionary situation today. Nevertheless, there is a mass movement, in which communists have a duty to intervene in order to help it take shape. The crucial question is how we intervene. Left charity-mongers The Socialist Workers Party has in the last few months taken an almost entirely uncritical attitude to the campaign. Socialist Worker editor Chris Bambery has published double pages and dozens of articles from representatives of a wide variety of charities, including Christian Aid - with no introduction or critical assessment. Just after the tsunami disaster, SWP member and Respect councillor Michael Lavalette presented a motion to Preston council which stated: ""¦ council resolves to write to the British government asking it to fulfil its UN obligations and ensure that aid donations meet the 0.7% of GDP target from this year; to ask the government to utilise its position as chair of the G8 to push for the immediate abolition of existing debt for the 12 countries affected by the tsunami; to encourage councillors to give their allowances paid in January to the appeal" (see Weekly Worker January 6 2005). Neither democracy, class struggle, capitalism nor socialism were mentioned anywhere in the motion - though the UN, that den of robbers and butchers, was held up as some sort of model, as was the MPH campaign. Comrade Lavalette proposed that all councillors should donate money to the official charity umbrella organisation - rather than agitating for direct aid to organisations from below, which is the tradition in our movement. SWP theoretician Alex Callinicos has penned the occasional article in Socialist Worker in which he has made a few mildly critical comments about MPH's closeness to government, but no attempt has been made to systematically criticise the politics of charity. Interestingly though, in the current issue of Socialist Review, Chris Harman has written by far the most critical assessment of MPH. He condemns "some of the those running Make Poverty History [who] have decided that the way to achieve its goals is to court sections of the existing political and economic establishment "¦ When elements in Make Poverty History tell the press they do not want an 'anti-globalisation' protest in Edinburgh, you have to wonder whether they want a love-in with the G8 instead. When they refuse to allow the Stop the War Coalition to affiliate, you have to wonder about their friendly relations with a chancellor who spends many times more on weapons of mass destruction than on aid and debt relief combined" (June 2005). Compared to previous gushy articles in Socialist Review and Socialist Worker, this is hard-hitting stuff. It could be argued that this article is the SWP's official 'revenge' for MPH's refusal to let the SWP-led STWC affiliate or - more importantly for the comrades - speak at the rally in Edinburgh (there will be a STWC rally "after the Make Poverty History demo"). But in addition we should also not forget the interesting role comrade Harman has played in recent weeks inside the SWP: in Socialist Review he argued for his organisation to put its efforts into building a "Bolshevik Party" and described Respect as "simply an electoral coalition" (May 2005). SWP leader John Rees in the meantime has made it clear that Respect is the only show in town and must become a "mass membership party", to which the SWP has to be subordinated and possibly liquidated. Whether comrade Harman is consciously aware of it or not, the thrust of his recent articles quite clearly challenges the current liquidationist trajectory of his organisation. It would not come as too great a shock if it transpired that the comrade has also been unhappy with the SWP's utterly uncritical approach to the deeply contradictory and mushy Make Poverty History campaign. The sect culture in the SWP unfortunately prevents the membership from engaging in honest and open debate, so fine nuances in comrades' articles is all that we (and SWP members) get as a pointer to who is arguing what. In any case, comrade Harman's article might be critical of MPH, but it is hardly a hard-hitting polemic against the politics of charity. The reason for this is the SWP's deep-rooted economism, from which comrade Harman suffers just as much as his comrades. Apart from a few empty phrases about 'the system', they have nothing profoundly different to say on the issue of aid and debt, compared to the mainstream charities. Instead of cancelling the debts of the poorest countries, as MPH and Gordon Brown demand, they want the "cancellation of all the developing countries' debts". Instead of doubling the aid budget, they want to see it "trebled". Democracy, not charity For the first time, however, the comrades are now also putting forward the demand for "democracy that serves the interests of workers, peasants and the poor" (Socialist Worker June 11). Democracy is, of course, one of the issues that has been totally ignored by Make Poverty History - in order to keep the campaign nice and 'broad' (and in the long run totally ineffective). It is the key demand that socialists must stress and, crucially, fill with content. When we previously suggested that socialists should fight for democracy and workers' control in Iraq, we were accused by SWP comrades of proposing a form of "neo-colonialism" ('Who are we to advise Iraqi anti-imperialists?'). But, like any good centrist sect, the SWP can quickly and easily swing to the left as well as to the right - especially as they have now been shown the door by MPH. But the comrades' emphasis on democracy is a welcome and overdue development and communists should strive to make concrete. The key point to bear in mind is that charity, by definition, is antithetical to solidarity - the real sentiment that communists should fight to inculcate in the working class's response to global poverty and oppression. Solidarity is practical aid and support in the struggle to take our destinies into our own hands. We insist on the communist programme, because we know it is the only way to overcome the inbuilt inequality of class society. Liberation can never be handed down from above or 'the west' - it can only come from below. All Gordon Brown and George W Bush want is the rule of law in the recipient countries, to allow for companies to invest without the fear of a military coup or social anarchy. Communists, on the other hand, know that the only way to abolish poverty is by truly empowering those below. Related articles: * Aid, debt and fair trade * Six months after the tsunami * What's wrong with Live8? * What's wrong with Make Poverty History?