CAPITALISM V. POWER V. CAPITALISM?
Updated: Mar 24
What is the role of capital in the relationship between poverty and development?
Those who criticise the lack of development attack capitalistic Western ideas and approaches. They would argue that, without the Western approach, those countries would be less poor. I would argue that this is very superficial approach to the challenges. Money was not the mode of exchange in traditional African society, just as there was no capital in the crofting traditions of Scotland. People can survive, not enrich themselves though, in poor surroundings. But they remain poor and live ‘brutish’ lives. Look at the way nomads, the poorest of the poor, have been around for ever.
The issue is not capital per se but the use to which capital is being put and indeed what happens when there is no capital. The fact that the authorities in Uzbekistan are able to force all schoolchildren to work in the fields to gather cotton at the harvest season is an issue of power, not capital - even if at some stage capital comes into it. China is forcing the Uighur people to make garments under what the West describes as forced labour conditions. Does a Marxist analysis mean that at the end of the day power does not pay any role? Surely the main reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union was not that capitalism proved to be more powerful than socialism, but that that specific form of socialism was monstrously unjust. The management of the economy in the Soviet Union was disastrous. It was corrupt and inefficient and unequitable. You cannot have freedom of individual action or thought if you do not have some economic freedom.
People want to have more freedom. That means not just to choose to vote for whom you like but also making sure that if you prefer to have rye bread instead of ordinary bread, you can have it. It is not capitalism that decides the different types of bread. It is not even the invisible hand that the economist Marshall argued that enables the system to be in balance. It is the freedom to buy the bread you want or not to eat bread at all. The issue of liberty of action thus becomes central.
But the approaches of the North/West to sub-Saharan Africa are seriously vitiated by the ignorance of the mechanisms that govern poor societies. We all, from western donor governments to the World Bank to the NGO community, think that capital must be involved in all transactions. We have adopted that pattern of thinking because that assumption is so deeply ingrained in our thinking. We assume that ‘they’ they cannot solve the challenge of ‘developing’ unless capital is involved. This leads to the crucial question as to whether capital is necessary to development of an economy. It is a question that is never posed by those who come from the outside to ‘aid’ Africa. We are unable to stop for a moment to think out whether there could be any economic or social development without entering that treadmill of permanent growth that feeds and destroys itself. We never stop to think that there might be other tools of changes in societies that do not rely as we do on the use of capital and on trade not between neighbouring groups, but global.
The issue we should examine is therefore the role of power- who controls it, who can decide on that is just and fair, and how the framework of societies can determine what is the right way to proceed in some sort of equity So long as we concentrate on capitalism - which indeed governs a great deal of our societies - we are missing other elements that are just as unfair and profoundly undemocratic. What the Catholic Church did during the last two centuries in Ireland to unmarried women who had children was sadistic and unjust and immoral and inhuman, but none of that was due to the use of capital (see the film and the book the Madeleines by Martin Sixsmith). Some of the children were forcibly removed from their mothers and then adopted by families in the US, sometimes for some considerable amounts of money. But that developed much later. It was way to punish the young women – never the men – who had violated the invented rules of the Church.
There are indeed areas in the examination of the relationship between the North and Africa that must be seen in terms of capital but - in the history of Africa - that is a recent phenomenon. I would argue that capitalism is a relatively new weapon that has been used to further enslave African societies in recent decades.
All examinations of the major forces at play in our world today lead us the wrong way. It is not capitalism that is destroying our world - it is the power of some groups of people, many from the North, but increasingly also from the East Asia - that are leading us all in a Gadarene-type collective suicide. The main force behind the rape of the earth, the destruction of our habitats, climate change, is the infinite fissiparous nature of our economic systems and the self-seeking need to satisfy our ever-growing demands beyond even the most avaricious dreams. That is consumerism, the ultimate destroyer of our world.
A narrow focus on capitalism, to the exclusion of sovereign power, is overly reductive. There is a feedback loop by which sovereigns set the terms for capitalist endeavours, which in turn supports that continued sovereignty. It can be as explicit as Russian oligarchs supporting Putin and vice versa (it is for this reason that we could consider Putin the true richest person on earth, as he has the power to confiscate or allocate nearly all of Russia's wealth), or as shadowy as Political Action Committees in the US channelling funding from the wealthy individuals and corporations into political campaigns and lobbying efforts so as to control legislative and administrative agendas. Those are both recent, but I think it can likewise be applied to the Church over the millennia.
Elites can elect to channel capital towards a more equitable distribution, or can cravenly leverage it into kleptocracy. That path is chosen, though, by the persons making up the sovereign power, and is not dictated by capitalist economics. It is just easier for too many people to be craven and selfish than to be altruistic or able to convince their populace that equitable distribution is of material and moral benefit to all. But these are the issues of the rich world. Some rich elites in the South (particularly in SE Asia) have been even better than the West in using capital to twist their world to their wants.
If we look at the crucial issue of food – the basic reason why people are starving – what we have allowed to happen is that the poorest Africans have been increasingly corralled by the West to become part of the Western power games. The argument is simple; peoples, communities, and small or large groups all should be able to decide on their food policies. They should be able to decide on their own degree of self-sufficiency. But the manipulation of capital creates the food giants that have destroyed the liberty of small groups to make their own decisions. I would argue that it is not capitalism that is the main driver, the main factor that distorts the freedom of the small farmers and small communities. It is greed and the search for power by both multinational corporations (to get there before the other one does) and the governments of the West and China (both to manipulate the economies of the poorer countries).
In sub-Saharan Africa there are powerful chiefs and elders who wish to accumulate food and use it to achieve power. If they control the land and allocate it to those they wish, then they maintain their grip on the community. It is not capitalism. The West does not understand that the poorest use more ways of self-sufficiency than they can ever understand, because they – the Western players – do not understand poverty. They are thus creating more poverty.
This is what the International NGOs do, in parallel to their governments. They have become proxies for their own governments.