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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 179 Contents

Socialist Review, October 1994

Fran Cetti


The vicious circle


From Socialist Review, No. 179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Poverty and the Planet: A Question of Survival
Ben Jackson
Penguin £6.99

The recent United Nations conference in Cairo on population growth has helped recycle the old argument of a world destined to implode under the strain of too many people fighting for rapidly diminishing resources. In the light of this widely touted doomsday scenario this updated version of Ben Jackson’s well researched and highly accessible book is not to be missed.

Jackson systematically smashes the myths of overpopulation, limited resources and the protection of the environment through restraining further development. He does so by not only posing the question who suffers but who is benefiting? He shows clearly how famines and even most ‘natural’ disasters are man made. In the process he demolishes arguments that ordinary people are to blame for the environmental degradation that often produces such disasters.

Famine itself occurs in a world with an abundance of food that in the West is routinely stored, dumped, piled into mountains and left to rot. Even in those countries racked by drought there is food. In Tigray in 1989 at least 50,000 of the 300,000 tonnes of grain needed to alleviate the famine was available on the market. But the starving were too poor to purchase it.

Western technology has the power to prevent mass starvation and hunger. Genetic engineering promises to produce crops with massively increased yields, pest resistance and so on. But who holds the key to this technology? The transnationals are motivated solely by profit.

Jackson’s analysis, however, is not merely one of Western companies and governments bleeding the Third World dry. He illustrates how the entire system of the world market dictates the behaviour of its players – rich and poor.

The solution forced upon Third World countries by the IMF and the World Bank, of opening up to the volatility and inequalities of the world market, is an impossible option. Trade itself is growing fastest between the industrialised nations themselves, particularly with the substitution of synthetics for raw materials. Entire Third World economies devoted to one export, such as coffee, can be devastated when the world price plummets. Even if they tried to diversify, the opportunity to find a trading niche is denied.

Meanwhile such countries, just to keep afloat, become increasingly indebted to Western banks, governments and their front institutions – the IMF and World Bank. In 1991 alone, $21.46 billion more flowed out of the Third World in debt repayments than it received in aid and loans. What is Jackson’s answer? He rightly says, ‘there will be no change unless we challenge the entrenched interests’ of the whole rotten system. He emphasises, ‘the poor must be the agents of their own destiny.’

Yet he is unable to carry through these statements to their logical conclusion. Instead he relies on contradictory and implausible ideas. He speaks of ‘democratising’ the IMF and World Bank, of ‘regional autonomy’, of governments focusing aid on small peasant farmers and of concerned people in the West forming pressure groups to demand this is done. Jackson’s problem is that although he understands the total interconnection of international capitalism, he dare not speak its name. Consequently, he fails to recognise the other side of the coin – the interconnection of a world working class born out of capitalism and upon whose labour the system depends.

Throughout the book he ignores not only the power but even the existence of a Third World working class. Yet recent massive workers’ struggles throughout Africa refute the idea of a continent without the muscle to challenge the system. Most importantly, those struggles connect in an immediate way to the battles of workers in the Western nations. We are all fighting the same enemy.

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