New Internationalist

Raw Materialism

Issue 204

new internationalist
issue 204 - February 1990

Raw materialism
The world is suffering from a fatal illness.
Dani Sandberg offers a diagnosis.


The mine is 450 feet deep, and each man brings up about 200 pounds of stone. With this load they have to climb up the alternate notches cut in the trunks of the trees, placed in zig-zag line up the shaft. A strong man, who is not accustomed to this labour, perspires most profusely with merely carrying his own body. With this very severe labour, they live entirely on boiled beans and bread. They would prefer having bread alone, but their masters, finding that they cannot work so hard upon this, treat them like horses, and make them eat beans. Bad as the treatment of miners appears, it is gladly accepted by them; for the conditions of the labouring agriculturalists is much worse. Their wages are lower, and they live almost exclusively on beans.



(Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches, entry for 1834)

Charles Darwin's voyage on the Beagle, which led him towards an explanation of evolution, took him to Chile not long after the wars of independence from Spain. The people he saw there, working in copper mines, had been subjected to centuries of abuse by the Spanish. They were beginning to experience a new kind of abuse, which for the next 150 years until today has kept them in bondage to the fickle, faceless moods of the world copper market.

They have lived and died in poverty so that copper, which they rarely even see, can be used by others. They have done so, and do so now, because the alternatives remain worse. Their condition is replicated by that of hundreds of millions of others, perhaps even the majority of the world's population, who are engaged in producing commodities like cotton and coffee, timber and tin, for consumption in the West. If there is any sign of evolution here it would take more than another Charles Darwin to discover it. Why?

Let's call it 'raw materialism'. This was first invented by imperialists of bygone ages who divided the world into demi-gods (themselves) and sub-humans. The function of these sub-humans was to transform the richness of nature, the bounty of the forests, rivers and fields into the substance of fantasy and the satisfaction of greed. Raw materialism has survived and prospered to the point where it now seems ready to put an end to the world altogether if radical surgery is not performed soon.

It is an indulgence of desire. In modern times it is the product of vast resources dedicated to persuading us that our preferences and pleasures have become basic necessities of life. It exists to satisfy taste, to provide an uninterrupted supply of tea, coffee, cocoa, sugar, tobacco, narcotic drugs - an endless list of pleasures without which not a single life would be lost (and many might be saved). We are invited to have our minds captured by an insane view of necessity, a chronic and degenerative illness.

We consent because the pain of the disease is felt not by us but by those 'sub-humans' at the other end of the world. Their labour and hunger pays for our comfort; our bare necessities are their dream of paradise. And if they are ruled by tiny, hugely wealthy cliques, with no interest whatever in the welfare of their people, that is fine provided only that they don't rock the global boat. They must be free and democratic provided only that free means free-market and democratic means ferociously anti-communist.

Ah yes, the market, that great unstable god of raw materialism. It is prey to violent swings of mood called 'speculation'. Speculators, the high priests of the cult, have had their teeth into raw materials from the start. In pursuit of their own hallucinations, speculators imagine themselves in possession of everything, able to dictate to everyone the price to be paid for the satisfaction of their desires. The market appears as the fount of all wisdom, revealed in all its beauty by the movement of prices.

Raw materialism has always been destructive. But only now are we realizing that it is self-destructive, too. Knowing no limits to its power, unable to comprehend the meaning of anything else, it consumes and extracts, pollutes and degrades without fear for the future or respect for the past. In the Amazon, a place where a single tree falling across a river to form a bridge can transform the ecology, it drags 400-ton chains between monstrous tractors to create a desert. It finds consolation in the knowledge that in destroying itself it stands a reasonable chance of bringing everything else down with it.

Raw materialism could not have flourished as it has unless it had somehow convinced its victims that they might one day become its beneficiaries. This it has done by offering up the richness of nature as something for nothing, a windfall. In recent times, since the early 1970s, oil has fulfilled this function. Hunger for oil threw vast, almost unmanageable wealth at the ruling classes of a few countries that happened to sit on top of it. Might the same not happen one day to Chilean copper or Ugandan coffee?

Who knows? What we do know already is that hunger for oil precipitated a world economic recession and impoverished further the poor who had no oil. We know that for the people of Venezuela, Mexico, Nigeria, the Soviet Union and, yes, the US and Britain as well, the gloss of oil wealth, a free gift from nature, has. already worn off. It is a poisoned windfall. All such windfalls are poisoned by raw materialism.

For there is no such thing as natural wealth. Wealth is, in the first instance, a creation of the human mind, a shared perception of the world. The nature of that perception is what matters. Raw materialism would have us believe that its own sickness is normality, would have us fear that without it there is nothing but an impossible journey, out of the cities and into the past with the likes of Pol Pot in Cambodia.

Thanks to Darwin there is, however, one thing that we can be reasonably certain of, and that is evolution. Human evolution - to the point where we do not allow people to die of this global sickness is not an option, but a necessity. For the victims of raw materialism, and for raw materialism itself, there has been precious little of it for hundreds of years. Without it, what we face is not just the unendurable, endless suffering of millions, but extinction.

Dani Sandberg is a thinker and pamphleteer who currently lives in a mobile home near Seattle, Washington.


GATT-Fly is not a new insecticide but a Canadian campaign which has buzzed around the unjust world trade system for 17 years. They soon learned that lobbying politicians was not enough, as Peter Laurie reports.

[image, unknown] Back in the 1970s, the central issue for people fighting global poverty was international trade. What could foreign aid ever accomplish, they argued, without some fundamental change in the rules of an unjust economic system?

GATT-Fly was one of the first organizations to concentrate solely on this fair trading issue. It was created by a coalition of Canadian churches in 1973. Its name was an irreverent way of stressing its mandate to 'bug' the Canadian Government about its role in International trade organizations such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). GATT-Fly set about persuading governments to pay more for the world's exports.

At the 1974 World Food Conference, held In Rome, GATT-Fly sat up a ragtag electronic network of telephones and telex machines between its delegation in Rome and a cross-Canada string of volunteers that came to be known as 'Team Canada'. With the support of like-minded organizations at the conference, GATT-Fly managed to shift the agenda perceptibly by putting direct pressure on delegates and policy-makers. Faced by front-page headlines at home such as 'World Hungry Not Being Fed by Rome's Rhetoric', the Canadian Government made a surprise commitment of food aid.

Over the next couple of years the same media-smart pressure tactics were employed at a number of international conferences with a high degree of success. But each time there was a sense of strategic failure. Finally, in the aftermath of a stalemated United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Nairobi in 1976, GATT-Fly concluded that the industrialized countries were fundamentally opposed to any structural changes in the conduct of international trade that would be to the benefit of developing countries.

'Keep 'em talking, but don't give anything away' was how one GATT-Fly report summed up the state of North-South dialogue at the UNCTAD conferences.

'At that point we moved away from trying to influence governments around international conferences,' explains GATT-Fly's Dennis Hewlett. 'That was how we came to realize that it wasn't enough to convert the powerful, but rather we needed to begin trying to empower the powerless.'

In the early 1970s, says Hewlett, the group was involved in lobbying to get the international price of sugar raised on behalf of Brazilian workers. No agreement was reached, but the price of sugar shot up anyway. A year later, GATT-Fly was shocked to discover that the living conditions of the workers had actually deteriorated. To capitalize on the higher international price for sugar, the plantation owners had expropriated workers' subsistence plots in order to plant more sugar. 'New the sugar comes right up to my door', one of the impoverished workers told Hewlett. Their wages had not increased.

'After that we realized that changing the price of sugar wasn't enough,' says Hewlett, 'and that unless sugar workers in Brazil had the freedom to organize and freedom from repression, they weren't going to benefit.'

GATT-Fly continued to monitor the UNCTAD and other international rounds, but the organization now focussed most of its energies on supporting popular organizations in their struggles for economic justice, and self-reliance. It committed itself to making concrete links between local and global issues by working alongside Canadian popular organizations: unions, farmers, native peoples.

The commitment to social change from below rather than lobbying from above was realized through techniques borrowed from Brazilian popular educator Paulo Freire. Since it was first tried out in 1975, the 'Ah-hah Seminar' (in colloquial English people exclaim 'Ah-hah' when they realize something for the first time) has been used hundreds of times, most recently to build a broad-based coalition to fight the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement.

By all accounts, some of its sponsors would have been happier if GATT-Fly had stuck with lobbying politicians rather than taking its current more politicized tack. 'Through GATT-Fly, the churches were given a window to material life,' notes John Foster, National Secretary of Oxfam Canada and a key player in the ecumenical movement. 'And maybe they were uncomfortable with the conclusions it reached.'

'If you focus on the poverty of Brazil or Burkina Faso, it's fairly safe, because that's far away,' says former GATT-Fly staffer Reg McQuaid. 'But our analysis quickly brought us back to the roots of world poverty and basic questions here in Canada - and people get uncomfortable about that.'

Some observers in Canada's aid community feel GATT-Fly's glory days were in the 1970s and that the shift in approach has lost it the ear of the public. That kind of sentiment is tempered by the support GATT-Fly enjoys among people for whom the struggle for economic justice is a day-to-day issue - the unions, Third World workers, farmers, immigrant women. The real value of GATT-Fly's long voyage of discovery is an economic analysis that need not mince its words, and a method of educating that links the global to the everyday.

GATT-Fly are at 11 Madison Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M5R 7S2. Tel: 416 921 4615.

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