issue 167 - January 1987
Photo: Mark Edwards / Panos
The problem may not be too much imperialism, but too little.
Multinational companies offer many Third World people their only
hope of a decent job. Third World governments are bending over
backwards to encourage multinationals to come to their countries.
Is it right to wish imperialism back and say all is forgiven? Tony
Vaux finds out what makes imperialism seem attractive.
Between the smoke-laden lorries and rumbling trams of Calcutta's Chowringee you can catch a glimpse of a blackened Dickensian shop front huddled beneath the towering skyscrapers of modern India. Messrs Cooper and Snodgrass, saddlers to the Viceroys, set up their business in grander times and under the tutelage of real and undisputed Empire.
Today, the shop's dusty windows maintain a dignified and frosty silence like a well-trained butler as the eager students march by on their way to the American Embassy chanting 'Death to Imperialism'. If a shop could speak, a respectful cough might be followed by the suggestion that His Lordship was already dead. He died a very long time ago. What passes for imperialism today is a very different kind of thing.
Within the range of a stone's throw by a powerful student stands Queen Victoria's statue, contemplating the massive monument erected in her memory a century ago. No one has bothered to pull it down or even change its name. In the capital of Marxist Bengal no one is troubled by the lingering presence of the first and last Empress of India.
Across the Maidan, past the beggars asleep in the shade of thin-leaved trees, the great River Hooghly, tributary of the Ganges, stretches out its flat sheet of ash-coloured water beneath the yellow heat of the sun. A single barge of hay moves imperceptibly on the river's deep current, slipping beneath the massive iron girders of the Howrah bridge like a tortoise lumbering along at the base of a mountain.
A hundred years ago great ships laden with indigo steamed down this natural artery of Empire and hurried out to sea on their way to gather profits in the markets of Europe. When chemical paints rendered indigo obsolete, the same traders turned their hands to jute, making the vast wet plains that are now Bangladesh into a huge commercial farm. Partition of the two countries in 1947 severed Calcutta from this lucrative trade, crippling the city that had once been capital of the Indian Empire: but the death blow came later with the cheap oil prices of the 1960s and the development of synthetics.
The collapse was breathtaking in its speed and devastating effect. In 1968 the UK still used jute for 71 per cent of its carpet-backing but by 1972 the proportion had fallen to only 11 per cent, while 81 per cent of the market was held by synthetics. In 1968 88 per cent of cloth used for bags and sacks was jute. By 1972 it was only 48 per cent Since that dramatic slump, world demand for jute products has continued to fall by about five per cent per year, and the present low oil prices and surplus capacity in the chemical industry seem set to continue this downward trend. The results of these trade statistics are plain enough to see. A few miles upstream from the Howrah Bridge lines of deserted mills point their crumbling chimneys into the sky, like the spears of a phantom army.
At Bandel and Bhadreshvar there is no loose talk of imperialism. The fact is that many would be only too happy to see the wicked capitalists come back and exploit the industrial ruins. Their problem is not the spreading tentacles of corporate monopoly capitalism, but neglect, unemployment and consequent poverty.
The successor to imperialism is the frighteningly volatile spirit of free trade capitalism, rushing its investments from place to place as the market forces change, regardless of the needs of working people and their communities. The result is that huge areas of the globe, within rich countries and poor countries alike, become irrelevant Some areas have become little more than liabilities as far as the Western market is concerned.
But the change is not only due to the rise of synthetic substitutes. Massive stockpiling of primary commodities and production of enormous agricultural surpluses in the US and Europe have also wiped out whole sectors of imperial trade such as sugar, coarse grains and animal feeds. So extensive is this trend that the question can be put - is the Third World necessary to the rich countries at all? Could the West successfully seal itself within its own trading walls and leave the rest of the world alone?
The West still has some need for parts of the Third World. It could not, without making changes in its use of resources, survive without Third World products. It still needs some non-renewable resources from the Third World such as uranium or silver. But it is possible to envisage the West adapting itself to function without these materials. The disturbing fact is that the West could, without a great deal of difficulty, cease trading with much of the developing world.
Perhaps the students hammering with their fists on the steel gates of the American Embassy would be far more chilled to imagine that, instead of being exploited, they had simply been forgotten... Like Queen Victoria herself, nodding to sleep on the Maidan in front of her superfluous monument.
Tony Vaux works for Oxfam UK.