issue 167 - January 1987
Imperialism is offering
Mike Wells / Camera Press
When asked what he thought of Western civilization, Gandhi replied 'I think it would be a good idea'. Ouch. Like all the best jibes, it may be partially true. The West is usually considered a great civilizer - didn't it increase living standards beyond the wildest dreams of our grandparents and create manufacturing systems that stretched across the world?
But there is another side to this so-called civilization. It has the gentlest of guises. But it achieves very ungentle results through the violence of economic compulsion and the use of supposedly harmless ideas. Our civilization encourages people to believe they are second-rate and that is why they get bad treatment. Nowhere, perhaps, is the sleight of hand clearer than in imperialism. Mary, a Kenyan aid worker, can see how this system works to make Africans feel inferior to whites: 'I think this country is still colonized. My thinking is based on what I see in this agency where I work. When I compare the high qualifications required by locals compared to expatriates, I can see imperialism. And the rates of pay are different. Kenya is supposed to be a successful multi-racial society, but black and white people live separately. And they have different life-styles, opportunities and ambitions. If two black women go for lunch in the hotels the waiters wait for someone else to turn up and pay for them. If I go with a white person, when the check comes they automatically give it to them. When the change comes they give it to the white person, even if I have paid. Our public schools have very few white children, they're in separate new schools, and if the proportion of African children increases, the whites move on again. And we Africans tend to follow because we think that the schools mzungus (white people) go to must be better.
But patterns of control are not always kid-gloved. The Africans alive at the time of Mary's great-grandparents were those who, as slaves, provided much of the wealth on which the Old and New Worlds flourished. Slave ships from the North East States of the US carried barrels of rum to Africa from Boston, Newport and Providence. They exchanged the rum for slaves, then sold them in the Caribbean and from there brought molasses to Massachusetts, which completed the cycle.
The profits from the slave trade enabled the North Americans to build up their shipyards and distilleries (the best 'West Indian' rum did not come from the West Indies!). The slave trade also enabled the budding farm and factory economy to grow: it funded a large market for the export of foodstuffs, timber and tools for sugar mills. Ships built in New England carried their goods - grain, smoked fish, beans, flour, pine, oak and more to the Caribbean.1 The US prospered - as did Europe - but at the expense of Africa where, unlike other uncolonized continents, the population was decimated by the centuries of slaving.
To add insult to injury the apologists for slavery at that time were busy denying that Africans had any culture. One of them wrote: 'The most minute and careful researches have, as yet, failed to discover a history or any knowledge of ancient times among the negro races. They have invented no writing not even the rude picture-writing of the lowest tribes. They have no gods and no heroes; no epic poem and no legend, not even simple traditions. There never existed among them an organized government; there never ruled a hierarchy or an established church...' 2
Yet in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the astronomers at the University of Timbuktu with their mathematical predictions and study of the stars could put the European life of the times into the shade. Europe's Dark Ages were cloaked in superstition, ignorance and disease. Timbuktu, by contrast, was an entrepot centre for the salt and gold trade, exchanging goods with North Africa and Egypt. Its book trade was cited in a sixteenth century report as the most profitable of its commercial activities. 3
Western civilized behaviour in more recent times follows the same contradictory patterns: creating Occidental achievements at the cost of brutalizing and maligning those who live in the colonies. Only now, of course, the West became more sophisticated (or, rather, imperialism's effects are more contradictory and diffuse). Imperialism in its earlier forms consisted mainly of the payment of tribute to the conqueror, trade and the exploitation of natural resources. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it grew and involved the colonization of minds as well as economies. As the merchants of the Old World had organized banks and cartels, so too they organized missionary schools and scholarships to bring the best students back to the West. There they taught these students to respect and revere all that was associated with the Empire. Taught to be indebted for ever to the British, the brown sahibs returned to rule their countries and maintain national deference to overseas centres of learning and civilization. Imperialism of the mind was the most cunning form of colonization. Force became only a last resort as the colonized became educated to want what their imperial tutors valued.
The owners of capital soon discovered another way of building on their colonies' or ex-colonies' wishes for Western involvement. Not only could finance be exported: so too, could parts of the work process. Henry Ford had - unwittingly - provided the prototype for this new type of imperialism by inventing the production-line. By breaking a work task down to its component parts Ford laid the basis for manufacturing work to be divided up into separate segments. So a car engine's parts could be made in, say, Delaware and assembled in Detroit. The chassis could be cast in Michigan and the upholstery could be imported from Dagenham, UK. It was a small step from dividing the work process up within the developed world to sharing it out in the poor nations. It was logical for the poor countries to get their share of the work for employers can pay less there.
It made sense to get the labour-intensive parts of work-processes performed in the Third World. People in the Third World - especially women - were unused to industrial work and were compliant, prepared to work long hours for low wages. They were not on the whole organized into trade unions.
The recession arrived at the end of the 1970s: inflation rates increased and - contrary to most expert predictions - unemployment soared alongside them. One of the main causes was the soaring oil and food prices; the former prompted by the oil-producers 'discovery of their combined might and the latter by the US decision to withdraw 20 per cent of the Prairies from grain production. The power of the oil producers was noticed in the US where there was a sudden - and surprising - swing to smaller cars to conserve fuel. Big men in even bigger cowboy hats could suddenly be seen buzzing about town in tiny Honda cars or 'rabbits' - small Golf cars. The days of the massive Chevrolet or three litre Ford seemed numbered.
In other places the effects were vicious. Walls in inner cities became covered in racist graffiti as levels of racial prejudice increased - directed at those whom the West had lured across oceans to fill gaps in the booming imperial economies of 1945 and after. I remember one particularly obnoxious slogan from that time: it said 'Pearl - nigger lover'. Not only were black people racially harassed: those who became involved with them were also made to suffer.
The recession sharpened the need to bring down commodity prices through protectionism. Last year we saw the reemergence of protectionist policies in the General Trade and Tariffs Agreement. And further protectionist measures are being erected by the US, the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development and the European Common Market.
But another way out of the impasse has been recently discovered by Western corporations. It involves what has become known as 'Just-In-Time' (JIT) methods of production. This method of working was first noticed when US and Western European manufacturers saw that the Japanese were producing high-quality goods at lower prices. In 1981 the Japanese could, for example, produce a small car for $1,200 to $1,400 less than the US.4 The Japanese share of the market was increasing proportionately. Originally the miffed competitors said the Japanese were more successful just because they paid lower wages. It was only much later that they were prepared to admit that other factors were involved.
JIT production allows employers to cut out many of the problems involved with the older 'Fordist' methods of working. Instead of having supply-lines stretched across continents as in the older methods of production JIT systems keep everything localized. They often have components delivered two or three times a day. Suppliers, being local and numerous, are unlikely to be able to stop the parent plant's production by striking or even failing to be able to supply the components. General Motors is a dinosaur in comparison. It has just three plants shipping engines round the world, and if one of these ceases to operate their entire output is threatened.
JIT also avoids other features of Henry Ford's production lines. It avoids the boredom which results from people having to do the same task, day in and day out. It builds in flexibility. Workers are expected to undertake different tasks, rather than specializing in the existing pattern, and machinery and plant layout are built to facilitate rapid turnover of work and type of work. The arrival of the micro-chip - and its capacity to allow machinery to be reprogrammed to other uses - has greatly facilitated this.
The West's discovery of JIT production, increasing protectionism and higher levels of automation has meant there is an increasing reluctance to export jobs. Multinational companies are withdrawing their investments from the Third World in order to build their industries close to their biggest markets. Foreign investment has started to flow back to the US. Direct foreign investment rose from $400 million in 1970 to 1971 to $8,600 million in 1979 to l980.5
During the same years money has been sucked out of the Third World. Direct foreign investment in the less developed countries shrank from minus $3,900 million to minus $5,000 million. This has meant a drop in income for those in the poorest parts of the world as industries; rural development projects and the development of local markets have ceased due to lack of funding. In Peru, for example, living standards have slipped back to 1965 levels. The majority of people living in the bitterly cold and arid Andes get less than 1,500 calories a day. They work farming llamas, which can withstand the altitude and cold better than sheep or cattle, but the wool, meat and milk offer poor rewards. Increasingly the Andean Indians are turning to the tourist market to make a living. They besiege the one-house railway stations offering home-made goods for sale: slippers or hats of llama leather, hand-knitted jumpers, or bread. The tourists respond, on the whole, with contempt.
The pattern of Western withdrawal from the Third World looks worse if debt repayments are also included. Developing countries' total debt has increased from $68,400 million in 1970 to $595,800 million in 1983.8 Whole regions are devastated by poverty. Net transfers of resources to Latin America, for example, have sunk from plus $21,000 million in 1981 to minus $29,000 million in 1983.
Evidence such as this leads one high-ranking Brazilian Bank official to say 'It makes little sense to talk of market forces when there is no market'.
Mark Edwards / Panos
In the devastation of the Third World we can see, yet again, the shadow of the uncivilized hand of Western economics. Whole countries are being left to die on the rack of economic violence. From Chad to Bolivia, and Papua New Guinea to Senegal it seems as if imperialism has entered its most deadly phase yet.
It is important to ask what Third World countries can do to combat this fate. Numerous brave and courageous revolutions and uprisings against imperialism have meant that the West has had to make adjustments to accommodate Third World patterns of resistance. But it has continued to do as it likes in the Third World, without making too many concessions. And JIT production - if present trends continue - will mean that most Third World countries suffer again. The West will try to export its biggest illusion yet - by telling these countries that they do not have enough power to do anything to alter their destinies.
But the Third World is not powerless: in the absence of increasing Western investments many non-industrialized countries are trying to develop on their own terms - something that is, admittedly, extremely difficult in a global economic system. Nicaragua provides the bravest example. It offers a clear response to the threats posed by the new form of imperialism. A poor state in the US would look like Nicaragua if it decided to take its destiny into its own hands and ignore the White House. Perhaps that is why the country is such a threat.
Nicaraguans are developing their own natural resources as much as possible to eliminate their dependence on the world markets. For example, they have developed a geothermal energy plant from volcanic springs which supplies a third of the country's electricity. They are investigating the healing potential of their own herbs and plants to free themselves from dependence on multinational drug companies. And they are investigating integrated pest control - which uses bugs to fight bugs on cotton crops - to avoid over-dependence on pesticides. Nicaragua's economy is in tailspin due to US influence but it is showing how - if left alone - a Third World country could develop its own ways of countering imperialism.
One thing's for sure. Gandhi, wherever he is, must be saying wryly 'So what's new?'
1 Galeano. E Open Veins of Latin America Monthly Review Press 1973.
2 Quoted from Putnam's Monthly a US Literary magazine. 1856 by Robinson, C Black Marxism Zed Books 1983.
3 Davidson B The Story of Africa Mitchell Beazley, 1984.
4 Hoffman, K and Kaplinsky, R Changing Patterns of Industrial Location and International Competition: the Role of TNCs and the Impact of Microelectronics UN Centre for Transnational Corporations, New York 1984.
5 International Monetary Fund Yearbooks.
6 Institute of Development Studies. Slowdown or Crisis? Restructuring in the 1980s Bulletin 1985.
This special report appeared in the exporting illusion - the new imperialism issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.