Sunday, July 19, 2009

The New Scramble for Africa

It couldn't have gone unnoticed the news coverage of Obama's visit to Ghana and Africa but underneath the PR gloss of the memories of slavery roots , a much more mercenary purpose existed.

The new scramble for Africa

Today's race is not for colonies to conquer but for natural resources and America has stepped up pursuit in response to superpower rivals.We read

At Nigeria's Defence Intelligence School in Karu, near the capital Abuja, 30 military officers from seven African countries graduated from a training course designed to meet the "rapidly changing security complexities" of their nations "and the continent at large".Ostensibly organised by Nigeria's Defence Intelligence Agency, the 12-week "Military Intelligence Basic Officers' Course for Africa" - the third this year after two in Mali - was in fact designed by the controversial United States African Command (AfriCom). To exploit and secure the region's oil, the US has to take into account the threat to its interests from terrorist and liberation groups. AfriCom is designed to protect vital US interests, but while its public profile is low its footprint on the ground is increasingly large - hence the military intelligence courses in Nigeria and Mali, and also AfriCom preparations with Mali, Algeria and Niger for a major joint military and police operation along their common borders.While AfriCom's main role is military oversight, it is slightly different from other US commands because it acknowledges Africa's complexities and mysteries by including health and aid experts in its mission. Steven Morrison, director of the Africa programme at the Washington think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the new command is designed to shift US involvement in Africa from a reactive to a proactive commitment.

AfriCom - currently headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, but aiming to transfer to Ghana - is a measure of how seriously Washington is taking the new scramble for Africa and how determined it is to compete there with China, which has major strategic and economic goals throughout the continent, and how seriously it intends securing its burgeoning oil and gas interests in West Africa.

That commitment was also suggested by another little-noticed event: the opening of an Aids testing and counselling centre in the Botswana mining centre, Francistown, built by AfriCom. The centre - one of 12 in the country whose establishment has been supervised by AfriCom's Lieutenant Colonel William Wyatt

President Barack Obama's visit to Ghana this month signalled that America's approach to Africa was emerging from a long, deep sleep and that the US was back in the African version of the Great Game.

In recent years, the strongest winds blowing over the continent have come from China. With the US and European Union preoccupied elsewhere, China has had the African playing field virtually to itself and has won new markets in country after country. Beijing brought welcome foreign investment on a scale not seen since the end two decades ago of superpower competition between the US and the former Soviet Union.

For example, in Angola, which is stunningly rich in natural resources and was fought over by Moscow and Washington's surrogate guerrilla armies in a 27-year civil war that ended only in 2002, China is partnering the country's rapid development with its multi-billion dollar investments in Angola's infrastructure.

Two Chinese oil companies last week bought a $1.3 billion stake in the rich Block 32 development 90 miles off the Angolan coast - already China imports more oil from Angola than it does from Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Beijing announced it will invest $1.2bn in the development of Angolan agriculture over the next four years.

It is the latest phase in the commitment by China of billions of dollars in aid and cheap loans to Angola, which has resulted in Chinese companies building roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and telecoms infrastructure, as well as rebuilding the 835-mile trans-African Benguela Railway, built 107 years ago by Aberdeen engineer Sir Robert Williams but destroyed in the post-independence civil war.

And in Gabon, China rejuvenated the entire national railway grid as the price for developing the huge Belinga iron ore deposits deep in the country's dense tropical forest.

"Beijing's motives are clear," said Professor William Lyakurwa, executive director of the Nairobi-based African Economic Research Consortium. "China is home to more than 20% of the global population. Its growing industries demand new energy; its exporters want markets; its diplomats require support in international organisations.Its propaganda still seeks support from allies to advance Chinese interests and, when necessary, to counter the United States. It views Africa as a centre for military-to-military co-operation and a market for China's growing arms industry."

Obama has made it clear that if the US wants to out-muscle China it will need to commit more to projects like the 421-mile-long West African Gas Pipeline, which is scheduled to begin delivering gas early next year from Nigeria's Niger River Delta to Benin, Togo and Ghana. The pipeline is 40% financed by America's Chevron Oil and is the first regional natural gas transmission system in sub-Sahara Africa.

Within days of Obama returning to Washington from Ghana, the Washington-based International Monetary Fund approved a $603m loan to help the West African nation tackle budget imbalances while preparing to start production from recently discovered rich offshore oil fields - the loan is by far the biggest IMF financing package for an African country since the onset of the current global financial crisis.

Ghana will start pumping crude oil next year and expects to begin producing about 500,000 barrels of oil per day by 2014, about a quarter of the production rate in nearby Nigeria.

It is oil fields like Ghana's Jubilee find - 40% owned by London-based Tullow Oil - that AfriCom has the task of protecting; by diplomatic and aid means if possible and by force if necessary. Already West African nations supply as much oil to the US as Saudi Arabia and the US National Intelligence Council estimates that by 2015 some 25% of US oil imports will come from West Africa. The region's crude oil is overwhelmingly "light" and "sweet", the grade preferred by big refiners and the distance tankers have to sail is less than half that from the Middle East. Also, 83% of West Africa's oil resources come from big, more easily managed fields.

The original scramble for Africa took place in the late 19th century, when Britain, France, Germany and Portugal competed to carve Africa into colonies. Today, governments and corporations from the US, France, Britain and China are competing to profit from the rulers of often chaotic and corrupt regimes.

Friday, July 17, 2009



The word utopia, together with its derivatives utopian and utopianism, is a familiar part of our political vocabulary. It originated as the title of a work by the Tudor lawyer, statesman and writer Thomas More, first published in Latin in 1516 as a traveller’s description of a remote island. Utopia is a pun: it can be read either as ou-topos, Greek for ‘no place’, or as eu-topos, ‘good place’ – that is, a good place (society) that exists in the imagination.

More invented the word, but the thing it represents is much older. Plato in his Republic discussed the nature of the ideal city state. Medieval serfs took solace in the imaginary ease and plenty of the Land of Cockaigne. More’s utopia, however, is the first to embody a response to capitalist social relations, which in the early 16th century were just emerging in England and the Low Countries (in agriculture and textiles). As the first modern utopia, it has a special place in the emergence of modern socialist thought.

Contents of More’s Utopia
The work consists of two ‘books’. Book I is More’s account of how he came to hear of Utopia. Book II describes the Utopians’ way of life – their towns and farms, government, economy, travel, slaves, marriages, military discipline, religions.
More presents his story as true fact. Henry VIII sends him to Flanders as his ambassador to settle a dispute with Spain – and we know that this is true (it was in 1515; the dispute concerned the wool trade). During a break in the negotiations he meets his young friend Peter Giles, who introduces him to an explorer, Raphael Hythloday, just back from a long voyage. There follows a long conversation between More, Giles and Hythloday.

Giles and More urge Hythloday to put the vast knowledge acquired on his travels to use by entering the service of a king. Hythloday refuses, arguing that no courtier dare speak his mind or advocate wise and just policies. This exchange is thought to reflect More’s misgivings about his own career in royal service.

The conversation then turns to the situation in England. They discuss the enclosure (now we call it privatisation) of common land to graze sheep, the consequent pauperisation and uprooting of the peasantry (“your sheep devour men”), the futile cruelty of hanging wretches who steal to survive, and other social ills.
This leads them to the question of remedies. Hythloday declares that the injustice, conflict and waste inherent in the power of money can be overcome only by doing away with private property. More objects that this would remove the incentive to work. (Sounds familiar?) Hythloday replies that More would think otherwise had he been with him in Utopia.

Utopia is, indeed, a society without private property. Households contribute to and draw freely on common stocks of goods. Money is used only in dealings with foreign countries, while gold and jewels are regarded as baubles for children and “fools” (i.e., the mentally retarded). In these respects Utopia resembles socialism as we conceive of it.

In other respects, however, it does not. Decision-making procedures are only partly democratic. A hierarchy of “magistrates” enforces draconian regulations: travel, for instance, requires official permission. The main penalty for serious transgressions is enslavement – not to individuals, of course, but to the community. Thus, there is a class of slaves who do not participate in common ownership but are themselves owned. Utopia is not a classless society.

Was More joking?
Almost all critics treat More’s factual presentation as a mere literary device. They do not believe that he met an explorer while in Flanders or that he was influenced in his description of Utopia by information about real places. This is not to say that they attribute everything solely to More’s fertile imagination. They often draw connections between his ideas and the thought of Greco-Roman antiquity. In the foreword to an edition of Utopia published in 1893, William Morris even calls Utopia ‘an idealised ancient society’. More was one of the foremost classical scholars of his day, so it is a plausible view.

Yet More always maintained, even in private correspondence, that Utopia was based on fact. Was he joking? He liked a good joke.

Two researchers take More at his word. It is quite possible, they argue, that he did meet an explorer who had encountered or heard about a pre-Columbian society in the Americas that served More as a prototype for Utopia. Arthur E. Morgan, an engineer who was chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s, takes the Inca Empire as the prototype (Nowhere was Somewhere: How History Makes Utopias and How Utopias Make History, University of North Carolina Press 1946), while the anthropologist Lorainne Stobbart identifies the Utopians with the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula in present-day Mexico (Utopia: Fact or Fiction? The Evidence from the Americas, Alan Sutton 1992).

They argue that it is not valid to argue that Hythloday cannot represent a real person because Europeans knew nothing of the Maya or Incas at the time when More was writing Utopia (1515—16). This is true only if we accept the conventional chronology that conflates discovery with the military expeditions of the Spanish conquistadors (Cortes first landed in Yucatan in 1517; Pizarro entered Inca territory in 1526). But Morgan and Stobbart refer to old maps and documents indicating that Portuguese explorers reached the eastern shores of Central and South America as early as the 14th century (Hythloday is Portuguese), while English sailors were trading with the new lands by the 1470s. Whether any of these early travellers got as far as Peru is less certain, though some may have obtained indirect information about the Incas.

How closely does More’s Utopia resemble the Maya and Inca civilizations? Morgan and Stobbart detail numerous similarities in political and economic organization, dress, social customs, city layout, family life, science and art, and so on – even down to such practices as the erection of memorial pillars and ceremonial wearing of quetzal feathers. The Maya and the Incas, like the Utopians, used money only in foreign trade and had common stores from which officials distributed produce (except that, in contrast to Utopia, it was rationed). It is extremely unlikely that so many close parallels should arise purely by chance.

But there are also important differences. The most telling criticism made against these authors is that they obscure a wide gap in social structure between the aristocratic autocracies of the Maya and the Incas and the basically democratic governance of More’s Utopia (see George Logan’s review of Stobbart in Moreana, June 1994).
It is therefore doubtful whether Utopia is a direct representation of any specific pre-Columbian society. Nevertheless, More’s account does probably reflect the influence of knowledge of such societies that he had somehow acquired, possibly from a Portuguese explorer he met in Flanders.

A bureaucratic mode of production
This conclusion has implications for our understanding of the development of socialist ideas. For it means that a seminal work of modern socialist thought bears the imprint of archaic societies that though not based on private property were far removed from the classless democracy of genuine socialism.

The Maya and Inca social systems are strikingly ‘pure’ examples of what Marx called the ‘Asiatic mode of production’. In this mode, a royal bureaucracy extracts and redistributes surplus from pre-existing peasant communes and directs public works. The monarch is considered the owner of land and resources. The word ‘Asiatic’ does not, of course, fit the New World context (Marx had mainly India in mind). Karl Wittfogel, stressing the centrality of water management, coined the term ‘hydraulic mode of production’. Or we might call it the pre-industrial bureaucratic mode of production.

Louis Baudin paints a vivid picture of what it was like to live under this system in his Daily Life in Peru under the Last Incas (Macmillan, 1961). It was a hard life for the common people, but their basic necessities were supplied: a small dwelling, two woollen garments each when they marry, a patch of land, relief in the event of local famine. They were more fortunate in this regard than poor people were in More’s England – or than they themselves would be after the Spanish conquest. But they were victims of class exploitation nonetheless.

It is understandable that the Incas and the Maya should have appealed to early European critics of capitalism. Theirs, however, was not the only alternative model that the pre-Columbian Americas offered to the reign of private property. The New World was also home to the much more egalitarian ‘primitive communism’ of peoples like the Iroquois who so fascinated the 19th-century anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan and through him Engels and Marx, influencing their conception of ‘advanced communism’.

An upright and honest official
More’s utopia is a sort of compromise between the democratic and authoritarian-bureaucratic conceptions of communal life. He omits important information that would help us clarify the nature of the society that he is portraying. In particular, how are the higher officials appointed or elected? (We know that lower-level officials are elected.) Do they have material privileges? Does Utopia have an aristocracy of any kind?

I interpret this ambiguity in light of More’s general attitude toward the lower classes. He felt genuine compassion for the suffering of the poor. This is clear not only from the sentiments he expresses through his alter ego Hythloday, but also from his reputation as an upright and honest judge and official. He did not take bribes from the rich and he patronised the poor. By the standards of his day and age, he was open-minded and tolerant. He belonged to the same social type as that other upright and honest official, his near-contemporary in Ming China, Hai Rui.

But More, like Hai Rui, was no rebel. He was a “good servant” of God and king, a member of the ruling class with a strong belief in order and hierarchy. His ideal was not the fully democratic self-administration of society, which he could hardly imagine, but rather paternalistic “good government” by upright and honest officials like himself.

In conclusion
So what shall we make of More’s Utopia? It is, to be sure, an eloquent critique of the cruelty and perversity of capitalism, all the more remarkable for having been written at a time when that system had scarcely bared its fangs. However, More – although he envisages the abolition of money – does not provide a picture of what we now mean by socialism. But then that could hardly have been expected of him.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

US Gap Widens

Socialists often meet with the argument that while capitalism may have been a terrible system in the past, with the awful gap between rich and poor, today we are gradually improving things and such inequalities no longer exists. So what do the anti-socialists make of these recent statistics?

"The rich-poor gap also widened with the nation's top one percent now collecting 23 percent of total income, the biggest disparity since 1928, according to the Economic Policy Institute. One side statistic supplied by the IRS: there are now 47,000 Americans worth $20 million or more, an all-time high." (San Francisco Chronicle, 2 September '08)

Eighty years of reform and now the gap is even wider.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Who are the outsiders?

Xenophobia flourishes in Africa too, encouraged by state-building.

It is not only in the West that black people are subjected to racism and abusive languages by the host nation's population as "bloody foreigners", "parasites", "aliens","refugees", etc, but also Africans living in other African countries are grimly accustomed to the same abusive language. Matters have sometimes been getting out of hand in recent years. There is an irony that this is happening when many countries in Africa are busy trying to organise a Union of African states to replace the useless, that the OAU has been.

A few years ago, tens of thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians have been expelled against their will when the two countries started war (May 1998 till June 2000). The Eritreans and Ethiopians who happened to be respectively living in each other's country had lived there for most of their lives, in some cases many of them didn't know their country of origin. The rulers of both sides accused each other, accurately, of human rights violation.

The reasons for these mass expulsions and violence are almost always the same in each country. "Patriotic” citizens are quick to assert, nationalistically, that the "outsiders" have come to take over their resources, their jobs and what have you. However, though the grievances of the masses may be related to economic factors, it is unreasonable to blame it on their fellow poor workers.

In order to ward off unrest various tactics are employed by governments. One of them is creating divisions among the poor workers by, for instance blaming foreigners and whipping up nationalistic feelings. In response to the official propaganda, the masses who are hungry and illiterate are taken in by the government policy.

Since anger is emotional and overpowers reason, the least provocations can result in misdirected violence, usually manifested in riots. The violence is usually turned loose on the "aliens". This is the real cause of xenophobia: the rich pitting the poor against the poor.

In the past when Africa didn't have artificial boundaries such as there are today, wars and hatred were not as rife. Making up nations have taken a great deal of building. There is almost no nation-state that has not had its boundaries drawn in blood. America was built on the bodies of the native population. It is a process that continues today in Africa. The effort, though, has to be ongoing. States have required the use of an education system, to standardise learning, spread a national history and a sense of shared culture.

Language became a factor in establishing state power, and thus it became a factor in determining a "nation". It is no coincidence that nationalism is accompanied by a mania for classifying, delineating and defining people into categories. These practical considerations were made explicit by the Polish Nationalist Pilsudski, who observed that "it is the state that makes the nation, not the nation the state".

In order to enforce the new system of property over the whole range of its influence, the ruling class needed the state, and its legitimising ideas of nationalism and the nation. Culture resides in sets of ideas, values and practices that set out a sense of precedent, self and future possibility. Nationalism imposes the idea of the nation, complete with its inherent notions of territorial ownership and property, upon a culture, on the very self-image of the people within that culture.

The idea of "the nation" functions as supreme good, beyond the physical and mechanical functionings of the state, to which any cause may appeal. It is a fantasy which can be used to cover up for problems and contradictions in the practice of the state's daily life. Its function is to legitimise both the state and class rule, and sustain a large quantity of support, through workers who identify with the ideas of nationhood and believe themselves to be the same as, and have the same interests as, their masters.

Workers of course, do not share a common interest with their masters. It does not follow that if the "national wealth" increases, or if trade increases, or even if profit increases, that higher wages will be gained by workers. It might appear that workers and employers share a common interest. In fact the interest of workers is conditioned by the interest of the employer, in exactly the same manner as hostages held by a kidnapper: unless the kidnapper/employer, demands are met, they will not allow the hostage/workers to have what they need to live.
In the powerful nations, history becomes a means of winning popular emotions to the cause of stability. An influential and well funded nostalgia industry has long been used in these nations to persuade workers that there is something great about being the nation's subject.

The valid definition of a modern nation is a geographical and political area in which goods and services are produced for the sale on the market with a view to profit and with the general class division of ruling and ruled. And the fact that the majority of population owns little but its ability to work is evidence the working class has no common interest with the minority ruling class.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Land grabs - the new colonialism?

From this month's Socialist Standard

At the start of capitalism land was grabbed on a large scale by Europeans in the Americas, Africa and Asia – wherever there were useful, desirable, valuable resources. Never mind the indigenous populations, they could be bought off cheaply or cowed into submission militarily. Accumulation was the name of the game, on behalf of powerful states and royal families.

Colonies sprang up worldwide explaining, among other things, the curious spread of different languages from relatively tiny nations to huge continents across oceans – English, Spanish, Portuguese and French - and ultimately to the use of English/American as the global business language.

It is now widely recognised that colonialism was responsible for subjugating local populations, imposing governmental and legal systems and generally exploiting and expropriating whatever natural abundance or rare animal, vegetable or mineral matter happened to be discovered. As time went on the exploitation was taken over by corporations and continues not only unabated but increasingly rapacious, bringing commodities to customers worldwide, degrading environments worldwide and impoverishing populations worldwide whilst enriching a tiny minority.

Now local populations are starting to fight back, to protest against their treatment as second-class or non-citizens, demanding land and water rights. Populations from China to South America and many places in between are in struggles against domestic or transnational mining corporations, against governments over population dispersal for big dams and Special Economic Zones, against food corporations and agribusiness trying to enforce small farmers' removal from their land in order to grow mono-crops for food and bio-fuels specifically for export.

Against this back-drop of “peasant/worker awakening” is the very latest emergence of a new form of colonialism – of land-grab – by "food insecure" governments fearing for the future of their own populations' food needs and also by food corporations and private investors looking for new ways to make profits in this current economic crisis. Since March 2008 "high-level officials" from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Japan, China, India, South Korea, Libya and Egypt have been visiting countries with fertile farmland including Uganda, Brazil, Cambodia, Sudan and Pakistan to strike deals which guarantee them sole use of farmland to grow crops for export back to their own lands. The reciprocity is foreign investment or oil or technology deals.

Another angle to this new colonialism – financial returns – is seeing all manner of players getting involved, seeking a new avenue for profit; investment houses, hedge funds, grain traders and others from the finance and food industries, all looking to take control of fertile soil with access to water supply in foreign lands. Whilst governments are largely the ones making the deals for food security it has been made plain that it is the private sector that will control the enterprises. Likewise, the hunt for financial returns is the business of private investors. In both cases foreign private corporations will be taking control of farmland to produce food not for the local communities but for export back to the investor countries. Another form of accumulation by driving more local farmers from their land and stealing their livelihoods.

Here are three examples of deals struck so far (a full report is available from plus an annex in table form of over 100 cases of land-grab for offshore food production; online there is also a notebook of full-text news clippings being added to continuously to which people can contribute by emailing

First, China has sealed 30 agricultural cooperation deals which gives them access to "friendly country" farmland in exchange for Chinese technology, training and infrastructure development funds, in Kazakhstan, Queensland, Mozambique and the Philippines (to mention a few) and to which China flies in its own farmers, scientists and extension workers to grow rice, soya beans and maize as well as sugar cane, cassava and sorghum as bio-fuel crops.

Second, the Gulf States, short of water and productive soil but rich in oil and money, have been hard hit by the simultaneous rise in world food prices and fall in the US dollar to which (most) of their currencies are pegged. Their collective strategy has been to make deals particularly with other Islamic countries to which they will supply oil and capital in exchange for guarantees to farmland from which they can export the crops back home. Deals have been and continue to be made with Sudan, Pakistan and others in SE Asia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Uganda, Ukraine, Brazil and others. From the millions of hectares of farmland already leased under contract harvests are expected to begin this year, particularly of rice and wheat.

Third, India's corporate agribusinesses and the government-owned State Trading Corporation are looking to produce oilseed crops, pulses and cotton abroad. One deal with Burma to enable India to have total control of the agricultural process entails providing Burma with funds to upgrade its port infrastructure. They are also doing deals with Indonesia for palm oil plantations, talking to Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil about land for growing pulses and soya beans for export back home.

How will the indigenous populations react to this latest threat? This aggressive new policy of colonisation of land specifically for export crops and speculation is bound to increase pressure on local populations, more of whom will be struggling to feed their families working for wages, if so lucky, at a pittance level. Populations who don't need to be bought off cheaply this time because their own governments will willingly sell them out and who can easily be subdued militarily should the need arise, this time by the self-same government's police and armed forces.