Ten years ago I marched against the invasion of Iraq. I believed and still believe that it was an aggressive war for oil. But what does that mean? Was it a war intended to loot oil from Iraqis and give it to Americans? That would be a strange thing to say. No American got a drop of oil following the war in Iraq. American oil companies are now exploiting Iraqi oil in a big way, since things have settled down somewhat, but still where’s the benefit for Americans as a whole, not just the ones in boardrooms?
One country invades another country and takes its resurces: this is a tired, unspecific and crude way of talking about politics. Let’s be more specific. There was no oil shortage in the US in 2002-2003. Oil companies, however, who had representatives in the US executive, wanted to get their hands on more resources which they would then sell at a profit. It was a war to secure oil for them, for those companies, not so that Americans as whole would get “cheaper gas”.
More generally: is it true to say that Europeans and Americans benefit from the exploitation and impoverishment of the majority of the human race? Do Europeans and Americans have to lower their standard of living so that there’s enough to go around? I met someone recently who argued this pretty strongly, and sent me some statistics to back it up:
“The richest 20% of the world population accounts for 86% of total private consumption expenditures; consumes 58% of the world’s energy, 45% of all meat and fish, and 84% of paper; and owns 87% of cars and 74% of telephones. Conversely, the poorest 20% consumes 5% or less of each of these goods and services.”
(Global Environmental Outlook 3 (Nairobi, Kenya: United Nationals Environment Programme, 2002).
What does this prove?
Considering the massive wealth of a tiny minority, not much. 1,318 companies control 60% of the world’s revenue. Between £13 and £20 trillion sits in offshore bank accounts, beyond the reach of the tax collectors.
Those two factoids will do for now. The vast, vast majority of the people of America and Europe DO NOT sit on the boards of those 1,318 companies. Nor do they have trillions in deposits in offshore tax havens.
If the stats above on consumption were broken down to the top 1%, the top 5% and the top 10%, they’d be much more useful. Or if you break down wealth inequality inside America or inside Europe. Or if you look at the fact that some of the richest people in the world are from “poor” countries. The world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, is Mexican. He certainly has to lower his standard of living, and very dramatically! But an American fast food worker who’s crippled under a mountain of college debt or a recently-laid off Belgian auto-worker: are you going to look them in the eyes and say they have to lower their standard of living? More importantly, are they going to listen to you?
The difference between a British worker and a South African miner is huge. One is likely to live in a house or an apartment while the other is likely to live in a tin shack and sends all his money home to the family. But this difference is as nothing next to the difference between a British worker and those pampered twits on Made in Chelsea and all their sickeningly privileged class.
George Monbiot writes: “In the US, from 1979 to 2009 the income of the bottom fifth fell by 4%. In roughly the same period, the income of the top 1% rose by 270%. In the UK, the money earned by the poorest tenth fell by 12% between 1999 and 2009, while the money made by the richest 10th rose by 37%.” We are already lowering our standard of living, it seems. If too much consumption in Europe and America is the problem, then we have nothing to worry about! In that regard, things are getting immeasurably better every day as more and more of us fall into poverty and hunger.
The difference is not between continents or between differently-numbered “worlds”. The exploitation does not take place between Europe and Africa but between capitalist and worker. Yes, most of the world’s biggest companies are based in America and Europe. But increasingly Chinese companies are muscling their way into the top 20 list. And yet massive poverty and exploitation characterise life for the majority in China.
Distribution Not Resources
But this does not yet fully disprove the argument that there are not enough resources to go around. Generally, it is absolutely correct that people Europe, America and Japan have better standards of living than most of the world’s population. So: are there enough resources in the world to supply everyone with a standard of living as good as that of, say, a middle-class Irish person, let’s say an academic on €50,000 a year?
Tom Philpott wrote in Mother Jones last October that the world’s farms are ALREADY producing enough food to feed 12 billion people. That’s more than we need right now and it’s still a few billion more than we’re projected to need by 2050 when there are supposed to be 9 billion of us. Yet nearly a billion people go hungry today.
The materials exist to build everyone a nice house; the space definitely exists, and then some, to accommodate all. If the world were squeezed in together into one city with the population density of Paris, that city would be no bigger than France. Dibs on Mongolia.
The same goes for energy. Clearly, fossil fuels will become scarce. But wind, wave and solar energy are practically infinite. The only problem is, the profit motive means there will not be any significant investment in them.
The problem is not the planet or the species; both are fine. The problem is “man’s interaction with nature”, or in other words, the economy. We have a capitalist market economy that responds not to the needs of people but to their ability to pay. You get more if you already have more. Resources are allocated according to the whims of the rich, dictated by the profit motive, and all the photo-opportunity charity events are just insults added to injuries.
Far from having to cut consumption, if we democratically control all the major businesses and plan the economy rationally we can raise the standard of living of the Irish middle-class person we mentioned earlier. We can raise it to new heights, and we can make those heights universal. The only obstacle is the market. We have to dramatically and brutally and mercilessly lower the standard of living of that tiny proportion of the human race that controls most of the wealth. This is, never mind the 1%, the 0.1%, who control well over three-quarters of the world’s financial wealth (see graph).
Three Final Arguments
The difference in living standards between Europe (generally) and Africa (generally) is pretty clear. But retirement age, social housing, pensions, decent pay, the weekend, holidays, maternity leave, in short all that makes life bearable for the working class, were not plundered from Africa. In fact it’s horrifically insulting to say that they were. These, in most advanced capitalist countries, were won through hard struggle by the workers’ movement at the expense of the capitalist class.
Secondly, the idea that the solution to the world’s problems is a lowering of living standards for Europeans and Americans is actually nothing radical. It is the line of most of the governments of those countries. The last five years have seen huge falls in living standards for the majority in practically all of these countries, driven deliberately by governments so as to root out public spending that doesn’t benefit business, and to “lower labour costs”. It’s not to benefit the poorest. Ireland and Mozambique are not going to meet half-way. All the benefits are going to that same tiny minority, those who increased their wealth by $241 billion dollars in the last year, those 100 people, those one seventy-billionth of the world’s population. You could fit them all on one double-decker bus.
Lastly, what, practically, does it mean to lower living standards in Europe and America? Do you install a military dictatorship that reduces Ireland to the consumption levels of, say Nigeria? The 1.8 million adults in Ireland with less than €100 left at the end of the week; do you reduce that to €50 a week and give the difference to corrupt despotic states then watch as it’s pissed away in backhanders and debt obligations? Do you reduce the millionaires of Ireland to the same level or do you only take away a given percentage of their wealth, and leave them still hideously rich?
Or how about a practical solution, and one which working people of all countries will support: that people everywhere take back their natural resources, and the machinery and factories and transport which make the resources of the world benefit humanity. We end the rule of business and the stimulus of the profit motive. We run every major component of the world economy by councils of elected workers and experts on the average worker’s wage. They will distribute resources according to need, not the demands of the rich.