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News Link • Philosophy: Socialism

Crisis and Hope - Theirs and Ours

• Boston Review / Noam Chomsky

It may be instructive to recall that when they landed in what today is Bangladesh, the British invaders were stunned by its wealth and splendor. It was soon on its way to becoming the very symbol of misery, and not by an act of God.

As the fate of Bangladesh illustrates, the terrible food crisis is not just a result of “lack of true concern” in the centers of wealth and power. In large part it results from very definite concerns of global managers: for their own welfare. It is always well to keep in mind Adam Smith’s astute observation about policy formation in England. He recognized that the “principal architects” of policy—in his day the “merchants and manufacturers”—made sure that their own interests had “been most peculiarly attended to” however “grievous” the effect on others, including the people of England and, far more so, those who were subjected to “the savage injustice of the Europeans,” particularly in conquered India, Smith’s own prime concern in the domains of European conquest.

Smith was referring specifically to the mercantilist system, but his observation generalizes, and as such, stands as one of the few solid and enduring principles of both international relations and domestic affairs. It should not, however, be over-generalized. There are interesting cases where state interests, including long-term strategic and economic interests, overwhelm the parochial concerns of the concentrations of economic power that largely shape state policy. Iran and Cuba are instructive cases, but I will have to put these topics aside here.

The food crisis erupted first and most dramatically in Haiti in early 2008. Like Bangladesh, Haiti today is a symbol of misery and despair. And, like Bangladesh, when European explorers arrived, the island was remarkably rich in resources, with a large and flourishing population. It later became the source of much of France’s wealth. I will not run through the sordid history, but the current food crisis can be traced directly to 1915, Woodrow Wilson’s invasion: murderous, brutal, and destructive. Among Wilson’s many crimes was dissolving the Haitian Parliament at gunpoint because it refused to pass “progressive legislation” that would have allowed U.S. businesses to take over Haitian lands. Wilson’s Marines then ran a free election, in which the legislation was passed by 99.9 percent of the 5 percent of the public permitted to vote. All of this comes down through history as “Wilsonian idealism.”

Later, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) instituted programs to turn Haiti into the “Taiwan of the Caribbean,” by adhering to the sacred principle of comparative advantage: Haiti must import food and other commodities from the United States, while working people, mostly women, toil under miserable conditions in U.S.-owned assembly plants. Haiti’s first free election, in 1990, threatened these economically rational programs. The poor majority entered the political arena for the first time and elected their own candidate, a populist priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Washington adopted the standard operating procedures for such a case, moving at once to undermine the regime. A few months later came the anticipated military coup, and the resulting junta instituted a reign of terror, which was backed by Bush senior and even more fully by Clinton, despite pretenses. By 1994 Clinton decided that the population was sufficiently intimidated and sent U.S. forces to restore the elected president, but on the strict condition that he accept a harsh neoliberal regime. In particular, there must be no protection for the economy. Haitian rice farmers are efficient, but cannot compete with U.S. agribusiness that relies on huge government subsidies, thanks largely to Reagan, anointed High Priest of free trade with little regard to his record of extreme protectionism and state intervention in the economy.

There is nothing surprising about what followed: a 1995 USAID report observed that the “export-driven trade and investment policy”—that Washington mandated—will “relentlessly squeeze the domestic rice farmer.” Neoliberal policies dismantled what was left of economic sovereignty and drove the country into chaos, accelerated by Bush junior’s blocking of international aid on cynical grounds. In February 2004 the two traditional torturers of Haiti, France and the United States, backed a military coup and spirited President Aristide off to Africa. Haiti had, by then, lost the capacity to feed itself, leaving it highly vulnerable to food price fluctuation, the immediate cause of the 2008 food crisis.

The story is fairly similar in much of the world. In a narrow sense, it may be true enough that the food crisis results from Western lack of concern: a pittance could overcome its worst immediate effects. But more fundamentally it results from dedication to the basic principles of business-run state policy, the Adam Smith generalization. These are all matters that we too easily evade—along with the fact that bailing out banks is not uppermost in the minds of the billion people now facing starvation, not forgetting the tens of millions enduring hunger in the richest country in the world.

Also sidelined is a possible way to make a significant dent in the financial and food crises. It is suggested by the recent publication of the authoritative annual report on military spending by SIPRI, the Swedish peace research institute. The scale of military spending is phenomenal, regularly increasing. The United States is responsible for almost as much as the rest of the world combined, seven times as much as its nearest rival, China. There is no need to waste time commenting.


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