THE BRITISH WAY OF LIFE
1. HISTORY AS MYTH
The British way of life as developed through the nineteenth century represents the original blueprint for what we now recognise as 'the Western way of life'. Britain may have been in decline as a superpower since as long ago as the turn of this century but the legacy of the British Empire has been the social, political and governmental framework for modern Western capitalism and imperialism. This is the first contention of this essay. The second is that although the organisation of capitalism may have been founded upon industrialisation, it has been maintained by carefully disguising the political nature of every aspect of daily life.
In Britain today politics is dismissed as if it is something that only happens when a few select people talk at each other across the floor of the House of Commons, or as if it is something that only emerges from hibernation once every five years. Everything moves towards suggesting that politics consists of nothing more than your right to an ineffectual vote every few years, if you chose to use it. The socialisation and education young people receive does nothing to alert them to what democracy could and should mean; and the work and leisure practices laid out for adults ensure most never find out at a later date. The inescapably political nature of social life, the fact that politics has little to do with voting and everything to do with the actions we take and the decisions we make every day, the fact that every time we decide to do this rather than that we are making a political decision to support things as they stand in the world or to foster a move towards change, all this is never revealed.
As the rise of the Right in so many countries across Europe in recent years has proved there are plenty of people who now see a return to authoritarianism as the answer to social ills that are at base and in reality economic problems. Some are harking back to former loyalties, others wish to create afresh in the image of the 1990s those old fascist attitudes that are founded upon fear and racism. Politicians and the wielders of power within liberal democracies will resist the call to outright fascism while moving further to the Right themselves since they retain easy control of the sources of wealth within their societies, but the maelstrom of violence that has destroyed the lives of so many in the former Yugoslavia demonstrates clearly that politicians will not shirk from playing the racist card if this is perceived as the avenue that will allow them to retain power and privilege. This shift to the Right, just as apparent in the policies of Tory ministers leading purges against illegal immigrants as in pogroms being administered in Bosnia, must be opposed; but it has to be confronted on the basis of a clear understanding of the relationship of fascism to capitalism. Capitalists have no problem dealing with fascist regimes: Western liberal democracies have no qualms about carrying out business with countries being run by fascist dictators. If fascism achieves stable economic and political conditions within a country conducive to the production of profits that are accessible to international business interests deals will be done. Only if the existence of fascism within one country threatens the worldwide balance of trade will an economic, political and, perhaps, military struggle take place; witness the West's willingness to do deals with Saddam Hussein up until the point where there was a potential threat to oil supplies.
In Western countries the mythology that is passed off as history forms the cornerstone of the myth of liberal democracies, and in our case of something known as 'the British way of life'. A collectively understood perspective on history is created via the hegemony of certain socially-dominant ways of viewing not only the past but also the present. The history that is sold via the media and through official channels to the public is a mythology created to sustain the current social order. To take one central cultural icon as an example: Churchill is presented in schools and particularly via the media as a hero of the people. The concept of the British bulldog spirit and the image of the V for Victory salute have become the very stuff of Britishness. In fact, Churchill was a reactionary Tory imperialist who never flinched from using force, whether it was directed at ordinary British men and women threatening the status quo, or foreigners rebelling against British rule.
Wars are presented to the public as central historical events: the prime example of 'us' as the 'goodies' and 'them' as the 'baddies'. They are shown as struggles between good and evil, despite the fact that within any rational account of war it becomes clear troops are sent to do battle in order to safeguard cheap resources, trade and imperial control. In the Second World War, for example, it must be far from obvious which bit of the British Isles troops stationed in North Africa or the Far East were supposed to be defending. Clearly they were in fact attempting to maintain the assumed right of the British ruling class to control world trade, or at least as sizeable a proportion of that trade as possible. The truth that hegemonic control of communications is designed to prevent the public from perceiving is that wars are in fact struggles between contending ruling factions for control of global trade, desperate attempts to seize or defend areas of trade seen to be under threat within the competitive capitalist global marketplace.
As happens during the aftermath of all wars the powers that be are continuing the process that began during the actual conflict by attempting through the use of war-footage videos, combat magazines and other methods of indoctrinating thought-control to package the Gulf War into easy-consumption propaganda for the British public. In the process they are desperately trying to disguise the fact that wars are fought by the poor on behalf of various groups of wealthy people who are locked into a struggle for control of the world's resources. It is clearly a myth that the Gulf War, this latest major episode in the continuation of western imperialism, was a war involving smart bombs and surgical strikes and yet this was a central facet of the disinformation fed to the public at the time of the conflict and it has now become an accepted part of Gulf War mythology. Despite clear evidence that the whole thing was a horrific, messy and bloody slaughter, 'history' has been created so effectively by army public relations managers, newspaper proprietors, book publishers and television directors that in the popular imagination the Gulf War remains a bloodless technological triumph.
During the First World war the same confidence trick that is always played on the massed ranks of ordinary troops on all sides was successfully pulled off and led directly to the deaths of millions. Dispossessed of any ability to think clearly for themselves they were so thoroughly cowed and deceived that they laid down their lives to defend the profits of the businessmen who ruled their lives. In the process, through the slaughter of millions of young men, the capitalist system was able to protect itself against the threat of revolution. At Mons, Ypres, Loos, Passchendaele and on the Somme the young men on both sides killing and being killed had more in common with each other than with their army commanders, or politicians, or business barons making profits from their misery and death. Yet, for the most part even after the slaughter was over they swallowed the propaganda (as the public did almost 80 years later with the Gulf War), even to the extent of believing it was 'the War to End Wars'.
In Britain we are taught to pride ourselves on our high moral standards, our support for the underdog, our bulldog spirit, our concern for those less fortunate than ourselves, our Christian heritage, our democratic ideals, our sense of fair play, our system of justice, our history of exploration, challenge and adventure, our role in bringing civilisation to the world. This is the myth of 'the British way of life'. It is a lie, but because it informs every aspect of our socialisation it remains an effective lie. It has its origins in the nineteenth century and the supremacy of Britain as the number one superpower of the era. Maps on schoolroom walls showed the Empire in red encompassing the globe: the empire on which the sun never set. Schoolchildren were brought up on the exploits of British heroes bringing law, order, civilisation and Christianity to the heathen peoples of the world. It was a gross and obscene distortion of the truth, but since that time fast developing systems of propaganda have ensured the resilience of this myth.
The real facts of 'Empire days' were those of brutal conquest and the vicious subjugation of native populations. Britain's only interest was in the raw materials colonies could provide to keep the engine of industrial development going at home and the possibilities of advantageous trade deals offered by having control of a far-flung empire. In both cases the crop being harvested at the expense of workers at home and native populations around the world was profits. The British Empire and the British way of organising trade and industry around the world became the model all industrialised nations would attempt to emulate. The Gulf War was a direct linear descendant of the violent imperialism that is central to the British/Western way of life. And as we move into a stage of capitalist development where the multinational corporation is becoming all-powerful the same interests in cheap raw materials, cheap labour and access to extensive worldwide markets remain paramount.
From 1840 to the end of the century the British army fought in more than 70 wars around the world bringing the firepower of the world's first machine gun, the 600 rounds a minute Maxim, to bear on native peoples armed with spears and clubs. When parts of India rose against British rule in the 1850s whole villages were burnt and every villager hanged; and yet the uprisings were presented as a mutiny organised by treacherous 'natives'. At the so-called 'Battle' of Omdurman in 1898 11,000 were slaughtered for the loss of just 28 British lives. In the context of the more recent Gulf conflict this may sound rather familiar.
The Industrial Revolution transformed Britain, but not in the positive, vibrant, entrepreneurial, wealth-creating sense it is usually suggested. The grinding poverty and hardship of the agricultural labourer was totally outstripped by the total squalor and degradation of the factory worker forced to live in the most appalling slums imaginable. Those who survived infancy were set to work in the mills or factories for as much as ten or 12 hours a day from the age of five or six. Pregnant women worked their 12 to 14 hour a day stint right up to the point of giving birth and were back to work within days. In 1840 Britain had more than twice as many factory workers as the rest of Europe; but as slump followed boom in that same inevitable cycle we face today, the cycle that is built into the capitalist system, as much as half that workforce could be laid off, or on reduced hours, at any one time. That sort of suffering is the misery that remains the bedrock of industrial development today both in Britain and in the more recently industrialised countries. But our carefully controlled socialisation into and acceptance of the current world order ensures that for the most part the temporal and spatial interconnectedness of this suffering remains hidden.
At the turn of the century during the Boer War it was Britain that developed the prototype for the concentration camp. In India, shortly after World War One, the army fired for ten minutes into a crowd of demonstrators trapped in a walled off area of the city of Amritsar killing almost 400 and wounding more than 1,000. In Ireland after the Easter Rising of 1916, during which 300 civilians had been killed and 2,000 wounded by British troops, 15 leaders of the rebellion were executed by firing squad and almost 2,000 were taken to England to be interned without trial. Their crime? They had declared "the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland". After the Second World War in Malaya British troops moved thousands into concentration camps; and in Cyprus in the 1950s Britain pioneered modern methods of psychological torture involving disorientation and sensory deprivation. This is the history of 'the British way of life', but it is not the way our history is usually presented to us.
The majority of people cling with passionate intensity to the belief that the past is simply a question of there being 'good guys and bad guys'/'heroes and villains', we are always good and heroic and they are always bad and villainous. And this is not so very surprising since at every opportunity, particularly through the presentation of 'news' but also via a whole array of other channels of cultural disinformation, efforts are made to indoctrinate us into thinking this is the case. The truth is, despite all we are told as children and despite all we read later and see on tv, the Second World War, for example, was not fundamentally a case of Hitler, the evil monster, versus Churchill, the defiant hero. Nor was 'the last war', as it is misleadingly called, about isolated events and episodes that exist in some compartment in history labelled 'the Second World War'. That war did not start in 1939 and it did not end in 1945, nor did it even begin with the rise of Hitler and conclude with the end of rationing. What happened in 1939 to 1945 was part of the continuing contest between Western countries for domination of the world economy that has been going on for centuries. This is the fundamental truth that the in-place social structures of our society work to prevent us from seeing. The Second World War was a continuation of the unfinished business of the First World War, and both were part of the process that saw the end of Britain's global dominance. Within this sort of perspective the dead of both Germany and Britain come to be seen as pawns used in a wider and more significant struggle.
One of the most important influences in the creation of the late twentieth century tradition of 'the British way of life' has been the presentation in schools, on tv, in books and in newspapers of World War Two and Britain's role in that war. It is from this relatively recent period of history that the national collective consciousness has been most effectively shaped and moulded to highlight the central qualities of 'the British way of life'. Then the whole nation pulled as one: there was the Dunkirk spirit, the determination of the Home Guard, the heroism of the Few, the defiance of Londoners, the bulldog spirit of Churchill, and the pride in one small island nation standing alone against the might of the Third Reich. In fact, British stoicism was no greater (and probably considerably less) than that shown by, for example, the Russians and the Germans themselves towards the end of the war: in one RAF attack on Dresden in 1945 more than 60,000 were killed, that is 10,000 more than the total civilian deaths in Britain throughout the war.
The lie was then and has been ever since that what Britain was fighting against was fascism. Ordinary people may have seen this as their aim, but the British ruling class was clear its concern was to fight to hold on to as much as possible of the massive chunk of the global market they already owned and controlled. Yet, so successfully have we been indoctrinated into the mythology of nationalism and the British spirit personified in Churchill and exemplified by the actions of ordinary Brits during the war that most of us refuse to entertain any alternative possibilities.
The Second World War was not about defending democracy though in both Britain and the United States it has been presented as such, it was a struggle between fading and emerging economic superpowers on the world stage for control of markets and natural resources. It was the military resumption of the unfinished business of the First World War. The policy of appeasement was not motivated by some naive desire to preserve peace, although 'peace in our time' may have been how it was presented, it was a calculated effort to re-design the carve up of global spheres of influence without the need to resort to war.
In Spain in 1936, Franco, backed militarily by Germany, fought and won a bloody civil war against the democratically elected republican government. The British government said at the time it was remaining neutral: evidence from Spanish archives has shown this to be a lie. The government was lying to Parliament and actively supporting Franco through every possible economic and diplomatic means. Fascism was not an evil the British government found it simply could not support on any grounds; instead, clear political and economic decisions were being made to back what was to become a longstanding, right-wing dictatorship. Any hint of expansionist policies which might threaten the British share of the world market clearly represented the only real sticking-point in dealing with such regimes.
Both the British and the French had invaded and occupied huge overseas empires denying whole populations any democratic rights, so the linkage of either of these countries with any notion of real democracy was clearly extremely tenuous. Their main aim throughout the territories under their control was to prevent revolts and hold on to these lands along with the accompanying trade and the resulting profits. Churchill admired both Hitler and Mussolini for a time, as did the majority of the British ruling class, but he came to fear for the British Empire in the face of the expansionist policies of both Germany and Italy. When Chamberlain declared war in 1939 he significantly said that the future of the whole Empire was at stake. Most of the fighting for the first years of the war involved battles to see who would control North Africa and the Mediterranean and therefore the Middle East and great chunks of Asia. This was the reality of the war: the British ruling class battling to keep control of a vast empire that had afforded them huge profits in the past. In the face of the developing economies of Germany and Japan that needed to expand their spheres of influence they were struggling to hold on to the sort of global domination that had made possible profits on a scale hitherto unknown.
Much of the British ruling class never wanted to go to war with Hitler. In the years before the war members of the Royal family and various assorted aristocrats expressed respect for the extreme right-wing methods being employed in Germany. (Just as British industrialists have more recently expressed admiration for the firm social order that is maintained in Malaysia and allows massive profits to be made there.) There was no concern for workers and trade unionists in Germany, and little for Jews. There was instead approval of the regime's ability to organise, indoctrinate and 'cow' the workforce.
Ordinary men, women and children in Britain knew the reality of 'the British way of life1 through their experiences during the Depression and accepted war only as a means of stopping the spread of fascism and preventing themselves becoming enslaved to a way of life that threatened to be even worse than they had experienced in the 1930s. While the upper classes had air raid shelters and plenty of food in their favourite restaurants, ordinary Londoners had meagre rations and were locked out of the Underground until they broke open the gates and took over stations. We are seldom told this when we are presented with the history of the Blitz and shown pictures of happy Londoners singing in the Underground as the bombs were falling. So successfully has the history of this period been rewritten as a heroic battle against fascism, rather than a struggle between fading and emerging superpowers for domination of world trade, that we have had the lessons of that war taken from us.
The way in which imperialism (redefined for successive eras) has continued to rule the world was clearly demonstrated when one year after the Gulf war people in the West were encouraged to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the 'discovery' of the New World, and in the process applaud 500 years of colonial oppression and butchery. The history presented in schools, in newspapers, in magazines, on tv, on radio and in films is quite simply a lie. It is an elaborate mythology carefully put together to reinforce an economic system based upon the exploitation of masses of people across the world. It is a myth that ensures the continued domination of a wealthy minority. Celebrations of the first voyage of Columbus, like the packaging of the Gulf War, were part of that myth-creation process.
Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. The island on which he landed now forms Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Within a matter of a few years half the native population of that island had been killed, perhaps as many as 500,000 people. In comparative terms, taking into account the lower overall population of that time, this is 'better' than even Pol Pot managed in Cambodia. Within a hundred years the entire native population of the Caribbean had been wiped out.
Throughout the past 400 years appallingly brutal acts have been carried out by the British in order to maintain control over foreign resources and trade, and during recent decades the moral standards attaching to 'the British way of life' have been no better than in the past. Britain remains, for example, a major exporter of arms to the Third World. People in developing countries cry out for food and the Western world (groomed in the image of the 'the British way of life') sends weapons that they might fight over what little they have. In 1993 the Matrix Churchill case made it clear (if it was not already well known enough) that Britain was amongst those who armed Saddam Hussein. The West said nothing while whole Kurdish villages were gassed. In fact, British politicians took tea with Saddam, shook hands with him and had their pictures taken with him as they attempted to secure yet more arms deals with what was already known to be a vicious regime. One of the few remaining areas of the global economy where the UK still manages to compete with the 'best' of the rest of the world is in the field of arms trading. In the 1990s the appalling reality behind the charade that is the United Nations is the fact that the five members of the Security Council account for over 80 per cent of the world-wide arms trade. Charities have estimated it might need £500 million to adequately feed the people of Africa: the Coalition's expenditure on the Gulf War in 1991 was estimated to be more than £1,000 million a day. This is wholly consistent with the pattern of imperialism practised by Western countries for the past 500 years. The exploitation of the Third World that started in 1492 was given renewed impetus under nineteenth century industrialisation and has been fuelled since the Second World war by the arms trade and the globalisation of production. One of the results is that Africa is now spending more on repaying debts to the West than it is on health care.
Britain is still, despite its relative decline, one of the countries raking in wealth at the expense of malnourished African children. Unicef has described the debt situation as totally inhumane with millions of children in sub-Saharan Africa facing disease and death because of austerity policies forced into place by Western banks. A billion people around the world lack adequate food and safe drinking water, a quarter of a million children die from preventable deaths every week, millions are stunted and malnourished.
Global military spending is estimated to be well over £500 billion a year, there are believed to be something like 5 million refugees around the world, well over 20 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere every year increasing the likelihood of global warming, the thinning of the ozone layer continues apace and not just over the Antarctic, the rainforests are being destroyed at the rate of 170,000 square kilometres a year: and all this and more is happening because that blueprint for capitalist exploitation in an industrial landscape, 'the British way of life' (the economic structures that underpinned it and the social values that reinforced it) made possible the creation of 'the Western way of life' that now determines the global imbalance of trade.
As an example of Britain's overseas policies in the 1980s and 1990s consider the case of Indonesia. In 1991 British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce negotiated a multimillion pound deal to supply this country with 40 Hawk fighter-trainers, aircraft that are readily adaptable for ground attack and counter-insurgency operations. This was a military contract with a country which had invaded neighbouring East Timor and managed to kill over 200,000 people in this former Portuguese colony, nearly one third of the population. While this was going on Britain became Indonesia's major supplier of arms with deals worth almost £300 million going through in the four years up to 1990. These were deals being struck with one of South East Asia's most repressive regimes, as demonstrated by the dramatic tv pictures of the Dili massacre in November 1991.
The 50 years since the end of the Second World War have not been a period of peace: there have been estimated to be on average 12 wars being fought every day around the world. The West actively encourages these wars . ProWestern regimes and rebel forces are armed and encouraged to destroy the often democratically-elected opposition: this is known as Western foreign policy. In the 1930s there were few countries with armed forces of any size, but now there are perhaps 200 nations with the weaponry to carry out the sort of civil war operations that have been seen throughout the former Yugoslavia. Yet, the West in the shape of the United States, Russia, France, Britain, Germany and Italy insists on its right to continue to flood the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Africa with arms. The end of the Second World War clearly did not bring peace, although it may have initially brought about a lull in the fighting and a regrouping of forces. War has continued to be an everyday reality as witnessed by daily tv news reports. Militarisation has intensified and the frequency (if not the scale) of wars has increased. Since 1945 there have been more than 200 wars: well over 100 have been conflicts in which deaths have averaged more than 1,000 a year. Over 200 million have died in these wars. Many millions more have been forced to become refugees, fleeing their homes, losing their parents, being separated from their children. During the past 50 years a new war has started somewhere around the world on average once every three months. There have been more than 50,000 killed in El Salvador since 1945, more than 50,000 in Guatemala, more than 60,000 in Nicaragua, 20,000 in Argentine, 25,000 in Chile, 300,000 in Columbia and the odd few thousand scattered throughout the rest of Latin America. Over 500,000 are thought to have been killed in both Ethiopia and Uganda, over 300,000 in Algeria and Sudan, over 100,000 in Burundi, Mozambique, Rwanda and Zaire, and almost 100,000 in Angola. More than two million are believed to have died in fighting in China, almost three million in Kampuchea, almost a million in India and Indonesia, well over a million in Bangladesh and 300,000 in Afghanistan.
In the First World War almost all casualties were military personnel: in modern wars 60 per cent of those killed are civilians. Many of those who have died since 1945 have simply disappeared. Whole families, even whole communities have been massacred on suspicion of being in support of the enemy or merely to cow the rest of the populace. Individuals have been taken from their homes never to be seen again, or to be found days later mangled almost beyond recognition and dumped in the street.
The West has been content to sell arms around the world knowing such slaughter would take place. In the first place it has been seen as a lucrative business venture helping to tilt the North-South balance of trade still further in favour of the already rich North, and secondly the military and associated scientific complex has had a vested interest in the continuation of this trade; but more fundamentally the Second World War signified the end of the older form of colonial exploitation as practised in particular by Britain and France. September 1945 marked the start of a new stage in the struggle for domination of world trade amongst global superpowers. The old colonial empires were breaking up. Countries all over the world were gaining political independence. A new style of imperialism was required.
This new approach has been perfected by the United States. Acting as 'the policeman of the world' direct military intervention (as recently in Panama, Kuwait and Haiti) is sometimes used; but more often compliant regimes are backed with arms and military training for their troops, or if the local government is not willing to be subservient to the US (as in Nicaragua) rebel forces are given that support. The West, led by the US, has followed a policy of isolating, and thereby economically strangling, any country which has chosen to stand out against its way of life: obvious examples are Cuba and Vietnam.
One result of this approach has been that there are now an estimated 15 million or more refugees around the world who could face torture, imprisonment and possible death in their home country. A mere handful of these often physically and always mentally scarred people (around 25,000 a year) apply for asylum in Britain, the supposed bastion of civilised values. The response of the British government has been to tighten regulations to prevent these people from entering this country. The response of the racist press has been to talk of a tidal wave of immigrants swamping our white, Anglo-Saxon way of life. Meanwhile, the government has set human rights as a compulsory element of the national curriculum in schools.
Television programmes on famine in Africa give the impression that the West is seriously giving aid to the poor of the world, shipping in grain to save Third World children from starvation when it is not really the West's problem. Yet, the fact is the West runs the global economy in such a way that there is no possible escape from poverty for Third World people. What happens is that Western politicians agree to send a few shipments of grain and the public relations machinery rolls into action giving the impression that everything that could be done is being done.
Given this state of affairs we might wonder how it would be possible to have a whole tv programme devoted to aid for Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia or some other Third World country and featuring a variety of assorted 'experts' without at some point in the proceedings questioning the basis upon which aid is being sent to these countries; but this is exactly what happens. The public is repeatedly fed this type of documentary or a studio discussion, without the real questions about aid ever being asked. Why is aid really being sent? What is responsible for causing the famine? Who is responsible for causing the famine? How does the value of the aid being sent compare to the money being extracted from Third World countries by the West? What happens to the raw materials of Third World countries? Where do they go? Who uses them? Who benefits from the use to which they are put? What happens to the energy resources of these countries? What crops are being grown in these countries? How much food is exported from these countries? Where does it end up? It would seem impossible to investigate the causes of famine without asking these sorts of questions and yet, coverage of Third World poverty often manages it.
Three-quarters of the aid given by Britain to various governments around the world is tied to their buying British goods and services. Taxpayers money set aside for the world's poor is, therefore, used to support private companies in this country and often to finance projects grossly inappropriate to the needs of the poor. Aid is given to proWestern regimes and withheld from countries where the government has spoken out against Western exploitation of the Third World. In addition, more than 70 per cent of Britain's business as a major arms trader is conducted with Third World countries.
Clearly, one reason Britain gives aid to developing countries in the first place is to encourage them to adopt economic policies helpful to the Western economy. This is entirely to be expected since neither Western governments, nor Western businesses make a habit of distributing free handouts to those in need: it is not in the nature of the beast. Far from helping developing countries, each year the West receives back billions of pounds more than it sends out in aid. For the past decade the Third World has been paying out more to the West than it has been receiving in aid.
Indefensible, the layman might think, but there are arguments bankers are prepared to put up to defend the situation. In the 1970s Western loans to Third World governments were to finance economic development, say bankers and financiers. At the time Western banks saw these developing countries as having an investment potential for the creation of profits. When things went wrong for the world economy in the 1980s the banks say they tried to prevent total economic collapse by agreeing to reschedule debt repayments, creating time for fundamental adjustments of local economies to take effect. The reality is, of course, that they tried to prevent total economic collapse in Third World countries simply because they had a lot of money tied up in those places and they were not about to easily give it up. What the banks had to work out were ways of salvaging their investment. 'Fundamental adjustments of local economies' has meant harsher regimes and deeper poverty for the people of Third World countries. For the future it is essential developing countries implement economic reforms which will create the confidence to attract international investment, say the banks. This, of course, totally ignores the fact that what is really important is that these countries should be able to fed their people rather than using their most fertile land to grow exotic fruits and vegetables for Western supermarket shelves.
There are occasions when the list of Third World disaster zones being served up on our tv screens seems endless, but each disaster never lasts for long within the fantasy world of tv time. There may be a few disturbing days, even weeks, of coverage and a little more publicity for the work of Oxfam and the like, but before long normal service is resumed with the dying going on off-screen. In fulfilling its role of manufacturing our consent to the death of children television is only interested in the poverty and disease that is the daily lot of Third World people around the globe when there is the drama of a massive human tragedy on offer. We the viewers, casting over the images of suffering an eye that has seen it all before, accept that although this is tragic it is unavoidable because we have been told this lie a million times before. For the most part, even when there is some 'newsworthy' catastrophic body count taking place in some distant part of the old empire, we are fed a diet of American soaps, Australian soaps and British soaps interspersed with quizzes, gameshows and sport.
At the start of the 1980s, Third World and East European countries owed the West almost £500 billion. During that decade these countries paid back well over that amount in interest and repayments on loans, yet they found their total debt had risen to £750 billion by 1990. They had not been able to repay fast enough and had been forced to take out new loans to cover the old ones. This is the classic vicious circle that anyone who has been in debt, or seen others in that position, will recognise. And those who pay for all this are, of course, the poor, from the Ethiopian farmer and his family scratching a meagre living but getting by until the overpowering force of this global economic steamroller of a system catches up with them and grinds them into the dust of their land to the Brazilian factory worker enduring terrible conditions, long hours and the knowledge that he will return to his family in a slum and the ever present threat to his children of disease and early death.
Disasters in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan or anywhere else are not acts of God, nor are they primarily the result of corruption and mismanagement within the countries concerned. These disasters are part of the oppression of poor people around the world that is the outcome of our Western-led global economic system. More than that, it is the basis of that system. The early 1990s have been record years for the world's wheat harvest: the amount safely gathered in has been more than in any other period in history. Fleets of combine harvesters have churned their way relentlessly back and forth across the prairies of the world ensuring that even if a few people starved to death the world-wide population of meat-producing farm animals would continue to be sustained. Our problem as a species is not growing food, it is the distribution of that food to where it is most needed. The Western world order is good at getting it to beef-ranching concerns and factory pig farms, but rather less good at getting it to pot-bellied, starving children.
The truth is that although in terms of helping people to live it would be more efficient for the grain to be fed directly into hungry human mouths rather than for it first to be processed by farm animals, there is not so much profit to be made that way. The 'mark-up' is much greater on corn that has been processed into burgers. So, while grain sits in silos and warehouses in one part of the world, or is dumped in the ocean, or is fed to pigs and cattle, people in another part of the world die for want of food. The equation is naturally not quite as simple as that. It is not fundamentally the lack of food that is the problem for people facing starvation in Africa and elsewhere, it is a lack of cash. Consider Saudi Arabia and Kuwait: these are not the most agriculturally productive countries in the world, much of the land is desert, but we do not hear of people in these areas facing famine. True, migrant workers may be expected to exist on pretty meagre scraps, but their problem is again a lack of money. We do not hear of sheikhs facing starvation. It does not matter if the food is produced on the other side of the world, these people have the means to have it transported by land and sea to the doors of their palace kitchens. They may even choose to be taken aboard their private palace-cum-jet to the particular food's country of origin, or they may jet to some intermediary Western country if they wish to feel the benefit of visiting a particular plush restaurant. In the same way, if starving Africans had enough cash to pay the going rate they would find food arriving at their ports as if by magic. There would be no dumping of grain in the depths of the oceans then with the accompanying lie that it was 'over-production'.
In 1991 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development stated that the demand for grain had fallen. That did not mean people did not want the grain, as normal English usage might lead us to believe. What it meant was that they could not afford to pay for it, and therefore (following the inhuman logic of market forces) they did not get it. Anybody watching the tv news at the time about African famines would have known that 'demand' was in fact high, but that sort of 'demand' was not exactly what the economic powers that be had in mind.
The reality is that today we are stripping Third World countries of their wealth just as fast as we were during the height of colonialism. Champion of the green movement, Jonathan Porritt, once recognised this superbly in a Guardian newspaper article: every year £30 billion flowed south to north in debt repayment and profit repatriation:
"The flow of wealth is as grotesquely out of kilter as it was at the height of the colonial period when the rich, industrialised European countries were unapologetically sucking wealth out of the Third World. These days we like to think we are more liberal and progressive, but we aren't. We are stripping them of their wealth as fast as we did then."
However, he then found he was dumbfounded as to why the Western world was not doing anything to save, if not Third World countries and their people then at least the planet upon which we were all dependent:
"How is it that world leaders attending the G7 summit are entranced by capital management but cannot grasp the notion of real assets?"
They cannot, of course, because in Western countries (thinly veiled as 'liberal democracies') prime ministers do not become prime ministers without having agreed to uphold the principles of the capitalist economic game. This was what Neil Kinnock, for example, was so keen to try to assure bankers and rich investors in the run-up to the 1992 general election, and what Tony Blair is currently intent on doing. Control of the population (and particularly of those in any position of power) has been refined into a sophisticated art form in the West. Government ministers are the last people to be permitted any dissent from the gods of interest rates and profits in favour of people and eco-systems.
What can talk of 'the British way of life' of honour, truth, honesty and democracy mean when ministers attend an Earth Summit in Brazil where each year despite that country having the eighth largest economy in the world more than 300,000 children die as a direct result of under-nourishment, a country with the world's most unequal distribution of wealth? Where is our support for the underdog, our willingness to defend freedom, our concern for those less fortunate than ourselves, our sense of fair play? More than 300 million Africans now live in absolute poverty, over half that continent's population; and yet, the level of Britain's foreign aid continues to fall.
In the 1990s with the (created) threat of the ogre of Russian Communism being dead, the Pentagon has put in place plans to target nuclear weapons against "every reasonable adversary around the globe". It is rather ambiguous, but what it means is that anybody who disagrees with 'the American way of life' will be under threat of nuclear attack if they step out of line. 'Minimum deterrence can mean anything you want it to mean. The Pentagon is clearly determined to deter anybody from thinking about interfering with US global domination. The British way of life' has certainly become increasingly subservient to 'the American way of life' since 1945, but through its actions during the nineteenth century Britain set the agenda for that currently dominant way of life and for the approach of the phalanx of Countries contributing to 'the Western way of life'.