Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



June 23, 2006

Our Imperialist Heritage

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 13:39
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Caveat: This is a rant. I had to get it out of my system. Nothing very constructive here, I’m afraid.
Probably the biggest lie that we in the affluent nations tell ourselves is that those in the world’s struggling nations have the power, in their own hands, to establish traditions of constitutional liberalism, democracy and free market capitalism and hence join the ranks of the world’s affluent nations. It’s a variation of the same lie we tell the poor and powerless in our own countries — that they can accomplish anything if they work hard at it, and that their economic suffering is something they should be personally ashamed of, rather than angry about.

Imperialism is defined as “a policy of extending control or authority over foreign entities as a means of acquisition and/or maintenance of empires”. In practice it is as old as civilization, and has prevailed intermittently throughout most of the world since civilization began. Its basis is inequality of wealth and power, and the use of that wealth and power to amass more and to subjugate those who lack it. It is a form of continuous economic warfare, often accompanied by political warfare. We have been waging this war for a very long time.

I watched a documentary the other day that showed the front lines of this war. Two African boys, brothers age 10 and 12, described the life they live as mine workers. Six days a week, fourteen hours a day, they work with pickaxes breaking up rock and sifting it for tiny pieces of copper. Then they spend hours immersed waist-deep in toxic sludge sluicing the sediment to extract the ore. At the end of the day they are paid, not by the hour, but by how much copper their work has produced. On a good day they make enough to buy food from the mine’s store to feed their starving family. Most days they do not, and they walk home to tell their family the bad news and fall asleep, exhausted, until dawn starts another workday.

The mine is owned, through a convoluted series of numbered companies, by a huge Western mining conglomerate traded on the NYSE, whose executives earn salaries and bonuses in the millions of dollars per year. The copper the boys’ slave labour produces may well end up in the jewelery you are wearing, or in the computer equipment that allows you to read this.

The reality is that much of the area of the world’s struggling nations is an environmental holocaust: Horrific overpopulation relative to the carrying capacity of the land, soils depleted to baked clay and desert from overuse and misuse, toxic waste of every imaginable type, most of it the product of unconscionable and irresponsible practices by Western-owned corporations and massive, unregulated dumpsites for Western chemical and technological garbage, water degraded to the point it is undrinkable, corrosive and cancerous, air fouled by exhaust and dust-storms, forests razed for crops totally unsuited for the soils left behind.

These environmental atrocities were exported from our affluent nations. We discovered that the most ‘economical’ way to deal with environmental regulations and the pollution and waste from our industries was not to clean it up, but to shift it to struggling nations, away from the eyes of our own regulators and voters. We bribed the political and economic elite of these nations to take our poisons and to exploit their own people as slaves for our industries. We bought up all their best land — farmland and mineral-rich land — at fire-sale prices before the poor, ignorant and desperate owners had any idea of its economic value, and then milked it for all it was worth. All of the food and minerals were harvested to feed our needs, not those of the natives, who could not afford them anyway on what they were earning. Instead, we sold them our Western foods, government subsidized to the extent of $300 billion per year (paid for by taxes from our workers) — unhealthy, overpriced, overprocessed crap like (irony of ironies) baby-formula, the one product they need least of all. We sold them our Western drugs for the diseases that our pollution and waste had given them, and then shrugged when these drugs were unaffordable and ended up in black-markets making even more money for the corrupt local elites — elites that we had mostly installed in power because they allowed us to continue our imperialist exploitation.

And of course we sold them our Western weapons, trillions of dollars worth, vital to keep the peasants and dissidents suppressed. Despite this, there was opposition. We countered it by training ‘friendly’ governments how to subjugate, torture, terrorize and ‘disappear’ their opponents. We assassinated ‘unfriendly’ governments, and financed and organized their military overthrow.

We used the IMF and other international economic bodies to keep the ‘friendly’ governments in line. “You owe us billions for the armaments and other destructive and useless crap we’ve sold you, and if you dare cross us, or spend money on domestic infrastructure instead of buying more crap from us, we’ll call the loans and bankrupt you. Let us show you what happened to the last country this happened to…”

We used the WTO and GATT to institutionalize this theft and intimidation, bullying countries into signing ‘free trade’ agreements that prohibited governments from implementing or enforcing social or environmental regulations in their own countries if those regulations exceeded those of the most lax signatories.

We used the huge multinationals to globalize the race to the bottom, forcing suppliers in struggling nations to lower their prices for what they were selling to us every year, despite the increasing cost as the resources began to get exhausted, or lose the contract to some even more destitute country that would.

We did a lot more than this, but you get the idea. The end-result is the story of the two African boys, multiplied by a billion. The end-result is that the struggling nations of the world no more have their fate in their own hands than the victim of a mugging stabbed and left for dead in an alley is to blame for not healing himself.

Our affluent cities are not sustainable. They produce a tiny fraction of what they consume. While some of that deficiency comes from our own horrific factory farms, our own soil-exhausted and oil-dependent grain and fruit and vegetable farms, our own increasingly-depleted forests, our own reckless and environmentally disastrous mining ventures, much of that deficiency in our brave new globalized world is made up by the people of the struggling nations, staggering under the impact of our heartless and ruthless imperialism. Its cost is their suffering, their grinding poverty and malnutrition and disease, the horrific despoilment and ruination of their land, air, food and water, the creation of suicidal anger and resentment among their people. The copper on your wrist and in your PC is only a billionth of what our imperialist heritage has wrought.

Just one more unsustainable deficit, looming larger every year, that the next generation and the generation after that will have to repay. Empires never last. They become harder and harder to keep together as the spoils run out and as more and more new lands must be subjugated to keep the fatherland in the lifestyle to which the rulers have become accustomed. And when empires come apart the result is usually not pretty.

Despite all of this, and despite the fact that we work to ensure that the people of struggling nations will never be sufficiently educated to understand what we have done to them, there are growing signs, at least in Latin America and the Mideast, that the people won’t tolerate it much longer. The empire can’t even afford to provide its puppet regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq with sufficient infrastructure to quell the unrest of their people. That cost would be at least two trillion dollars, and it will never be paid. The vast majority of their people are hostile to our empire, and will inevitably be ruled by governments, good or bad, that are hostile to our empire. This is no ‘clash of civilizations’, it’s a global insurrection, starting with those who have the least left to lose.

The empire is stretched too thin, and the breaking point is near. The elites know this, which is why they are pillaging and hollowing out the corporate and government treasuries they control, hoarding everything they can before the collapse. According to the EPI, executive compensation in the US is running at 250-300 times average worker compensation, an unprecedented level.

I am reminded of an old (and newly relevant again) cartoon that shows three immense jowled General Motors executives at a meeting of disgruntled shareholders and employees. The executives are beaming withself-satisfaction. Each wears a big ‘GM’ badge. The first reads GM: Grievous Misconduct. The second reads GM: Gross Mismanagement. The third reads GM: Got Mine!

That might be an appropriate epitaph for the Empire.

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