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Living well so others starve?

November 16, 2007 | Page 7

GEOFF BAILEY answers the question: Do working people in the U.S. benefit from the plunder of the world's poor countries?

"STOP THE war. Don't drive an SUV." It's a sign you can see at almost any antiwar protest.

The idea that the war is being fought to provide cheap gas for Americans' cars gets harder to believe as the price of a gallon of gasoline once again creeps past $3 a gallon.

But this antiwar slogan also expresses a more fundamental argument. It is a modern variation on the environmental slogan "Live simply so that others can simply live"--with the underlying assumption that Americans' relatively high standard of living is responsible for poverty in the rest of the world.

The assumption rests on the popular understanding of imperialism in which U.S. companies plunder raw materials and exploit cheap labor in the so-called Third World mostly to satisfy the demands of consumers for more iPods, more Nikes and more designer clothes.

But a closer look reveals that this picture gets the dynamics of the system all mixed up.

What else to read

Geoff Bailey is a regular contributor to the International Socialist Review. Most recently, he reviewed John Bellamy Foster's book of essays Naked Imperialism in an article called "Socialism or barbarism."

The first book to analyze the tendencies in capitalism that would produce globalization was Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' The Communist Manifesto--still, 160 years after it was written, the best introduction to the ideas of the Marxist tradition. A new edition of the Manifesto, edited by Phil Gasper, provides full annotation, clear historical references and explanation, additional related text and a full glossary.


First, it isn't the case that poverty exists across large parts of the world simply because U.S. corporations super-exploit these areas. On the contrary, most overseas investment by U.S. multinationals is within the industrialized countries of Europe and North America, plus a small handful of developing economies in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

U.S. big business has calculated that it is more profitable to exploit workers in these select countries rather than those suffering desperate poverty in, say, sub-Saharan Africa. On the contrary, countries across Africa have experienced a terrible decline in living standards and life expectancy over the last 20 years largely because they have been left out of the world economy all together.

Of course, when U.S. corporations do invest in poor countries, they are only too happy to take advantage of corrupt and compliant governments that allow them to pay workers next to nothing.

In Haiti, Walt Disney Co. has been accused of paying workers just 57 cents an hour to produce merchandise it sells in stores around the world. That super-exploitation helped Disney rake in $877 million in net income for just three months in the last fiscal year.

These profits line the pockets of Disney's top executives and shareholders. But they don't result in higher living standards for American workers. No company turns around after making huge profits and gives the money to workers in their home country.

In fact, it is usually the same companies exploiting cheap labor abroad that drive living standards down in the U.S. Disney, for instance, is one of the country's most notoriously anti-union companies. The starting wage at the Disney World theme park is $6.90 an hour, 23 cents over the minimum wage in Florida.

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ON AVERAGE, living standards for Americans exceed those of most of the world. But that fact masks larger inequalities within this country. As the gap between rich and poor has grown internationally, it has also grown within the U.S.--often at the hands of the same corporations.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 37 million Americans live below the poverty line--and that's to judge by official standards for poverty that are absurdly low. Thirty-three million Americans live in households that don't have an adequate supply of food.

Meanwhile, the rich have only gotten richer. The top 1 percent of the population has more than a third of the country's wealth, and the top 5 percent own almost 60 percent. The already small share owned by the bottom 80 percent has been shrinking.

What gains that U.S. workers have made are the product of past struggles, not gifts from the ruling class. Now those gains are being rolled back. So the reality of the U.S. today is hardly this myth of happy, well-off consumers.

Consumer spending does represent a large portion of the U.S. economy--by some estimates, as much as 60 percent. But it doesn't drive the system.

U.S. corporations spend massive amounts of money on advertising to convince us we need their products. Estimates of business spending on advertising last year was $150 billion--but that's still just one-third of the Pentagon budget.

American workers have little say over what they buy or how it is produced. That people feel satisfaction in the choices they do get to make as consumers is less a measure of real choice and instead how little say we have in any of the truly meaningful questions about our lives--what we do at work, how we're taken care of when we're sick, whether the U.S. goes to war.

Consumption is a both a relief from the pressures of capitalism and part of its trap. But it doesn't drive the system.

This drive for profit pushes capitalism to create new wants and new needs, and to conquer every corner of the globe. As Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto:

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.

American workers suffer at the hands of the same companies that exploit workers in the rest of the world. They don't benefit from U.S. corporate, political and military domination of other countries. They have a common interest in fighting back together with their fellow workers around the world.

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