Workers should not pay the bosses' debt



Jubilee 2000 movement

Hundreds of people gathered at St Paul's Cathedral in London on 7 March to support Jubilee 2000, followed by an all-night vigil outside the Treasury. The organisers of Jubilee 2000 claim that by the time their petition calling on the governments of the richer countries to cancel the poorest countries' unpayable debts is presented, at the G8 summit in June 1999, it will have 22 million signatures worldwide. It is the largest petition in history.

The focus is on 41 countries, 33 of them in Africa, which have a total of about $220 billion in outstanding foreign debt. At present the poorest countries spend £9 on debt repayment for every £1 they receive in aid. Africa spends four times as much on debt repayment as on health care, and in the 37 poorest countries health and education spending per person has dropped 50%. According to the United Nations, a redistribution of the money currently funnelled to the international banks could save the lives of 134,000 children who now die every week from malnutrition or avoidable diseases of poverty. A revised estimate today would probably put the figure even higher, since the prices of the raw-material exports on which most of the poorest countries depend have plunged since the current Asia-centred economic crisis erupted.

Jubilee 2000 has organised campaigns in 42 countries, mostly involving Christian groups (the 'Jubilee' reference comes from the Bible). That gives them a wide reach and much Establishment support - but also ties them to politics which rely on appealing to the consciences of Clinton and Blair, Schroder and Jospin.

They argue that cancelling the 'unpayable' debt, which they reckon at about $160 billion, would cost little compared to the total income of the richer countries. That's true. Averaged out, the cost comes to about £2 per year for every British taxpayer. Politicians like Clinton and Blair, however, who have openly announced 'the end of welfare' or 'an end to tax-and-spend' as their aims, are not easily moved to do anything which might nibble, however delicately, at profits.

Jubilee 2000 also points to the model of the Marshall Plan and the cancellation of some of West Germany's debts after World War 2. The moving force there, however, was not conscience - not from a US administration which had just dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - but the threat of Stalinist or working-class revolution.

The campaign has support - or, more exactly, words of approval - from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the USA's trade union centre, the AFL-CIO; but it has no thought of orienting or mobilising the working-class forces which might cause sufficient alarm in the ruling circles to squeeze out some real concessions.

So it is to us, socialists and Marxists, that the task falls of taking the issue of starvation and poverty in the Third World into the trade unions. When we do succeed in mobilising workers and the poor around the issues of Third World debt and poverty, the logical demands and objectives will be somewhat broader than Jubilee 2000's call to 'cancel the debt'.

"Cancel the debt' poses the issue as one between nation and nation, or debtor and creditor. But our basic aim is not that the wealthy of poor nations should get a boost relative to the wealthy of richer nations, nor that capitalism should run on free or cheap credit. Jubilee 2000 talks about measures to decide exactly which/what debt is 'unpayable', and to ensure that the money freed by debt cancellation goes to socially-useful purposes, but once again sees no agency to do what's needed other than the conscience of the rich.

The problem appears in sharp relief if we look not just at Africa but also at Latin America. There, we see immense poverty and suffering, huge foreign debts - and equally vast wealth in the hands of the ruling classes. Large chunks of the money brought into Latin America by foreign loans went straight out again to enable Mexican, or Argentinian, or Brazilian capitalists to buy property or swell bank accounts in the USA! The answer there cannot be just to cancel the foreign debt, but to expropriate the wealth of all the exploiters, of whatever nationality.

The immediate slogan is not so much: 'Rich-country governments, please cancel the debt!', as: 'We, workers and poor people, refuse to pay the costs of the foreign debt. The capitalists of different countries can sort out the debt among themselves as best they see fit; but whatever they do, we must unite and organise against being made to pay the price!'

Colin Foster