Background: Imperialism yesterday and today 1

Submitted by martin on 16 June, 2003 - 11:43

From Workers' Liberty 63

Imperialism yesterday and today 1

Countries which are today stricken by poverty - Egypt, for example - were once the world's greatest centres of civilisation. When Britain first took control of India, in the 18th century, the country was thought of not as a sea of poverty, but as a fabulous treasure house. The ordinary people were somewhat poorer than in Britain, but by a factor of perhaps 2:3 rather than the 1:20 of today. The luxury of the ruling classes was probably greater than that of Europe's wealthy.
Of China, the Frenchman Francois Quesnay wrote in 1767: "No-one can deny that this state is the most beautiful in the world, the most densely populated, and the most flourishing kingdom known." Scientific discoveries in China reached a remarkable level.
When Portugal first established itself as a colonial power in what is now famine-stricken Mozambique, the local Arab-African city states there, with their "fine stone houses and the air of elegance in the local courts and markets" were "a world comparable, if not superior, in material culture to Portugal" (James Duffy). In Zimbabwe, when the 19th century white colonists found the ruined buildings after which the country is now named, they assumed that they must have been built by previous white invaders. They could not believe that black Africans were capable of such achievements.
In Ethiopia, in the Middle Ages - so Walter Rodney, a black Marxist historian murdered in 1980 as he tried to build a working class party in his native Guyana, wrote - "The kings distinguished themselves by building several churches cut out of solid rock. The architectural achievements attest to the level of skill reached by Ethiopians as well as the capacity of the state to mobilise labour on a huge scale. Fine illuminated books and manuscripts became a prominent element of Amharic culture. Equally fine garments and jewellery were produced for the ruling class and for the church..."
The European powers had certain advantages over the peoples of Africa and Asia - a more dynamic economic system, more centralised state power, and better military technology. But overall there was no great superiority. The economics of colonialism are responsible for today's economic gap between the average living standards in Britain and in India. At independence in 1947, the conditions of the Indian peasantry were roughly the same as they had been 200 years earlier. The colonial era which had enriched thousands of British investors and administrators had left the Indian peasants stuck in absolute poverty.
Underdevelopment is not due to lack of talent or energy by the people of the country. Like modern industrial development, it is the product of an economic system, capitalism. Before the 18th century or thereabouts, economic differences between parts of the world were much smaller than they are today. Or, to be more accurate, they were differences of a different sort. Some societies - ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient China - reached a much higher level of culture than others. But that was a difference that mostly concerned the ruling class. The ruling class might have literature, baths, roads, great temples and palaces, a varied and delicate diet, beautiful clothes and jewels - or not. Whatever happened in the wealthier spheres of society, the mass of the people did nothing more than scratch a bare living from the land.
Today we have the inverse situation. The wealthy have much the same technology, culture and luxury at their disposal in every country. But the standard of living of the working people ranges from the Western worker's material comfort and relatively easy access to culture to the African peasant's poverty and illiteracy. A luxury hotel in Africa provides similar service to a luxury hotel in New York. Even in the world's most underdeveloped countries, such industry as there is can use recognisably similar technologies to those used in the advanced countries.
Capitalism has created - for the first time in history - the productive potential to free humanity from want. It has created freely-moving international technology and wealth. In the richer capitalist countries, strong trade unions have won greatly improved living standards for many workers. Yet even in the USA millions are destitute. And the average worker's wage in Indonesia, for example, has, on a generous estimate, one tenth the buying power of a US wage. For millions of people in Africa, in India, and even in Latin America, life is as harsh and as precarious as it was 500 or 1000 years ago, if not more so.
The story of development and underdevelopment is the story of how capitalism's drive to expand production has worked its way through unevenly, creating huge material advances in some areas while simultaneously creating ruin elsewhere.