Louis Proyect Reviews

The End of Poverty? Review

By Louis Proyect

Scheduled for theatrical release in September 2009, Philippe Diaz’s “The End of Poverty?” was a feature presentation at the 2008 African Diaspora Film Festival. After watching this documentary last night, I feel confident in stating that there is no sharper critic of the capitalist system in the film world than Philippe Diaz. This amazing movie not only explains how global inequality has its roots in 1492, but also allows the victims of “Western civilization” to speak for themselves. Indeed, the movie will remind you of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous reply to a Western reporter who asked him what he thought of Western civilization. He answered, “I think it would be a good idea.”

The documentary begins by putting third world poverty into historical context. Although it wisely draws upon expert witnesses indisposed to openly use Marxist terminology, there is little doubt that the movie’s implicit inspiration for its analysis of colonialism and dependency comes from chapter thirty one of Volume One of Capital, The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist, where Karl Marx writes:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

In keeping with his determination to allow the victims of this process to speak for themselves, Diaz goes to Potosi where miners escort him into a section of the mine that commemorates its earliest victims. (It should be mentioned that Diaz, unlike Michael Moore, does not interject himself into the film. That, plus his revolutionary politics, distinguishes him from the popular but essentially liberal documentary maker.) Quoting Eduardo Galeano, one miner states that the silver extracted from the mines could have been used to build a bridge from Potosi to Europe. He adds that a bridge could have also been made with the bones of the miners who perished in the silver mines-an estimated 8 million succumbed to the hardships imposed by the Spanish rulers. Another miner, clearly educated in his nation’s class history rather than its classrooms, observes that the mita, a form of Incan forced labor adapted to the emerging capitalist system, required miners to live and work underground for periods of up to six months.

Even for those who are well-schooled in the history of imperialism, including myself if you will allow me a moment of immodesty, there are some revelatory moments. One expert points out that the Dutch lacked the resources and the capital to develop capitalism on its own. It “jump started” its economy by colonizing the islands now known as Indonesia. I was far more informed about the relationship between Great Britain and the slave trade outlined in Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery” but now feel strongly motivated to learn more about the Dutch thieves commemorated in those Rembrandt paintings.

“The End of Poverty?” conducts interviews with workers and peasants across the planet, from Bolivia to Brazil in Latin America to Tanzania and Kenya in Africa. As inured as I am to the brutality of imperialism, I practically bolted from my chair to locate a phone number or email address for an agribusiness named the Dominion Group that has made life hell for Kenyans. Having lived on and worked the same farmlands for hundreds of years, they were robbed of their livelihood when Dominion dammed a nearby river in order to irrigate their legume crop that was strictly for export. In a fine article that appeared in the Nation Magazine, Laura Flanders detailed the impact:

Dominion Farms, an affiliate of Dominion Group, based in Oklahoma, moved into Siaya in 2003 through an arrangement with the local and state authorities. After several years of negotiations, Dominion CEO Calvin Burgess leased public land from the government on a pledge to develop a high-tech fish and rice farming operation that he promised would bring jobs, reduce hunger and make Siaya and neighboring Bondo provinces the “breadbasket” of Kenya. (In the United States, Dominion builds for-profit prisons and federal buildings.)

Until Dominion came along, the people of this part of Kenya made their living drawing water from the local Yala River. They raised goats and cows and farmed small plots of land. Widows and children harvested papyrus and sisal from the nearby swamp from which they crafted rough mats and baskets. A major habitat for endangered fish and birds, the Yala Swamp is recognized by environmentalists as one of the richest and most delicate ecosystems in East Africa. The half-million or so local residents weren’t rich but they were self-sufficient, says Owiti. Now they’re forced to live on the generosity of churches or on the corporation’s handouts.

“Development should not bring harm to the local community,” said Owiti at the World Social Forum. But that, she says, is just what has happened. In the last four years, Dominion Farms has built a dam on the Yala River, drained much of the swamp, subjected the fields to aerial spraying and drowned not only public land but, residents claim, private property without legal authority.

Dominion offered residents compensation to leave their homes (generally 45,000 Kenyan shillings, approximately $64). Many, like Salome, a local grandmother, refused, but their land was submerged anyway. “I grew cabbages, I made mats, I planted maize and millet. Now all my fields are flooded,” said Salome.

For those that remain, the company’s dam blocks access to the river, the one available source of fresh water. “Now they want us to use standing water,” explained Paul Obeira, another Yala Swamp resident. But with the standing water comes infection. Malaria and typhoid rates are rising. Now aerial spraying is killing livestock. “I have lost 110 goats and our women are suffering from health problems because of the spraying,” added Obeira. Dominion Farms has applied for a permit to spray the pesticide DDT, which has been banned in this part of the world because of its negative health consequences.

Although Diaz’s documentary does not mention him anywhere, it is obvious that the title of the film is a rebuttal to Jeffrey Sachs’s “The End of Poverty”. Sachs was the architect of the neo-liberal “shock therapy” that ultimately led to the revolt that placed Evo Morales in power. In more recent years, Sachs has positioned himself as a prophet of global equality and has toured with U2’s Bono in well-publicized missions to lift up the natives. Obviously, unless the capitalist system is abolished, there is little that Sachs’s measures can do. Indeed, that is the whole point of the movie.

Ironically, Bono has just moved his music-publishing business from Ireland, one of Europe’s most underdeveloped capitalist countries, to Netherlands in order to shelter its song-writing royalties from taxation. Ireland now joins the ranks of countries alongside Java that have been screwed by the Dutch.

Jeffrey Sachs is one of Columbia University’s most visible “public intellectuals” and now runs the The Earth Institute, a think-tank devoted to all sorts of ideological flim-flammery, including the notion that chemical farming is what Africa most desperately needs to relieve hunger.

Another economics professor/celebrity at Columbia University is Joseph Stiglitz who is one of the experts interviewed in “The End of Poverty?” Although Stiglitz is obviously not an unrepentant Marxist like me, he certainly makes a lot more sense than Sachs since he focuses more on changing social structures rather than Bono-Sachs’s style aid. One has to wonder however whether Stiglitz still believes that China, his model for the developing world, is still viable. In the past year or so, over 25 million workers have been fired from their jobs in the coastal export manufacturing zone and forced to return to the impoverished countryside.

In the final analysis, it is only central planning and production for human need rather than profit that can relieve such suffering. In years past, this kind of proposal would have been dismissed as “socialism”. With the financial crisis tearing the world apart, that might not be a scare word any longer. As a recent cover of Newsweek put it, we are all socialists now. Of course, my idea of socialism varies greatly from Newsweek, but at least the newsweekly allows people like me to get our foot in the door. One must assume that after another two or three years of growing unemployment worldwide, that door will be smashed down by colossal social forces led by the poor people Diaz so generously gave a voice to.

I also strongly urge you to watch Diaz’s “The Empire in Africa”, which is available from Netflix. This movie is about the civil war in Sierra Leone and, unlike most documentaries about suffering in Africa, indicts the imperialists and the UN. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

As the violence deepened in Sierra Leone, the UN “came to the rescue”, just as the expensive full-page savedarfur.org ads in the NY Times call for now. Using Western funding from aboveground and clandestine sources, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was elected President with a clear mandate to stop the killing. A long-time employee of the UN, he had the enthusiastic support of the US, Great Britain and France who understand how to manipulate the international body to their own devices. He also had support from ECOMOG, an armed force made up of contingents from a number of African nations, with Nigeria supplying most of the muscle. In other words, Sierra Leone was a model for what is called for in Darfur. As those who urge “humanitarian” intervention in Darfur keep telling us, an effective fighting force made up UN and or African nations is all that is needed to save innocent lives. Nobody should have any such illusions after watching “The Empire in Africa”.

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