Why America Is Not—AND CANNOT BE—a Force for Good in the World

December 28, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


In one of those statements of his that goes against what almost everyone thinks, Bob Avakian asserts:

The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy but capitalism-imperialism and political structures to enforce that capitalism-imperialism. What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism.

—BAsics 1:3

Is that true? And if so, what are the implications for whether “America” (U.S. capitalism-imperialism) could ever be a force for good in the world?

Case Study: The Gates Foundation’s Coffee Initiatives in Africa

As one case study of the imperialism the U.S. spreads—and can only spread—around the world, let’s look at the example of the Gates Foundation’s Coffee Initiative in Ethiopia, an impoverished country in the Horn of Africa. Bill and Melinda Gates write that they started initiatives like this because they were horrified by the widespread death and disease they saw when they first visited Africa. They felt this suffering was “unnecessary” and could be ended by enlightened philanthropy.

Today, the multi-billionaire Bill Gates points to the kind of investing and structural reforms his foundation finances around the world as a model for governments and fellow billionaire philanthropic capitalists. An article on his foundation’s website, “How Good Coffee Becomes Good Business for African Farmers,” talks about how floating loans to Ethiopian farmers has “helped thousands of East Africa’s smallholder farmers” gain “access to technical knowledge, professional processing and milling services, reliable markets [and] working capital.” And to top it off, these farmers provide a reliable source of high-quality coffee for U.S. consumers.

Gates argues that the enormous crises facing humanity—such as poverty and climate change—can and must be taken on by extensive government regulation and massive philanthropic efforts like his own.

And to take that a step forward, it could be—and often is—argued that the U.S. should use its great wealth to meet human needs by investing in projects that provide a living wage and improve the lot of the poor, and stop pouring $600 billion into the military—over half the discretionary budget of the United States this year.

Let’s dissect the Gates Foundation’s work in Ethiopia, and then draw back the lens to see what this reveals about the nature of capitalist-imperialist investment.

Where Does the Gates Foundation’s Money Come From?

But how do philanthropic efforts like the Gates Foundation’s Coffee Initiative, to take but one example, actually work?

The first thing Gates omits from his promotional materials is that the funding for his foundation’s investments must be generated from profitable investments. To continue to generate money to fund its charity or less-profitable projects, the Gates Foundation needs to see a return of something like five percent profit on its investments. You don’t get that kind of return investing in small coffee farms in Ethiopia.

The Gates Foundation “invested $423 million in the oil companies whose [Nigeria] delta pollution literally kills the children the foundation tries to help. It had vast holdings in Big Pharma firms that priced AIDS drugs out of reach for desperate victims the foundation wanted to save. It benefited greatly from predatory lenders whose practices sparked the Great Recession and chocolate makers said by the US government to have supported child slavery in Ivory Coast.” The foundation “holds more than $1.2 billion in a rogues’ gallery of corporate actors, including BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil, whose environmental despoliation promotes climate change.” ("How the Gates Foundation’s Investments Are Undermining Its Own Good Works: Its vast holdings in the fossil fuel and arms industries subvert the foundation’s battle against disease and poverty,” by Charles Piller, The Nation, August 22, 2014)

If you were to confront Gates, he would probably readily respond—accurately—that if his foundation didn’t invest in these enslaving, exploiting, environment destroying projects, there wouldn’t be profit to fund charity work. That even if he didn’t invest in them, someone else would.

Those are the rules of the game.

What the U.S. Brings to the World: Capitalism-Imperialism

Whatever Gates’ intentions, the changes brought by the projects his foundation (or the U.S. government) undertakes that are not for profit are far outweighed and undercut by the overall and horrific operation of the capitalist-imperialist system. (And such charity projects are objectively part of maintaining the legitimacy of that overall system.)

Second, even if these projects are motivated by a desire to reduce global poverty, they proceed through the system of capitalism-imperialism and reinforce its economic, political, and social relations. This is what the foundation means by giving small farmers greater access to “technical knowledge, professional processing and milling services, reliable markets [and] working capital.” So they actually end up intensifying global poverty, inequality, and the domination of a handful of imperialist powers like the U.S.

Imperialism means huge monopolies and financial institutions controlling the economies and the political systems—and the lives of people—not just in one country but all over the world. Imperialism means parasitic exploiters who oppress hundreds of millions of people and condemn them to untold misery; parasitic financiers who can cause millions to starve just by pressing a computer key and thereby shifting vast amounts of wealth from one place to another. Imperialism means war—war to put down the resistance and rebellion of the oppressed, and war between rival imperialist states—it means the leaders of these states can condemn humanity to unbelievable devastation, perhaps even total annihilation, with the push of a button.

Imperialism is capitalism at the stage where its basic contradictions have been raised to tremendously explosive levels. But imperialism also means that there will be revolution—the oppressed rising up to overthrow their exploiters and tormentors—and that this revolution will be a worldwide struggle to sweep away the global monster, imperialism.

—BAsics 1:6

The Gates’ Coffee Initiative is one example. It has not ended, but in many ways worsened hunger in Ethiopia. Right now, 8.2 million Ethiopians teeter on the verge of hunger, even starvation, without reliable access to enough healthy, affordable food. The immediate cause is a severe drought (worsened by imperialism’s devastating impact on the global climate), but also capitalism’s domination of global food production. Investment in coffee pushes more farmers to grow crops for export to wealthy countries, not affordable food for Ethiopians, even as millions go hungry. And it leaves Ethiopia increasingly dependent on imported food and at the mercy of the ups, downs, and crises of global capitalism.

Investment in modern coffee growing for export also warps and twists the development of infrastructure in a country like Ethiopia. Financing, transport, and communication are developed to invest in, produce, and ship coffee for export while food grown in one part of Ethiopia is inaccessible to starving people in other parts of the country. (See “Ethiopia’s agriculture boom yields a bare harvest for poor as El Niño bites: Ethiopia may be portrayed as an emerging African powerhouse, but prolonged drought has left 8.2 million people facing a major food security crisis,” Guardian, October 26, 2015).


by Bob Avakian, Chairman,
Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, Summer 2015

Read more

The anarchic workings of capitalism mean that projects like the Coffee Initiative also generate inequality and deeper class divisions. Of Ethiopia’s 80 million people living on and dependent on small farms—some 30 million live in abject poverty. The Coffee Initiative is impacting a tiny sliver of them—perhaps 90,000 of the 15 million Ethiopians who work in the coffee industry. The farmers getting such assistance and access to the world market will have a competitive advantage over other small farmers. So even if they’ve started out on a more or less equally, capitalist competition means the gulf between them and those without assistance and access will grow and many farmers will be driven under.

Structures That Enforce Capitalism-Imperialism

To stick with our case study of the Gates Foundation investment in Ethiopian coffee farmers, what does it mean that what the U.S. brings to the world are structures that enforce capitalism-imperialism?

As we’ve seen, capitalist-imperialist development projects—whether non-profit or for profit—bring massive inequality and misery, which generate mass suffering, anger, and often opposition. So how is this economic setup maintained? By political structures that enforce that imperialism—both by forcing through economic projects and by suppressing the population overall.

Take the Ethiopian state, which is backed by the U.S. Right now it is threatening to forcibly evict thousands of farmers and tribal peoples from their lands to make way for imperialist-sponsored projects, including sugar plantations. The regime has implemented “economic reforms” to facilitate global investment in commodity markets while violently suppressing opposition to the intolerable, imperialist-dominated status quo. Just this year, human rights groups report that the Ethiopian government has persecuted journalists, bloggers, and other opponents, detained and tortured protesters, and continues to oppress minority peoples. And the Gates Coffee Initiative is objectively part of maintaining that oppressive structure by building up a base of support within Ethiopia for an imperialist-oriented economy and state.

An Empire to Enforce a WORLD of Exploitation

What’s illustrated by the example of Ethiopia is also true globally. The kinds of grotesque inequality and severe poverty, the social upheaval and crises provoked by the anarchy of capital in endless competition for higher profit require violent enforcement. So when a bank tells rural farmers or urban slum dwellers that they have to move on, there are death squads and police and troops to enforce that. This is one reason why the U.S. backs ruthless tyrants all over the world.

Structures to enforce imperialism include violent repression of resistance and rebellion of the oppressed. But imperialism also means conflict and war between rival reactionary powers, invasions, backing brutal tyrants, staging coups, and carrying out war crimes through proxy armies. In countries like Ethiopia, key regions like the Middle East, and on a global scale, U.S. domination is under constant challenge from major capitalist rivals, regional powers, and reactionary “rogue players” like ISIS—all of whom are driven by the system’s rules and compulsions.

Take Ethiopia. It’s a populous and relatively stable state in the Horn of Africa—a strategic and highly volatile area, which includes failed states, ISIS strongholds, allies of Iran, and is a target of big power rivalry. So the U.S. has built up a relationship with the Ethiopian regime and military to help enforce U.S. political and military interests in the region, including in contending with rival powers and, particularly today, with reactionary forces that threaten the operation of global capitalism-imperialism and the U.S. role within that. Ethiopian military and intelligence collaboration is a key part of the “war on terror” and attempting to maintain U.S. power in the Middle East and North Africa.

So spreading capitalism-imperialism and the structures that enforce it are why the U.S. invests so massively in drones, bombs, spy technology, nukes, and troops. This is why the U.S. spends more on its military than China, Russia, France, the UK, Germany, Japan, and India combined. It’s not because some “military-industrial complex” outside the workings and needs of the U.S. empire has corrupted the U.S. political system. That vast military enforces a world of exploitation, and the role of the U.S. as top dog within that.

To Change the World, You Have to Uproot the Problem

These are the system’s laws that no one can escape, and regardless of whether some people do a little better, this system can never liberate people en masse. This is why the U.S. is incapable of doing “good” in the world, even when it tries.

The example we explored here is a microcosm of how capitalism-imperialism has to operate within a set of rules that rule out the interests of humanity, regardless of the intent of the capitalists themselves.

Uprooting exploitation and oppression requires overthrowing imperialism, and the political structures that enforce that.

And that requires an actual revolution.

Because of the work that BA has done—summing up the experience of the first wave of communist revolutions and further developing the scientific method of understanding and transforming the world—there is a REAL way to get to a whole different world—one in which the terrible lop-sidedness between the vast majority of countries like Ethiopia and the handful of imperialist powers is eliminated and in which this whole process is one which proceeds through narrowing and overcoming, rather than exacerbating the gaps and disparities between different peoples and among the people themselves. THAT is beyond the scope of this article—but anyone who truly wants to overcome this horrific and life-stealing lopsidedness needs to check this out.


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