Bono contra China, Reloaded

During one pleasant summer night Leo Ching, Ralph Litzinger and I where chatting about the quite interesting issue of Vanity Fair, published in July of 2007 and edited by Bono.

The issue received quite a bit of attention.

The conversation moved from Bono’s “crusade”to Bill and Melinda Gates in cooperation with the Rockefeller Foundation’s project to revamp agriculture in Africa, through the installation of several research centers equipped with the latest scientific advances in bio-technology as well as with the rhetoric of progress and salvation of the Sub-Saharan African continent. Toward the end of September 2007, it was announced and celebrated in a nationally televised ceremony at the National Constitution Center, that Bono was awarded the Liberty Medal for his effort and energy devoted to combat poverty and to promote health in Africa.

With interlocutors like Ralph (anthropologist who works in and on China) and Leo (de-colonial Taiwanese cultural critique), China’s presence in Africa came naturally into the conversation. We noticed, however, that while China’s presence in Africa was obviously economically and financially driven, the rhetoric of “ending poverty in Africa”was not accompanying China’s economic investments. Bono’s association with Jeffrey Sachs comes from before the publication of The End of Poverty. Economic Possibilities of Our Time (2005). The book was published by the noted director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University . Sachs’ book has a Foreword by Bono.Thus, “the end of poverty”is one of the main goals in Bono’s crusade.

Let’s remember how “poverty”became a necessary consequence of an expanding capitalist economy, in seventeenth century England. England, at that point, was radically transforming itself from inside with the enormous economic benefits driven by their imperial control of colonial Caribbean islands. Economic expansion brought together the equivalences between economy and capitalism (that is, economy=capitalist economy) and the conviction by everyone that there is no other way to conceive economy than in capitalists terms. Karl Polanyi’s classical study on The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944), reminds us of Sach’s subtitle (exactly 61 years after the publication of Polanyi’s book). Thus, putting both subtitles together we are invited to think simultaneously about “the economic possibilities of our time”with “the political and economic origins of our time.” Polanyi explored the “invention”of poverty in two substantial chapters. I extract one illustrative paragraph:

“An official document of 1607, prepared for the use of the Lords of the Realm, set out the problem of change in one powerful phrase: ‘The poor man shall be satisfied in his end—habitation; and the gentleman not hindered in his desires—improvement.’ This formula appears to take for granted the essence of purely economic progress, which is to achieve improvement at the price of social dislocation. But it also hints at the tragic necessity by which the poor man clings to his hovel doomed by the rich man’s desire for a public improvement which profits him privately (Polanyi, 1944, 37).”

We should be indeed thankful to the Saches and Bonos of the world in their fight against poverty, in the same way we should be thankful for previous similar endeavors, like Bartolomé de Las Casas, in his fight to save Indian souls from the paws of the Devil, when “poverty”was not yet a concept. However, we shall not be oblivious to the fact that saviors like Sachs, Bono and Las Casas prefer to save Indians from the Devil and Africa from poverty, by imposing their own solutions rather than empowering those who need help. At the time when Las Casas was fighting his fight, the mass media did not exist. Now, mass media is participating and taking advantages of the start system, both in entertainment and in the scholarly world: selling in their pages and TV the images the heroes Saving The World From Poverty. It all pays off, after all.

All this was after the summer conversation, in July, 2007. Now, more recently (October 30, 2007), Gideon Rachman (one of my favored Financial Times columnists, although with a certain distance) brought Bono back into the conversation. Now the interesting twist of Rachman’s column is not the column itself (which is quite to the point) but the fact that a few days earlier, the same FT published articles on multibillion negotiations between the Industrial and Commerical Bank of China and South AFrica’s Standard Bank. The same day of Rachman’s column, the very same FT published another article, this time focusing on China Development Bank negotiations with the United Bank of AFrica, one of Nigeria’s largest lenders. No talk about ending poverty or saving Africans was reported in either of the two articles. Should we conclude that China is an avid materialistic civilization without any consideration toward the “poor”while A Partnership for Research and Development. The US of America and CGIAR (Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research) is not driven by economic and financial but by “human”interests and the concern to “end”poverty? Do not get me wrong: I am not trying to defend China and critique the US and CGIAR. I am pointing out that the very logic of capitalist economy will always engender poverty, not ending it. It doesn’t matter whether capitalist economy goes together with the rhetoric of progress and salvation or a more dry language of financial negotiations, the consequences will be the same.

Today, the New World Order is moving toward a polycentric capitalist economy. Accordingly, coloniality (the logic of control and domination), is being re-structured, as it was always the case in the past five hundred years. We are also moving toward a re-structuring of imperial differences (e.g., the US, European Union, China, Russia and the US satellites in East Asia—Japan—and in the Middle East—Israel). While all this is taking place, let’s look toward the “new world order”that is unfolding beyond, beneath, next to imperial conflicts and imperial differences. Agriculture and poverty are indeed linked, in Africa as well as in many other places of the non-European and non-US World. Perhaps the way to go (beyond corporations, Western foundations and Western States –US and EU–) may not be to follow Bono’s crusade but to enroll in other projects, such as Food Sovereignity and La Vía Campesina. There are many advocates around the world unveiling the system of beliefs that sustain the said secular objectivity of science and neutral instrumentality of technology. Vandana Shiva (Indian scientist and environmental activist), has described the system of beliefs that support capitalists enterprises as well as salvation projects “the monoculture of the mind. “ But in order to do move in this direction, de-colonizing the monocultures of the mind will be necessary in order to liberate human creativity and initiatives. De-colonial thinking shall be embraced–in the political society–rather than passively celebrating—in he civil society—Bono’s spectacular crusade. Or should be said “crusades”?. Apparently Bono is a salvation mission on several fronts.

1 comment

  1. Thank you, Walter, for this comment. Let me just add to it that an integral element of the dubious quality of the Las Casas style of world-saving in the Americas was to support the introduction of enslaved African labor to the socalled New World; thus setting in motion a particularly sustainable economic system of global traffic in humans, the aftermath of which people on the African continent still encounter in today’s very poverty Bono has set out to “crusade”. One cannot help but think there might be a system to Western economies first laying waste to other people’s resources and lives, only then to go and have to rescue them from the consequences of their own aggression. As long as campaigns like Bono’s do not acquire that perspective they move -structurally speaking – within neo-abolitionist spirals of power, goodwill and guilt-relief which do not permit eye-to-eye cooperation with African peoples; never mind individual consciousness to the contrary. Given the Chinese step-up of political, economic and cultural investments on the African continent, it is high time that de-colonial thinking become connected with Chinese intellectual self-reflection in order to avoid prolonging and refining that spiral.

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