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‘The system has not changed’

You make the claim that ”the choice between hegemony and survival has rarely, if ever, been so starkly posed”. What have been the key elements of what you view as the ”imperial grand strategy” of the Bush administration?

The war in Iraq was essentially announced about the same time as the National Security Strategy, in September 2002. The strategy stated that the United States does have the right to use its overwhelming military power to dominate the world and to eliminate any perceived potential challenges to its domination. That’s not entirely new, but it’s hard to find a case, and none that we would like to think about, at least, when such a strategy was announced in such a brazen form and immediately implemented.

The invasion of Iraq was an implementation of it. International will didn’t matter. International opinion didn’t matter. The fact that there was virtually no support for it anywhere in the world didn’t matter. The US was just going to do it, because it had the power to do it. And yes, that frightened people.

Shortly after the National Security Strategy was announced, the Space Command, which was in charge of nuclear weapons and advanced military technology, declared that the US is going to move, in its words, from ”control of space” to ”ownership of space”. ”Ownership of space” means no challenge to US total dominance of space will be tolerated.

The plans that were announced for ownership of space are to establish platforms in space from which offensive military weapons can be launched — weapons of high destructive power, including nuclear weapons that can be launched instantaneously, without warning, from some control centre in the Colorado mountains. Meanwhile, the world is to be under sophisticated surveillance by hypersonic drones and satellites with equipment so sensitive that they can tell if somebody’s walking across the street in Johannesburg.

This was at the same time, late October 2002, that the US once again blocked, at the United Nations, efforts to ban the militarisation of space.

The recent World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos and the World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai showed two faces of globalisation. How effective and how important is the WSF in providing a site of resistance to the corporate-driven globalisation espoused at the WEF and by the US government?

It’s extremely important. The past few years the WSF had been meeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil, and simply take a look at the numbers — they’ve doubled every year. I was there last year and there were a hundred thousand people. It’s something quite new historically. It has no precedent.

The dream of the labour movements and the left since their modern origins has been to create some sort of International with international solidarity of working people, meaning most people around the world. You see the seeds of that for the first time at the WSF. These meetings bring together very varied sectors — peasants, women’s groups, environmentalists, civil rights activists, steel workers and so on — from around the world.

There’s a reason why the WSF meets in Brazil and India. It’s because the opposition to the corporate-led globalisation has been primarily from the South. India, South Africa, Brazil and others from the so-called South have been spearheading the opposition. The rich Northern countries have been drawn in, which is very important because unless there is real international solidarity, it’ll be impossible for poor, embittered societies to resist the stranglehold of international financial institutions and corporate globalisation.

How do you view South Africa’s role in world affairs and in Africa? Do you think South Africa should be seeking stronger alliances with other countries of the South, an example being the Group of Twenty (G20) formed at Cancun last year?

The G20 was an important development, but a narrow development. For one thing, it’s a very flimsy group that can be taken apart, and already has been by bilateral agreements looking at exploiting their internal divisions and so on. Also, the concerns of the G20, while important, were secondary. They were concerned primarily with issues of agricultural subsidies in the European Union and the US. That was a prime issue, that’s important, but it’s not the main point.

Much more threatening and dangerous parts of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules have to do with Trims [Trade-Related Investment Measures] and Trips [Trade-Related International Property Rights agreements] and the mechanisms to prevent independent development in the poorer countries by eliminating their options. Their options for controlling capital flow in and out; for insisting on technology transfer; for carrying out independent economic policies; for protecting growing industries and so on.

In fact Trims, so-called, essentially eliminates all the mechanisms that were used by the currently wealthy countries to develop. If they had been under those rules, the US would now be selling fish and fur to Europe.

The other aspect of the WTO rules that is extremely harmful is its highly protectionist measures — the control over the extremely rigorous extreme patent regime, which is part of the WTO rules. Those have very major effects on potential development in the South, and also on things like putting badly needed drugs out of reach.

Now, how about the South African government? Well, the South African government has taken over the post-apartheid compromise. Getting rid of apartheid was a major human achievement, no doubt about it. On the other hand, it left the society about the same. Now, you have black faces riding in limousines along with white faces. But, the social and economic system has not changed, maybe even gotten worse.

I was in Cape Town a couple of years ago, and if you’re inside the city it’s nice, integrated, fine and so on. Take a walk two blocks outside the walls around the cities and there’s massive, horrendous slums. There are people living in misery, without hope, under violent gang rule and so on. That’s gotten worse since apartheid.

The South African government has accepted that essential compromise. In other words, the social and economic system stays the same, but there’s now some mixture of black faces among the elite. Those are changes but they don’t touch the real issues. And the population of South Africa is going to have to struggle just as hard against these shocking conditions as it did to overcome the crime of apartheid.

Do you think South Africa, as a regional power, is at risk of replicating imperial patterns in sub-Saharan Africa?

Sure there is, if the South African government remains under the control of very narrow sectors of concentrated wealth and corporate power. If it becomes a more democratic society in which its own population can influence and affect policy, then it’ll go in quite a different direction. Same with every other country — Brazil, the US, so on. Countries aren’t entities. What they do depends on their internal structure of distribution of power and authority. The more democratic and free they become, the less the risks are of the kind that you’re talking about.

What political models do you think are available for countries like South Africa to move to a more economic democracy, rather than just an institutional democracy?

These are worldwide problems and the major dominant institutions in the world are the ones that are meeting at the WEF. The business press sometimes calls them ”the masters of the universe” or the ”de facto world government”, which is correct.

The corporate system is highly oligopolistic. It’s not a competitive system. The major corporations are closely interlinked, tied to the major banks. They work together with their competitors to keep the prices reasonably high and make sure profits are high.

Research developments commonly depend on the populations of mainly the rich countries to support and subsidise them and the governments to make sure that they have access to resources, human and material resources, by force if necessary.

That’s a de facto world government and dismantling that system of power has to be done everywhere, in every country. In South Africa it takes its own form, the US takes a different form, but these are global problems. International solidarity among popular groups and movements that are trying to dismantle it, such international solidarity maximises the likelihood that achievements can be made.

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Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon
Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand and a research associate of the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa.

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