Tuesday, October 29, 2013

From Macedonia to the Congo: Capitalism cannot develop society

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

I was in Macedonia some years ago and spent a week there. It was 2000 or 2001 and I hadn’t been there for some 35 years. Last time I was there it was part of Yugoslavia, the southernmost province bordering Greece to the south. It was strange when I got there because there were huge rallies throughout the country and I didn't know why.

I soon found out. I was sitting in a cafe in Gostivar which is close to the Albanian border (see map). A young guy came in wearing a big American flag and, when I was pointed out as an American, came over to me and said "thank you, thank you". He then gave me a button with the words "Thank you Mr. President" written on it in English.   He had been at the rally in Skopje and the buttons were being distributed there.  He said there were about 100,000 people, which is a fair size in a country of just over three million. I saved that button. The thank you was for the imbecile Bush because the US had recognized the Republic of Macedonia as a nation state in its own right. There were counter demonstrations in Greece that I saw on Macedonian TV with people holding signs that read, "Greeks are Macedonians too". The “thank you” button was for George W Bush.

I was somewhat astonished by the poverty there when I returned to Skopje the night before I left, Gostivar was much less so, not just the poverty, but as I walked across the bridge that connects the old town with the new across the Vardar river, I stopped to take my last look at it. The river was flowing fairly fast and it carried along with it on its way to the Agean Sea tons of garbage and plastic bottles and containers.  I had noticed that in my travels earlier and don’t recall it being anywhere near that bad in the late sixties, early seventies when I was last there. This time I got to see the national park that borders Albania and go to one of the oldest monasteries in Europe that is still standing, it’s a beautiful place.

On the old town side there were lots of Turkish/Muslim folks and Roma all selling their wares, very similar to the scenes in many third world countries. I walked in to the square and the more modern part of town and eventually booked my last night in a hotel so I could get to Skopje airport the next morning for a flight to Vienna then back to London. Once I was settled I headed on out for a drink.

It was a strange scene I remember.  Not a stones throw from the poverty there was this area that contained a shopping mall and all the fashionable stores we are familiar with. I walked by the shop windows where manikins dressed in designer outfits stared out at potential customers beckoning us in.  I could have been in New York of London. I eventually found what I was told was an Irish pub and headed on in.

I could have been in any establishment in the US, Britain or Germany.  I was on my second or third beer when this English guy and his German friend come in and sit next to me. I could tell by the Englishman's accent that he was a well-educated fellow, the German too no doubt.  Well, being that this appeared to be the only bar of its kind in Skopje it was a given that all the yuppies drink there.  I had to say numerous times that I did not work for NATO, the EU, or the OSCE, or Nokia or Siemens etc.

So me and this Englishman gets to talking and he has an accent like from one of the posh schools and I ask him where he is from. He says, Manchester. I couldn’t help letting him know which side of the class line I was on and told him he didn’t sound like he was from Manchester.  Still, he introduces me to his friend from Germany.  They work for the EU and are here to train the police to help them deal with people; they were well-educated young men, lawyers.

I got a bit tired of them and got to chatting with the bartender.  He asked me about life in the states and I asked him about life there as I was there a long time ago and it seemed more stable, less poverty and uncertainty; I really loved my visits to Yugoslavia.

The bartenders knew all these types like the two lawyers because the same yuppie crowd hangs out there.  They have lots of money compared to the locals and tip very well.  I got to talking to one of the waiters, a guy named Stephan. I told him in no uncertain terms what I thought of those folks and talked to him about the hotel workers strike in SF that was taking place at the time.  

I told Stephan what I thought of the influx of foreigners who were all in Macedonia to make some bucks and how they were here in this bar, so well educated and earning lots of money helping out the poor Macedonians that they knew nothing about and how people really felt. A lot of money is being made I said by people coming here, experts in all sorts of techie fields.  They were just a bunch of yuppies I told him.

He didn't know what yuppies were so I explained it to him.  He said to me, “I wonder if he would be in my skin for a moment.” referring to one of the beautiful people there.  Stephan knew the guy I had been talking to as he was a regular, so I asked him if he had ever asked him about his life in Macedonia.  He said that he never had.  We got to talking about his life and I asked what it was like before the break up of Yugoslavia and the introduction of the so-called free market..  He said he was 29 and longed for the old days.  He said that in the old times when medical care was provided, people could get state loans and everyone pretty much had housing, they used to have a choice after secondary education; work or further education.  Now, he said, we have the same choice but education costs money whereas it was free before. “I have no money for education”, he said, “Look at me.  I work in this bar, I am twenty nine; I don’t get closely involved with women because I cannot possibly marry or have children”.

It was so nice because we really clicked and in a few seconds I learned more about Macedonia than I could spending years with all the experts in that pub.  They never speak to the people they claim they’re˙ helping; they just earn big money in a low waged society where they can tip poor workers big tips and probably impress the women too.

I left that bar and as soon as I stepped outside, there was a small Roma child begging outside the door.  I don’t normally give money to people in this way but decided I would as I had to get rid of some Dinars.  I gave the kid 10 dinars (about $2 at the time).  Before I knew it I was surrounded by children, grabbing at my shirt, pleading with me, grabbing the bag I had in my hand.  I had to get aggressive with them, “I gave to him already I shouted, leave me now” but they persisted literally blocking my path, not threatening but pointing to their mouths or putting their hands to the side of their head like a pillow, like they wanted money to stay somewhere.  It was like a scene from a Dickens novel.

I loved this trip as I got to se an old friend and his family, someone I hadn’t seen for many years and the Yugoslavs, all of them, the Serbs’ Croatians, Christians, Muslims, were all so kind and generous to me the three times I visited there. In fact, as I flew in the prop plane from Vienna down to Skopje I was low enough to see the great Danube that I had visited in my youth as I travelled through this country. It was a bit depressing, this great river that Johann Strauss wrote music for, so many the bridges were destroyed, concrete and steel lying motionless in the river bed, the product of US bombs.

I am moved to write about this as I saw an ad in BusinessWeek this week encouraging investors to invest in Macedonia. When I left over ten years ago, I couldn’t even exchange my dinars for dollars as the currency and the economy of the country was so weak. When I was there when it was still a country with a planned economy (of sorts) I didn’t see the poverty and the environmental degradation I saw now they were “free” and the market rules.

The BusinessWeek ad calls on owners of capital to invest some of it in Macedonia, the “New Business Heaven”.  And what makes it a “New Business heaven”?  You can read for yourself:

Lowest flat rate on profit-----10%
Lowest flat tax on income---10%
Tax on reinvested profit------0%
Fast company registration----4 hours (capitalists don’t like regulations and laws that Impede capital accumulation)
Abundant and competitive Labor-----498 Euro a month (about $700)

Well, this is a good deal for some.  This is why capitalism cannot develop what they call the “underdeveloped world”.  In fact, they are driving down the wages and condition of workers in the US; they sure as hell aren’t planning on creating an “American Dream “ in Macedonia, China, Vietnam, Bangladesh or any other place where they can buy the use of a human being for as cheaply as possible.  The owners of capital do not take their capital to China or Vietnam in order to raise the wages and standard of living of workers there; just the opposite, they do it to take advantage of the cheap labor and oppressive conditions. 

Michael Roberts pointed out in an earlier blog, “….60m or so people who constitute the world’s top 1% of income ‘earners’ have seen their incomes rise by 60% since 1988. About half of these are the richest 12% of Americans. The rest of the top 1% is made up by the top 3-6% of Britons, Japanese, French and German, and the top 1% of several other countries, including Russia, Brazil and South Africa. These people include the world capitalist class – the owners and controllers of the capitalist system and the strategists and policy makers of imperialism.”

A “Business Heaven” is not such a nice place for those that live in it.

No comments: