The world is yours — for a price

29 November, 2020 — Terry Bell Writes

By Terry Bell

The flight of the self-proclaimed prophet Shepherd Bushiri and his wife, in the process forgoing R400,000 in bail money, a Gulf Steam jet aircraft and a R5.5 million mansion, revealed how, with enough money, national borders become insignificant. On the other hand, working people in many regions of the world are being increasingly trapped not only by poverty, but also by walls, razor wire, fences and armed border patrols.

This has been the case ever since the ongoing global economic crisis made itself fully felt after 2008. Even in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, travel by the monied minority was not overly curtailed. However, unlike the Bushiris, most of those referred to by some critics as “the 1%”, are not “on the run”, having to answer to criminal charges.

They are simply able to take advantage of what is now an estimated $2 billion (R35 billion) a year business spawned by the economic crisis and resultant social instability. “High net worth individuals” who own and control a massively disproportionate amount of the world’s resources and wealth, are able legally to purchase what is effectively a form of global citizenship.

That arch money lending supporter of the present system, the International Monetary Fund, has hailed this development as a “win-win” situation. According to the IMF, it provides the rich with freedom of movement while enriching various apparent safe havens. No mention of course, about where the “substantial investments” originate or are taken from.

Approvingly, the IMF has noted: “A suitcase filled with multiple passports? That’s not just the stuff of spy movies anymore.” It is, instead, part of a necessary “passport portfolio” — and it is not cheap.

On a scale of payments ranging from $125,000 to $1 million and more, a range of citizenships (with passports) of various countries around the world are available. Actual residence for any length of time in these countries is only sometimes obligatory.

Yet, in the past, these high income individuals were among the very people who were happy to encourage — even get governments to coerce — workers to migrate to satisfy growing demands for the labour that enriched them. The Witwatersrand Native Labour Association — “Wenela” — that recruited miners from as far afield as the Zambia and DRC of today is a good historic example.

During the generally strong economic growth in the post Word War 2 years, there was a considerable movement of workers from less developed to industrialised countries. Germany’s “guest worker” programme along with Britain’s importation of the “Windrush generation” of workers from the Caribbean provide good examples.

But that was before the global economy moved into a period of surplus capacity and production, accompanied by bitter competition and labour shedding automation. The situation has now reversed: workers, unless required for specific hi-tech jobs, are expected to stay put.

Today we are living through probably the first truly global economic crisis and one that threatens to create a state of permanent mass unemployment: the social fabric in many countries has started seriously to fray and tear. And as the threat of joblessness spreads, so too does resentment that can rapidly turn to popular anger.

Such conditions of instability give rise to the growing political reaction broadly dubbed “populism”, a catch-all term that describes various forms of blame game nationalism, the idea that the interests of a single ethnic, religious, linguistic or other group should be prioritised above all others. This fertile ground for “populist” demagogues fuels and thrives on racism and xenophobia and can become the progenitor of fascism.

Although many of the super rich continue in such circumstances to become still wealthier, they feel increasingly insecure in the lands where they are based. Their less wealthy acolytes often — with justification — feel even more insecure, especially in a world where national borders are becoming ever more rigid.

So both these groups, especially since 2014, have been targeted by governments and private agencies marketing citizenships and passports for sale. In the past — and only since the introduction of the modern passport concept in 1920 — individuals became citizens of nation-states only by birth (jus soli — rule of soil), through ancestry (jus sanguinis — rule of blood) or by naturalisation usually requiring long-term residency.

The apt term now is jus pecuniae, the rule of money. It puts capitalists on the same footing as capital: being able to flow without hindrance around the world. By juggling residence qualifications, the wealthy are often able to pay little or no tax while continuing to profit from the labour of workers restricted to national borders usually drawn by conquest or colonial chicanery.

This development raises again the dystopian vision of a world of the future comprising heavily guarded islands of extreme affluence in a polluted sea of barbarism. It is an horrific prospect and one that stirred early trade unionists to adopt the internationalist principle of an injury to one being an injury to all. This accepts that there is only one race, the human race, and that workers the world over need to unite to make this a reality.

Today, the labour movement still pays lip service to that principle, while often supporting narrow, nationalist and even xenophobic policies. The muted condemnation about the attacks on foreign truck drivers over recent weeks and months is a good example. Hypocrisy rules — and time does seem to be running out.

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