Another way to exploit poor nations

May 2, 2007

In a short interview in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, corporate consultant Mark Raskino describes how corporations can mine the “innovations” that take place in markets in underdeveloped countries — innovations that stem from a growing number of people who want access to the consumer goods of the global market but who can’t afford them as they are currently priced. He says, “Many of these innovations are things that would not only be useful in Third World markets, they would also come back to the Third World.” What is he talking about? For example, he says that the only way to have wider computer use in poorer countries is to have them sell for around $100. So, the innovation that allows a computer to be developed and sold dirt cheaply — innovations that are already being developed by “Third World” entrepreneurs — is something that can be imported to corporations here “within empire,” and then re-exported back to the “Third World” from which the innovation came. It’s a way to ensure that rich people in rich countries benefit from something that’s going to happen whether they get involved or not.

This is interesting for three reasons. First of all, it demonstrates one of a myriad ways in which capitalists squeeze profit from a world with no external markets left to conquer. Since the end of the Cold War, since the processes of capitalist globalization were finally unleashed across the entire planet, there are no longer any markets to conquer. It’s all one market. So capitalists seek new and innovative ways to make money, new and innovative ways to be the “middle man,” or new and innovative enclosures such as the privatization of water, land, energy, education. This is the commodification of everything.

Second, this Wall Street Journal interview is also interesting because it characteristically ignores the driving force of such Third World innovation at the macro-level. Gartner talks about how all of this is made possible because of the rate at which “people of the Third World are moving from subsistence to being consumers.” There is an unintended and ironic way to interpret this sentence: it’s entirely true that millions of people every year are moving away from subsistence. About ten percent of them do indeed become “consumers,” which means they buy and sell on the global market. But the other ninety percent of these people “moving from subsistence” are now living in the rapidly expanding global slums (as detailed by Mike Davis in his recent book Planet of Slums). And the reason for this massive global migration? The policies imposed on poorer nations — euphemistically called “free trade,” i.e. the destruction of import substitution policies, austerity measures, etc. — have driven people off the land, away from subsistence farming, and into cities where jobs do not await them. The policies created by the highly developed world have urbanized (slumified) the underdeveloped world, thus creating an environment for consumer innovations to be stolen.

The third reason the interview was interesting: the Wall Street Journal reporter, Lee Gomes, who has a weekly “Talk Tech” column, seemed to sense that the tone of this interview might be construed in the way that I’m construing it. He asks Gartner, “Is there anything unseemly about thinking of people who are desperately poor as potential customers, as opposed to people who need help?” I find this interesting because, at the Wall Street Journal, the goodness of capitalism is assumed and unspoken. The question is akin to a fish asking another fish, “Is water a good thing?” Gartner’s reply: “Ultimately, people in Third World countries would like to become consumers, and there’s nothing wrong with that desire.” True. But that’s not what we’re talking about. What about the desire to exploit this desire? Anything wrong with that?

Andrew Hartman


One Response to “Another way to exploit poor nations”

  1. withinempire Says:

    Would have to disagree with that blanket statement “ultimately people in 3d world countries want to become consumers”. Maybe once their natural resources and land has been privatized, parts of the elite within that country want the rest of the country to become consumers, yes. But i would think that most of the 3d world poor is not dying to take part in the globalization “miracle”.

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