Today’s emerging powers are not worthy successors to their anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist ancestors. The countries of the South control a growing share of wealth, which is only proper, but its distribution is so inequitable that income differences are even greater in South Africa and China than in the US. The money is more often spent on buying western prime assets and luxury goods than on improving the living conditions and health of the Indian, Chinese, Arab or African people.
This is a return to the age of the robber barons. At the end of the 19th century, powerful and notoriously rapacious industrial dynasties rose in America, including those of John D Rockefeller, J P Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt, which gradually took over from the old European families in oil, transport and banking. These transatlantic competitors were initially at each other’s throats, but they gradually joined forces, exploiting workers all over the world, extravagantly enriching their shareholders and exhausting the earth’s resources.
Gulf State rulers and Chinese, Indian or Russian oligarchs now dream of taking over — and joining forces — in the same way. Like the American tycoons, they like to lecture others. The Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, when asked about France’s hastily abandoned plan to nationalise one of his industrial sites in Lorraine, said it would have amounted to a “great leap backward” and warned that “an investor might well think twice before putting his money in France” (1). And the Russian prime minister commented on a French tax increase: “Every Russian citizen, from those on low incomes to the super-rich, pays a tax of 13%. … ‘Oligarchs should pay more’, we are told. But we do not want capital to flow out of the country and into the shadow financial system” (2). China also defends pro-market doctrines, and its president was openly relieved when the right won the Greek elections in June; the head of China’s principal sovereign wealth fund, with shares in GDF Suez, is fiercely critical of “obsolete social laws” in Europe that “encourage laziness and indolence rather than hard work” (3).
British historian Perry Anderson recalls that at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, France, Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia established the Concert of Europe to prevent war and crush revolution. He suggests the world order is now ruled by another, informal, pentarchy: the US, EU, Russia, China and India. This conservative Holy Alliance of competing and complicit powers dreams of stability, but the world it is creating guarantees that there will be more economic upheavals, which will generate social revolts whatever the alliance may intend.