Focus on Tiger Woods – The Issue is Racism

December 11, 2010 (Last in a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”) • Eldrick “Tiger” Woods might have lost his top spot in golf rankings in 2010, but he kept his place at the top of search engines around the world, coming in, for instance, at seven out of 10 for the year on searches carried out by Yahoo Canada.[1] Of course what drove this was not his golf game. For the first time since 1995, Woods did not win a tournament, let alone a major. The year 2010 saw his record 623-week reign as the world’s number one ranked golfer come to an end. No, what drove interest in Mr. Woods was the publicity generated by the very public break-up with his wife, Elin Nordegren. Now it is not actually news that a celebrity athlete gets married, has a few affairs, and then has marital difficulties. However most do not receive the massive outpouring of media scrutiny experienced by Mr. Woods. But Woods, you see, is black. His wife, and his girlfriends, were white. That combination still touches a raw nerve throughout much of the Global North, particularly in the United States. The extraordinary obsession with the personal life of one golfer is a reflection of deeply held racist ideas, ideas which permeate modern society.

At the peak of the story, in the Autumn of 2009, the quantity of coverage of this one golfer’s personal life was by any standard, phenomenal. Take New York City. It is not surprising that in the wake of 9/11, that city’s New York Post would devote considerable coverage to the attack on the twin towers. In fact, 9/11 appeared on its front page for 19 consecutive days, and until 2009, that was a record for any one story in the paper’s history. But in 2009, coverage of Mr. Woods beat that record. For 20 consecutive days, the tabloid screamed out, on its front-page, headlines concerning his private life.[2] That is worth emphasizing – nineteen front pages for the attacks on the World Trade Centre which triggered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 20 front pages for the marital difficulties of a golfer. This treatment of Woods was not from some marginal publication. The New York Post is one of the oldest continuously published media outlets in the United States, having been founded in the early 1800s by Alexander Hamilton.[3] In 2009 it was the sixth most widely circulated newspaper in all of the United States.[4]

It’s not that it was a “slow news” autumn. In that span (November 29 to December 18, 2009) there were a few other choices for an editor to feature on her/his front page. A quick glance at The Globe and Mail for that period offers a few possibilities: on November 30, the crushing debt problems of once booming Dubai;[5] on December 2, President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan;[6] or December 17, the president’s dilemma at the Climate Change talks in Cophenhagen.[7] Quite possibly the financial crisis, the war in Afghanistan and Global Warming could be considered more newsworthy than Mr. Woods’ personal life.

When the Woods’ Affair first broke, US Magazine lent its weight to the discussion, publishing a list of “12 Unforgettable Sports Scandals.”[8] The list includes one white man (Pete Rose for gambling in Baseball) and two white women (Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan – Harding having organized an assault on her fellow skater Kerrigan). All remaining nine were men of colour, eight of them African American. For seven of these nine men of colour, the “unforgettable scandal” involved their relations with women. For the top three, it involved their relations with white women.

Among the detritus of sports-coverage on the Internet, one oddity is a poll conducted by The Q Scores Company, designed to reveal the most liked and the most disliked athletes. The focus on Woods’ personal life saw his standing in this survey plummet, to the point that he quickly shot to the bottom as one of the six “most disliked” athletes in the U.S. Who were the other five? LeBron James, Michael Vick, Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco, and Kobe Bryant. What do they have in common? They are all African American males. [9]

But surely it is clear why Michael Vick, for instance, is so hated. After all, he was a grown man who organized illegal dog-fights, and surely that deserves opprobrium. Fine, but what about the grown men all throughout professional sports who organize legal man-fights? Thousands have seen the video of professional hockey player Todd Bertuzzi hitting Steve Moore from behind, ending Moore’s hockey career.[10] No one was put behind bars for that. The latest fad to sweep the sports pages is the gladiatorial “sport” called Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), a barely disguised street brawl. No one is sent to jail for that. Is it that we value dogs more than people? Or is something else behind the selection of who is hated and who is not? Think of the white faces not on the list of the most hated. Former cycling champion Floyd Landis, stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title for illegal doping[11] is not there, nor is disgraced multiple Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, himself also facing charges of illegal drug use, nor any number of white male athletes whose actions, or alleged actions, might well have qualified them for consideration.

The “most disliked” ratings story of basketball player LeBron James is quite revealing in this regard. In January 2010, James’ “positive score … was the highest we had ever seen it” said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of The Q Scores Company. But when he decided to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, and sign with the Miami Heat, he became an extraordinarily hated man – not just in Cleveland (where fans were understandably disappointed about losing one of the best athletes on the planet), but inexplicably across the entire United States. The switch of teams made him “the sixth most disliked sports personality” in the United States.[12] But just as Woods is not the only athlete to have marital difficulties, James is not the only athlete to abandon one team for another in search of more money and a championship. Roy Halladay’s decision to leave baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays for Philadelphia comes to mind. But Halladay didn’t, as a result, join Woods and James on the list of hated athletes. Instead he has been singled out for respect and praise on a fan-based web-site called “Thanks, Roy.”[13] Halladay, as you might have guessed is white. And don’t think the love for the now departed Roy is because Toronto is polite, while the United States is rude. Vince Carter was a sports idol in Toronto when he played for the Toronto Raptors, and nothing but an object for hatred since deciding to leave. [14] Vince Carter is not white.

There is only one explanation for the cluster of African Americans at the bottom of the “most disliked category” in 2010. It reflects attitudes towards African American males as a group. The obsession with Woods’ personal life has to be put in this context.

There are other issues in the Woods’ story that could be highlighted. Just before his fall from grace, Woods was in the news, not for his marital difficulties, but as “Sports’ First Billion-Dollar Man” – the first athlete in history whose lifetime earnings would top $1 billion.[15] Given this, there are some very progressive individuals who argue – because these are the troubles of a rich man, they just don’t matter.[16] Others see his comeuppance as an exposé of a sexist lifestyle. Martha Burk, for instance, quite rightly organized a boycott of the 2003 Masters event, because its venue, Augusta National, is a male-only preserve. Commenting on Mr. Woods’ choice of the Masters as the place for his return to golf after a self-imposed absence, she said: “I think this is a safe haven for him … They’re all chauvinists themselves. It’s a perfect fit.”[17].

But class and gender are not the main issues at stake here. Golf is a particularly “white” sport. Eldrick Woods – a black man – is arguably the greatest golfer ever to play the game. It is right to critique Augusta National and its showpiece annual event the Masters, the most prestigious golf tournament among the annual events sanctioned by the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA). But what is most clearly revealed when one opens that door, is a stark picture of systemic racism.

The PGA “customarily excluded blacks from becoming members since its inception in 1916” and in 1943 made that exclusion official by inserting a clause – “widely known as the ‘caucasians-only clause’” into its constitution in 1943. That membership restriction was only removed in 1961.[18] As for the Masters, until the 1975 participation of Lee Elder, no black man had ever been allowed to play in the tournament. Until 1982, to get on the course at all as a black man, you had to be a caddy. In fact, until 1982 – when for the first time PGA tour golfers were allowed to bring their regular caddies – every caddy on the course was black. This was no accident. Clifford Roberts, founder of the tournament, is quoted as saying: “As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.”[19] And even when, through the 1970s and 1980s, some golfers and some caddies were allowed onto the course, membership in the club itself remained white-only. Only late in 1990, in anticipation of new 1991 PGA guidelines “requiring private clubs that want to host tournaments to demonstrate that their membership policies are not discriminatory,” did Augusta National finally remove its “white-only” colour bar.[20]

This is worth emphasizing. We are describing a venue where until late in the 20th century, to golf you had to be white, and personal service on the golf course had to be performed by black men. That venue’s principal tournament was called “The Masters,” and its locale was in the former Confederate state of Georgia, a state which only abandoned the barbaric practice of slavery after suffering military defeat, and which became one of the centres for the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and all manner of racist reaction in the post Civil War years. (This, by the way, somehow failed to make it to the US Magazine list of “Unforgettable Sports Scandals.”)

The attitudes shaped by this history of racism are by no means of only historical interest. Return to the coverage of Mr. Woods’ personal life. Toronto’s mass-circulation tabloid, the Toronto Sun, like many other media outlets, has used a considerable amount of ink to cover Woods, on subjects other than his golf game. Those familiar with Toronto would know that any interest displayed by that paper in Mr. Woods’ relations with women will quite likely have little to do with women’s rights. The Sun is, after all, notorious for its long-standing practice of objectifying women through its “Sunshine Girl” feature. But that paper’s editorial decision on February 20, 2010, to craft a front page around Mr. Woods’ public apology for his indiscretions, spoke volumes. The front page headline, that day, on its Saturday edition, was comprised of two enormous capitalized words – “NO BALLS,” two words which filled most of the page, accompanied by a photograph of a contrite looking Mr. Woods, his eyes lowered to the ground. This front page, far from being a source of controversy, was more likely to be seen as a “funny.” That, for instance, was the response of Ontario sportswriter Paul Svoboda, who “loved the headline.” [21] Mr. Svoboda notwithstanding, the headline is objectionable on many levels, not the least being the adolescent-level standard of its “humour.” But more importantly, the headline taps a nerve just below the surface in North America – a mixture of racism, violence and sexuality, about which serious journalists should be aware.

For their files we can compile a short dossier. The sport of golf, as documented, above, has only recently emerged from Jim Crow era segregation. That era was one where racism often took the form of violence, violence mixed up with sexuality and black-white relations. This took extreme forms after the defeat of the racist Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War

The separation of blacks and whites was essential to Southern whites who were determined to retain supremacy after the Civil War; consequently the “mixture’ of people of European ancestry and people of African ancestry became a much more serious taboo. Because it was the men among the former slave population who gained suffrage rights and a measure of political power – and who therefore had the potential to destroy the racial caste system – whites focused on the taboo of sex between white women and black men with new urgency.[22]

There was, in other words an “equation of political rights and black manhood.” Throughout the U.S. south, “extreme white anxiety over sexual liaisons between white women and black men was linked to fears of black men’s political and economic independence.” It meant that for the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan, “the greatest violence was reserved for black men.”[23]

Some of this violence is well-known. “Lynching” – the extra-judicial killing, usually by hanging, carried out by racist white mobs – was a violent method by which white supremacy was enforced in post Civil War United States. Between 1882 and 1968, one source documents 3,446 black deaths from lynching – 539 in Mississippi, 352 in Texas, 335 in Louisiana, 299 in Alabama, 257 in Florida, 226 in Arkansas, 204 in Tennessee, 156 in South Carolina, 142 in Kentucky, and 492 in Georgia, home of the Masters.[24]

There were less publicized, but equally gruesome forms of violent assertion of white supremacy. For black men accused of sleeping with white women, castration was often the weapon of choice. The issue of black-white liaisons was often really only the surface excuse for this barbaric violence. The horrifying story of Henry Lowther brings this out in stark relief. Klansmen were after him for political reasons. “They said I had taken too great a stand against them in the republican party,” he said. The dispute escalated until, “[a]s Lowther remembered the scene, almost two hundred Klansmen arrived in the middle of the night, and twenty of them carried him away to a swamp. ‘The moon was shining bright, and I could see them,’ Lowther recalled; all the men were Democrats. There the Klansmen castrated him.”[25] Klansmen would resort to castration and other forms of “sexual mutilation for any act that struck them as demonstrating political or economic power on the part of black men, whether or not they tacked on an accusation of sexual misconduct.”[26] Had they known this history, perhaps the Toronto Sun editors would have reconsidered their choice of front-page headline for Feb. 20, 2010.

The shadow of this racist violence was visible late into the 20th century. It was reflected in laws which existed in many states prohibiting marriage between blacks and whites (so-called “miscegenation”) “Laws prohibiting miscegenation in the United States date back as early as 1661 and were common in many states until 1967.”[27] Laws are themselves reflections of attitudes. Even when the Supreme Court in 1967 ruled definitively that it was unconstitutional to prohibit intimate relations between blacks and whites, attitudes reflecting that prejudice persisted, often with tragic results. In New York City, in the summer of 1989, “a young black man named Yusuf Hawkins was shot and killed by a group of young white men, who thought Hawkins was going to visit a white girlfriend. … Only one white man was convicted for the murder … the others were convicted of lesser charges or acquitted.”[28]

This history needs to be understood, if we are to arrive at an explanation for the otherwise bizarre focus on one man’s personal life. There are celebrity figures in the spotlight because of violence or alleged violence in their personal lives. There have been no suggestions anywhere that Mr. Woods has been violent with any of his partners. There are other rich men who have had marital troubles. For most of them, the story remains a private matter – or at best, something which involves 15-minutes of infamy, and then a return to the back pages. Think David Letterman. But with Mr. Eldrick Woods, the media frenzy has lasted more than a year. The obsession with one man’s personal life can only be explained in the context of the grim history of racism briefly sketched out above. Mr. Woods’ spectacular success in a white man’s game and his pattern of marrying and/or dating white women, touched a deep nerve in North American society. The backlash against him is an exposé of the still deep racism which systemically permeates that society.

© 2011 Paul Kellogg


[1] “2010 Year In Review: Top Searches.” Yahoo! Canada News. Accessed 11 December, 2010.
[2] Kyle Koster. “New York Post puts Tiger Woods on cover for 20th straight day.” Chicago Sun-Times. 18 December 2009.
[3] Nicholas Tan. “New York: The History behind the New York Post.” (Accessed 12 December 2010)
[4] “2009 Top Media Outlets.” BurrellesLuce. .
[5] Patrick Martin. “Soaring debt brings Dubai back to Earth.” The Globe and Mail. 30 November 2009: A1.
[6] Paul Koring. “Bold troop surge, early exit: Obama makes Afghan war his own.” The Globe and Mail. 2 December 2009: A1.
[7] Konrad Yakabuski. “Obama’s climate challenge starts here.” The Globe and Mail. 17 December, 2009: A1.
[8] “Unforgettable Sports Scandals.” US Magazine. 11 September 2009.
[9] Darren Rovel. “LeBron’s Q Score Takes Huge Hit.” CNBC. 14 September 2010.
[10] “Todd Bertuzzi Sucker Punches Steve Moore.”
[11] “Landis says clenbuterol use widespread in cycling.” Merced Sun-Star. 29 November 2010.
[12] Darren Rovel. “LeBron’s Q Score Takes Huge Hit.” CNBC. 14 September 2010.
[13] “Thanks Roy.”
[14] See Adam Proteau. “How our love for Vince Carter turned to hate.” 20 April 2007
[15] Kurt Badenhausen. “Sports’ First Billion-Dollar Man.” 29 September 2009.
[16] Representative of the latter is Liam Macuaid. “Tiger Woods – a Marxist analysis.” 13 December 2009.
[17] Cited in Neil McLeman. “Tiger Woods a sexist pig.” Mirror. 2 April 2010.
[18] Marvin P. Dawkins. “Race Relations and the Sport of Golf: The African American Golf Legacy.” The Western Journal of Black Studies. Vol. 28, No. 1. 2004: 328.
[19] Cited in Rick Reilly. “Strokes of Genius.” Sports Illustrated. 21 April 1997.
[20] Jaime Diaz. “Augusta National Admits First Black Member.” The New York Times. 11 September 1990.
[21] Paul Svoboda. “Tiger should get into acting.” Paul Svoboda. 22 February 2010.
[22] Martha Hodes. “The Sexualization of Reconstruction Politics: White Women and Black Men in the South after the Civil War.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1993, vol. 3, no. 3: 403.
[23] Hodes: 404 and 407.
[24] Charles Chesnutt. “Lynchings: By State and Race, 1882-1968.” The Charles Chesnutt Digital Archive. Accessed 14 December 2010.
[25] Hodes: 407.
[26] Hodes: 408.
[27] Bárbara C. Cruz and Michael J. Berson. “The American Melting Pot? Miscegenation Laws in the United States.” OAH Mazaine of History Vol. 16, No. 4. (Summer, 2001): 80.
[28] Hodes: 417.

Bolivia and the birth of a movement for Climate Justice

One of the most important but too often neglected events of 2010, was the little country of Bolivia putting itself at the head of the Climate Justice movement. This report, written May 8, 2010, showed how that action galvanized Climate Justice activism in Toronto. Longer version of report published at  (Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”) • MAY 8, 2010 – Yesterday, a lively crowd of between 200 and 250 piled into the Steelworkers hall in downtown Toronto in an event that brought together Latin American solidarity, First Nations and environmental activists. Toronto Bolivia Solidarity had helped sponsor a group travel to Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the April people’s summit, called by Bolivian president Evo Morales, as a response to the failed Climate Change talks in Copenhagen in December of 2009. What was clear to all in Cochabamba – and in the Steelworkers hall on May 7 – was that we are witnessing the birth of a new movement, a movement led by the Global South, calling for climate justice.

More than 30,000 people from 100 countries had participated in the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Kimia Ghomeshi, Campaign Director for the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, reported how the event was infused with an anti-capitalist spirit. What is clear to the participants, she argued, was the fact that the devastation to the environment is deeply rooted in a world driven by the priorities of corporate profit.

The evening had earlier been opened by a powerful set by the Red Slam Collective ( and a video put together by Raul Burbano. Ben Powless, a member of the Indigenous Environmental Network, accompanied his presentation with a slide show of images from the conference. The combination of the video and the slide show gave the audience a sense of what it meant to be at the extraordinary Cochabamba summit. Danny Beaton, 2010 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (NAAA) for Environment and Natural Resources, reminded us of the roots to past struggles. He told the audience that he had not been in the Steelworkers Hall for 20 years – but recognized some faces, because those 20 years ago he and they had been in the same hall to help organize solidarity with the Lubicon Lake Indian Nation, in their battle against energy corporation exploitation of their land. His words were important – indicating to people that our movement is a marathon, not a sprint.

The closing speaker was Robert Lovelace, a leader of Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. His moving speech culminated with an observation, that we will not win climate justice until we recognize that we are all indigenous. All of us, he argued, have been separated from the land by forces we don’t control. Recognizing our connection to the land is an indispensable first step in creating a movement to build a society based on climate justice.

Ten years ago, Cochabamba made world headlines for the first time. It was the centre of a desperate battle to prevent Bechtel corporation – under the watchful eye of the IMF and the World Bank – from privatizing water in that city. After bitter protests, and the tragic deaths of six protesters, suddenly in April 2000, the movement had won. Privatization was defeated, and the control of water in Cochabamba was handed over to a grassroots coalition. Cochabamba in 2000 was a spark that helped ignite the anti-corporate globalization movement of the early 21st century.

Now in 2010, Cochabamba is again a spark. The three strands of the movement at the conference and in the Steelworkers Hall were beginning a conversation. For those whose focus has been Latin American solidarity, the focus has been on the damage done by Global North imperialism to the countries in the Global South emerging from the shadow of colonialism. For those whose focus has been First Nations’ struggles in Canada, the focus has been on Canada’s own colonial legacy. For activists in the environmental movement, the focus has been on the threat posed to the environment by unconstrained corporate development. A remarkable feature of both the Cochabamba event, and the report back on May 7, was the extent to which all three streams are flowing together into a common river. The result is a Climate Justice / Global Justice movement, called into being by Latin America’s second poorest country, with its first Indigenous head of state – Evo Morales.

The challenge thrown down by Cochabamba is enormous. A people’s agreement was drafted – now being nicknamed the “Cochabamba Protocol.” It points the figure at capitalism and the Global North, and puts forward a plan to effectively deal with the threat to the environment posed by unregulated capitalism. Given the failure of the Global North leadership at Copenhagen, an important part of this protocol is the call for a Global Referendum so that the people of the world can have their say.

To become involved in this new Climate Justice movement, contact Toronto Bolivia Solidarity,

The documents from the conference have been made available on the site “Climate and Capitalism.”

The Cochabamba Protocol
Indigenous Peoples’ Declaration
Universal Declaration of the rights of Mother Earth

(c) 2011 Paul Kellogg

Colombia, not Venezuela, is the problem

The mass challenge to neoliberalism and imperialism in Latin America, continued throughout 2010. The following was written May 13, 2010, and submitted as a Brief to the Subcommittee on International Human Rights (SDIR), Committees Directorate, House of Commons (Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”) • Thank you for the invitation to my organization (Coalition Venezuela We Are With You / Coalición Venezuela Estamos Contigo) and to myself to present a brief to your committee. I will not be able to be present in person. I have been in touch with others from the solidarity movement in Toronto who will be making presentations, and am confident that they will make a very thorough presentation of the key issues. What follows are some brief written remarks as a modest supplement to your deliberations.

I am trained as a political scientist (Ph.D. Queen’s University). For the last several years I have had a keen interest in events in Latin America and the Caribbean making it one of my research areas. For the last two years, I have been an assistant professor in the Department of International Development Studies at Trent University, in Peterborough, Ontario. So with that background, I have developed somewhat of an appreciation for the situation in Latin America and the Caribbean.

However, it does not take an extensive academic background to know that there are issues of human rights to be studied in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many of my first year students in the large introductory development studies class at Trent University – who at the age of 18 do not, of course, have an extensive academic background – are quite aware of human rights issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. What is surprising to me, and would be surprising to them, is your choice of country. Surely the issue in 2010 in terms of human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean is not the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, but rather its neighbour, Colombia.

I urge you to study the 2009 edition of the “Annual survey of violations of trade union rights.” What you will read in the section on Colombia should give you chills. In 2008 alone, 49 trade unionists were assassinated “of whom 16 were trade union leaders, 45 were men and four were women. Attacks, disappearances and death threats continued.”[1]

Imagine the outcry in Canada if even one trade union leader had been assassinated in 2008. It would dominate the pages of the press. Were there to be 16 union leaders assassinated and 33 others, that outcry would be massive indeed. The truly horrifying aspect of this, however, is that this is by no means a one-year phenomenon. In 2007, there were 39 such assassinations so that “Colombia remained the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists.”[2] In 2006 there were “78 trade unionists murdered during the year.”[3] This is in fact a very old story – a long-standing, and quite well-documented story about a terrible situation confronting one of the most basic of all human rights – the right of workers to freely associate and collectively organize.

There is another reason why, in 2010, it is surprising to focus a human rights lens on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela rather than on Colombia. The Government of Canada is embarking on bilateral trade negotiations with a number of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. There is no indication that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has been selected as one of these countries. However, as is also well known to my first year students at Trent University, Colombia is one such country. I read from a Government of Canada web site that on March 10, 2010, “the Government of Canada tabled legislation to implement the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Labour Cooperation and Environment Agreements.”[4] Surely the name itself – given the facts outlined above – should demand an urgent investigation into the human rights situation in Colombia. This is not just being called a trade agreement but a “Labour Cooperation” agreement. The Government of Canada is entering into a cooperative relationship with a country, on the issue of labour, when that country is widely seen as having the most anti-labour environment in the entire world.

In a certain sense, my brief to your committee should end here. My one point to you is that you have the wrong area of inquiry, that given Canada’s policy orientation towards Colombia, the focus in terms of human rights needs to be Colombia and not the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and that were you to spend any time engaging in such an inquiry, it would immediately call into question the ethical, moral, and political problems in intensifying collaboration with the Government of Colombia.

However, as a political scientist, it is incumbent on me to open up one more issue for you to consider. You will all be well aware that no political action takes place in a vacuum. Understanding the context is something that I urge all of my students to attempt, no matter what their choice of essay topic. A reasonable thesis for one such student essay might be to suggest that it is precisely the context outlined above – the push for a bilateral trade, labour and environmental agreement with a government widely known for its terrible human rights record – that might impel a Canadian government to focus on another country, any other country, in order to “change the channel.” If we announce to the people of Canada that in 2010 human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean is to be our subject, and that in this year, the key country to study is the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, then it might have the political effect of focusing attention away from what is really going on – an intensification of Canadian involvement with a very suspect regime in Colombia.

There might, however, be one benefit from such an exercise. An intensive focus on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is long overdue. The situation in that country, as in the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, is exceedingly difficult. President Hugo Chávez Frias inherited an economy and society, severely damaged by long years of interference by International Financial Institutions (IFIs), institiutions in which Canada plays a leading role. Undoing the damage caused, in part, by the irresponsible Structural Adjustment Programmes of the IMF and the World Bank has been an enormous challenge, not just for President Chávez, but for political leaders all through Latin America and the Caribbean. The societal disruption caused by years of structural adjustment throughout Latin America, has contributed to an environment where human rights abuses do intensify. There is no more fertile ground for human rights abuses than the chaos created by economic decline and societal instability.

What needs to be soberly confronted by policy makers in Canada, is that the antidote to this economic decline and societal instability is – not to give legitimacy to regressive regimes such as the one in Colombia – but to do as has been done in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in the little country of Bolivia, and elsewhere – and resist the policy prescriptions of the IFIs, and to insist that the way forward in Latin America and the Caribbean is for sovereign development, controlled by the peoples of the region, not by distant institutions based in the Global North.

Your investigation of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela will surely lead you to encounter the interesting alternatives being developed to the Global North IFIs – including but not restricted to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The establishment of these organizations has accelerated the assertion of sovereignty in the region as a whole – an assertion of sovereignty which is the precondition for any and all improvement in the conditions of the people of the region, including an improvement in human rights.

Dr. Paul Kellogg
Dept. of International Development Studies
Trent University
Peterborough, ON K9J 7B8

(c) 2011 Paul Kellogg


[1] International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), “2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights: Colombia” – Accessed May 13, 2010.
[2] ITUC, “2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights: Colombia” – Accessed May 13, 2010.
[3] ITUC, “2007 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights: Colombia” – Accessed May 13, 2010.
[4] Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, “Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement” – Accessed May 13, 2010.

The Question of China

2010 again highlighted the newly important role of China in world economics and politics. The following is a slightly longer version of the review published in Socialist Studies[1]  (Written April 15, 2010Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”). • It is difficult to ignore the centrality of China as we enter the second decade of the 21st century. The biggest industrial revolution in human history is underway in the world’s most populous country. This fact is forcing many to rethink old orthodoxies. Minqi Li’s book is an important contribution to this project. The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy is very successful at posing the big questions, no small achievement in itself. But the analysis is premised on a questionable political economy and an overly “rosy” view of the Mao period in China. The answers provided are not always convincing, and sometimes schematic in a way which detracts from the overall effect of the book itself. These weaknesses notwithstanding, this is a book with which any who are interested in the current dilemmas of world capitalism, and the prospects for building an alternative, should be familiar.

The first dozen or so pages are the first reason to read this book. Li sketches out in spare, but gripping prose, the horrendous history of China’s (and India’s) encounter with European “civilization.” With an analysis rooted in World Systems’ theories, Li shows clearly the key role that both of these countries played in the rise to dominance of European capitalism. “The tributes from India played a crucial role in the British rise to world financial and commercial supremacy.” (p. 6) But China was at least as important.

According to Li, the two opium wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) – where the western powers succeeded in keeping China open to the British-controlled drug trade – these wars “marked the beginning of China’s incorporation into the capitalist world-economy.” (p. 6) In those wars, China was forced to cede Hong Kong to Britain, and open five of its ports to trade. These wars also triggered a near collapse of the state, and created the conditions for a major peasant rebellion – Taiping Tianguo – whose suppression led to untold hardships for the Chinese people. Defeat at the hands of Japan in 1894-95 led to China paying “an enormous indemnity of 230 million taels of silver” which “amounted to three years of the Qing government’s annual fiscal revenue or one-third of Japan’s gross national product.” (p. 7) Another peasant based uprising – the Boxer Rebellion – was suppressed by the armed forces of eight western powers. In the treaty which ended that war, China was forced to pay another indemnity almost twice as big as the one after the Sino-Japanese war. The list goes on and on and on. If you want to know why there were endless streams of impoverished Chinese labourers available for the dangerous and thankless task of building Canada’s railroads in the late 19th century – this history, summarized very effectively by Li, provides the answer.

The second reason to read Li’s book is his important notion that the enormous pool of cheap labour, created in this process of imperialist depradation, has become one of two important “strategic reserves” for world capitalism. “China’s deeper incorporation into the capitalist world-economy helps to lower the global wage cost and restore the global profit rate.” (p. 16) This is an indispensable insight necessary to explain the long expansion of the 1990s and the intense economic boom experienced by the world economy just before the so-called “Great Recession.” Theorists who have attempted to understand the dynamics of the world economy without this appreciation for the role of China have been forced either to deny the fact of economic expansion over a fifteen year period of time, or to be tempted to see the fact of this expansion as proof that neoliberalism had gone some distance to overcoming capitalism’s internal contradictions. Properly theorizing the role of China allows Li to escape both traps.

But there are some matters that need further discussion. First his political economy rests on an assumption that capitalism cannot survive industrial and economic development in the “semi-periphery”. In an interesting discussion of the potential trajectories of the periphery and semi-periphery, he suggests that if Chinese wage rates “converge upwards towards the semi-peripheral levels” – an important possibility to discuss, given the upward pressure on wages in China’s urban areas – “this will greatly reduce the share of the surplus value available for the rest of the world.” (p. 111) This neglects the fact that with an increasing organic composition of capital, wage rates and overall surplus can (and in fact do) both increase. It is not a zero-sum game. China’s impact on world capitalism, then, cannot just be seen in terms of its impact on wage rates. It has also become an enormous market for commodities to feed its industrial revolution. It is also China’s emerging home market which is transforming the world economy. Li is aware of the central role of organic composition to Marx’s theory of capitalism, he mentions it, but does not integrate into his own political economy.

Second – his relationship to the Mao era is contradictory. He makes the very interesting observation that “it took the entire Maoist era to develop the necessary industrial and technological infrastructure before China could become a major player in the global capitalist economy.” (p. 13) This is an important insight, and it opens the door to understanding the Maoist era as one of the assertion of sovereignty, allowing for national economic reconstruction and repairing the damage done by imperialism. But that is not the entirety of Li’s view. He calls the Mao era “Chinese socialism” and in clinging to an understanding of that era as being socialist, he is driven to either minimize its problems, or worse. He has a completely positive view of the Cultural Revolution, arguing that university students “were required to return to work in their home areas after graduation, so that university education would not become a path for careerist students seeking to join the elite class.” (p. 38) There are other analyses which would say that once Mao’s section of the bureaucracy had emerged victorious, radical students were exiled to the countryside, where they could not coalesce as a threat to the reconsolidated Maoist leadership. Li also has an unfortunate section (pp. 39-42) where he challenges statistics which call the Great Leap Forward catalyst for one of the largest famines in human history. His statistics don’t challenge the fact that something happened in that period leading to a great increase in “excess deaths.” Surely the point should not be to argue definitions as to whether this constituted a famine or not, but to address the fact that something calamitous happened in that period, and that this calamity needs to be explained.

In addition, the world systems theory which is such a strength in an understanding of the past of capitalist development, becomes a barrier when trying to peer into the future. He rests the conclusion of his work on a highly speculative article by Immanuel Wallerstein. Both Li and Wallerstein accurately identify the fact that modern capitalism is riven with contradictions. Both agree that these contradictions have been partially offset by the rise of China – an important insight that should be taken very seriously. But then they make the mistake of trying to gaze into the crystal ball to see what the future holds many years down the road. Wallerstein asserts – and Li quotes him approvingly – that “after 2050 or 2075 … we shall no longer be living in a capitalist world-economy.” (p. 174)

It is as important in this century, as it was in the past century, to insist that there is a difference between seeing the contradictions of capitalism, and predicting its collapse. We can with confidence predict recurring capitalist crises, but its collapse and replacement by a new system will require political action and organizing, and the success of that action and organizing is not inevitable. When Li says “it is quite conceivable that by the mid-twenty-first century various forms of socialist economic organizations will become dominant in the world” (p. 182) it makes the reader ask: “how do you know?”

Further, his image of this socialist future is not comforting. He builds his case on the interesting insight that the second of the reserves on which capitalism is calling is in the sphere of the ecology, “the remaining resources, and the remaining space for pollution” (p. 13)). This is a very good and very valid observation. But Li asserts that even with a socialist transformation, it is too late to stop catastrophic climate change, and all that entails – “a catastrophic sea level rise,” a shrinking of the inhabitable space of the world to “Canada, Siberia, northern Europe, and a few places near Antarctica” (p. 184) and a consequent massive flight of population, and inevitable crash of population. With echoes of Malthus, Li asserts that a socialist world will have to oversee, “an orderly, long-term decline of the world population so that eventually it falls back to a level consistent with the earth’s sustainable ecological carrying capacity.” (p. 188) Even in a socialist world, “there will be re-ruralization and a large portion of the world’s labor force will need to return to agriculture.” (p. 187) Our choices he says are to do this in an orderly fashion through a socialism “which might share important similarities with the historical socialist states”, or in a catastrophic fashion through “a neo-feudalist outcome (which might resemble today’s North Korea).” (p. 181) And while “some form of socialism would be preferred” he argues, “even feudalism is better than capitalism.” (p. 187) If our alternatives are East Germany or North Korea – then the future is grim indeed.

Li has begun a conversation. His insights into the role of China in the reshaping of modern world capitalism are important. Coming from a theorist who spent two years in jail for his role in the Tiananmen Square rebellion of 1989 should give many pause. Too many on the left in the west dismissed that rebellion as being “anti-socialist.” That this rebellion has generated such an important Marxist theorist means that such attitudes will need to be reconsidered.

(c) 2011 Paul Kellogg


[1] Paul Kellogg, “Book Review,” Li, Minqi. 2008. The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy. New York: Monthly Review Press. ISBN 978-1-58367-182-5. Pages: 208. In Socialist Studies (6:1), Spring 2010: 220-223. All page references in this review article are to Li 2008.