What has the West most to fear today? Is it the credit crunch which has become a recession fast deepening into a full-blown slump? Or is it the spectre of renewed pressure on scarce resources when recovery comes: if oil can drop from $147 a barrel to nearer $50 in three months, it can do the opposite and more when demand revives. Then there is the monster of climate change, put on the back burner (to coin a phrase) for the duration of the economic crisis but none the less a clear and present danger. As if that were not enough the world is sliding towards uncontrolled nuclear proliferation, in large part because of the hypocrisy of nuclear powers with no intention of honouring their commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But there is something more, an issue to which Jean Ziegler draws vivid attention in his new book*.
We have often noticed here the declining respect for Western human rights rhetoric: practise what you preach (in Palestine, Guantanamo, Iraq or New Orleans, for example, or as regards Saudi executioners and Burmese generals) is very often the response. What Ziegler does is to demonstrate the increasing coherence of the reaction to Western pretentions, its historical depth and growing confidence. Nor is it just a matter of brushing aside the self-interested waffle that so often passes for the will to implement humanitarian principles; there is an increasing understanding of the mechanisms of economic domination. Endlessly presented as essential to poor country development, the mantras of free trade and open markets are more and more seen for what they are, levers to open doors to Western economic penetration and control.
For Ziegler - until last year a special rapporteur for the UN Food Programme - what drives this awakening is an increasing consciousness not only of present day exploitation but also of the stupefying violence of the colonial period. In Algeria the enfumades, the practice of stifling the populations of whole villages by herding them into caves and lighting fires at the mouth, has been forgotten only on the side of the perpetrators. The exploits of George Arthur in Tasmania are no better known in his native Britain. Convicts, soldiers - any white man - was good enough to join his "black lines", equipped with guns and dogs and up to 75 miles in length, which swept across the country killing every aboriginal in their path. Likewise the treatment of Indians on latifundias and in the Spanish American mines, and the abominable torture of any who resisted.
Today, open violence is mostly outsourced to carefully corrupted local elites - Ziegler describes in detail the brutal oppression of the peoples of the Niger delta in the interests of a handful of oil companies. Instead the colonists themselves are now represented by officials of the World Bank or IMF. Ziegler reserves particular contempt for the former EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson. Negotiator of numerous bilateral free trade agreements (EPAs) aimed primarily at securing privileges for European companies, Mandelson is described as an elegant and smooth-tongued product of the London liberal left. "His arrogance is legendary", says Ziegler.
But the picture is changing. UNESCO's 2001 Durban Conference against Racism was a complete failure for the simple reason that delegates including heads of states from the global South demanded not only recognition of the horrors of the colonial past but a measure of repentance and reparation. The US delegation walked out. Meanwhile in Latin America the election in 2006 of the first president of Indian origin in 500 years has radically shifted perspectives. Evo Morales has set the goal of transition in Bolivia from the colonial state to the national state, combining nationalization and land reform with an appeal to the identity and ancient traditions of the Andean communities.
As with Chavez in Venezuela, powerful forces are ranged against him, not least the European communities descended from fleeing Nazis and Ustashi backed by the usual corporate interests. For the global South a good deal depends on the success of Morales and like-minded leaders in the region.
* "La Haine de l'Occident" (Albin Michel 2008): click here for an interview with Ziegler.