Lives for Sale

WHEN Live8 tickets were offered to the highest bidder on eBay this week, there had never been a clearer demonstration that to Make Poverty History you need to first make capitalism history.  Within hours of the first text messages being sent out to those lucky people who had won a ticket to Live8 – Bob Geldof’s bash for the conscience-stricken – tickets were up on sale to the highest bidder on eBay.

Bob Geldof, quite reasonably, lashed out, ranting: “I am sick of this. It is a disgrace. The people who are selling these tickets are miserable wretches who are capitalising on people’s misery.”

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for eBay smugly responded: “The reselling of charity concert tickets is not illegal under British law, so Live8 tickets are allowed to be resold on ebay.co.uk. We are allowing the tickets (to be sold on our site) because we live in a free market where people can make up their own minds about what they buy and sell.”

This story, at least, has a happy ending. Geldof, spitting feathers at eBay’s response, demanded that people swamped the site with bogus tickets and offers – a direct call to undermine the sanctity of contract which supports the free-market system, which was duly taken up. Faced with an onslaught of angry customers, eBay withdrew the tickets from their site. For the “free” market is an illusion in more ways than one – it relies on our passivity and complicity to exist.

Someone as popular, rich and famous as Bob Geldof, with a mass of supporters, thwarted the free market. But what chance do the poor, the weak, the ill and the hungry have against it?

Hidden behind spokespersons, legal niceties and corporate interests, the free market, as a rule, rides roughshod over all that comes in its way, distorting choices, values, morals and decency, wrapping people up in its web of self-interest and, all the time, robbing them of anything worthwhile.

In Kenya, they grow tobacco with the labour of half-starved workers because the IMF recommended increasing the quantities of cash crops. But now the workers can’t afford to buy food.

In the Ukraine, women get a pittance by agreeing to the sale of foetal tissue from pregnancies that they can’t afford to continue, to be over marketed wealthy Russian women as injectable beauty treatments.

In south-east Asia, parents sell their daughters to traffickers – deluding themselves that they will have a better life in the West – in the hope of retaining enough money to feed the rest of their families. Meanwhile laws against international sex-trafficking are being relaxed because Germany and the Netherlands can’t find enough women to fulfil the potential profits from their prostitution industries.

Some say that people are socialists because they’re idealists. But not me. I’m a socialist because I’m a realist.

The idea of making poverty history is great and I’d love Bob, Midge and Bono to succeed – their hearts are in the right place – but this softer nicer capitalism, well it’s all a bit pie in the sky.

As has been demonstrated by the eBay incident, someone will aways be waiting to make a profit out of a good cause. You need to make capitalism history and then you have a fighting chance.

First published in the Morning Star on 18th June 2005
(edited 23/09/11: In response to comment pointing out error with regard to sale of foetal tissue)

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