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Raj Patel © 2000


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Debt is a kind of memory. It recalls who paid what to whom, and when, and what rights the creditor claims if it isn't repaid on time. It is a way of officially memorialising a particular sort of encounter. But wherever there is official memory, there is always amnesia. Continuing the theme of mental illness in Prague, amnesia is the theme of today's missive.

Debt recalls a specific moment in time, but partially. Consider the example of World Bank loans to South Africa. Official memory says that South Africa owes the Bank. Remember a little differently, though, and things begin to look strange. Remember that the bulk of South Africa's debt burden was incurred under the apartheid regime. So what we mean when we say "South Africa owes the Bank" is that an obligation incurred by the minority racist regime over twenty years ago, which was spent on projects many of which benefited the black majority not at all, and in some cases which were expressly designed to bolster white power, have fallen due. This fuller memory makes one wonder whether it is South Africa that owes the Bank, or whether the Bank actually owes people of colour in South Africa for shoring up apartheid.

Activists here in Prague are asking whether we can re-remember capitalism. To recall that the rich countries are as wealthy as they are because of centuries of colonialism, slavery and naked exploitation. Indeed, here in Prague, I've heard people using the terms "enriched countries" and "impoverished countries", instead of rich and poor, or North and South, or developing and developed -- a healthy reminder that rich and poor doesn't happen by accident. It takes work to keep a country up or down, and it takes work to forget that this accumulation and extraction happens everyday.

Official memories of debt have silenced all this. We must make the agents of this amnesia remember. Remember, for example, that over 40% of Africans suffer from malnutrition and hunger, while debt service takes more than 80% of African export earnings. Make them remember that one third of the world consumes two thirds of its resources. Remember that the enriched countries depend on the impoverished ones for resources, labour, biodiversity and carbon sinks. Remember, closer to home, that taking responsibility for slavery in the US means more than mere affirmative action -- it means reparations. Remember that past actions continue to extract terrible costs.

In Bhopal, for example, a Union Carbide plant exploded in 1984, killing around twenty thousand people. Union Carbide were in India making chemicals to power the Green Revolution, an initiative pushed by our friends in the Bank. Today, over 120,000 people continue to suffer from breathlessness, anxiety, depression and menstrual irregularity. The price Union Carbide has paid for all this in compensation? Five hundred dollars per person. After which, the debt has officially been considered paid. The courts say that the past is in the past, that the memory has been officially excised, that Union Carbide have settled, and that the survivors have no recourse. This, of course, at the same time that these courts insist that India keep up with its debt schedule. Yesterday, after having moved a crowd at the Alternative summit to tears with his descriptions of Bhopal, Sathyu Sarangh of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action led us in a laugh-in, to mark the audacity of the Bank's demands.

Laughter is one way of dealing with disturbing memory. But stirring up memory can be more difficult and more dangerous. As I write, Prague is a war zone. The police, it must be said, have been remarkably restrained, but when they hit back, they hit hard. The more we poke at official memory, the more barbaric it becomes. My head is still spinning from a run in with concussion grenades and gas earlier today. And right now, the Black Bloc is smashing the windows of McDonalds, banks, and the odd mobile phone shop in downtown Prague. (Curious, this, since the activists seem to have more mobile phones than the delegates.) Neo-nazis are fighting back, and there is blood on the streets. And while I don't approve of all the Black Bloc's tactics, their message is an incitement to remember them. They are protesting their exclusion from official memory and power too.

Of course, we all live this amnesia every day. There is a wonderful New Yorker cartoon, in which a svelte woman in a coffee shop says something to the effect of "Waiter, there is the exploitation of thousands of poor Colombians in my coffee". It's true that there are a thousand social relations behind everything around us, and everything we do. But this is hard to recall. Uncomfortable, even. So we forget. Fetishise, as Marx put it. It is hard to live right-mindedly, after a lifetime of poor preparation.

There are many things that could have been done better in Prague today. More communication with the Czech people -- who seemed sympathetic, but who hadn't been told why we were around -- would have been good. But if the actions here deepen the memories of folk inside the Bank, and taught us a thing or two about how we ourselves forget to remember, we'll have done well.




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