“And where in the Bible does it ever say it’s bad to be rich?” our speaker challenged us Thursday afternoon as I drew a rough sketch of a needle, a camel, and a hopeless little arrow attempting to point the camel through the despairingly small eye.
The speaker had some very interesting points about the inefficiency of Colombia’s work culture as well as the inevitability of opening markets, however it was a rough crowd for this particular economics professor charged with presenting the “pro” side of the current Free Trade Agreement being considered by the US and Colombia. It was late in the afternoon, and us SEEDers had already heard a fairly convincing “con” side to this coin in the morning as well as having spent the rest of the week listening to lectures and walking down streets screaming of inequality and the disastrous consequences of neoliberal policies let loose.
Our week started with an in-depth look at our personal economies and the power/economic inequalities within our own supposedly egalitarian Mennonite program. This process included us United Statesians searching through wikipedia to determine how many acts of “foreign invasion” we should count on our economic-power-test. I’m ashamed to say after our (rather subjective) sorting process (we didn’t count purely CIA interventions, except a few when the ensuing events included hundreds of thousands of deaths, such as in Indonesia) we ended up with 49.
Tuesday we took a trip to Indepaz (for Spanish speakers: http://www.indepaz.org.co/index.php?option=com_content&view=section&layout=blog&id=31&Itemid=103) and heard from them about the evolution and presence of mining and petroleum companies in Colombia. Carbon, petroleum and gas are heavily mined and extracted from Colombia, principally by foreign companies which are given huge tax breaks and incentives to “bring their business” to Colombia; thus displacing populations in order to open production, extract what they are looking for, and leave an environmental nightmare behind. This (thanks to truly misguided national legislation) ends up leaving Colombia short some more non-renewable resource with very little to show for it.
We learned that the mining code (currently under review and scheduled to be reformed in the next two years) has an article (13) which states that as mining is an activity of national interest, it is lawful to temporarily displace persons from their land in order to mine the area. The obvious result is a devastating state of affairs for populations already vulnerable to displacement by the presence of paramilitaries or guerillas, depending on the region. What is interesting is that under Colombia’s constitution international law overrides national legislation, and yet in terms of environmental and land rights international norms are being ignored. There seems to be a wider trend of corporate interests superseding national and international law—the clear example being of the Canadian mining company “Pacific Green” suing El Salvador after it revoked their mining license due to environmental concerns. (Read more: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/43142)
This in-depth look at a singular aspect of the economic landscape links with the rest of the week’s activities which included a bus tour of Bogota, North to South, contrasting the Club-Med-esque business and political center with the Slum-like margin of displaced persons in the South, as well as speakers on the Free-Trade-Agreement. The questions are always the same: who’s profiting? Why are things structured the way they are? What are the assumptions underlying these systems?
The reasons Colombia is giving tax breaks and incentives to Canadian mining companies are the same reasons they are almost definitely going to sign a free trade agreement which will be devastating to local agricultural and most likely lead many more desperate farmers into the coca industry; it is also the same reason some neighborhoods have access to running water every 15 days and others have pools: greed, corruption, and at best, a misguided belief in the eventual justice of the invisible hand.
Our “pro-FTA” speaker put his finger on an important truth when he explained that one cannot expect foreign companies to come as NGOs to develop one’s country, or even to invest in it necessarily. Indepaz spoke of multinationals essentially coming in to suck up national resources and then pulling out and moving on; a relationship resembling rape much more than a mutually beneficial exchange. But these are the rules of capitalism, are they not? Each company focuses on increasing profit, just as each country seeks to secure its own interests. A mining company wants the cheapest land to extract coal/gas or petroleum from; the United States wants to maintain a car-based culture with cheap oil, cheap food, and global hegemony. And yet understanding why the US wants military bases here, wants Colombia’s market open to the flood of subsidized wheat and rice from the states, and increased openness to US companies moving in to benefit from cheap labor and land made cheap by displacement does not explain why Colombia, with seemingly so much to lose, is passing laws like the mining code, or contemplating changing its constitution and accepting ridiculously uneven conditions in signing the FTA.
I can’t claim to understand it completely. But I’m catching on to some themes. There are elites and government workers benefiting from these many projects. Just as it is known that 102 of the 266 congresspersons have been or are being investigated for links to paramilitaries or guerillas, it is also known that a small sector of businessmen and traditionally wealthy families in Colombia are profiting from these generally-destructive business deals. And then there are some who legitimately believe that the invisible hand of supply and demand and comparative advantage can bring justice.
The problem is that an economic theory cannot bring economic justice any more than one psychological theory can bring sanity. We live in a world complicated by history, geography, and humanity. Perhaps “all things being equal” the US and Colombia opening their borders freely to trade could be mutually beneficial—but things are nowhere near equal. Certainly it would be good to believe that corporations of their own accord will abide by all international norms, self-regulate, and act only as a massive employer and producer of needed and desired goods, but sweat-shops and the advertisement of ridiculous products show us this is not the case. We are greedy, selfish, and short-sighted people. We are also beautiful, creative, goodhearted people—but we are people in need of structures and systems (and economies!) that encourage the latter, not the former.
Three aspects of Mark’s account of the Rich Young Ruler strike me as particularly interesting: firstly, the phrase “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). My idea here is not to demonize all of Colombia’s elite, all US citizens, or all wealthy people who subscribe to or benefit from neoliberal economic thought (heaven help me if I did!)—it is not to say these are ill-intentioned, purely avarice-driven monsters who care nothing for anyone other than themselves. I doubt everyone in the above categories could claim, as the RYR did to have followed God’s commands faithfully since they were children, but the point is that being rich does not by nature make one a bad person. (Note: this is my point. Jesus’s point was probably that he loved this man, a more helpful point, most likely. )
The second striking thing, obviously, is the clear statement that holding on to worldly wealth makes seeking God’s Kingdom near impossible. There is no skirting this conclusion. Whether the “eye” is a needle’s eye or a very small door I can tell you, having seen my fair share of camels, you don’t want to be the one trying to get a camel through it. You really don’t. I think there’s a reason: the wealth one gains in this world is never neutral, it always comes from somewhere. Being an extremely wealthy person myself (In the top 10% of the world, at least) I can tell you it is utterly exhausting trying to account for where all one’s wealth comes from, and utterly impossible to rid oneself of complicity and maintain one’s lifestyle.
The third thing that strikes me in this passage are Christ’s words “with God, all things are possible”, words of hope and redemption in a scenario which, for me and the rest of my 10%, reads pretty bleakly. I don’t think the message means “don’t worry about it”, I think we should worry, but I think it does mean even in such a sick knot of corruption, greed, ideology, comfort, and complexity, resistance, creativity and actively challenging ourselves everyday is not a lost cause.
Our country’s, and increasingly the world’s, governing economic/political theory is based on a system which assumes everyone works towards their own interests, towards gaining more profit/land/wealth. Whether it can lead to beautiful acts of generosity and charity is beside the point. It is a system that, while it may have many helpful and functional aspects to it, simply does not square with Christ’s message of who we are to be as followers, as a people. We need to start thinking with a holistic logic, a logic of care, a logic which can calculate human cost as well as economic benefits, which can stretch beyond seeing only immediate personal or national gain to seeing international societal gain, a logic which challenges assumptions of what a nation’s interests should be, and what cost is acceptable to ask of others.
Part of me wants to end with a call to stand in solidarity with those opposing the FTA, with those boycotting CocaCola and other large companies entrenching the conflict here in ways I haven’t even had time to get into. But today as I was walking back from the Transmilenio, I felt a huge surge of gratitude, love, and joy—it is a beautiful world we are in, nonetheless– and so while I have (aha!) issued the call, I actually want to end with the hopeful and prophetic words of Mumford and Sons (a great band you should check out if you don’t already know), a good reminder of what we are living for and what we are hoping to build:
“Love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
Be more like the (wo)man you were made to be.
There is a design, an alignment, a cry, of my heart you see,
The beauty of love as it was made to be”