So here we are again. Another century, another crisis. But this time, power relations have shifted and Europe is on the brink. We now face the possibility that Angola may help to bailout Portugal- its former coloniser. Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos remarked “We’re aware of the difficulties the Portuguese people have faced recently and in such difficult times we must use our trump cards,” and Angolan companies now own 3.8% of companies listed on the Portuguese Stock Exchange. If we cast our minds back only a few decades to the horrific conflict that was the Angolan Civil War, the possibilities for the frontiers of conquest to shift so dramatically would have seemed preposterous.
The current global crisis of capital surplus absorption and accumulation in the form of fictitious financial capital has not been limited to one region or part of the world. The current crisis should come as no surprise to anyone even vaguely aware of capitalist history and this crisis is by no means a radically unique point in history The root of the current crisis can be found in the debt crisis of the developing world in the 1970s, when the West was hungry for developing countries to buy their readily available assets and credit. A decade later, the Knights in Shining Armour of Capital- the IMF and World Bank- considered the developing world ‘bloated’ because of grossly excessive spending. The neo-liberal revolutions of the 1980s rebooted the global capitalist system by shifting its primary mode of wealth creation from the manufacturing industries (now made less profitable with the proliferation of organised labour) to fictitious financial capital. Part and parcel of this shift were the Structural Adjustment Policies that crushed developing countries’ economies by imposing austerity programs on African states, causing a phenomenal swelling of informal economies across the developing world.
Colonial Portugal was the frontrunner in the conquest of Africa, ruling Angola until 1975, when the country became a very deadly battleground in the ideological whirlpool that was the Cold War, as Angolan independence was followed by a Civil War fought between the MPLA, backed by the USSR and UNITA, backed by the US. Angola had been an important hub of the Portuguese Colonial project, a bountiful source of slaves and oil. Portugal, however, did not have the resources to fully develop the natural resources of its colonies so it remained a ‘semi-colony’ of Britain, who funded the extraction of natural resources from Portugal’s colonies. Portugal ruled Angola with an iron fist; it is estimated that 30 million Angolans perished under Portuguese rule – the forcible seizure of land and forced labour being the preferred tools of Colonial domination. In 1961, the global coffee boom, much like the petroleum boom today, meant that the Angolan economy was growing much faster than its African counterparts. Much like the forced labour that drove the boom of 1961, the exploitation of labour drives Angola’s economic explosion today.
But what we must keep in mind is that a shift from economic hegemony from the global North to the South is not something to be desired, and the capitalist expansion of Angola is not something we should cheerlead. Angola is reported to be the third fastest growing economy in the world but is ranked 148th out of 187 countries in terms of quality of life. The wealth created by Oil has resulted in a class of rich elites chauffeured in luxury cars from the high-rise office buildings to gated communities, whilst the rest of the population lives in malnourished poverty, often without adequate provision of water, sewage systems and malaria prevention. For International Capital, however, this is just fine.
The aspiration of the ruling class of Angola is evident in the Kinaxixi Complex. It is a huge commercial complex designed for rich (oil-rich) Angolans. Outside, observers look to the Luanda skyline and see skyscrapers popping up and deem this adequate evidence of growth in Angola, yet the reality is that two thirds of the Angolan population (18 million people) live on less than two US Dollars a day, whilst the apartments in the Kinaxixi complex will range from $60,000 to $200,000. Portuguese capitalists have coupled this investment with the construction of a large residential area at Kilamba Kiaxi on the outskirts of Luanda, but this project is firmly aimed to serve the wealthy Angolan capitalist class, not the poor. Add a new international airport and a new luxury retail and office development to the mix, and it swiftly becomes apparent who is the major beneficiary of Angolan growth. The possibility of the Angolan state buying up shares in Portuguese state-owned companies is thus a contentious one, because whilst the state embarks on a self-interested shopping spree abroad, the majority of Angolans continue to live in abject poverty.
This ‘turn back’ to the Colonies is becoming an ever-prominent trend of failing European economies, seen in a range of cases: a former executive in Italy’s state oil company, Eni, receiving a role in oil-rich Libya’s new government; David Cameron’s sucking up to India, buttering them up as the “Jewel in the Crown” (the colonial rhetoric not even masked); and Spain’s aggressive expansion into Latin American. Indeed, as in Colonial times, the Colonies are sources of cheap labour and resources, but the Colonisers now do their business through the conduit of a wealthy, native, self-interested elite rather than the barrel of a gun. It would thus be wrong to see the possible Angolan bailout of Portugal as a complete reversal of the colonial relationship, but instead it would mark the formalisation of the relationship between the ruling classes of Portugal and Angola, for the first time on level footing.
The Angolan people are taking this lying down: indeed there is has been stirrings of an ‘Angolan Spring’ to topple dos Santos’s Government. But the police (using the large resources open to them through Angola’s boom) were quick to stop any sort of uprising, with an overnight raid in early March arresting key protagonists from what a Facebook page called “The Angolan People’s Revolution”. The possibilities for an Arab Spring style uprising are vastly outweighed by police capacities and the fact that the bulk of the population remembers too well the way the Civil War ripped Angola apart. Yet the further capitalist intertwining of Angola and Portugal will continue to drive huge inequalities, as the fortunes of the rich ruling elite skyrocket and the majority fall into never-ending poverty; and the situation for the Angolan poor may soon become too much to bear and the calls for uprising will become too hard to resist.