Dominic Lawson: These foolish howls of indignation

They are motivated not so much by sympathy for the losers in a free market, as by hatred of winners
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It isn't just doctors who should be queuing up to talk to Jan Grebski, a 65-year-old who suddenly and inexplicably emerged from a 19-year-long coma. Economists and political scientists should also pay a visit to the ex-railway worker's home in Dzialdowo, northern Poland.

The point is that Mr Grebski fell into his coma after being hit by a train in 1988, the year before the fall of Communist rule. Last weekend he told Polish television that "when I went into a coma there was only tea and vinegar in the shops, meat was rationed and huge petrol queues were everywhere. Now there are so many goods in the shops it makes my head spin." According to his wife, Gertruda, "Jan was so amazed to see the colourful streets. He says the world is prettier now."

Among those who do not share Mr Grebski's view of the comparative state of the world, almost 20 years after the fall of Communism, are the thousands of "anti-globalisation" protesters whose rioting in Rostock at the weekend caused injuries to 430 German policemen. Organisers of the demonstrations, who had merely planned to disrupt the G8 summit in nearby Heiligendamm, apologised to the police for the violence and, according to the FT, "distanced themselves from the estimated 2,000 militant activists involved".

They distanced themselves from the violence, but not from the aims. It would be difficult for them to do so, such is the inchoate nature of the anti-globalisation movement. It encompasses everything from anarchists to extreme reactionaries who believe that the world took a wrong turn with the invention of the tractor. One thing they all have in common, however, is a virulently expressed anti-Americanism.

I believe them when they say that this is not racist, that they do not have a quarrel with Americans as individuals. What they hate - incoherently and therefore violently - is what America itself stands for: capitalism. They are the successors to those in the West who sympathised with the Soviet-backed dictatorships in Eastern Europe, who believed that such an absolute lack of economic and political freedom was a much better system than the free-for-all which unaccountably had not produced a revolution by the "oppressed masses" in the US.

There was a time when it was possible to be both anti-capitalist and progressive: during the 1930s it seemed to many intelligent people that the Soviet Union had demonstrated that a socialist system would produce greater prosperity for all than one based on free markets. Stalin's Potemkin villages had duped the likes of Sidney and Beatrice Webb into believing that the USSR was "a new civilisation". Less naïve apologists, such as The New York Times' Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty, suppressed what they knew to be the millions of deaths caused by the collectivisation of agriculture. On the other side of the equation, the anti-capitalists ignored the fact that the Depression was caused principally by the spreading of trade barriers between Europe and America, and between North and South America. As Jean-François Revel observed: "All over the world, economic life stagnated and came to resemble what today's enemies of globalism desire for us."

The "enemies of globalism" would doubtless deny Revel's accusation that they seek a new Great Depression; but unlike the anti-capitalists of 75 years ago, they do not have the excuse of believing that their aims are consistent with a general increase in prosperity. They are motivated not so much by sympathy with the losers in a free market, as by hatred of the winners. If the price of a system which banned winners is an absolute fall in living standards for everyone, that is a price they are willing to pay: or rather, a price they are willing for all of us to pay.

Is anyone in the former Eastern Europe (except possibly ex-secret policemen) absolutely worse off, as a result of the collapse of the centrally managed economies? I was discussing the case of Jan Grebski with a friend in Poland yesterday; she said that she knew "no one, literally no one, who has a lower standard of living than they did under the Communists. Some people are less happy, of course: those who see that their neighbour has a bigger car than they do. And of course, it's worse in that you can't find a plumber now that they're all working in England." Then she corrected herself: "Actually, that's not quite right. You could never find a plumber when the Communists were in charge, either: they were all working for the Government."

It should almost go without saying that it is similar factors which have caused Africa to lag so far behind the rest of the world economically: corrupt, self-serving governments that use absolute political power to extort economic benefits for their supporters at the expense of the people as a whole - Zimbabwe is the example with which we are most familiar. It should go without saying, except that the anti-globalisers blame it on America. Since the US is the biggest aid donor to Africa - albeit a much smaller donor per capita than some other countries - this viewpoint amounts to a pathological condition, rather than a political one.

The war on Iraq has made George Bush a godsend for anti-Americans within Europe; but in his dealings with Africa this most inarticulate of Presidents has shown Europe up. It was Bob Geldof, not the White House, who declared a few years back that, in the fight against hunger and Aids in Africa, "the Bush administration is the most radical - in a positive sense - in its approach to Africa since Kennedy. The EU has been pathetic and appalling."

Presumably Geldof will not have been surprised that the countries which have done least well in honouring the aid commitments made at the G8 summit in Gleneagles two years ago are France and Italy. And what of carbon emissions, that other great issue over which Europe regularly asserts its moral superiority over America? Between 2000 and 2004 emissions by the 15 countries then comprising the EU grew by 2.4 per cent, while US emissions increased by 1.3 per cent. This in spite of the US economy growing much faster than the EU's in that period; and also despite the fact that it was the countries of Europe, not the US, which had signed the Kyoto treaty to reduce carbon emissions.

I cannot improve on the remarks of Jean-François Revel, who died last year: "It is pointless to set forth facts like these to anti-globalisers; they simply howl in indignation. In spreading the lie that globalisation impoverishes the most needy, the protesters simply act upon their twin enthusiasms: anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism. At a time when they have no positive alternative, yelling slogans and trashing cities provide them with the illusion of moral action."

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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