Making Poverty History

To end global poverty, we have to end global capitalism.

lecercle / Flickr

In December, the United Nations sounded the alarm. Releasing its report on the World Social Situation of 2013, entitled “Inequality Matters,” the UN warned that inequality was deepening, and that no country was immune from the contagion. In the Global South, the hemorrhaging of incomes among working people has been about as dramatic as in the Global North. If there is one social process that the planet shares, it is global inequality.

How does the UN explain this rise in inequality? What the data suggests, the UN reports, is that “inequality has increased mainly because the wealthiest individuals have become wealthier, both in developed and developing countries.” The top 1% has siphoned off the social wealth for its private gain, and the bottom 99% — which produced the social wealth — has to live off its crumbs. What’s clear is that capitalism is incapable of ending poverty or substantially reducing inequality.

Word comes from China and India that they have dramatically reduced poverty. Take the case of India. Based on official data on poverty, things appear better now than before. But the data is based on a reassessment of the indicators.

The government created a new measure — one is poor if one consumes less than twenty-four pounds of grain per month. The UN World Food Program asked quite simply if it was reasonable to assume that the person who had twenty-five pounds of grain per month was not poor.

Let us remain at the level of calorie consumption. In 2009, almost three quarters of the Indian population consumed less than 2,100 calories per day. This percentage is up from 64—percent in 2005 and 58—percent in 1984. So caloric intake in India has declined for very many more people during its relatively high growth rates.

A study released earlier this year indicates that 680—million Indians live in absolute deprivation. There are thus more people living in extreme poverty in India than in sub-Saharan Africa. This is all despite the comparatively high growth rates and the rhetoric of India Shining. So high growth rates are not necessarily going to end inequality.

A standard way to measure poverty is to calculate what percentage of a country’s population lives on less than $2 per day, factoring in purchasing power parity. In three African countries — Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Liberia — more than 90—percent of the population gets by on under $2 per day.

In Nigeria, which is an oil exporter, 84 percent of the population survives on $2 per day. Bangladesh, which clothes the world in cotton, has three quarters of its population living under that barrier. Staying with cotton producers, four West African countries — Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Mali — are among the poorest countries in the world, all with at least three quarters of the population in poverty.

The number of impoverished people in sub-Saharan Africa rose from 376 million in 1999 to 414 million people in 2010, a far steeper rate of increase than that of population growth. The World Bank, looking at this data, concedes, “Growth alone will not suffice to rapidly reduce poverty in the region.” In fact, it is not “growth alone” that is the problem, but the kind of growth path chosen by a society.

Growth in these zones often comes from two paths. First, by sale of commodities, such as oil, precious minerals, and metals (such as uranium and coltan). Second, by sale to the private sector of the right to deliver social services (education, health care). The advantages of both commodity sales and privatization are generally in the hands of private firms, not the state or the general public.

The obscenity increases when the current world order’s approach to poverty is considered. The World Bank sets the terms for the language of poverty alleviation. It offers the following three elements: promote private property, use government money to build large infrastructure, and push for high growth rates.

The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto argues that the solution to endemic poverty is to let the poor have land titles to their slum homes. Yet as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter has pointed out, the resulting market in land would ultimately deprive the poor of one of their few permanent assets — namely, land to live on and from which to earn a small living.

De Schutter suggests land users be registered so they have the right to their land site. He also supports the passage of anti-eviction and tenancy rights laws. Activist groups go further, asserting the slumdwellers’ right to communal property.

Another nostrum of the World Bank is to build large-scale infrastructure linking the poor to markets — better roads, better power generation, better telecommunications. Infrastructural development is essential, but the kind of infrastructure built, and at what economic and social cost, is equally essential.

Recently, the World Bank said that South Asia has a $2.5 trillion “infrastructure gap,” meaning that the country would need to raise this money to upgrade its infrastructure to contemporary standards. The World Bank recommends that a third of this capital go to transport, a third to power generation, and the rest to water supply, sanitation, solid waste management, telecommunications, and irrigation.

This is a revealing list. It favors big-ticket items — large dams, large freeway projects, and international airports — the landscape of US-style modernity. Do such “social goods” as freeways and airports have a universal impact on society or should these be more accurately understood as “class goods”? Are the benefits of freeways and airports not enjoyed much more by the dominant economic classes than by the people as a whole?

Take two household appliances. It is obvious that the smokeless stove is an essential social development. Thousands of university labs have designs for these stoves. And yet they are not in every home, from rural Nepal to urban Mexico.

Why? Well, the people who would need them do not have the purchasing power to buy them. Capital does not take the prototype in the lab, develop it into a mass market good, and get it into every hut that burns fossil fuel without ventilation. Smokeless stoves become a boutique NGO development project.

On the other hand, every house in the United States and Northern Europe has a freezer. In this part of the world, where it is frozen for several months of the year, we do not use the outside to keep our goods frozen.

What we do instead is insane: we build homes that are heated. Inside the heated homes, we have a freezer that draws power against the heated home to keep food frozen. Then in the freezer, because we do not want to allow it to become impacted by ice, we have a small heating coil to maintain the temperature. In other words, we have mass marketed a commodity — the freezer — that uses an obscene amount of energy and makes little sense for at least four months of the year.

A world that makes a freezer in the Global North an essential household item, but not a smokeless stove in the Global South, is a society that has subordinated itself to the laws of capital. “The ruling ideas of a time are the ideas of the ruling class,” wrote Marx and Engels. They were right.

The powerful not only control the social wealth, they also control the public policy discussion — and what counts as intellectually correct. Good ideas are never sufficient. They are not believed or enacted simply because they are right. They become the ideas of our time only when they are wielded by those who come to believe in their own power, who use this power to struggle through institutions and advance their ideas.

Everyone knows about wealth inequality. Everyone knows about poverty. Boredom greets conversations about these kinds of things. Someone must be doing something to take care of it. That’s true. There are a host of people’s movements across the world who are trying to battle the existence of the greatest purveyor of social brutality — poverty. But with little success.

The Arab Spring was a vast anti-poverty protest — a revolution for “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice” (aish, hurriya, adala igtimaiyya) as the slogan went. It resonated across Tahrir Square. Bread or ‘aish, in the Arabic of Egypt, refers to life. The call for bread is a call for life.

As the Arab Revolt of 2011 slides into its current darkness — Islamic State in Syria-Iraq, the Israeli suffocation of Palestine, the Egyptian eclipse, the blood-letting in Libya — the echo of Tahrir’s can be heard in street corners, held like a guilty sentiment. It sits near a recent militant Lebanese song by Julia Boutros about the people who “resisted the madness of the wind.” The collapse of the Arab Spring is a signal of the difficulty of overcoming the current situation. Brief glimmers of hope in Latin America remain, but these too are not without their own crises.

Where is there unalloyed hope? Not in Gaza, bombed to the Stone Age. Not in Syria or Iraq, nor the vast lands of the long war in the Great Lakes region of Africa. No hope in the favelas of Brazil nor in the bastis of India. None really in Detroit or Ferguson, none in the vastly expanded slums of Athens or the slums of Madrid.

Here the lights are kept low to hide the appalling obscenity of everyday life, the terrifying factories camouflaged in the slums that rely on a fragmented and desperate population. It is here, in these slums and these factories, that the world’s population “is battered slowly like pebbles into fortuitous shapes” (Auden).

These are the “factories” of twenty-first century globalization — poorly built shelters for a production process geared toward long working days, third-rate machines, and workers whose own lives are submitted to the imperatives of just-in-time production. Describing the factory regime in England during the nineteenth century, Karl Marx wrote:

But in its blind unrestrainable passion, its werewolf hunger for surplus labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. . . It attains this end by shortening the extent of the laborer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by reducing it of its fertility.

What produces poverty? Not the lack of property titles, or the lack of high growth rates or the lack of twenty-first century infrastructure. What produces poverty is a system of social production for private gain — in other words, capitalism. Capital superbly organizes all the hitherto slumbering forces of production into one effectively organized social process. The gentle time of the pre-capitalist era is thrust aside as capital condenses labor power into each second. Waste is forbidden, and rest is sin.

Capitalism — terrifying in its long-term social effects — is imperiled by its own contradictions. Crises emerge, and then get sorted out before the next crisis comes. But these crises do not bring capitalism to its knees, do not inaugurate a new order.

The protagonist for the transformation, even in the twenty-first century, remains the working class. Whether employed or not, this is the class that has no capital and must forage in the dark alleyways for livelihood. Sentiments of impossibility have turned us away from the possible history of the future.

This has to be shrugged off. It is more realistic to believe that a socialist alternative, rather than charity or World Bank policies, will make poverty history.