“All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
I’d like to take this opportunity to comment on an oldie but a goodie from the Indian environmentalist, Vandan Shiva. In her brief article for Odewire, “Two myths that keep the world poor“, Shiva tears apart the logic of Harvard economist and neoliberal (-feudal), economic “shock therapy” advocate Jeffrey Sachs with all the force one would expect from the God of destruction. It was in response to a book written by Sachs called The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities of Our Time, which featured all the nonsensical arguments that “liberal progressives” like to spout off in magazines and on television these days.
They proffer the same kind of fundamental myth that Nietzsche identified crawling through the bowels of modern religions such as Christianity – if one toils hard enough on Earth, and accepts one’s designated roles in society, he/she will be rewarded in Heaven. If that is God’s [Blankfein’s] given truth, then there is no need to radically alter the system or fight for justice/equality, right? Shiva first explains why global poverty is not a function of people being “left behind”, as if they had been ten minutes late to the train station, but rather of people being held up for nearly all their wealth/resources at gunpoint.
But, there is a problem with Sachs’ how-to-end poverty prescriptions. He simply doesn’t understand where poverty comes from. He seems to view it as the original sin. “A few generations ago, almost everybody was poor,” he writes, then adding: “The Industrial Revolution led to new riches, but much of the world was left far behind.”
This is a totally false history of poverty. The poor are not those who have been “left behind”; they are the ones who have been robbed. The wealth accumulated by Europe and North America are largely based on riches taken from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Without the destruction of India’s rich textile industry, without the takeover of the spice trade, without the genocide of the native American tribes, without African slavery, the Industrial Revolution would not have resulted in new riches for Europe or North America. It was this violent takeover of Third World resources and markets that created wealth in the North and poverty in the South.
Shiva introduces the inconvenient history that people like Sachs continue to ignore to this very day, as they demonize the millions of new people slipping into poverty every week and accuse them of not being productive, creative, innovative, responsible or hard-working enough. And perhaps there are elements of truth to it, but it is far from the whole story. That is exactly the dynamic we now see occurring between the EU politicians/bureaucrats, their media spin machines and the peripheral populations.
The Greeks are lazy, unproductive welfare queens, and they must be taught by Germany and their other Western neighbors how to start growing their economy again through a complete gutting of public safety nets, pensions and wage protections. This mentality is at the root of every policy being recommended and pursued by the EU, ECB and IMF. It is the reason why they not only have zero chance of working, but will inevitably make the situation worse for most people involved.
It is not a mentality that is just confined to the elite circles of academics and policymakers, though. Just tell the next person you meet that “economic growth” is not necessarily a solution to our systemic crises (assuming they are even aware of those), and is actually the problem in many ways, and see what kind of reaction you get. Shiva goes on to explain how this deeply-rooted mentality is based on two fundamental myths relating to “growth”.
First, the destruction of nature and of people’s ability to look after themselves are blamed not on industrial growth and economic colonialism, but on poor people themselves. Poverty, it is stated, causes environmental destruction.
The disease is then offered as a cure: further economic growth is supposed to solve the very problems of poverty and ecological decline that it gave rise to in the first place. This is the message at the heart of Sachs’ analysis.
The second myth is an assumption that if you consume what you produce, you do not really produce, at least not economically speaking. If I grow my own food, and do not sell it, then it doesn’t contribute to GDP, and therefore does not contribute towards “growth”.
People are perceived as “poor” if they eat food they have grown rather than commercially distributed junk foods sold by global agri-business. They are seen as poor if they live in self-built housing made from ecologically well-adapted materials like bamboo and mud rather than in cinder block or cement houses. They are seen as poor if they wear garments manufactured from handmade natural fibres rather than synthetics.
Yet sustenance living, which the wealthy West perceives as poverty, does not necessarily mean a low quality of life. On the contrary, by their very nature economies based on sustenance ensure a high quality of life—when measured in terms of access to good food and water, opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, robust social and cultural identity, and a sense of meaning in people’s lives. Because these poor don’t share in the perceived benefits of economic growth, however, they are portrayed as those “left behind”.
Indeed, the disease is continuously being offered as the cure right now. On the surface and in the spin rooms, they call it more “growth”, more credit availability, more “innovation”, etc., but, make no mistake, it is really more wealth extraction, more monopolization/centralization of industry and resources, more unproductive debt burdens, more environmental destruction, more slavery and more genocide. Only those with narrow, goal-seeked or malicious perspectives will fail to see how all of those things are extremely inter-connected.
The “war on poverty”, like the “war on drugs” or the “war on terror”, is simply another means of keeping people in an habitual system of poverty, disease and war through perception management (propaganda), skewed incentives, economic/physical coercion and structures of inter-dependency. In fact, it has helped ruin the one thing that “poor people” have used to find peace within their materially modest and increasingly uncertain lives – traditional customs/lifestyles structured around a rich natural ecology and environment.
On the other hand, people are poor if they have to purchase their basic needs at high prices no matter how much income they make. Take the case of India. Because of cheap food and fibre being dumped by developed nations and lessened trade protections enacted by the government, farm prices in India are tumbling, which means that the country’s peasants are losing $26 billion U.S. each year.
Unable to survive under these new economic conditions, many peasants are now poverty-stricken and thousands commit suicide each year. Elsewhere in the world, drinking water is privatised so that corporations can now profit to the tune of $1 trillion U.S. a year by selling an essential resource to the poor that was once free.
And the $50 billion U.S. of “aid” trickling North to South is but a tenth of the $500 billion being sucked in the other direction due to interest payments and other unjust mechanisms in the global economy imposed by the World Bank and the IMF.
If we are serious about ending poverty, we have to be serious about ending the systems that create poverty by robbing the poor of their common wealth, livelihoods and incomes. Before we can make poverty history, we need to get the history of poverty right. It’s not about how much wealthy nations can give, so much as how much less they can take.
Privatization and centralization of wealth/resources through all mechanisms available, ranging from “free trade” negotiations to fraud/manipulation, incarceration and military hostility, have been and continue to be the global imperatives of the status quo bankers, politicians, corporate executives, academics and pundits. What’s most frustrating is the way these people act like they are simply trying to help lift world’s populations into some poverty-less utopia through the application of a well-established and legitimate science. That is the quintessence of power shaping prevailing interpretation, because nothing could be further from the truth.
The rhetoric from “respected economists” like Jeffrey Sachs has only escalated since Shiva wrote this article in 2007 and the onset of the global financial crisis, despite the latter being a direct and patently obvious effect of their mentality and their shocking policies. Whether we are talking about the governments of Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy, Merkel, etc., it doesn’t matter. They all fall under the spell of this false science and dangerous mentality in very important ways.
At this point in time, we can only hope that their myths and corresponding policies destroy themselves faster than they can impoverish and subjugate increasing portions of the global population to concentrated, private interests. And before they can take Planet Earth and officially decree it as the filthy landfill of our Solar System. Neitzsche may or may not have been right about Christianity, but his diagnosis was spot on for our modern mythical cults of trade/financial liberalization and never-ending economic growth.
Christianity “…turned every value into an disvalue, every truth into a lie… it created distress in order to eternalize itself.”It has “…contempt for every good and honest instinct… and its Beyond is its will to negate every reality…” Nietzsche believed that Christianity is a conspiracy “…against health, beauty, whatever has turned out well, courage, intellect, goodness of the soul, against life itself.