presented on April 14, 2012, as part of a joint Occupy/Justice Action Ministries panel discussion on poverty entitled “The Poor Can No Longer Afford the Rich.” [for my previous pieces of public scholarship i/r/t Occupy, look to Nightmares and Ghost Stories]
In our modern world, poverty is not natural, but the result of institutions that are set up to benefit a few at the expense of the many. Relief efforts are currently failing because they do not address the root causes of poverty. These causes are not mystical or hard to identify, as the most important ones are global property law, international debt, unfair trade, top-down privatization programs, corporate tax shelters, the those problems are social and political. Furthermore, there is a history to these problems, and poverty will not be addressed until this history is reversed.
The colonial conquest of the New World, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, by European powers set up the structure of our current economic system.
History books have done a good job depicting the brutality of this period. In many places, Europeans wiped out 99% of the native populations. In places where the natives did survive, many of them were captured and made to do hard labor. In Potosi, Bolivia, for instance, native Bolivians were forced to work silver mines that snaked deep into the earth. So many miners died, that a popular saying goes “enough silver was taken from the mine in Potosi to build a bridge to Madrid, Spain, and if the bones of the dead miners were pulled from the bowels of the mine, one could build a bridge all the way back.”
Inside America, the deepest legacy of this colonial economic structure is an astronomical wealth gap between whites and blacks. The number to remember is 8%. For two-hundred years, when you stack up the average free black to the average white, the black only has 8% the wealth of the white. The number goes up, sometimes to 15%, and it goes down, like after the 2008 financial crisis, the average black household lost over half their collected wealth.
Abroad, the numbers are even more stark. The rich/poor gap has widened between both the global rich and the global poor. The ratio between the richest 20% and poorest 20% people was 30 to 1 in 1965, 41 to 1 in 1980, 60 to 1 in 1990, and 90 to 1 in 1997. The gap has also widened between the affluent countries and the poor countries. The ratio between the richest and poorest countries was 3 to 1 in 1820, 11 to 1 in 1913, 35 to 1 in 1950, 44 to 1 in 1973, and 72 to 1 in 1992.
Partly, this is because colonialism locked the status of certain countries in place. So, even as countries in the Americas, Africa, and Asia were able to win political independence from European colonial powers, they were not freed of colonial economic obligations. The most notable example is Haiti, site of the world’s first successful slave revolution. To punish Haiti for winning the war, France demanded that the Haitians had to pay reparations to their oppressors, French slaveholders, for loss of profit. Haiti has been the poorest nation in the Americas ever since.
One-by-one, nations who fought hard to win against European domination became economically indebted to their oppressors in return for their independence. The countries of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, currently fund European development to the tune of $25,000 per minute, in loan repayments.
ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM
Given that few of us are influential policy makers, I would like to propose a more unconventional approach to addressing poverty. In particular, it addresses the essence of our lives as social and political beings: emotion.
Three basic human emotions motivate the current response to poverty. They are greed, fear, and pity.
Let me explain each one, beginning with greed.
Most of us try to consciously avoid being greedy. We offer to watch our neighbor’s kids, at the dinner table we let others go first, and we may even work jobs that pay less but feel more fulfilling. Yet, the prevailing economic theories presume that everyone acts greedy when it comes to money. And so goes the models behind policies of poverty alleviation: they appeal to people’s bald self-interest.
Fear is the next emotion.
Fear may be the most primal of human emotions, and it is the emotion most played by governments. Be afraid of “so-and-so”, they say, and we are. Economics has taken fear to a new level by categorizing things according to risk. Either risk for the investors, risk to the proprietors, or risk to the economy itself. Poverty relief even makes sense to these fearful individuals, because second to being afraid of losing their money and becoming a poor person, they are afraid of poor people themselves. Poverty relief for them, is insurance to keep people from threatening them or their investments.
And the last emotion is pity.
Pity is probably the most disgusting of human emotions. It is more self-serving than greed, and more patronizing than fear. When humans act out of pity, it is rarely for the benefit of the other person, but mostly to feel the rush of “being a good person.” As Oscar Wilde once wrote of the ‘man of great conscience':
“They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.
But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised … charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins.”
Rather than denouncing the “multitude of sins” found in current poverty alleviation found in micro-loans meant to play to one’s sense selfishness (what Americans entrepreneurship) or the indignities of charity drives like Live 8, let me suggest a few interesting avenues to alleviate poverty today.
1) solidarity economics
There is a growing variety of alternative economic approaches that fall under the umbrella title “solidarity economics.” They all follow the basic principle of cooperation rather than competition, and work to slowly transform the basic structure of economic activity without trying to immediately subvert it. You all have heard of the most famous form of solidarity economics, which goes under the name “fair trade.”
In addition, to fair trade, there has been a rising tide of cooperatives for working, buying, and selling; like cooperatively owned businesses, food coops, and farmers coops. In fact, the amount of worker-owned coops in the US has grown steadily, and a coop in Spain that employs over 80,000 workers has been around since 1956.
Even more common are small community-absed services where little-to-no money is exchanged. In some cases while no money is exchanged, they still measured work by labor, where anyone’s hour is worth the same as anyone else’s (MOMS SHARE), or community services. The general principles are “share, swap, barter” for collective living situations, toll-shares and barter clubs for clothing and consumables, and community resources like gardens and community-supported agriculture.
The leading criticism of this approach is that these communities are motivated primarily by fear, and in particular, fear of the other. that it creates small self-enclosed communities. For this approach to be truly successful, they have to grow from small sectors into a global network. Because, relocalized communities quickly become shelters for the residents, blocking out global problems but also global allies. Or to say it another way, how can we keep these small communities from being groups of people who have benefited from centuries of colonialism that have “cashed out” and secured themselves from dealing with the problems that face the rest of the world. [FEAR]
I therefore propose the “1 billion person” test. There are currently 1 billion people living in global slums, and there are currently 1 billion unemployed people. Any solution we come up to help ourselves must in some way also help those 1 billion people (and I don’t just mean the pitiful ‘we donate 1% of our proceeds to poverty relief”). If our solutions doesn’t bind us closer to those 1 billion people, then we are acting from positions of greed.
Ultimately, I think the 1 billlion test brings us to my most radical position. Rather than putting more of us to work (because, as Nietzsche says, “there’s no better police than work,” and most of us work too hard anyway), we should create a plan to free more and more of us from work. Only when humans live accordingly to truly free association and have no obligation to work will we triumph over pity and have created a form of freedom worth fighting for.
2) reparations & debt forgiveness
The historical imbalance left over from colonialism is making the world more unequal by the day. And, just as solidarity economics won’t work if only small groups do it, debt forgiveness, or worse yet, charity programs, are ineffective unless they wipe the slate clean.
Strangely enough, or less strange to those faith-based folks in the audience, the best example of debt forgiveness is from biblical jubilees. According to the historical materials, there are routine cycles of forgiveness, where no matter how bad your crime, debtors records gets wiped free every 7-15 years.
International debt forgiveness has been on the agenda many times before, and is being addressed piece-by-piece, but remains a low priority on the international agenda. Let’s look to Jubilee/ Jubilee 2000 (“millennium development goals”). Unfortunately, these initiatives are pursued as the grossed example of “greed” on the international scene. Countries looking to have their debts forgiven are seen as developmentally disabled countries that have had their growth stunted because they have fallen behind the United State and Europe. This narcissism, which assumes that the rest of the nations of the world will succeed if they look like us, is assured by putting massive restrictions on nations looking to have their debt forgiven, designed to always keep the rich nations on top.
3) reconsideration of property itself
Even if the slate is wiped clean, centuries of privation have upset the balance. The concentration of wealth and land has disrupted long-standing norms of reciprocity, ripping apart the social fabric of most of the world, replacing society with corporate and state-owned monopolies. Even if those monopolies forgive the rest of our debts, we would still exist as a large global class of the dispossessed.
I therefore propose a rethinking of property itself, and the social relations that they endanger. To begin, consider the three main versions of property, private, public, common. I think we all know what private property is. Public property is where resources are controlled by a state or institution that grants general access to a “public,” but with rules, and restrictions, and is still constituted on the basis of scarcity, which has to be carefully managed. Lastly, common property is property that is accessible to all and virtually inexhaustible. This may appear utopian, but there is an easy example. The human faculty of communication is held in common. No matter how much language is censored or trademarked, we find a way to use communication without exhausting to it, and actually adding to it in every instance of use. Following this model, we need to find out how to constitute our other social relations on the basis of a Common. It may begin with land reform, but it needs to end with detaching access from contribution, and making the whole basis of society on something Common.
Thank you for having me.