An everyday story of coerced proletarianisation

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

There was an (inadvertently) entertaining article in the Guardian the other week from a woke bloke in a UK university complaining about how poverty stats are manipulated and misinterpreted.  There were lots of sloping graphs to grab our attention but it was these paragraphs I was struck by:

"What [the] numbers actually reveal is that the world went from a situation where most of humanity had no need of money at all to one where today most of humanity struggles to survive on extremely small amounts of money. The graph casts this as a decline in poverty, but in reality what was going on was a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labour system, during the enclosure movements in Europe and the colonisation of the global south.

Prior to colonisation, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity. They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well – so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor. This way of life was violently destroyed by colonisers who forced people off the land and into European-owned mines, factories and plantations, where they were paid paltry wages for work they never wanted to do in the first place.

In other words, [the] graph illustrates a story of coerced proletarianisation. It is not at all clear that this represents an improvement in people’s lives, as in most cases we know that the new income people earned from wages didn’t come anywhere close to compensating for their loss of land and resources, which were of course gobbled up by colonisers."

and so on ... .  This is such ********.

Happily no one's going to vote for a party advocating subsistence (the reason why in the prefix).  This serves to remind us that back in the good old days when relative poverty was forced on people by a rich and violent elite no one voted for, no one was able to vote for anything.

There's more to say on this nonsense, but I can't be bothered.  Meanwhile, let's hear it for sanitation, contraception, vaccination, analgesics, anaesthetics and antibiotics.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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  • I don't think what he's saying is total nonsense Bill and he's not advocating for subsistence; certainly not in its modern guise. The more important point Hickel makes - and it is pretty convincing when you dig into it - is that the international poverty line is a woefully low ... here's another quote from the same article:

    "But that’s not all that’s wrong here. The trend that the graph depicts is based on a poverty line of $1.90 (£1.44) per day, which is the equivalent of what $1.90 could buy in the US in 2011. It’s obscenely low by any standard, and we now have piles of evidence that people living just above this line have terrible levels of malnutrition and mortality. Earning $2 per day doesn’t mean that you’re somehow suddenly free of extreme poverty. Not by a long shot.

    Scholars have been calling for a more reasonable poverty line for many years. Most agree that people need a minimum of about $7.40 per day to achieve basic nutrition and normal human life expectancy, plus a half-decent chance of seeing their kids survive their fifth birthday. And many scholars, including Harvard economist Lant Pritchett, insist that the poverty line should be set even higher, at $10 to $15 per day.

    So what happens if we measure global poverty at the low end of this more realistic spectrum – $7.40 per day, to be extra conservative? Well, we see that the number of people living under this line has increased dramatically since measurements began in 1981, reaching some 4.2 billion people today. Suddenly the happy Davos narrative melts away."

    The only way one can defend the Our World In Data 'Extreme Poverty' graph is to defend the $1.90 poverty line. Bill Gates, Steven Pinker et. al. are determined to do this, but it needs a lot of critique, as ever there are lies, damn lies and statistics.

    There's more from Hickel on this here:

  • Bill Gates and his infographic are spot on about how life has improved but this improvement has had the unintended consequence of increasing the trajectory of human pressure on the natural environment to an unsustainable level. Unintended consequences of demographic and economic growth are hard to portray in infographics, especially to the Davos glitterati. Perhaps the Seneca Curve is one useful attempt -