POVERTY has been in human discourse for long. From Aristotle to St Thomas Aquinas to Machiavelli to David Hume to Hernando de Soto to the World Bank to local level NGOs, poverty is an issue of impassioned discussion.
‘“Poverty” on a global scale was discovered after the Second World War; before 1940 it was not an issue.’ (‘The development of poverty’, New Internationalist, issue 232, June 5, 1992)
The mainstream ‘inveighs’ poverty. It is ‘concerned’ with the mendicants. ‘A discourse on poverty and the necessity of reducing its magnitude, if not eradicating it’, writes Samir Amin, ‘has become fashionable today.’ (‘World Poverty, Pauperization and Capital Accumulation’, Monthly Review, Vol 55, Issue 5, October 2003)
However, all the mainstream discussions ultimately follow an escape route: ‘It is a discourse of charity, […] which […] does not seek to understand the economic and social mechanisms that generate poverty […].’ (ibid) Most of the discussions premise poverty as a policy matter or/and, a phenomenon without any source — an exercise with mainstream scholarship serving creators of poverty — as if poverty itself is the alpha and omega.
‘Conventional vulgar economic theory avoids the real questions that are posed by the expansion of capitalism. [….] Poverty can then only be explained by causes decreed to be outside of economic logic, such as population growth or policy errors. The relation of poverty to the very process of accumulation is dismissed by conventional economic theory.’ (ibid) However, ‘[o]ne hundred and fifty years ago, Marx initiated an analysis of the mechanisms behind this link, which has hardly been pursued since then — and scarcely at all on a global scale.’ (ibid)
The mainstream refuses to look at poverty’s class connections and a part of the mainstream identifies aspects of the poor’s life in a style that appears to be the cause of poverty, which is a fallacy. Questioning the mainstream’s analysis of poverty unveils its incomplete analysis/finding.
The existence of poverty on a global scale is parallel to capital’s worldwide accumulation. It is, Samir Amin finds, ‘imperialist by nature.’ (ibid) The mainstream negates this fact — imperialist. It feels shy seeing imperialism.
‘[C]apitalism has always reproduced widespread poverty as the other side of profits […].’ (Richard D Wolff, ‘Capitalism and Poverty’, MR Online, October 11, 2011) The mainstream does not look at profit while ‘investigating’ poverty.
‘Deepening poverty has multiple causes, but the capitalist economic system is major among them. [….] Poverty is one result of […] capitalist type of enterprise organization. [….] [C]orporate actions generate rising poverty as the other side of rising profits.’ (ibid) The mainstream declines looking at capitalism and capitalist organisations while ‘enquiring’ poverty.
‘Wealth in a capitalist economy is unevenly divided […] Wealth inequality in a market economy must, again as a consequence of the nature of the system, generate income inequality. [….] Inequality in income and wealth […] are a profound contradiction of the capitalist mode of production.’ (Michael D Yates, ‘Poverty and Inequality in the Global Economy’, Monthly Review, Vol 55, issue 9, February, 2004) The mainstream turns blind to the contradiction although that is an approach of finding the cause of poverty.
There are the property and property rights questions in the condemned cottage of poverty. ‘The links between poverty and (lack of) property rights are pervasive.’ (Ruth Meinzen-Dick, ‘Property Rights for Poverty Reduction?’, DESA working paper No 91, December 2009, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, New York) The mainstream does not love to look at the issues.
With property and property rights enters the power relation question. ‘It would be naïve to attempt any reform of property rights, especially those intended to help the poor, without dealing with power relations.’ (ibid) And, reforming property rights is related to the poverty-question. But the mainstream never treads into these areas while ‘wetting’ its brows for ‘alleviating/eradicating’ poverty.
Hernando de Soto, a world-famous mainstream economist, finds: Much of the poor’s marginalisation in the developing and former communist nations comes from their inability to benefit from the effects that formal property provides. But, what about the poor in countries considered rich and developed, and with legal arrangements for flourishing of the rich? No answer? However, Hernando de Soto, the economist loved by the Bretton Woods institutions, cites Fernand Braudel, the French historian, who found it a great mystery that capitalism serves only a privileged few today. The answer to the question they search: Why was it that a significant rate of capital formation was possible only in certain sectors and not in the whole market economy of the time? Hernando de Soto, the economist loved by a number of rightist presidents including Peru’s former president Fujimori who fled his country to escape prison terms on charges of corruption and human rights violations including murder, finds the answer: Restricted access to formal property. They admit: Capital owners are a tiny minority while the great majority of people cannot get the fruits of their labour; and capitalism turns into a private club, open to a privileged few. The famous economist finds the ‘solution’ to the problem: Capitalist apartheid will continue until we come to terms with the critical flaw in many countries’ legal and political systems that prevent the majority from entering the formal property system. Hernando does not look at the class character of legal and political systems while he writes all these in The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (Basic Books, New York, and Bantam Press/Random House, London, 2000), and Fernand Braudel mentions the mystery in The Wheels of Commerce (Harper and Row, New York, 1982). So, to them, there is property eternal, and there is the ‘mystery’.
Nevertheless, instead of gazing at the said ‘mystery’, long before Hernando, Tolstoy pointed out property’s power: ‘States and governments intrigue, make wars, for the sake of property [….] [C]ourts of justice and police protect property; penal servitude, prisons, all the terrors of so-called punishments – all is done for the sake of property.’ (Leo Tolstoy, What is to be done?, Thomas Y Crowell and Company, New York, 1899, cited in Laura S Underkuffler, The Idea of Property: Its Meaning and Power, Oxford University Press, New York, 2003; Tolstoy’s book also appeared as What to Do?) This power of property — ‘for the sake of property’ — produces poverty.
Referring to James W Ely, Jr’s The Guardian of Every Other Right: A Constitutional History of Property Rights (Oxford University Press, New York, 1992), Morton J Horwitz’s The Transformation of American Law 1780-1860 (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, 1977), and Robert M Cover’s Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process (Yale University press, New Haven, Conn., US, 1975), Laura S Underkuffler points out in The Idea of Property…: ‘Property’s place in the vortex of contentious social and political issues is, of course, nothing new.’ As an example, Laura Underkuffler cites that the US government’s role in the creation or abrogation of private property rights has been a source of recurrent social and political conflict. ‘Revolutionary-era debtor relief laws, early nineteenth-century legislative grants of private monopolistic and condemnatory powers, the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War, and other government acts generated bitter rhetorical and political debate about the nature, extent, and sanctity of claimed individual rights to private property.’ (ibid) Property is powerful — serves and shapes, dominates and demolishes many in opposite class camps.
‘[P]rivate ownership […] establishes a position of legal authority, allowing for exclusive, non-reviewable decision-making authority to govern private relations with respect to things. [….] Like federalism, [private ownership] is particular political strategy […]’ (Larissa Katz, ‘Property’s Sovereignty’, Theoretical Inquiries in Law, Vol 18:299, 2017) This political strategy is present in all lands with varying forms and appearances reflecting class power equation.
Without power, the political strategy is useless. So, power is created, enacted, executed — an unadulterated coercion. ‘[P]roperty is […] rightly secured and protected by the law’s coercive powers.’ (Ernest J Weinrib, ‘Poverty and Property in Kant’s System of Rights’, Notre Dame Law Review, Vol 78, Issue 3)
These happen in societies with classes: ‘[S]ocieties characterised by profound hierarchies of citizenship, in which identities are woven deep into existing structures of power and wealth and are hardened in the furnace of violence itself.’ (Robin Luckham, ‘Whose violence, whose security? Can violence reduction and security work for poor, excluded and vulnerable people?’, Peacebuilding, Vol 5, Issue 2, 2017)
The mainstream snubs these questions while dissecting poverty. But the basic questions deny dying, among which there is the question of owner and worker as there is poverty.
‘What then sustains the growing inequality both among nations and within nations is the rising power of the owners and the declining power of the workers (and in poor countries, of the peasants, as well). [….] (Michael D Yates, op cit) The mainstream refuses to look at this owner-worker power equation.
Connections to imperialist world markets are there; and the markets’ ‘wise’ legs cruelly kick many — millions of millions — to the dungeon of poverty.
There is loot, in legalised form, by the lords of capital in continents.
‘Capital Flight From Africa: Updated Methodology and New Estimates’ (Leonce Ndikumana and James K Boyce, June 1, 2018), a report by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, examined capital flight from 30 African countries between 1970 and 2015 and documented losses of approximately $1.4 trillion over the 46–year period ($1.8 trillion, if lost interest is taken into account). This amount far outweighs both the stock of debt owed by these countries as of 2015 ($496.9 billion), as well as the combined amount of foreign aid all of the countries received over this period ($991.8 billion).
Studies by the African Union find: Giant corporations loot annually more than $150b from Africa; and it is through tax avoidance and capital flight. The poverty-stricken continent is net creditor to the rest of the world. Around 30 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s annual GDP has been moved to secretive tax havens. Tax Justice Network for Africa’s first coordinator Alvin Mosioma said: The World Bank and IMF have not researched capital flight and tax, and these have not been included in poverty debate. African governments are missing out in increasing tax and royalties and, in some cases, receiving less revenue from mining companies than before. Studies by the Christian Aid find: Although production of copper, gold, nickel and platinum soars, Tanzania’s revenue from gold fell by nearly a third once the rise in prices were factored in, Zambia’s revenues from copper halve. The IMF’s pressure to privatise industries on advantageous terms is responsible for the shortfall. There are the so-called transfer pricing techniques, actually profit-laundering, by giant firms. There is the corrupt officials’ skilled performance: money siphoned out. Cross-border dirty money flow is conservatively estimated at $1 trillion annually. The Observer (UK) found in 2005: The stock of private wealth held in tax havens is $11.5 trillion. The IMF and the World Bank pressured Ghana and Nigeria to reduce corporate taxes; many African countries were forced to impose VAT on fuel that compelled millions of poor to abandon gas stoves. (‘Western bankers and lawyers “rob Africa of $150bn every year”’, The Guardian, January 21, 2007) These acts and performances contribute to poverty. And this is not only an African story; it is a story in all continents.
There are imperialist wars — direct, engineered and proxy. Citing Andreas Krieg and Jean-Marc Rickli’s ‘Surrogate warfare: The art of war in the 21st century?’ in Defence Studies (January 2018) the International Committee of the Red Cross’s report ‘The Roots of Restraint in War’, (December 2018 Geneva) said: ‘[S]everal powerful States are increasingly outsourcing warfare to human and technological “surrogates”.’ These wars take toll that includes poverty.
The mainstream poverty scientists do not look at property’s all dimensions including space, time, actors and classes while tiring their mental muscles to ‘eradicate’ poverty. Is it wickedness? They know best.
Despite the fact that private property is a macro issue and it composes a system with class power manifested in political power the mainstream often discusses poverty by considering private property as a single unit — one piece of land, a manufacturing plant, capital in control of an individual, a single property owner instead of the system of private property, a single local level village market place, a group of money lenders, a single poor person, a poor family’s/a group of poor families’ consumption. Once, cunningly, ‘indolence’ of the poor was blamed for their beggar-like condition — also, a single ‘analysis’.
Private property is finite, but its power is infinite until confronted in any of many ways. Private property has class power including presumptive, visceral and predictive, which takes sovereign form that the mainstream disregards.
Capital owns/commands political system, which has system-generated affects. The system facilitates exploitation, of labour and of nature. Its corollary is creation/facilitation of poverty — necessitousness emerges.
The issues/aspects mentioned above are connected to classes, systems of social production and social economy, means of production, social division of labour, possession of capital. Control/share and mode of acquiring of social wealth determine class connections of poverty — who creates and who bears the brunt. There is, as Marx writes, ‘the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation’ — ‘[t]he more extensive, finally, the lazarus-layers of the working-class, and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism.’ (Capital, Vol I, Progress Publishers, Moscow, erstwhile USSR, 1977)
Poverty is connected to antagonistic classes: the exploited and the exploiters. It is a two-way connection: the exploiting classes play the primary role, in certain historically determined conditions, as they dominate the mode of production; and, the exploited classes have primary role while these classes fight out poverty after having control of a political system. The mainstream does not look into these class connections while it ‘exhausts’ itself ‘researching and fighting out’ poverty. Because, poverty’s origin — the exploiting classes that produce poverty — has to be questioned if class connections of poverty are looked into.
Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.
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