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The romantic idea of a plentiful past is pure fantasy

The Economist

On January 29, the Guardian ran a column that sparked an interesting debate on two continents. Anthropologist Jason Hickel from the University of London rejected the generally-accepted estimate of reduction in absolute poverty “from 94 percent in 1820 to only 10 percent today.” In “Bill Gates says poverty is decreasing. He couldn’t be more wrong,” Hickel critiqued academics like Oxford’s Max Roser and Harvard’s Steven Pinker, journalists, like Nick Kristof from The New York Times and philanthropists, including Gates, for suggesting that the “global extension of free-market capitalism has been great for everyone”.

Pinker and Roser have responded, and so in turn has Hickel.

Hickel’s critique of the claim that absolute poverty in the world has drastically declined over the last 200 years rests on his belief that monetary income overestimates poverty in the past, when people enjoyed a lot of non-monetary benefits “from abundant commons” (more on that below) and underestimates poverty today. Incremental growth of income at the bottom of the global income ladder (the absolute poverty level is set at $1.90 per person per day), Hickel contends, falls far short of what’s needed for human flourishing. As such, he prefers a poverty measure of at least $7.40 per person per day.

As Hickel put it:

What Roser’s 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… [Roser’s] 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… In other words, Roser’s 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. Gates’s favourite infographic takes the violence of colonisation and repackages it as a happy story of progress.

I shall leave the mixed legacy of colonialism for another day. For now, let me suggest that many ex-colonies, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Botswana and Singapore, and ex-poor countries, including China, Chile, Mexico, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, have done rather well – a point emphasised by a number of conservative critics of globalisation, who believe that it is the Western worker who is being shafted by international capitalism.

CapX editor Oliver Wiseman has rightly taken issue with Hickel’s disingenuous use of statistics to support his pessimistic view of the world, while Joe Hasell and Max Roser have written about how historians calculate poverty in previous centuries.

I wish to focus instead on Hickel’s assertion that people in the past didn’t need money “in order to live well”. In fact, lives of ordinary Western Europeans prior to the Industrial Revolution were dismal and fully in accord with Roser’s definition of “absolute poverty.” Put differently, poverty was widespread and it was precisely the onset of industrialisation and global trade that Hickel bemoans, which led to poverty alleviation first in the West and then in the Rest.

There is perhaps no greater symbol of early industrialisation and the break with Western Europe’s not-so-bucolic agricultural past than William Blake’s “dark satanic mills”.

The main products of these mills (i.e., buildings housing spinning or weaving machinery for the production of yarn or cloth from cotton) were easily washable cotton clothes and underclothes. That was revolutionary. In his book Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy 1000-1700, Carlo Cipolla noted:

In pre-industrial Europe, the purchase of a garment or the cloth for a garment remained a luxury the common people could only afford a few times in their lives. One of the main preoccupations of hospital administration was to ensure that the clothes of the deceased should not be usurped but should be given to lawful inheritors. During epidemics of plague, the town authorities had to struggle to confiscate the clothes of the dead and to burn them: people waited for others to die so as to take over their clothes – which generally had the effect of spreading the epidemic.

Up to the 19th century, poor people wore woollen clothes and underclothes, which itch and do not wash easily. That practice or, to be more precise, necessity, exacerbated the across-the-board problem of poor hygiene. Lest we forget, most people lived and slept with their domestic animals, including chickens, cows and pigs (to guard the latter from thieves and predators). Eggs, milk and occasional meat enriched the usually bland diet of bread, and animal waste was needed to fertilise crops. The dangers inherent in using waste as fertiliser were compounded by the fact that people seldom washed their hands or clothes. That led to epidemics, and contributed to sky-high mortality rates among our ancestors.

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