A certain Dr Jason Hickel wants to tell us that Bill Gates is all wet. Not only that he’s just wrong about the global decline in poverty in recent years. Because capitalism, colonialisation ‘n’ stuff, d’ye see?
— Bill Gates (@BillGates) 19 January 2019
Dr. Hickel tells us this is all wet:
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. 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.
Dr. Hickel is an idiot, or perhaps ignorant. At the top of the page of Max Roser’s presentation about poverty it says:
This entry is concerned with extreme poverty. The World Bank is the main source for global information on extreme poverty today and it sets the International Poverty Line. The poverty line was revised in 2015—since then, a person is considered to be in extreme poverty if they live on less than 1.90 international dollars (int.-$) per day. This poverty measurement is based on the monetary value of a person’s consumption.
The emphasis is in the original. Perhaps in the hope that Dr. Hickel will note it.
If we, as we do, measure consumption then it makes no difference the source of what is consumed. Sure, it could indeed be capitalist wages that then purchase the subsistence crusts. Or it could equally be those commons of land and forest which themselves produce that peasant diet leading to stunting through malnutrition. For we are measuring what people get to consume, not the source of it.
If we measure the value of consumption we are measuring the value of what people get to eat however it is produced or owned. And yes, it is mostly what people get to eat too. For at this level of poverty most income is indeed spent upon food – or, most labour spent extracting it from those commons.
That is, Hickel – we might want to dispense with the idea that he’s a qualified academic at this point – hasn’t the first clue of what is being measured nor how. Yet his ignorance is supposed to be sufficient to overturn the greatest story of this past 50 years, the progressive elimination of that ancient peasant destitution?