Neoliberals love to quote the World Bank’s rosy statistics about capitalism lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. Unfortunately, those statistics are skewed and manipulated to the point of outright prevarication, as Seth Donnelly demonstrates in his new book, “The Lie of Global Prosperity.” He quotes a breathless World Bank press release, “soon 90 percent of the world’s population will live on $1.90 a day or more.” No matter that translated into local currency at local prices, in many places that $1.90 per day purchases the equivalent of 30 cents a day or that $1.90 per day means the pauperization of billions – for as Donnelly shows, a truer metric of avoiding desperate poverty is over $5 per day. If that far more honest measure is applied, 80 percent of South Asians and sub-Saharan Africans are, Donnelly explains, horribly impoverished. Even more disturbing, achieving a 70-year life expectancy requires $7.40 a day, something the world’s cold and pampered capitalists will certainly not shell out or even allow for the billions of wretchedly poor.
Best exemplifying the World Bank’s ideologically biased poverty measures – biased to glorify capitalism – is how it uses statistics about China. “The free health care, education and food that people received in Mao’s China do not enter into the calculation. As a result, Chinese people, who achieved new levels of food security and saw their life expectancy double in this [Mao’s] period were found to be on the whole ‘extremely poor’…the Chinese only ceased to be ‘extremely poor’ once they lost their collective lands, food rations and medical care and began making iphones and other export goods under atrocious conditions.”
When there are too many destitute people to conceal, neoliberal UN organizations and the World Bank simply erase them. “The World Bank statistically elevated by more than 100 percent the dollar incomes of Haitians, thereby artificially reducing poverty” in 2016, Donnelly writes. He then points to the 836 million Indians who live on fifty cents a day, in conditions that are “utterly deplorable.” But creative statistics disappear poverty by underestimating food costs for the poor. These costs soar higher in poor countries than rich ones due to neoliberal trade pacts that harm Third World agriculture. Donnelly attributes food price gouging in the Third World to agribusiness’ death grip on the world food system.
That the World Bank, UN groups and magazines like the “Economist” fabricate statistics to lie about poverty should surprise no one. After all, as Donnelly reports, the World Bank assumes that economic growth automatically reduces poverty. But we can put that myth to rest, given that the majority of all people live on about $3 a day, according to a Pew expert Connelly cites. Globally, 4.3 billion or 60 percent of humankind lives below $5 per day. Donnelly quotes a Pew report that 71 percent of the world population is low income, “with most living in severe poverty.” Capitalism has deracinated and dispossessed hundreds of millions, if not billions of the rural poor, and packed them like sardines into shanty-towns in cities in the Global South, as Mike Davis documented in his indispensible work, “Planet of Slums.” As many on the left have observed, for most people on earth, capitalism has been an unmitigated disaster.
Most deceptive, indeed devious, is the neoliberal claim of an ascendant middle class. The Pew report defines this as living on between $10 and $20 per day. From 2001 to 2011, this middle income population doubled to 783 million, a fact much ballyhooed by capitalism’s boosters. But “this was only half the increase…of those living between $2 and$10 per day. By 2011, the global middle class represented only 13 percent of the world population.” Most of this increase occurred in China, very, very little in India, Africa, Southeast Asia or Central America. Donnelly also argues that the term “middle class” misleads. Living on $10 to $20 per day is “more like livening on anywhere between $3 and $7, converted to local currencies [and paying local food prices]. This is far below the U.S. poverty line of $15.77 per person per day.” So basically much of the world’s so-called middle class is actually poor.
Donnelly invokes Via Campesina, which organizes peasant farmers, the Haitian Fanmi Lavalas associated with the heroic liberation theologian Jean Bertrand Aristide – twice elected president in Haiti and twice overthrown in U.S.-backed coups – the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, Black Lives matter and the Standing Rock Sioux resistance, as correct responses to capitalism’s crimes. Donnelly knows quite well that the systematic global plunder called capitalism “cannot be tamed to make it either sustainable or humanely acceptable.” More movements are needed, especially now that in addition to pauperizing billions through obscene inequality, unchecked fossil capitalism, big money industrial agriculture, a planet-heating, meat-based diet and the wildly destructive, incessant pouring of concrete threaten the habitability of earth. Capitalism causes ecocide, and endless growth is cancer, as is already visible with extreme weather. Anti-capitalists must illuminate the link between destitution and a poisoned world and must refute the lie that over-population is why our world is dying. The citizens of Bangladesh, drowning in climate-altered floods, have a miniscule carbon footprint compared, say, to the U.S. military. We live in the Capitalocene, not the Anthropocene. Blame where blame is due.
And we better dismantle capitalism, before it dismantles us.