Anthropologist and author Jason Hickel swiftly disabused readers of a narrative offered by Microsoft founder Bill Gates this week, rejecting the billionaire’s statement on Twitter that “people underestimate just how much life has improved over the last two centuries.”
The idea that the free-market capitalism has grown while solving the crisis of extreme poverty around the world may be tempting for some to embrace, Hickel wrote in the Guardian—but it is “completely wrong.”
Ahead of his appearance at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Gates shared an infographic on Twitter claiming to show that extreme global poverty has plummeted since 1820, with 94 percent living in poverty 200 years ago compared with just 10 percent today.
— Bill Gates (@BillGates) January 19, 2019
In reality, Hickel wrote, people simply needed relatively little money to survive and thrive in 1820.
The global population as a whole hasn’t gained more wealth in the last 200 years, he wrote—instead, “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,” with much of the world having endured “a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labor system.”
As European colonizers invaded the global south, Hickel added, millions lost control of their land and were forced “into European-owned mines, factories, and plantations, where they were paid paltry wages for work they never wanted to do in the first place”—all for the benefit of the rich.
Roser and Gates also promote what Hickel sees as an unrealistic view of true poverty, basing the infographic on an understanding of the global poverty line as living on $1.90 per day.
This poverty line is “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,” wrote Hickel, leading many economists to recommend a poverty line of at least $7.40 per day.
On Twitter, Hickel suggested Gates would likely show less enthusiasm for the number of people subsisting on $1.90 per day if he had experienced such poverty in today’s economy—or anything close to it—himself.
New rule: If you defend a poverty line you should be willing to live on it. Lookin' at you, Bill.
— Jason Hickel (@jasonhickel) January 31, 2019
Hickel’s analysis is far more in line with recent findings on poverty than the graphic shared by Gates and developed by Max Roser of Our World in Data. In recent months U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Philip Alston has found that even in wealthy countries like the U.S. and Great Britain, “punitive” neoliberal policies have driven rising income inequality and pushed the poor to near “ruination.”
Still, the notion that poverty levels have plummeted under free-market capitalism—the same economic system which has allowed just 26 billionaires to amass as much wealth as the 3.8 billion poorest people in the world—has also been promoted by other wealthy frequent Davos attendees including the musician Bono and author Steven Pinker. On Twitter, Hickel accused Bono of latching on to a convenient theory for those who have benefited immensely from capitalism while much of the world is left behind.
Ummm… no. What you really mean is that capitalism has given you more wealth than any other political philosophy.
Davos has become one big exercise in rich white men mansplaining extreme inequality to the rest of the world. https://t.co/OZ7PnlINq2
— Jason Hickel (@jasonhickel) January 25, 2019
“Our world is richer than ever before, but virtually all of it is being captured by a small elite,” Hickel wrote. “Only five percent of all new income from global growth trickles down to the poorest 60 percent—and yet they are the people who produce most of the food and goods that the world consumes, toiling away in those factories, plantations and mines to which they were condemned 200 years ago. It is madness—and no amount of mansplaining from billionaires will be adequate to justify it.”
How Facebook makes money when people are slaughtered
The National Rifle Association nearly doubled its spending on pro-gun Facebook propaganda for three weeks after the mass shootings last month in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, according to analytics provided to The Intercept.The social advertising surge began just one day after the Aug. 3 El Paso massacre, which left 22 people dead, and on the same day as the Dayton killings, which took 10 lives. At one point in this period, the NRA was spending $29,000 on a day’s worth of Facebook ads, nearly four times as much as before the shootings, according to Pathmatics, a company that monitors online advertising spending. The ad spending was conducted through the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, which, in the four weeks before the shootings, spent on average just over $9,400 a day on Facebook ads.Between Aug. 4 and Aug. 25, the institute spent around $360,000 on Facebook — roughly $16,500 per day — reaching a peak of over $29,000 on Aug. 18, according to Pathmatics, which said that it gathered this data from a panel of hundreds of thousands of Facebook users who opt in to automatically share information about the ads they’re shown. Altogether, the ads bought in this period were viewed tens of millions of times, the analytics firm estimated. “The NRA’s ad spend has spiked significantly, which isn’t surprising for an organization in the midst of a reputation battle and crisis,” Pathmatics CEO Gabe Gottlieb said.
Is a strange Twitter glitch censoring the left?
The Working Families Party, a New York-based progressive political party, has a reputation befitting its name as a left-populist political organization. So when the organization endorsed the center-left Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren — who was once a hardcore Republican and has emphasized her capitalist credentials — over the explicitly democratic socialist candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sanders (I-Vt.) supporters were understandably disappointed. After all, the party overwhelmingly endorsed Sanders in the previous presidential election. What had changed?
Is Trump a master of ‘3-D chess’? Expert says nope
Politics is often conceived as a type of game. To win, a person or group must amass more power than the other players in order to advance their own goals. Victory can be achieved through cooperation with the other players, domination over them or some combination of the two.
This article first appeared in Salon.
Alternatively, a person or group can decide not to participate in this current version of politics, while they seek to invent their own game with different rules.