History of Poverty and Capitalism: from Colonialism to Neocolonialism

I just finished watching a great documentary about the history of colonialism and neocolonialism. Essentially how the west won all its affluence and lifestyle by taking from the poor. Its a powerful doc, and a must watch, even if you know the story: it never hurts to be reminded.

Here’s a brief description from the site:

Global poverty did not just happen. It began with military conquest, slavery and colonization that resulted in the seizure of land, minerals and forced labor. Today, the problem persists because of unfair debt, trade and tax policies — in other words, wealthy countries taking advantage of poor, developing countries. Renowned actor and activist, Martin Sheen, narrates THE END OF POVERTY?, a feature-length documentary directed by award-winning director, Philippe Diaz, which explains how today’s financial crisis is a direct consequence of these unchallenged policies that have lasted centuries. Consider that 20% of the planet’s population uses 80% of its resources and consumes 30% more than the planet can regenerate. At this rate, to maintain our lifestyle means more and more people will sink below the poverty line. Filmed in the slums of Africa and the barrios of Latin America, THE END OF POVERTY? features expert insights from: Nobel prize winners in Economics, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz; acclaimed authors Susan George, Eric Toussaint, John Perkins, Chalmers Johnson; university professors William Easterly and Michael Watts; government ministers such as Bolivia’s Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera and the leaders of social movements in Brazil, Venezuela, Kenya and Tanzania. It is produced by Cinema Libre Studio in collaboration with the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. Can we really end poverty within our current economic system? Think again.

Watch it for free on Youtube (after the bump):

I sort of wish they had gone over more of the solutions to the current problem. Near the end, the one guy (Clifford Cobb) talks about some of them: relief of third world debt (the least we could do, considering the injustices that took place to put those countries into that debt in the first place); putting tax emphasis on property ownership, not on wages or purchases; ownership of natural resources by the people; and some more.

I found this list of the 10 things to end poverty on the website:

10 Solutions to End Poverty

We The People Demand:

1. The full equality between men and women in public as well as private areas of life, a worldwide minimum wage of $20 per day and the end of child labor under the age of 16 with the creation of a subsidy for scholarship.

2. The guarantee of shelter, healthcare, education, food and drinking water as basic human rights that must be provided free to all.

3. A total redistribution of idle lands to landless farmers and the imposition of a 50% cap on arable land devoted to products for export per country, with the creation of a worldwide subsidy for organic agriculture.

4. An end to private monopoly ownership over natural resources, with a minimum of 51% local communal ownership in corporations, which control such resources as well as the termination of intellectual property rights on pharmaceutical drugs.

5. The cancellation of third world debt with no reciprocal obligations attached and the payment of compensation to Third World countries for historical as well as ecological debt.

6. An obligation of total transparency for any corporation with more than 100 employees and a 1% tax on all benefits distributed to shareholders of corporations to create unemployment funds.

7. The termination of tax havens around the world as well as free flow of capital in developing countries.

8. The cancellation of taxes on labor and basic consumption, the creation of a 2% worldwide tax on property ownership (expect basic habitation for the poor) and the implementation of a global 0.5% flat tax on all financial transactions with a total prohibition of speculation on food products.

9. An equal voting for developing countries in international organizations such as IMF, World Bank, WTO, and the termination of veto right for the permanent members of the UN Security Counsel.

10. A commitment by industrialized countries to decrease carbon emission by 50% over a ten-year period as well as reducing by 25% each developed country’s consumption of natural resources.

There’s a petition you can sign, if you agree with the above.
[note: I am signatory 205. That’s pathetic. If you agree with the above, please take the time to sign it]

I find it funny (read: utterly sad and demoralizing), that the things that they talk about in the video, where powerful governments have completely controlled how other countries are run (either directly: colonisalism, or through dictators that they themselves put in, or through the washington consensus (IMF, WTO, World Bank), are in no way doubted by most academics, and yet I see more people getting their underwear in a knot from baloney things like 9/11 was an inside job.

Other topics that they touched on that I find interesting is the concept of de-progress, or a-progress, or de-growth or a-growth. That is, with the affluent countries using up SO many resources, how are we going to cut back on it?

As I’ve said previously, right now I’m reading Rising Up and Rising Down,  and Vollmann touches on the french revolution, the american revolution, the October revolution, etc. etc. The theme running through all those are, the rich who kept taking, and thought they knew how to control the populace, were overthrown and slaughtered (The Terror, the royal russian family). Or another example of sorts would be Easter island, where the people over-consumed their land till they killed themselves. Obviously those two are different: one is about inequality, and the other is over-consumption of our natural resources. Although they’re different, I suspect that the solution to both would be found in creating more equality (forms of socialism, communism, anarcho-syndicalism, a Rawlsian form of capitalism (if such a thing could exist)).

OK OK, so what? Isn’t this the same thing we’ve all suspected? Even if we all agreed that this were true, then what? Sign a petition? How do we (each one of us as individuals or collectively as people) make change in this world? Voting? A quiet revolution through… strong community and union relations? A bloody revolution when things get really bad (that’s usually, and unfortunately, when people decide to act)? This last question is what I’m most interested in: is our current system of democratic representation good enough? If so, then all we have to do is educate, get people to know the problems, and then get them to vote. That would mean a change of consciousness: get people less concerned with social status and consumerism, and more about politics, justice, and education. If we could accomplish that, then we could also accomplish a more direct form of democracy: some form of participatory democracy, where everyone’s voice is heard (anarcho-syndicalism is the example I can thing of).

I guess my answer then is: education (which is what this film is doing), keep participating/voting in electoral politics till a better version can come along, and greater participation in my community. Sigh. I just wish there were a more direct/easy/short-term way of fixing the world.

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About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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8 Responses to History of Poverty and Capitalism: from Colonialism to Neocolonialism

  1. honesty bear says:

    I think it’s funny that you make a rawlsian welfare state out to be the most difficult to imagine compared to systems like communism and anarcho-syndicalism considering that those two are the real fantasies. Also, I feel like you really need to get over the idea that changing the world is a hard thing to do. I mean, is this surprising? no. Sure it’s frustrating as hell, but you shouldn’t let the question of what to do consume so much I feel since it’s something that no one knows the answer to. Education is obviously one important avenue (believe me, we harp on it a lot in teacher’s school). But you shouldn’t freak out over not knowing how you yourself can change the world, since all our top people can’t even figure out how to change a single country for the better (as in we’re still pretty not sure about how to succesfully implement good development projects in a country). You do what you can, and you can’t do more. It’s a fact we all gotta live with I feel. Of course I’ve been accused of being a bit of a cynic.

    Now, to end on a lighter note. I still get a laugh everytime I read your little bio there that 1) says you’re ‘originally from toronto’..who you trying to impress here? and 2) reads like a lil mini cv..again, who you trying to impress ..and is that how you see yourself..a bunch of credentials? in any case. makes me giggle.

  2. dontdontoperate says:

    My problem with a response like “you do your best, so be happy with what you do” is I feel that too much of the ills in the world are because most people in affluent societies are apathetic or content with living a lifestyle that does no good (or worse, leading lives that are void of meaning, which giving yourself up to a larger project, like fixing poverty/institutional violence/etc., help to fill).
    My worry is that, if I don’t concern myself with how to be a better person and help make the world a better place, I’ll do some little things (help out at a shelter, give money to a charity) which actually don’t do much, and in so doing add to the problem. I think that you’re potentially taking the lazy or easy way out. Maybe you should be more concerned with what you can do. Maybe the solutions aren’t that difficult, maybe it’s just that people are lazy, or content with whatever it is that they’re doing with their lives, without examining their actions and consequences (not to say that it’s not complex and it’s OH so obvious…but perhaps it’s not as hard as we’re making it out to be).
    If more people were passionate about making more change, the world really would be a better place. I find you’re worried that I worry too much, but maybe it’s that other people aren’t worrying enough.
    I’m not convinced that it’s a difficult problem. It’s difficult to get people to care, yes. But the suggestions you’re making don’t help (although, I do see that you care, and I appreciate that :).

    Aren’t you afraid that you’re just convincing yourself that what you’re doing is already the best, and therefore you don’t need to completely re-examine and re-structure your life? I.e. sweet lemons?

    There’s a word for what I’m trying to describe, and I’m completely blanking on it…damn…

    As for my bio: I put Toronto because at the time I thought I’d be getting readers from around the world, in which case Toronto is the closest thing to Barrie that is readily recognizable.
    I put the cv style thing because I’m obviously an awkward human being, and don’t know how to represent myself online (which may be my problem with online dating)

    P.s. I hope this didn’t come off as defensive or agressive. I like that you post on my blog. It shows you care 😉

  3. dontdontoperate says:

    Also, I put “if that could exist” after “a Rawlsian form of capitalism” only because I’m not sure if those two words can technically go together. That’s all. I think a Rawslian form of society is more likely to be successful rather than communism or anarcho-syndicalism: I agree. But would it be considered capitalist, or socialist? Wouldn’t it be closer to socialist?

  4. honesty bear says:

    Congratulations! That definitely came off as both defensive and aggressive. For that reason, I will respond in kind. 1) I never said that other (most) people care enough. In fact I said that education is the only obvious answer, meaning that getting other people to care more–since they don’t care enough–is crucially important. Just because I might be suggesting that you worry too much does not imply I think other people worry the right amount. 2) I do think that you worry too much, but it’s the kind of worry that you exhibit that I find a bit objectionable. It’s very self-conscious, or, in a more aggressive term, self-centered. Your search for THE right way to act is nice in the sense that you don’t want to think you’re doing good, only to find out you’re doing not-good. That’s a reflective and critical attitude. I like that. But at the same time, you suggest that not doing so is lazy and taking the easy way out: people who volunteer at shelters or give to charity instead of obsessing about these issues aren’t good people, in an objective sense. That, I don’t like. Sure, some people who simply give to charity (probably bad charities) as a way to absolve themselves aren’t saints like you. But there can be people who only play a small part in changing the world because they have a life to live, and they don’t find the same self-satisfaction in obsessing over their progressive acts as you do. Or they might recognize that there is a division of labour in all things. As I mentioned but you don’t seem to agree with, changing the world is a complex matter. Why do you think you’ve been able to be so critical of other people’s ideas on what’s good? People act within their capacities to act, and I think I mean that in two ways. First, they can only act according to the power they have to affect change–this I think you’ll agree with without any doubt, but might disagree with how much power we ascribe to everyone. And second, they act within their capacity to be engaged in projects that are quite demanding of their time and energies. This I find funny that you likely disagree with me on since you’re way more of a determinist than me (yet, also quite existentialist, which is the fun mix we all love ya for). It’s just a fact that become feel engaged in different ways by different problems and projects. This is why there are so many charities focussing on so many different issues, when probably the most efficient way (as in least overhead) would be for there to be a single ‘making-the-world-better-on-all-fronts group. You make it seem that I’m cool with people not doing anything, which isn’t the point of my remarks. People need to be less ignorant, and need to do something (I tend to think this follows straightforwardly from the not being ignorant, on the whole at least). But that doesn’t mean I’m going to chastise people for not watching a dozen documentaries on poverty each month, nor am I going to take the cynical view on their acts. (Interestingly, I tend to take the cynical view on organizations. I think this is because I often look at the founders of these things as egotistical, but that’s another story.) Actually I should qualify that (pre-parenthesis) claim. I try not to take the cynical view on people’s acts, but once they talk about them in a condescending way, then I probably shift into the poking-holes-mindset that is built into me. People can do what they’re passionate about, and I hope that they are reflective and critical enough about how they use their time that they don’t do so in counter-productive ways. But this doesn’t mean that they have to all converge on the one right path. Probably I’d want them all to vote for the same political organizations that (at least claim to) pursue an agenda of social justice. But even here I think variety is allowed, since some people may want to be more practical than others, or put different value on different projects. I’ve gone on long enough. I do worry that you worry too much. But I don’t think i’m saying that in a way that absolves others. I do so only because I actually worry about you. You’re probably not going to find that one right path, because I don’t know if it exists. So what I’m trying to do is show you that you can still be a decent (maybe not the best) person even if you don’t find this single path. Do what you can, please do what you can. But don’t expect that to something to be change the entire world. And when you look at this way, I feel like it leads to an attitude that is less judgmental.

    Put (way too) simply, the idea that YOU can save the world reeks of privilege.

    And as for the Rawls thing. The terms capitalist and socialist don’t really have any steady definitions that can be applied across disciplines. But the way you put it doesn’t require this. Since you said a rawlsian form of capitalism, it’s qualified in a way that makes sense. You probably could have equally said a ralwsian form of socialism and it’d be just as sensical. No big deal either way. In any case, you’re the one who read the entirety of TOJ, so you tell me.

    (hopefully this doesn’t come off as defensive or aggressive. You know I love ya.

    diff’rent strokes!

  5. honesty bear says:

    I feel like I should pepper my last response with just a lil bit of reason. Just in order to combat the douchey tone a touch. I think our respective attitudes are best explained (at least in part) by our circumstances and who we spend time with. I know you’ve got a lot of passionate friends committed to justice-y type things, but I think you’ve also mentioned how some people you work with don’t really care about these things. Now that’s something I don’t encounter much in my disciplines. In wrting, philosophy, and now education, you don’t find too many professors who don’t care about these things. Sure among my friends both at school and not there is a variety of opinions, but most aren’t amoral jackasses. So I don’t experience much apathy on the parts of educated people in positions of authority. But I do experience a lot of different approaches to these issues. So, in my world, it’s not necessary to argue for caring the way it might be in yours. But in mine, there’s a debate, but still a general recognition that we’re all on the same side.

    So maybe that explains things a bit more calmly. Still, it was fun to write from an angry perspective, even if it’s hard for me to experience emotion. beep beep, boop boop.

  6. dontdontoperate says:

    God damn you have a way with words. I wish I could write as eloquently as you (I’m reading this and thinking that it’s coming off as sarcastic, but it’s not supposed to).
    I can see how my statements come off as judgmental (which, by definition, they are), but I would prefer the acts to be judged, and not the people. I’m not sure if I’m looking for the ONE path, with the ONE answer. I’m sure there’s a spectrum, and on every point on that spectrum there’s a multitude of options. I worry that we’re all on the lower end of the ‘do good things’ part of the spectrum.
    About education, I couldn’t agree more. The reason I all of a sudden jumped on the ‘do good’ band wagon, is because I all of a sudden started reading more ethics/politics/history/economics/etc. books, and I just was floored. Actually, we can all see my change in behaviour from this blog…right around the time I was watching those Jon Pilger docs.
    I see though, that if my attitude comes off as judgmental or self-privileged or selfish, then I’m just going to do more harm then good. I’ve always tried to be a non-judgmental vegetarian, in the hopes that being that way would make it more welcoming for other people to consider the option…
    You are right, by the way, about the determinism and existentialism me. 😉

    Also, just read the last thing you wrote: YES, that almost certainly is true. I meet so many people who don’t know anything about the issues facing the world (except for global warming)…and I see them and I see myself two years ago. That’s how I feel. I feel shocked that those people can exist (or that I ever existed in that capacity). And you’d be right that education is failing there…although I must have been taught some of these things…did I just shrug it off?

  7. LVTfan says:

    You might explore a couple of websites related to the film — http://www.povertythinkagain.com/ and http://whyglobalpoverty.com/ as well as the ideas of Henry George (b. 1839, Philadelphia; d. 1897, NYC), who wrote “Progress and Poverty” and “Social Problems.” Both books are available online — see http://www.wealthandwant.com/. Also, a blog http://lvtfan.typepad.com.

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