On the man­u­fac­ture of poverty at world scale

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PLEASE give it to Ju­das the son of Si­mon Is­car­iot. He was an as­tute trea­surer and rig­or­ous ac­coun­tant of the group of 13. Re­mem­ber how he com­plained about the pre­cious abuse of valu­able re­sources when a woman of sin­ful char­ac­ter poured ex­pen­sive ill­got­ten per­fume on the feet of the Son of Man? Not only that the pro­ceeds of pros­ti­tu­tion were be­ing used to curry the favour of the Mes­siah, but Ju­das also strongly be­lieved that the ex­pen­sive per­fume could have been sold and pro­ceeds do­nated to the poor or used for the up­keep of long suf­fer­ing dis­ci­ples of the Son of Man.

The Son of Man, he whose King­dom was not and will never be of this world, had other views, the per­fume was a prepa­ra­tion of his body for burial af­ter his cru­ci­fix­ion and holy mar­tyr­dom on the cross. Don’t worry Ju­das, said the Son of Man, “the poor will al­ways be with you but I will not al­ways be with you,” as he would soon as­cend to higher Glory (Mathew 26:11, Mark 14:7).

In his ex­alted Ser­mon on the Mount, the Son of Man gave a beat­i­tude to the ef­fect that “blessed are the poor for theirs is the King­dom of God.” This was more than 2000 years be­fore the present craze of the pros­per­ity gospel and the Chris­tian­ity that is clearly a king­dom of this world. In ap­par­ent con­dem­na­tion of earthly wealth, else­where (Mathew 19:24) the Son of Man warned, “again I tell you, it is eas­ier for a camel to pass through the eye of a nee­dle than for a rich man to en­ter the King­dom of God.” For cen­turies now, in a po­lit­i­cal, philo­soph­i­cal and even ide­o­log­i­cal sort of way, the words of the Son of Man have been used to jus­tify, glo­rify and even beau­tify poverty in the world.

The poor, suf­fer­ing and ex­ploited of the world are told to en­joy their earthly poverty in prepa­ra­tion for their ev­er­last­ing Heav­enly wealth, the par­adisal pros­per­ity that they will en­joy in the house of their heav­enly fa­ther that has many rooms up above the sky. The modern colo­nial world sys­tem as gov­erned by the Euro-Amer­i­can Em­pire has used ide­ol­ogy and politico-eco­nomic dis­course to nat­u­ralise and nor­malise poverty of the many and wealth of the few in the world.

For that rea­son, the able Cana­dian econ­o­mist Michel Chos­su­dovsky has de­scribed moder­nity it­self as the cruel “glob­al­i­sa­tion of poverty,” where poverty has been spread into a nat­u­ral ac­com­pa­ni­ment of life for the ma­jor­ity of peo­ples un­der the sun. As early as 1794, Jean Jacques Rousseau charged western moder­nity with the cap­i­tal and sin­ful crime of orig­i­nat­ing in­equal­ity and poverty in a world that has enough nat­u­ral re­sources to sus­tain all liv­ing peo­ple and other be­ings. For Rousseau and many oth­ers poverty and in­equal­ity in the world are a man-made disas­ter and calamity. Poverty makes the world a hell for the poor as much as wealth makes the world a heaven for the rich. The poor suf­fer disease, ig­no­rance and pain in world of plenty. The­olo­geans and philoso­phers of lib­er­a­tion have for cen­turies con­demned the dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth and re­sources in un­equal ways in the present world.

Trou­ble in Paradise

Not that the rich are es­sen­tially happy, no. In his clas­sic, Trou­ble in Paradise: From the End of His­tory to the End of Cap­i­tal­ism, Slavoj Zizek notes how the wealth and eco­nomic pros­per­ity of South Korea is ac­com­pa­nied by the high­est sui­cide rate in the planet. The world and its plen­ti­ful sup­plies of food and tech­no­log­i­cal prow­ess be­comes de­press­ing, mean­ing­less and deathly for many. In the same way in which Freud Sig­mund showed that civil­i­sa­tion and moder­nity can lead to the psy­cho­log­i­cal, so­cial and phys­i­cal death of man, Zizek demon­strates how the wealth of the few in a world of the poverty of many can it­self be a so­cial disease, a killer disease for that mat­ter. Fre­quently, chil­dren of the rich and pow­er­ful of the world be­come so happy that they sim­ply get mad and suf­fer just like the chil­dren of the poor and pow­er­less, they drown to death in pros­per­ity and hap­pi­ness.

In his 1875 Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gram, Karl Marx imag­ined a com­mu­nist world where re­sources would be shared “from each ac­cord­ing to his abil­ity, to each ac­cord­ing to his needs.” This was a Marx­ian imag­ined paradise where hu­man tal­ents would be utilised for ad­dress­ing hu­man needs with­out mo­nop­oly and in­equal­ity. That par­adisal world has been dis­cred­ited as utopian and un­real while the dog eats dog cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy has been de­fended and for­ti­fied world­wide. Cap­i­tal­ism from its birth in the West has man­aged to in­di­genise it­self in ev­ery cor­ner of the world. It has been ren­dered nor­mal that the tai­lor who sews de­signer la­bel clothes walks naked. The builder who con­structs sky­scraper build­ings that dec­o­rate the world has him­self no house to shel­ter his head and his fam­ily. Singers sing songs but they do not get suf­fi­ciently paid for the mu­sic. The so called work­ing class peo­ple are “self-en­trepreneurs” who sell their labour for min­i­mum wages while the huge cor­po­rates make mega-prof­its. Debt keeps in­di­vid­u­als and coun­tries in­debted, loyal and de­pen­dent on their cred­i­tors, and this way the world sys­tem keeps its vic­tims on the tight leash.

Devel­op­ing coun­tries of the Global South are dis­ci­plined po­lit­i­cally and con­trolled eco­nom­i­cally by the use of their un­end­ing in­debt­ed­ness, fi­nan­cial car­rots and sticks are used to keep poor coun­tries in good be­hav­iour. At this rate, one can ob­serve, one day soon the poor of the world will have noth­ing to eat but the rich. What may be seen as peace in the world is ac­tu­ally si­lence; the rich coun­tries use mil­i­tary and fi­nan­cial might to si­lence the poor colonised and ex­ploited coun­tries of the world. World peace is armed peace, vi­o­lent peace that is sus­tained with force and the ever-present threat of it. Crime and ter­ror­ism are not di­vorced from the prob­lem of poverty and grow­ing in­equal­ity in the world where num­bers of des­ti­tutes, refugees and ex­iles keep in­creas­ing with ev­ery war.

The fi­nan­cial con­trol and eco­nomic dom­i­na­tion that the Euro-Amer­i­can Em­pire places on the Global South op­er­ates like Sig­mund Freud’s super­ego, a power and force that keeps mak­ing de­mands that are im­pos­si­ble to ful­fil and the more its rules are obeyed the more im­pos­si­ble de­mands it makes, in the process eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal fail­ure for the Global South is nat­u­ralised and nor­malised. If moder­nity is fast turn­ing the earth into a paradise, poverty is the true Zizekian trou­ble in that paradise which is a heaven that will know no peace as long as few con­tinue to be pow­er­ful and happy on be­half of many. Win­ston Churchill, that sausage of Em­pire, was not far from the truth in say­ing that “democ­racy is the worst form of govern­ment, ex­cept for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Churchill’s ig­nored sug­ges­tion is that new forms of govern­ment that have not yet been tried should be in­vented, democ­racy is not the end of his­tory, it is a work in progress. The Ger­man philoso­pher Peter Slo­ter­dijk has sug­gested that at a world scale rich peo­ple and rich coun­tries should prac­tice “gift eco­nomics” where they give will­ingly and gen­er­ously to the poor for their own good and the good of the world. Slo­ter­dijk be­longs to that pa­thetic school of philoso­phers who think that cap­i­tal­ism should be re­formed, kept for its pro­duc­tiv­ity and con­trolled in its dis­tri­bu­tion of re­sources, a cow­ardly and apol­o­gist school in the view of the former colonised that are the worst pun­ished by cap­i­tal in the world.

The French econ­o­mist, Thomas Piketty be­lieves that the states of the world should com­pel the rich and the big cor­po­rates to sys­tem­at­i­cally, by way of taxes, do­nate to the poor. Piketty is also dreamy and even silly, be­cause in re­al­ity cap­i­tal flies away from where it is pun­ished and forced to per­form gen­eros­ity, poor coun­tries would suf­fer even more from this. The sum­mary of the de­colo­nial ges­ture is that Em­pire should stop colo­nial­ity, re­forms and amend­ments to the eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal world sys­tem may only be cos­metic. In the Global South, re­searchers, schol­ars and politi­cians should draw se­ri­ous lessons from how African pre-colo­nial com­mu­nal­ist so­ci­eties en­gi­neered so­cial life. It is a ques­tion to ask what ex­actly African com­mu­nal­ism and vil­lage gen­eros­ity can teach Euro-Amer­i­can moder­nity.

In­stead of cri­tiquing Em­pire and its puni­tive eco­nomic civil­i­sa­tion, western philoso­phers and thinkers such as Piketty and Slo­ter­dijk are be­ing Euro­cen­tric crit­ics of Euro­cen­tri­cism who pro­tect the sys­tem by pre­tend­ing that it is a demo­cratic sys­tem that is open to chal­lenge, when the sys­tem is not open to change. The son of Is­car­iot, be­sides his rig­or­ous accounting that led him into sell­ing the Son of Man, had a point about the world con­cern­ing how re­sources should be mo­bilised and de­ployed, should pre­cious wealth be poured down in worship of the gods or put where the mouths and the lives of the many poor are?

Cetshwayo Zind­abazezwe Mab­hena writes from South Africa: de­colo­nial­ity2016@gmail. com.

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