Note — Aug 18, 2019

Progress and Its Discontents

Jason Hickel with the short history of the New Optimism “ideological movement.” Its main figures and funders, Gates and Pinker being front and center. He goes over the differing interpretations of what poverty means, starting with the $1.90 a day line, on the impact of China (which isn’t an optimist endorsed neoliberal state, yet is included) on the numbers, and the catastrophic impact of neoliberalism on the Global South. Hickel then goes over the pitifully incomplete “stats” used for the colonial period and how they gloss over the enclosure and dispossession of commons and subsistence farming.

And in 2018 Steven Pinker published the bestselling Enlightenment Now, a book-length Buzzfeed article with graphs stacked up in support of a grand meta-narrative of progress. […]

Our World in Data is funded by the Gates Foundation; Gapminder lists Gates as one of its biggest donors; as for Vox and Buzzfeed, Gates is a major investor in both. Indeed, Vox has been pulled up by FAIR, a US media watchdog, for functioning as a sort of propaganda arm for Gates and Microsoft. […]

Egregious disparities in social indicators between classes and nations are papered over in favour of aggregate trends. And the decidedly regressive sides of capitalism – colonization, genocide, plantation slavery, oil wars, regular attacks on workers’ rights and welfare systems, and, perhaps most damningly, climate change and ecological breakdown – are either downplayed or ignored altogether. […

When we measure global poverty using evidence-based poverty lines, the story changes completely. At the $7.40 threshold – which is still at the low end of the metrics scholars have proposed – we find that the number of people in poverty hasn’t declined at all. Rather, it has grown dramatically since 1981, going from 3.2 billion to 4.2 billion, according to World Bank data. Six times higher than the 730 million Gates and Pinker would have us believe. […]

People were bulldozed off their land and into the capitalist labour system to work on European-owned mines, factories and plantations. In most cases we know that the income people earned from the new wage economy – pennies a day – didn’t come anywhere close to compensating for their loss of land and other resources, which were gobbled up by colonizers. […]

Gates’ favourite infographic takes the violence of colonization and – through creative use of irrelevant statistics – repackages it as a happy story of progress. […]

The Yale philosopher Thomas Pogge argues that when it comes to global poverty, the morally relevant metric of progress is neither absolute numbers nor proportions nor even the trajectory of poor people’s incomes, but rather the extent of poverty compared to our capacity to end it.