[OPE-L] The Power of Myths for Capitalism

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu Nov 17 2005 - 09:58:35 EST

What other myths help perpetuate capitalism?  Are there any
myths that help to reproduce capitalism which are widely believed
in by Marxists?

In solidarity, Jerry


Two Myths That Keep the World Poor
Vandana Shiva

From rock singer Bob Geldof to UK politician Gordon Brown, the world
suddenly seems to be full of high-profile people with their own plans to
end poverty. Jeffrey Sachs, however, is not a simply a do-gooder but one
of the world's leading economists, head of the Earth Institute and in
charge of a UN panel set up to promote rapid development. So when he
launched his book The End of Poverty, people everywhere took notice. Time
magazine even made it into a cover story.

But, there is a problem with Sachs' how-to-end poverty prescriptions. He
simply doesn't understand where poverty comes from. He seems to view it as
the original sin. "A few generations ago, almost everybody was poor," he
writes, then adding: "The Industrial Revolution led to new riches, but
much of the world was left far behind."

This is a totally false history of poverty. The poor are not those who
have been "left behind"; they are the ones who have been robbed. The
wealth accumulated by Europe and North America are largely based on riches
taken from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Without the destruction of
India's rich textile industry, without the takeover of the spice trade,
without the genocide of the native American tribes, without African
slavery, the Industrial Revolution would not have resulted in new riches
for Europe or North America. It was this violent takeover of Third World
resources and markets that created wealth in the North and poverty in the

Two of the great economic myths of our time allow people to deny this
intimate link, and spread misconceptions about what poverty is.

First, the destruction of nature and of people's ability to look after
themselves are blamed not on industrial growth and economic colonialism,
but on poor people themselves. Poverty, it is stated, causes environmental
destruction. The disease is then offered as a cure: further economic
growth is supposed to solve the very problems of poverty and ecological
decline that it gave rise to in the first place. This is the message at
the heart of Sachs' analysis.

The second myth is an assumption that if you consume what you produce, you
do not really produce, at least not economically speaking. If I grow my
own food, and do not sell it, then it doesn't contribute to GDP, and
therefore does not contribute towards "growth".

People are perceived as "poor" if they eat food they have grown rather
than commercially distributed junk foods sold by global agri-business.
They are seen as poor if they live in self-built housing made from
ecologically well-adapted materials like bamboo and mud rather than in
cinder block or cement houses. They are seen as poor if they wear garments
manufactured from handmade natural fibres rather than synthetics. Yet
sustenance living, which the wealthy West perceives as poverty, does not
necessarily mean a low quality of life. On the contrary, by their very
nature economies based on sustenance ensure a high quality of life-when
measured in terms of access to good food and water, opportunities for
sustainable livelihoods, robust social and cultural identity, and a sense
of meaning in people's lives. Because these poor don't share in the
perceived benefits of economic growth, however, they are portrayed as
those "left behind".

This false distinction between the factors that create affluence and those
that create poverty is at the core of Sachs' analysis. And because of
this, his prescriptions will aggravate and deepen poverty instead of
ending it. Modern concepts of economic development, which Sachs sees as
the "cure" for poverty, have been in place for only a tiny portion of
human history. For centuries, the principles of sustenance allowed
societies all over the planet to survive and even thrive. Limits in nature
were respected in these societies and guided the limits of human
consumption. When society's relationship with nature is based on
sustenance, nature exists as a form of common wealth. It is redefined as a
"resource" only when profit becomes the organising principle of society
and sets off a financial imperative for the development and destruction of
these resources for the market. However much we choose to forget or deny
it, all people in all societies still depend on nature. Without clean
water, fertile soils and genetic diversity, human survival is not
possible. Today, economic development is destroying these onetime commons,
resulting in the creation of a new contradiction: development deprives the
very people it professes to help of their traditional land and means of
sustenance, forcing them to survive in an increasingly eroded natural

A system like the economic growth model we know today creates trillions of
dollars of super profits for corporations while condemning billions of
people to poverty. Poverty is not, as Sachs suggests, an initial state of
human progress from which to escape. It is a final state people fall into
when one-sided development destroys the ecological and social systems that
have maintained the life, health and sustenance of people and the planet
for ages. The reality is that people do not die for lack of income. They
die for lack of access to the wealth of the commons. Here, too, Sachs is
wrong when he says: "In a world of plenty, 1 billion people are so poor
their lives are in danger." The indigenous people in the Amazon, the
mountain communities in the Himalayas, peasants anywhere whose land has
not been appropriated and whose water and biodiversity have not been
destroyed by debt-creating industrial agriculture are ecologically rich,
even though they earn less than a dollar a day.

On the other hand, people are poor if they have to purchase their basic
needs at high prices no matter how much income they make. Take the case of
India. Because of cheap food and fibre being dumped by developed nations
and lessened trade protections enacted by the government, farm prices in
India are tumbling, which means that the country's peasants are losing $26
billion U.S. each year. Unable to survive under these new economic
conditions, many peasants are now poverty-stricken and thousands commit
suicide each year. Elsewhere in the world, drinking water is privatised so
that corporations can now profit to the tune of $1 trillion U.S. a year by
selling an essential resource to the poor that was once free. And the $50
billion U.S. of "aid" trickling North to South is but a tenth of the $500
billion being sucked in the other direction due to interest payments and
other unjust mechanisms in the global economy imposed by the World Bank
and the IMF.

If we are serious about ending poverty, we have to be serious about ending
the systems that create poverty by robbing the poor of their common
wealth, livelihoods and incomes. Before we can make poverty history, we
need to get the history of poverty right. It's not about how much wealthy
nations can give, so much as how much less they can take.

[Taken and adapted with kind permission from The Ecologist (July/August
2005), a British monthly devoted to discussion of environmental issues,
international politics and globalization. More information: The Ecologist,
Unit 18 Chelsea Wharf, 15 Lots Road, London, SW10 0XJ, England,
theecologist@galleon.co.uk, www.theecologist.org .]

[Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist and prominent Indian environmental
activist. She founded Navdanya, a movement for biodiversity conservation
and farmers' rights. She directs the Research Foundation for Science,
Technology and Natural Resource Policy. Her most recent books are
Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge and Stolen Harvest: The
Hijacking of the Global Food Supply.]

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