1990s >> 1991 >> no-1048-december-1991

The Poverties of Capitalism

A reader has sent us the following observations arising from a recent trip to India and Australia.

Last year I had the misfortune to be offered employment. I say “misfortune” since, in common with most workers, I had little or no choice over the terms of my contract or the social consequences of my labour. I had the “choice” of taking up employment or being in the dole queue. In fact, once offered a post, I didn’t even have those options, since if I rejected the offer I would no longer be eligible for dole money.

In October last year I took time off from my post in order to go travelling to various countries around the world with a friend. Our first destination was Bombay in India, where the friend of a friend who put us up was lucky enough to be a multi-millionaire. It would have been impossible from any political standpoint not be be taken aback by the absolute difference of conditions faced in daily life by our host as against the vast majority of his fellow humans in the surrounding city. The abject poverty of the many would make the standard of living of the average British worker seem like a Utopian dream. When I asked my host how he felt about all the abject poverty surrounding him, he explained it in one word: “overpopulation”.

Further on in my travels in India I frequently heard this explanation for the prevailing conditions of the majority. However, this time it was the ordinary people themselves explaining their plight. After hearing it so many times that I almost believed it myself, I stood outside this “argument of the senses” to exercise my brain in order to analyse the validity of blaming overpopulation as the cause of poverty. I call it the “argument of the senses”, since if one merely sees all the people on the street starving, one would be forgiven for assuming it’s because there are simply too many people to feed. Under capitalism, of course, this is the case, but that is only if one accepts as unalterable the doctrine of the present system that goods are only produced with the object of making a profit, regardless of human needs. These people are starving because they can’t afford to buy enough food and so there is no profit in producing it for them, not because there are too many people in India. After all, I had just experienced the abundance of my capitalist host and he was certainly not suffering the consequences of some “overpopulation”.

Later on in my trip I arrived in Australia, where I spent five months or so. Not surprisingly, in a country roughly the size of the United States, minus Alaska, with a population of only about 17 million, overpopulation was not used as the scapegoat for poverty in the way it had been in India. In Australia there are wide open spaces where one won’t see any sign of human habitation, and not just in desert areas.

Riches and poverty

According to the theorists of overpopulation, I should not have been able to find any poverty in Australia, but, of course, this was not the case. Poverty is inevitable when the peoples of the world are divided into two classes: those who own the means of production and those who must sell their labour power in order to live. But poverty, like richness, is a relative term and cannot be determined by any given amount of wealth. I may earn £10,000 this year, and even £50,000 next year, but still be living in poverty. This is because poverty relates to the proportion of wealth available to the individual as against that created by society as a whole. My £50,000 would certainly be an increase on the £10,000 of the previous year, but, as any major share-holder in a multi-national company would tell you. £50,000 per annum is still abject poverty.

So back to my experiences in Australia. Obviously, under the definition of poverty outlined above, most Australians are living in poverty. To illustrate the point about poverty not being defined by any fixed sum of wealth, whether it be measured in pecuniary terms or in terms of choice, experience, creativity or whatever, I will take the Aboriginal population as a whole. Under capitalism most aboriginals certainly live in poverty. Even people who wish to define poverty through welfare handouts would be forced to concede this fact. However, if we were able to travel back in time to before the European conquest of the continent, we would find the aboriginal population living outside the clutches of poverty. Certainly in physical, material terms they might be considered better off now than before, but in terms of their share of what society could, at that time, produce, they are now much poorer. Before European conquest, they enjoyed free access to everything that their society could provide.

The tragedy of our age is that although we, as inhabitants of this planet, could live much more comfortably and fearlessly than the undiscovered aboriginals ever did, relatively we live much more impoverished lives. Instead, in our “enlightened age”, so-called educated people of no doubt good intention, debate the “biological reasons” why alcohol makes aboriginals dissatisfied with their lot, or why they can’t adapt to the advantages of capitalism. Ask any capitalist to adapt to the advantages of being a worker in capitalism and they will show the same “biological” frailties as any aboriginal.

Eventually, of course, all good things in capitalism are forced to come to an end. My money ran dry and I was forced to return to England in order to sell my labour power once more. However, nine months is a long time in capitalism. “Circumstances beyond our control” prevented my employer from offering me what I had been led to believe was a certain promotion. The recession had deepened.

J. C.