The Romantic Idea of a Plentiful Past Is Pure Fantasy

On January 29, The Guardian ran a column that sparked an interesting debate on two continents. Jason Hickel from the University of London rejected the generally-accepted estimate of reduction in absolute poverty “from 94 percent in 1820 to only 10 percent today.” In “Bill Gates says poverty is decreasing. He couldn’t be more wrong,” Hickel critiqued academics, like Max Roser from Oxford University and Steven Pinker from Harvard University, journalists, like Nick Kristof from The New York Times and philanthropists, like Bill Gates, for suggesting that “global extension of free-market capitalism has been great for everyone.”

Pinker and Roser responded, and so did Hickel.

Hickel’s critique of the claim that absolute poverty in the world has drastically declined over the last 200 years rests on his belief that monetary income overestimates poverty in the past, when people enjoyed a lot of non-monetary benefits “from abundant commons” (more on that below) and underestimates poverty today. Incremental growth of income at the bottom of the global income ladder (the absolute poverty level is set at $1.90 per person per day), Hickel contends, falls far short of what’s needed for human flourishing. As such, he prefers poverty measure of at least $7.40 per person per day. As Hickel put it,   

What Roser’s numbers actually reveal is that the world went from a situation where most of humanity had no need of money at all to one where today most of humanity struggles to survive on extremely small amounts of money… [Roser’s] graph casts this as a decline in poverty, but in reality what was going on was a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labor system, during the enclosure movements in Europe and the colonization of the global south.

 

Prior to colonization, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity. They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well – so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor… In other words, Roser’s graph illustrates a story of coerced proletarianisation.

 

It is not at all clear that this represents an improvement in people’s lives, as in most cases we know that the new income people earned from wages didn’t come anywhere close to compensating for their loss of land and resources, which were of course gobbled up by colonisers. Gates’s favorite infographic takes the violence of colonization and repackages it as a happy story of progress.

I shall leave the mixed legacy of colonialism for another day. For now, let me suggest that many ex-colonies, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Botswana and Singapore, and ex-poor countries, including China, Chile, Mexico, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, have done rather well – a point emphasized by a number of conservative critics of globalization, who believe that it is the Western worker who is being shafted by international capitalism.

Instead, I wish to focus on Hickel’s assertion that people in the past didn’t need money “in order to live well.” In fact, lives of ordinary Western Europeans prior to the Industrial Revolution were dismal and fully in accord with Roser’s definition of “absolute poverty.” Put differently, poverty was widespread and it was precisely the onset of industrialization and global trade that Hickel bemoans, which led to poverty alleviation first in the West and then in the Rest.

There is, perhaps, no greater symbol of early industrialization and break with Western Europe’s not-so-bucolic agricultural past than the “satanic mills” that in the view of the English poet William Blake, pockmarked the face of the English countryside. As he wrote in his 1808 poem Jerusalem,

“And did the Countenance Divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these dark Satanic Mills?

The main products of these mills (i.e., buildings that housed spinning or weaving machinery producing yarn or cloth from cotton) were easily washable cotton clothes and underclothes. That was revolutionary. In his Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy 1000-1700, Carlo Cipolla noted,

In preindustrial Europe, the purchase of a garment or the cloth for a garment remained a luxury the common people could only afford a few times in their lives. One of the main preoccupations of hospital administration was to ensure that the clothes of the deceased should not be usurped but should be given to lawful inheritors. During epidemics of plague, the town authorities had to struggle to confiscate the clothes of the dead and to burn them: people waited for others to die so as to take over their clothes – which generally had the effect of spreading the epidemic.

Up to the 19th century, poor people wore woolen clothes and underclothes that itched and did not wash easily. That practice or, to be more precise, necessity, exacerbated the across-the-board problem of poor hygiene. Lest we forget, most people lived, and slept with, their domestic animals, including chickens, cows and pigs (to guard the livestock from thieves and predators). Eggs, milk and occasional meat enriched the usually bland diet of bread, and animal waste was needed to fertilize crops. The dangers inherent in using waste as fertilizer were compounded by the fact that people seldom washed their hands and clothes. That led to epidemics, and contributed to sky-high mortality rates among our ancestors.

As late as the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, during which 55,000 men were either killed or wounded, the dead soldiers were stripped before burial. Why would anyone bother stripping the dead, when every hour increased the danger of putrefaction and spread of disease? The most likely reason for the practice was that clothing was still very expensive and the uniforms were washed, patched up and reused.

Jules Michelet, a 19th century French historian, who was a ferocious critic of capitalism, was honest enough to recognize the material benefits of the Industrial Revolution. In his 1846 book Le Peuple, he noted,

This [i.e., industrialization] was a revolution in France, little noted, but a great revolution nonetheless. It was a revolution in cleanliness and embellishment of the homes of the poor; underwear, bedding, table linen, and window curtains were now used by whole classes who had not used them since the beginning of the world. … Machine production … brings within the reach of the poor a world of useful objects, even luxurious and artistic objects, which they could never reach before. … Every [non-rich] woman used to wear a blue or black dress that she kept for ten years without washing, for fear it might tear to pieces. But now her husband, a poor worker, covers her in a robe of flowers [i.e., flowery designs] for the price of a day’s labor.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were no less fawning with regard to the material improvements taking place all around them. In the Communist Manifesto, which the two writers penned in 1848, they noted,

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground--what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?

In The Housing Question, which Engels wrote in 1872, the German businessman observed,

[The] industrial revolution...has raised the productive power of human labor to such a high level that--for the first time in the history of humanity--the possibility exists, given a rational division of labor among all, to produce not only enough for the plentiful consumption of all members of society and for an abundant reserve fund, but also to leave each individual sufficient leisure so that what is really worth preserving in historically inherited culture--science, art, human relations is not only preserved, but converted from a monopoly of the ruling class into the common property of the whole of society, and further developed.

 

The evidence from contemporary accounts and academic research does not support Hickel’s assertion that people in the past “lived well” without much monetary income. Compared to today, Western European living standards prior to industrialization were miserably low.


About the Author

Marian L. Tupy is a senior policy analyst at the Cato Institute and editor of HumanProgress.org