Thursday, May 21, 2015

Comparisons with Colonial Days

The Cato Institute-backed HumanProgress website recently tweeted a claim by Princeton Professor Angus Deaton that “Today, children in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to survive to age 5 than were English children born in 1918.” Before addressing the intrinsic dishonesty of such comparisons in general it is worth noting the absurdity of this comparison in particular. 1918 was the final year of the First World War and the first year of the Spanish influenza. Decimated by war, England struggled to combat “one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history” as the flu killed 228,000 people during the summer of 1918. Of course, if your criterion for “progress” is that you aren’t currently being devastated by world war and “the mother of all pandemics” then the entire world has been progressing for all of human history and the socialist world was a veritable utopia. No matter, three cheers for Africa and capitalism.

Libertarians’ assumption is that if sub-Saharan Africa is poorer than the Global North today it is merely because the former hasn’t yet “caught up” to the latter. But is this how capitalism developed and functions? Revealingly, HumanProgress measures progress in large part through income, which puts it in the uncomfortable position of defending colonialism. Their website notes, “Between the time of the European colonization in 1870 and African independence in 1960, a typical inhabitant of the African continent saw his or her income rise by 63 percent.” The fact that income rose during colonialism and the “Scramble for Africa” – in which the Belgians murdered 10 million Congolese among countless other European atrocities – might alert us to the fact that income hardly correlates to quality of life. Africans who were terrorized into wage labor had little initial need for income, and for the vast majority of human history people have survived without needing to sell their labor time for wages. But given that wage labor is the source of capitalist profit, colonial governments systematically undermined the indigenous population’s ability to support itself, destroying native economies and enclosing the lands on which people subsisted. This process, in which the North is enriched precisely through the impoverishment of the Global South, continues today.

Libertarian cheerleaders for the status quo want us to stay asleep.

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