Defining poverty

A life with zero income does not have to be degrading, if people can provide all their own needs for themselves. On the other hand, an income of $25,000 may be called poverty when all needs must be bought in, and such a sum is insufficient for the purpose.

By Jeremy Seabrook

There is a problem with most definitions of poverty, in that they do not do what they claim to. Thus, it is common for humanitarians to cite the fact that there are 1,000 million people in the world who “live on less than a dollar a day”. This fact is cited as proof of the most unspeakable of deprivations; and audiences exposed to it duly register their shock and amazement.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean what it says. A life with zero income does not have to be degrading, if people can provide all their own needs for themselves. On the other hand, an income of $25,000 may be called poverty when all needs must be bought in, and such a sum is insufficient for the purpose. In these descriptions, evocations of poverty, there are many elided questions, which lead to some tendentious misdiagnoses. For in an intensive market economy, poverty, like wealth, becomes limitless.

To recreate poverty in the image of the West — as a monetary sum, the absence of which means you are poor — is perhaps the most effective way of setting a whole world on the same developmental path, for it means that the norms of the market economy are being universalised. And once measures of wealth and poverty that depend on money have been accepted, the poor are condemned to an eternity of poverty, just as the rich are hooked in perpetuity upon the infinite growth of the agent of their enrichment.

In the market economy, people must learn how to be poor. So what those concerned social reformers are really saying, when they quote people living on less than a dollar a day, is that they are excluded from the market economy. The idea that this, of itself, is an index of poverty, is the profound untruth which lies beneath all money-dominated statistics and measures of poverty.

For another way of looking at the situation of those who have not yet entered the market economy (that seductive symbol of modernity, affluence and comfort!) is to say that they remain free, and independent of market-provided needs and commodities. So to declare a 40% reduction in the number of absolute poor, when you are really saying there has been such a reduction in the numbers living, surviving, existing comfortably outside of the market system, is to create unnecessary confusion.

And of course, this is the real scandal to the system to which no alternative has now been so widely declared. For all those still living outside the market economy give the lie to the totalising thrust of globalisation, the existence of a single world economy, the imperatives of conforming to one particular way of answering need.

There is a word for this. It is tyranny; and that is why it is called “freedom” by those who wish to see the whole world enfolded by its enclosing — and far from loving — embrace. This denial of alternatives involves a commitment to forms of intolerance and absolutism that all previous ideological tyrannies could only dream of.

And this struggle — to establish the uncontested dominance of the world market – has been the true locus of attack upon, not only the poor of the earth, but upon all those whose life-ways, whose answering of need, whose modest control over resources, whose independence in short, is such an affront and reproach to the impoverishing modes of enrichment which the market economy imposes upon the people. It has been a kind of low-intensity warfare. Its battle-cry has been “development”. Its weaponry has been money, its foot-soldiers the high-consuming middle-class which has emerged in virtually every country in the world, a model and example to the rest.

At the same time, a distinctly more aggressive war has been carried on against those people who still occupy lands – forests, coastal environments, subsistence farms, river banks — whose resources must be surrendered to the market — minerals, metals, timber, fish, water. In the name of “bringing them into the 20th century”, they have been systematically dispossessed,  ousted,  violently removed  from ancestral lands.  In India,  in the 50 years since Independence, 25 million people have been displaced for infrastructural or developmental projects.

The market, then, radically re-defines poverty. It replaces resource-poverty with money-poverty, which then becomes the only true expression of it. As long as human beings retain control over the resources they require to answer their own needs, they are not poor, and they pose an obstacle to the onward march of the market. (This is why in market-speak, “resources” now means money; because money is its supreme instrument of manipulation and control.)

So when the rich nations speak of “poverty-alleviation”, they never mean the return of control over resources to the people; they mean a sum of money, or an “income-generating capacity”; which is to condemn more and more people all over the world to impoverishments and dispossessions which they are powerless to resist.

The market offers instruction in being poor, in two ways. Firstly, it removes from individuals and groups of people the capacity to provide for their own needs and the needs of others, and it creates dependency. (In another interesting inversion of meaning, in market-speak, “to be of independent means” implies freedoms that are wholly defined as having access to money.)

Secondly, the market teaches us about what we do not have. Through self-reliance we learn what we need, and that is surprisingly little; through the market we learn what we might get. In that sense, the market serves the growing self-consciousness of an industrialised humanity, which must now understand that all the home-made and self-created, all the familiar artefacts and goods of traditional culture, all the homely values of the known and local are actually junk; and that everything that is produced elsewhere has superior value, which is proved by the monetary price attached to it.

In this way, inferiorisation, subordination and dependency are the principal gifts of the market to self-reliance. This less material legacy of the market goes hand in hand with the most violent expropriation of common resources, by privatisations which make unavailable traditional practices and goods, by liberalisations which permit the import of displacements for older necessities of life. Ridicule of homely self-provisioning is supported by brutal practical interventions to make sure that the lessons of the market are not misread.

In addition to this, each new thing that appears on the market locks up all previous ways of answering need, human effort, achievement and creative purpose. This lends the object a kind of vibrancy; all of which adds to the fascination which it then holds over those who can still  remember  when such purchased  needs were answered  in other ways, and equally, over those who can no longer remember, and are therefore, even more enthralled by, and dependent upon, the new thing that helps them to survive in a strange, alien, puzzling world over which they long ago forfeited even the vestiges of control.

All this amounts to a crash course (the only free thing left by a busy market system) in the meaning of being poor in the contemporary world. It effectively undermines definitions of poverty. No one now knows what would be needed in order to be no longer poor.

For only in pursuit of the very agent of our impoverishment — money — do hope, improvement, redress become visible; and the market economy sets all humanity in a sad circular dance, a chase of perpetual keeping up with an abstraction, the limitlessness of desire. For it is true that all human societies have recognised the infinity of human desire; and they have taught that wisdom lies in recognising the impossibility of pursuing it.

The world — or rather, the market, which is virtually the same thing — now teaches that infinity must be pursued. And then we marvel at the persistence of poverty, not only in those parts of the world still called “third”, but in the very richest societies that have ever existed on earth! — Third World Network Features