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Nicholas Kristof's Ode to Imperialism...What Kind of World Is He Celebrating? What Kind of World Can Emancipate Humanity

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Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for the New York Times who has gained a following for his apparent concern for the disadvantaged and poor of the world. He is also a prominent liberal advocate of globalization--in 2010, he famously declared, "the only thing worse than a sweatshop is indeed no sweatshop at all, no employment whatsoever." [1]

Recently, Kristof wrote a column entitled "A Way of Life Is Ending. Thank Goodness." [2] He paints a picture of the impoverished countries of the Third World undergoing great and positive change owing to the combined effects of the work of "Western donors or aide groups" (people like Bill Gates) and economic growth that enables poor people to "get jobs ... [and] forge their own path out of poverty." He marshals some data to march the reader to his bold conclusion: "The world of extreme poverty and disease that characterized life for most people throughout history may now finally be on its way out." Kristof proclaims that we have reached a watershed moment: we can now "celebrate a triumph for humanity."

"A Way of Life Is Ending. Thank Goodness." is an outrageous, deceitful, and morally bankrupt ode to imperialism.

I. There Is a System: Capitalism-Imperialism 

Kristof talks about growth, poverty, aid, and wealth. But he cannot speak about a system with systemic drives and systemic outcomes.

The reality is, we live in a world of capitalism-imperialism. It is an economic system and social order organized around profit, in which a tiny handful, the ruling capitalist-imperialist class, controls the vast wealth and means of producing wealth on the planet.

This is a global system of contending imperial powers. It is a world economy dominated by competing transnational banks and corporations that finance and organize the extraction of minerals and resources destroying livelihoods and ecosystems, that coordinate the supply chains of low-cost manufacturing production based on savage super-exploitation in the oppressed nations of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. It is system in which institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) control the economic lifeblood and shape polices and direction of economic development of the countries of the Third World.

It is a system kept in place by a colossal apparatus of force and repression to carry out imperial wars and deploy drones and death squads...and to wage rivalry among the great powers.

Capitalism-imperialism has integrated the world into a complex of production and exchange that rules the lives of billions and that reinforces the privileged position of a handful of rich countries. This system is capable of promoting development in the Third World. But of a certain kind: it is dependent development (dependent on foreign capital and loans); distorted development (that leads to the ruin of subsistence agriculture, to specialization that serves the world imperialist economy, and to swollen cities with vast armies of the unemployed); and unsustainable development (spurts of growth that have adverse long-term environmental consequences).

Nicholas Kristof assumes the structure and functioning of this system to be the unchangeable order of things--and a force for good, so good that he heralds a new dawn in which poverty will be a thing of the past.

II. A Self-Serving Measure of Poverty and Progress

A linchpin of Kristof's celebration of the world system is the reduction in what is called "extreme poverty." He cites World Bank data showing that the share of people living in extreme poverty in the "developing world" (the oppressed nations of Africa, Latin America, and Asia) has declined from 1 in 2 people in 1980 to 1 in 5 today.

There are several basic problems with this statistic:

A. To begin with, the World Bank has conveniently revised the measure of extreme poverty--from its original benchmark of $1 per person per day in 1985 dollars to an even lower $1.25 person per day in 2005 dollars. The $1.25 a day measure is worth less in real purchasing terms than the $1 of 1985. So this revised statistical measure creates the impression of poverty improvement on a scale that is simply not happening.

It also masks the tremendous rise in inequality over the last two decades. The bottom 20 percent of the world's households experienced a 22 percent decline in their share of global household income between 1988 and 2008, while the top 5 percent saw its share of global household income grow 7 percent. [3]

The "extreme poverty" measure also underrates the cost of food in poor countries and overlooks the increasing vulnerability of the poor to fluctuations in food prices--in 2008 global food prices hit historic highs. The poor spend on average half of their income on food. So "official" poverty can go down while hunger goes up. And when economic crisis upends fragile livelihoods, there is no social safety net.

Moreover, this single metric ($1.25 per person per day) does not take into account the multi-dimensional character of poverty: from poor schooling and poor health care and nutrition, to lack of access to clean water and effective sanitation, to debt bondage, to women denied access to land and resources in rural areas. 780 million people worldwide lack access to clean water and 2.5 billion lack adequate sanitation. On average, women in the oppressed nations walk about four miles each day to collect water. [4]

From 1981 to 2008, the number of people living below what is still a low poverty line of $2.50 a day increased by almost 8 percent, to three billion. [5] The truth is that the majority of the world's population is still living in life-threatening and spirit-crushing poverty.

B. Much of the official reduction in "extreme poverty" is accounted for by the massive migration of huge swaths of humanity from rural to urban areas. Incomes might rise, but poverty is reproduced in different forms. Let's look at some key elements behind this dynamic.
The Rape of the Congo & Your Cell Phone: Raymond Lotta speaks to the blood of empire coursing through your cell phone. He calls out the criminal nature of capitalism, and speaks to the truth of what's possible with communist revolution. 
Imperialist agribusiness has grabbed up land, consolidated holdings, and undermined rural livelihoods based on small-scale subsistence agriculture. Environmental devastation, droughts, and civil wars (often fueled or taken advantage of by the great powers, as in Congo) have brought ruin to agricultural systems. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the IMF insisted, as a condition for loans, that governments of many poor countries eliminate subsidies to small rural landholders, and also "open up" economies to food imports from the West.

These and other factors have driven people into the cities. Many are forced to live in squalid, dangerous slums and shantytowns--where investments in public services are totally inadequate to the rapid and chaotic growth of these slums. We are talking about lack of functioning utilities and sewage systems, people living in dilapidated, cramped, poorly ventilated, and unclean dwellings, where diseases like diarrhea are widespread.

To survive, hundreds of millions on this planet have no choice but to work in the unregulated and unstable "informal economy," a technical term put into quite vivid human terms by the author Mike Davis who explains that in large parts of Latin America and Africa vast numbers of women are "improvising a life as piece workers, liquor sellers, street vendors, cleaners, washers, rag pickers, nannies, and prostitutes." [6]

Imperialism has been globalizing and outsourcing production. In countries like China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mexico, Honduras, and elsewhere, new legions of laborers, many drawn from the countryside, are working in the "formal economy" of industrial factories and death-trap sweatshops--producing garments, electronics, and other consumer goods for the West. These factories are often run like military barracks; safety is ignored and women preyed upon sexually. In Bangladesh earlier this year, some 1,000 workers, most of them women, died in a horrific but totally avoidable building collapse (had safety not been sacrificed for profit).

These workers may have cell phones, and their standard of living may have risen--but basic needs go unmet, and these are not lives of fulfillment.

The point is, money income tells us nothing about the actual quality of life. Someone driven off a farm that provided nutrition outside of a formal income economy into a city where every tortilla or piece of bread has to be bought with cash, and whose income has "risen" from $1 to $1.25 or $1.50 a day could very well be in a more dire situation, or at least in circumstances that hardly call for celebration. A prostitute living a desperate life with AIDS in a Rio slum (or, for that matter, a high-priced one in Bogota') has something to cheer about on account of a rise in money income? What a twisted measure of quality of life--even if it is the case that in certain situations some exploited and oppressed people have technically higher incomes than before.

And Kristof gloats about how jobs are allowing the poor to "forge their own path out of poverty"? No, the choices and framework are set by imperialism. This system continues to dispossess small farmers, to consolidate control of seeds and other farm inputs, and to shift the use of farmland from food to fuel production; the workings of the world capitalist system lead to the explosive growth of slums and shantytowns; and this system has generated a global cheap-labor, manufacturing economy.

III. The China Factor

The biggest contributor, in the last 25 years, to the decline of "extreme poverty," measured by the $1.25 yardstick, has been the rise in formal money incomes in China, particularly among peasants drawn into the rural capitalist market economy and into the cities.

After Mao Tsetung's death in 1976, a counter-revolution took place in China. Socialism was overthrown, and what followed was the capitalist restructuring of society and the economy.

Some 230 million people from the countryside have been pushed into the cities by the dismantling of China's formerly socialist economy and by the churning of capitalist market forces. Better-off farmers have consolidated land holdings; land has become an object of commercial development and speculation; and hundreds of millions of the rural poor have struggled to eke out survival on tiny plots of land. These kinds of conditions, and the far more dynamic growth in and lure of the cities, have produced the largest mass migration from countryside to city in human history.

Imperialist outsourcing has led to export-processing zones and factories like those run by Foxconn, which makes iPhones for Apple. Young migrant workers are often working 12 to 14 hours a day, subject to grueling work regimens, facing injury and loss of limb, and denied basic rights. During 2010, 18 Foxconn workers jumped from the roof of the factory in suicide attempts (14 died), and in 2012, 150 workers threatened to jump in a protest against unbearable working conditions. And suicide is the leading cause of death for young women in China. [7]

Capitalist development in China has led to grotesque extremes of inequality in income and in access to education and health care. It has led to an environmental catastrophe: China's cities are choking on pollution, rivers are dying, and China is now the largest emitter of carbon into the atmosphere. the measure of the World Bank standard of overcoming "extreme poverty," China is experiencing "big gains."

IV. Lower Infant Mortality in a World of Misery

Kristof points to the decline in deaths for children under five (the infant mortality rate) as a crucial measure of "spectacular progress." It is true that the number of under-five deaths has dropped worldwide from 12.6 million in 1990 to 6.6 million in 2012.

This decline is the result of several converging factors, including: more effective vaccination campaigns and treatments; more widespread reach of such prevention and cure, especially in the cities of the Third World; and the epochal movement of populations out of the more desperate conditions of the world's countryside, where lack of sanitation, disease, and hunger take enormous tolls.

But there is nothing to celebrate about 18,000 children, overwhelmingly in the Third World, dying each and every day of preventable disease and undernutrition.

Nothing to celebrate in sub-Saharan Africa where hunger, disease (especially AIDS), and conflict have been killing off and ruining the lives of women and children on a scale that has ravaged the social fabric of society.

Nothing to celebrate when infant mortality rates in the poorest countries of the Third World are 13 times the average rate in the high-income capitalist countries. [8]

Nothing to celebrate when such deaths are totally unnecessary.

And what happens to those children who make it beyond five years? What kind of life, what kind of world, awaits them? In 2008, over 200 million girls and boys aged 5-17 were engaged in child labor, 115 million of them in hazardous work. Some 15.5 million children under 18 years work as domestic laborers, and 10 million of them are working in conditions that the International Labor Organization has described as "tantamount to slavery." These domestic laborers are overwhelmingly young girls, forced by harsh economic circumstances to surrender their childhoods and their basic right to education. [9]

The life chances of the young are increasingly impacted by the global environmental crisis. In India, 70 percent of surface water and a growing amount of groundwater is contaminated by chemical, organic and inorganic, biological toxic pollutants. So once again, what of those children who make it past five years of age? Some will be killed by toxic water, while others who survive their contaminated daily doses will live "half-lives," debilitated by disease, weakened and stunted in mind and body. [10]

V. And Bill Gates?

Kristof sees philanthropic donations from the likes of Bill Gates to combat malaria and other diseases, by providing mosquito nets and underwriting immunization programs, as both essential to the battle to reduce poverty and disease and a guarantee of its continuing success.

What kind of world is it that depends on the good will and philanthropy of people who monopolize the great bulk of productive forces and wealth of the planet? And the vast wealth of Bill Gates derives from a particularly parasitic form of capital: intellectual property rights. So here you have a situation where, on the one hand, he is donating funds to malaria and measles vaccination campaigns; while, on the other hand, it is precisely the regime of intellectual property rights that turns human knowledge gained through the interconnected efforts of great numbers of people throughout the world into a private source of wealth and control. Thus, needed medicines are protected as intellectual property and priced beyond the reach of those who need them.

200 million cases of malaria are reported each year, and 660,000 people die of malaria each year. [11] The potential of the disease to strike and spread is intensified by chaotic urbanization, by poor irrigation planning, by deteriorating sanitary conditions, and by environmental hazards like heavy rains and floods that are linked to global warming (and rises in atmospheric temperature will increase malarial risk).

Philanthropy is not going to solve this. On the contrary, all these "good deeds" are linked to a wider project: the further penetration of imperialist production and social relations into these countries. A self-critical reflection by philanthropist Peter Buffett (son of Warren Buffett) about charity and Western promotion of programs like microlending is salient: "People will certainly learn how to integrate into our system of debt and repayment with interest. People will rise above making $2 a day to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more. But doesn't all this just feed the beast?" [12]

VI. Things Do Not Have to Be This Way

The problems confronting humanity are so great, so interdependent, and so urgent that something radically different is required to overcome poverty, disease, and inequality, and to act on the environmental crisis: the conscious mobilization of the masses of people, both experts and basic people; the socialization of the means of production and resources of the planet; vast cooperative efforts in which knowledge is shared and deepened; and comprehensive planning.

That cannot happen without revolution, without the creation of socialist society and world.

The way the world not the way it has to be. The development of the world's productive forces and technology, the accumulated knowledge of humanity, and the creative potential of the billions on this planet open up the possibility to move society and the world beyond scarcity and exploitation. And there is the experience of a truly transformative revolution to learn from.

Earlier I mentioned China during the Mao years. On a societal scale and under a different system--socialism--China was able to wipe out major infectious diseases and mass hunger. Revolutionary China carried through the most massive reduction in poverty and attack on inequality in history, lifting hundreds of millions out of destitution. [13] It established the most egalitarian health care system in the world, based on the principle of serving the people, with essential primary care reaching practically the entire population. Education and basic literacy were extended to the countryside, and a basic level of essential consumption was achieved. Life expectancy doubled, from 32 to 65 years, between 1949 and 1976, and by the early 1970s Shanghai had a lower infant mortality rate than did New York City. [14]

This was not the spectacular, glittering development of the kind that sees skyscrapers going up to serve financial elites...alongside sprawling shantytowns. It was development based on social cooperation, social mobilization, and integrated planning to solve the problems of society and to advance the world revolution. It was balanced development--between regions and between town and country. And built into this model of development was the goal of overcoming the oppression of women and the ages-long division between mental and manual labor.

There was a quality to life, meaning and purpose to people's lives, as they joined together to transform society and their own thinking. Under communist leadership, real political power was being exercised by masses in communes and revolutionary committees of the cities. People took up big questions of society and the world and took increasing responsibility for the direction of society.

The world has changed considerably since the defeat in 1976 of the Chinese revolution; and there are new challenges, not least the environmental crisis. Most decisively, Bob Avakian has brought forward a new synthesis of communism that sums up the great achievements as well as the problems of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, that draws from diverse spheres of human endeavor, and that enables humanity to go further and do better in a new wave of revolution. To create a society and world in which human beings can truly flourish.

The world cries out for this, and it is possible to achieve.

Nicholas Kristof wants readers to believe that a "way of life is ending." It is not true, and what he is offering up is a brief for a world of misery and powerlessness, with some incremental changes...that leave that world as it is.

1. " Nicholas Kristof on Journalism and Compassion ," Transcript of radio interview, On Being, September 23, 2010
2. Nicholas Kristof, " A Way of Life is Ending. Thank Goodness ," New York Times, September 28, 2013.
3. Thomas Pogge and Mitu Sengupta, "New Millenium Development Goals: A New Version, an Old Wish List," Economic and Political Weekly, September 28, 2013. I have benefited from the authors' critique of the World Bank's definition, and revised benchmarks, of "extreme poverty."
4. Francis Moore Lappe', "Poverty Down! Inequality and Hunger Up... Huh?", Huffington Post, September 13, 2012.
5. World Health Organization data summarized in One, "Water and Sanitation."
6. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2007), p. 159.
7. Jenny Chan, " A Suicide Survivor, The Life of a Chinese Migrant Worker at Foxconn ," The Asia Pacific Journal," Vol. 11, No. 1, August 12, 2013. World Health Organization, " Women and suicide in rural China ," Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Vol. 87, No. 12, Dec. 2009.
8. UNICEF, Levels and Trends in Infant Mortality, Report 2013.
9. UNICEF, The State of the World's Children 2012: Children in an urban world , February 2012, p. 8; International Labor Organization, Ending child labor in domestic work , June 2013.
10. UNICEF, Water in India: Situation and Prospects , 2013.
11. World Health Organization, Fact Sheet, Malaria , March 2013.
12. Peter Buffett, " The Charitable-Industrial Complex ," New York Times, July 27, 2013.
13. Land reform was a pivotal, preliminary measure. In the early 1950s, the new revolutionary state power, carrying forward the land reform enacted in the communist-led base areas, distributed 30-40 percent of China's cultivated land away from landlord-exploiting classes to some 300 million peasants. China historian William Hinton characterized this land reform as "the most massive expropriation and distribution of property and repudiation of debt in world history." See, William Hinton, "The Importance of Land Reform in the Reconstruction of China," in Fred Magdoff, et. al., Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), p. 216.
14. Penny Kane, The Second Billion (Hammandsworth: Penguin, 1987), p. 172 and chapter 5; Ruth and Victor Sidel, Serve the People: Observations on Medicine in the People's Republic of China (New York: Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, 1973), pp. 255-56.     


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Raymond Lotta is a political economist, writer for Revolution newspaper, and advocate for Bob Avakian's new synthesis of communism.

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