Poverty and the Planet

Why the poor give to the rich

Poverty and the Planet A question of Survival.[A]

Reviewed by Gwydion M. Williams[B]

Money talks, but no one has to listen to it Money will tell you that it is sound and wise to rob from the poor and give to the rich – the rich have the means to reward you well. The pseudo-rational ideology of the New Right argues that whatever money says is wise and good. Imposing huge burdens on some of the world’s poorest people must be good for them, because that’s the message you get when you look at in in terms of money made or lost.

Poor people have a weak grip on the little they have. Within Third World countries, it makes sense to look after city dwellers, because they can riot and help bring down governments. Thus many Third World countries used to have massively overvalued currencies, making for cheap imports of consumer goods but lowering the export prices that might be obtained by the poor farmers.

The New Right has blamed it all on socialist experiments by Third World governments. Like a lot of their explanations, it is plausible but deeply untruthful. Poverty and the Planet exposes such deceptions.

“In Africa, official farm marketing boards have controlled all buying and selling. They have paid peasants a pittance for both their food and cash crops … Although some critics attack the marketing boards as attempts at socialist-inspired state intervention (while those on the other side of the political fence seek to defend them for the same reason), they were, in fact, first created by Africa’s imperial rulers.” (Page 42.)

A genuinely free world market would give poor countries a sporting chance of getting on. For this reason, it does not exist and probably will not be allowed to come into being.

“The force behind the timber boom is the Japanese, European and American demand for cheap tropical timber… The real money-spinner is not the rough logs themselves, but the process of turning them into these finished products; a business dominated by companies in the rich countries. Despite their lip-service to free trade, these nations protect their own wood-processing industry by setting import tariffs to keep out processed timber products ( like furniture or plywood) from poor countries. Poor exporting countries can make a small profit by exporting unprocessed logs, giving little chance for investment in replanting and long-term forest management.” (Page 20).

One chapter of the book has been definitely overtaken by events:

“Western military involvement in the Gulf demonstrates the same web of pious and confusing double-talk that surrounds military action over the drugs issue in Panama… Behind this double-talk there is a growing potential for conflict stemming from competition for resources” (page 167)

This sound quite topical. So too does

“any moral backing for the Western deployments … wore thin in the face of the human rights record of the country which the naval force was bailing out.” (Page 170).

But what is being talked about is the now-discarded policy of backing Iraq as a defence against the Islamic extremists of Iran. Mind you, given the way Bush has been behaving, this part of the book may not remain out of date for very long.

The weakness of the book is that it does not question the overall political set-up of ex-colonies pretending to be nation states. In Africa, especially, the political structures are irrational. The United Nations principle – that the human race should properly be fragmented into a large number of political units within each of which anyone who can grab power can more or less do as they please – is the cause of much of the trouble. Having been established as states, the countries of the Third World naturally behave as such. Some – especially the ‘little dragons’ of East Asia – have been able to develop into .real nation-states. The rest are developing much more slowly, even though almost all are gradually being brought into the world economy.

Nation states were the political structures that Europe used to develop itself over the course of several centuries, and to gain a decisive advantage over civilisations like China and India that had previously been no less strong and sophisticated. These same structures are a burden to the Third World. Serious alternatives like a World Federation could not come into existence very soon. But whereas the notion was a standard part of the left-wing view of the future a couple of generations back, the possibility has now been allowed to slide out of public consciousness. But in my view, only planetary politics could cure planetary poverty. States will seldom help other states without some more or less selfish motivation. But people asked to support other people tend to be much more generous. Band Aid may not have achieved very much, but it showed the sort of global consciousness that already exists.



This article appeared in November 1990, in Issue 21 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.

[A] Poverty and the Planet A question of Survival.  By Ben Jackson. Penguin 226 pp.

[B] Using the pen-name Walter Cobb