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.”
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,
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,
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,
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,
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,
In The Housing Question, which Engels wrote in 1872, the German businessman observed,
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.
This first appeared in CapX.