Ross Clark

Does the Left want us to return to the pre-industrial age?

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However misguided their ideas, until recently it was safe to assume that those on the Left did at least want to improve the lot of humanity – they wanted the global population to enjoy better health, a better diet and longer lives. They just disagreed with capitalists and free marketeers over how best to achieve those things. Now I am not so sure. An extraordinary piece appears in the Guardian today by Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths College, which savages Bill Gates for tweeting, from Davos last week, an infographic showing several ways in which global poverty is declining.

I can think of many reasons to savage Bill Gates, not least over the nightmare that is Windows 8, Microsoft OneDrive and other things. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, either, to attack him for complacency, especially for lecturing the world on poverty-reduction from well-fed Davos – even if Gates has devoted his time and part of his fortune to tackling these issues.

But to claim that Gates is 'completely wrong' when he draws attention to graphs of falling global rates of extreme poverty, rising rates of literacy and falling child mortality and writes: 'people under-estimate just how much life has improved over the past two centuries' is something else entirely. But that is exactly what Hickel is claiming. As far as the graph on declining global poverty is concerned, he says that what it really shows is: 'a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labour system.'

Global poverty data, he says, has only been collected since 1981, so it is unreasonable to extrapolate back beyond that (there might be something in that, but I don’t read the same point being made in the pages of the Guardian over graphs of global temperature which have been cobbled together from high quality, recent data and earlier data on tree rings and the like). But then he goes on to make a bizarre claim that prior to ‘colonisation’ of the world by evil capitalists:

'… most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity. They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well – so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor.'

I don’t know much about Jason Hickel, other than that the photograph on his website, which shows a man who appears to live a middle class lifestyle, complete with a hairstyle from a fashionable salon. But he really does appear to be suggesting that industrialisation has been a waste of time, and that we would be better off living in some primitive communitarian arrangement -- while ignoring the feudal/tribal realities which people had to bear before the capitalists came along to enslave us. Astonishingly, he argues his point even when using the term ‘subsistence’. There is, surely, a bit of a clue in that word as to the true nature of life – nasty, brutal and short – experienced by most people prior to global capitalism.

As for the graphs Gates produced on infant mortality, literacy, Hickel ignores them. He wants to believe that people were better off in the good old days and no amount of data will get in his way. He is engaged in what the Guardian, in another context, would describe as ‘denialism’.

Hickel’s romanticism of the past is not entirely novel. Similar things were written in the Marxist texts I had to read in my geography degree 30 years ago, and were expressed by some in the anti-globalisation movement in the 2000s – something I satirised in a novel, The Great Before, 13 years ago. But with the evolution of extreme green politics, and its apparent fusion with Marxism, such views are beginning to bubble up more and more. If that is the way the Left is going – openly advocating what most of us would call extreme poverty – it isn’t going to pick up too many travellers.