From Distopia to Utopia: But How?

Grace provides a review of Jason Hickel's The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions

At Elbow Collective, we often find ourselves discussing and advocating growth or expansion of the personal kind. We’re passionate about collectively developing towards our full potential. But there’s another kind of growth that continues to hold our attention; that is the consumer growth on which our global economy relies so heavily. But at what cost? I have just finished reading Jason Hickel’s latest book The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions. A well written and eye opening piece of work in which Hickel aims to undo the myths surrounding our current understanding of the economy, global poverty and its proliferation.

Surface Scratching: Prolific Corruption and Myth Busting

The book begins by critically reviewing The World Bank’s current $1.25 per day international poverty line[1]. This is the monetary threshold under which an individual is considered to be living in poverty. The current calculation places 60% of the global population in poverty. Hickel suggests a more realistic line of $5 per day, which would place the global poverty percentage as high as 80%. He offers useful understandings of these statistics as well as insights into how they have been manipulated to support the ‘good news’ narrative of global aid campaigns, which are widely presented as the only solution to international inequality.

"Global poverty percentage as high as 80%"

Hickel examines a reality in which developing countries continue to annually pay out staggeringly high sums of money in debt repayments to the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund). During the 1970’s $58 million of such loans were tactically sold in an attempt to recover the stagnant Western economy. The loans carried high compounded interest rates and were provisional on recipients adhering to strict structural adjustments including large-scale privatisation. Such conditions were highly profitable for Western Corporations and a large contributor to the increasing divide between North and South. Whilst these incentives were considered to be safe investment for the banks Hickel describes them as ‘predatory lending behaviours that generate toxic debt at high risk of default’ (p151).  But the Southern nations have no prospect to default on repayments for loans sold against inflated projections and manipulated statistics. Furthermore, by 2013 repayments had reached $13trillion including $4.2trillion in interest paid to foreign creditors largely from the North and equating to significantly more than payments received as international aid. This total is vastly more than the figure the UN deems necessary to eradicate poverty entirely. 

"the content is heavy, but the reality is heavier and that's why we continue to pursue an alternative reality"

This exposure, along with many other detailed examinations of the Western dominated global economic system, demonstrates how poorer countries are in fact helping rich countries to develop. A variety of historic and contemporary examples are presented to illustrate how such a conflicted economic system is both the catalyst and propagator for global inequality, carrying severe consequences. A word of warning is required here; if you chose to read this book (and I think you should) be prepared to feel angry, frustrated, and even guilty, even if this isn’t your first time examining the global system through this lens.  The content is heavy, but the reality is heavier and that’s why we continue to pursue an alternative reality. 

From People to Planet

In addition to his examination of global debt, Hickel demonstrates how the good-news narrative masquerades the oppressive corruption of the Global North as a lack of productivity and internal conflicts within the Global South. The dominant solutions for such a narrative are based around international aid and a widely spread free market economy focusing on growing global consumption. Thankfully Hickel rejects this single tale of development, highlighting the destructive nature of such a proposal. One of his specific concerns is the detrimental and entirely unsustainable impact on a planet whose resources are already at bursting point.

"poverty is not a natural phenomenon waiting to be fixed by aid, but rather a political problem created in favour of Capital domination."

Planet Earth cannot survive the conditions or sacrifices required to increase international Global Domestic Product (GDP) and nor can the human race. Hickel supports recommendations for transferring to a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which in addition to the measurement of monetized economic wealth, also includes vital environmental and social factors. The book challenges the commitment to increasing growth with several well-validated perspectives apprehending that such an ideology is a recipe for ecological and sociological disaster. What’s more, Hickel demonstrates that contrary to popular belief; poverty is not a natural phenomenon waiting to be fixed by aid, but rather a political problem created in favour of Capital domination. This paradoxical context is undeniable; if parts of the world are considered rich it goes without saying that the remaining parts must be poor. Rather than undervaluing the ability of the South to support its own development we must question who is responsible for generating a wealth that continues to produce vast inequality. And of course the answer lies at the hands of Western created free market economies, dominated by nations from the Global North.

Where are the Solutions?

For all of its strengths in highlighting the global issues of corruption and the dominance of Capitalism, the concluding chapters, intended on closing the divide, are relatively disappointing. Suggestions such as abolishing debt, renouncing structural adjustments, transparently democratising the IMF and World Bank and introducing a global minimum wage are undeniably appealing, but Hickel offers few proposals of how they may be achieved. Additionally, the nature of the beast places the resolutions back to institutions and legislators, which left me feeling powerless and frustrated. Is there anything we can do?

A Small Price to Pay

Despite the encouraging closing words imagining a rich and fertile future, I couldn’t help but wonder if any hope remains. Can a revolution be achieved? And if so, how can I contribute? Perhaps these small suggestions may help us stand up for change (and if you still need convincing, try reading the book):

Get informed – I recently activated a Twitter Account to follow reputable voices in socialist and economic politics such as Naomi Klein or The Nation Magazine. For more resources stay up to date with Elbow Collective’s inspiration library.

Conscious consumption– Less is more but of course there are many resources that we rely on for our daily lives. For such resources opt for second hand, search for share shops or use local suppliers and ethically produced international products with a sustainable supply chain.

Reduce Waste and use less stuffPlastic, plastic, plastic… bars of soap instead of bottled shower gel is just one suggestion. 

Go Organic – (and seasonal/local) it might be more expensive but one benefit of consuming less elsewhere means you choose where to spend your money. Less clothes shopping means more to spend on organic food, which not only nourishes your body but can also help to support the soil biodiversity a crucial component in slowing global warming.

Speak up – United we are stronger. Inspire little changes in yourself and your community of family and friends. And share your tips with Elbow Collective! GF

An anthropologist at London School of Economics, Dr. Jason Hickel addresses the paradigm of development and global inequality. Dr. Hickel also writes regular articles for The Guardian newspaper.