Magazine article Monthly Review

Pandemic Immiseration

Magazine article Monthly Review

Pandemic Immiseration

Article excerpt

During the post-Second World War economic boom, Marxists were hard-pressed to defend the key tenet that capitalism tends to raise the rate of exploitation of workers by lowering their real wages relative to labor productivity and profits. Amid unmistakable improvements in material living standards for most workers in most advanced capitalist countries, it was hard to argue that the working class was undergoing relative impoverishment, let alone absolute impoverishment.

No more. Impoverishment and immiseration are on the rise just about everywhere in the world. This is evident in statistics on rates of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and hunger. And it strikes the eye in just about every major city - in the sullen slums of Western bourgeois democracies no less than in the gritty capitals of former Soviet bloc countries and the teeming shanty cities of the peripheral South.

What's more, evidence is accumulating that post-Second World War prosperity may prove in the long run to have been no more than a blip in a general decline in living standards since the advent of capitalism. According to Immanuel Wallerstein, "Perhaps as much as 85 percent of the people who live within the structures of the capitalist world-economy are clearly not living at standards higher than the world's populations of 500-1,000 years ago. Indeed, it could be argued that many, even most of them are materially worse off."(1)

Capitalism's tendency to generate wealth for the relatively few and poverty for the many is as much in evidence today in both the developed North and the developing South as it was in the 19th Century England of "dark satanic mills" that Marx and Engels so perceptively analyzed. Now, as then, the poor grow poorer as the rich grow richer.

The deterioration of living standards of the English working class during the early and mid-stages of the Industrial Revolution was halted and gradually reversed largely because some of the wealth sucked from overseas colonies trickled down to the masses, and millions emigrated overseas, reducing the reserve army of unemployed. Today, there are far fewer underpopulated parts of the world to ship surplus workers to. So a halt to the worldwide decline in living standards is unlikely anytime soon. Indeed, it is unlikely as long as capitalism dominates the world economy.

The post-Second World War improvement in wages was consistent with Marx's proposition that real wages can rise provided they do not interfere with the progress of accumulation. And the post-1973 erosion of wages follows his view that where the reserve army of unemployed is large, real wages can be driven down even below subsistence. Currently, the reserve army of unemployed and underemployed is estimated at a third or more of all workers worldwide. With so many people desperate for any work at any wage, it is little wonder that absolute impoverishment is on the rise in so many parts of the globe.

The United Nations Development Programme estimates that "more than one billion people in developing countries lack access to basic health and education, safe drinking water and adequate nutrition. And one person in three lives in poverty." An estimated 100 million are homeless. More than 800 million are too poor to afford an adequate diet.(2)

Hunger is widespread and increasing, most notably in Africa but also in the United States where, according to Congressional testimony, the hungry increased to 30 million in 1995 from 20 million in 1985. …

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