World Poverty, Pauperization, & Capital Accumulation

By Amin, Samir | Monthly Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview

World Poverty, Pauperization, & Capital Accumulation


Amin, Samir, Monthly Review


A discourse on poverty and the necessity of reducing its magnitude, if not eradicating it, has become fashionable today. It is a discourse of charity, in the nineteenth-century-style, which is does not seek to understand the economic and social mechanisms that generate poverty, although the scientific and technological means to eradicate it are now available.

Capitalism and the New Agrarian Question

All societies before modern (capitalist) time were peasant societies. Their production was ruled by various specific systems and logics--but not those which rule capitalism in a market society such as the maximization of the return on capital.

Modern capitalist agriculture--encompassing both rich, large-scale family farming and agribusiness corporations--is now engaged in a massive attack on third world peasant production. The green light for this was given at the November 2001 session of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Doha, Qatar. There are many victims of this attack--and most are third world peasants, who still make up half of humankind.

Capitalist agriculture governed by the principle of return on capital, which is localized almost exclusively in North America, Europe, Australia, and in the Southern Cone of Latin America employs only a few tens of millions of farmers who are no longer peasants. Because of the degree of mechanization and the extensive size of the farms managed by one farmer, their productivity generally ranges between 1 to 2 million kilograms (2 and 4.5 million pounds) of cereals per farmer.

In sharp contrast, three billion farmers are engaged in peasant farming. Their farms can be grouped into two distinct sectors, with greatly different scales of production, economic and social characteristics, and levels of efficiency. One sector, able to benefit from the green revolution, obtained fertilizers, pesticides, and improved seeds and has some degree of mechanization. The productivity of these peasants ranges between 10,000 and 50,000 kilograms (20,000 and 110,000 pounds) of cereals per year. However, the annual productivity of peasants excluded from new technologies is estimated to be around 1,000 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of cereals per farmer.

The ratio of the productivity of the most advanced capitalist segment of the world's agriculture to the poorest, which was around 10 to 1 before 1940, is now approaching 2000 to 1! That means that productivity has progressed much more unequally in the area of agriculture and food production than in any other area. Simultaneously this evolution has led to the reduction of the relative prices of food products (in relation to other industrial and service products) to one fifth of what they were fifty years ago. The new agrarian question is the result of that unequal development.

Modernization has always combined constructive dimensions, namely the accumulation of capital and increasing productivity, with destructive aspects--reducing labor to the state of a commodity sold on the market, often destroying the natural ecological basis needed for the reproduction of life and production, and polarizing the distribution of wealth on a global level. Modernization has always simultaneously integrated some, as expanding markets created employment, and excluded others, who were not integrated in the new labor force after having lost their positions in the previous systems. In its ascending phase, capitalist global expansion integrated many along with its excluding processes. But now, in the third world peasant societies, it is excluding massive numbers of people while including relatively few.

The question raised here is precisely whether this trend will continue to operate with respect to the three billion human beings still producing and living in peasant societies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Indeed, what would happen if agriculture and food production were treated as any other form of production submitted to the rules of competition in an open and deregulated market, as decided in principle at the November 2001 WTO meeting in Doha. …

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