Rather than reducing extreme poverty, the expansion of capitalism from the 16th century has been associated with a dramatic deterioration in human well-being and the social safety net. This is the conclusion of a study carried out by researchers from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, in collaboration with Macquarie University.
The study in question, write the researchers, who published their work in World Developmentdemonstrates that this new economic system has led to a drop in wages below the sustainable minimum, a deterioration in human stature, and a sharp increase in premature mortality.
It is often taken for granted that before the 19th century, the vast majority of the population lived in a state of extreme poverty, had no access to essential goods such as food, and that the development of capitalism made it possible to obtain a constant and particularly significant improvement in living conditions.
The new study, supervised by Jason Hickel, challenges these claims. The work shows that the data used to claim that this is indeed the case does not correctly account for changes in access to essential goods.
In fact, the researchers say that the data traditionally put forward does not represent a good equivalent of human well-being and could give the impression that progress is being made, even when health standards deteriorate.
Experts have thus used an alternative approach to reconstruct the history of human well-being. To do this, they analyzed three empirical indicators – real wages (linked to a basket of subsistence products), the average height of individuals and their mortality – all distributed in five regions of the world (Europe, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and China), from the advent of the global capitalist economy in the 16th century.
Their analysis leads to three conclusions. First, they found that extreme poverty was unlikely to have been normal, or universal, before the 19th century. Real wage data indicates that historically, unskilled workers in urban areas tended to earn enough to cover their basic needs, such as food, clothing, and a roof over their heads. Extreme poverty has tended to develop during times of great social unrest, such as during wars, famines and episodes of dispossession, particularly under colonialism.
“If someone takes into account that extreme poverty was almost universal in the past, then it might seem like good news that only a fraction of the population suffers from it today,” says Dylan Sullivan, lead author of the report. ‘study.
“But if extreme poverty is a symbol of extreme distress, relatively rare under normal conditions, then we should be very concerned that hundreds of millions of people continue to suffer in this way today. »
The second conclusion is that rather than ensuring the progress of social issues, the arrival and expansion of capitalism has led to a dramatic deterioration in human well-being. In all regions assessed, the process of incorporation into the global capitalist system was associated with a decline in below-minimum viable wages, a deterioration in human stature, and a large increase in premature morality.
“This is because capitalism is an undemocratic system where production is organized around accumulation by elites, rather than around human need,” Sullivan said. “To maximize profits, capital often seeks to reduce labor costs through processes of compartmentalisation, dispossession and exploitation. »
Finally, the authors discovered that the exit from this long period of misery took place only recently: the progress, in terms of well-being, began at the end of the 19th century in the North-West of Europe. , and in the middle of the 20th century in the southern hemisphere. MM. Sullivan and Hickel note that this coincides with the arrival of labor movements, socialist political parties and decolonization.
“These movements have redistributed income, established public services, and attempted to reorganize production around people’s needs,” Jason Hickel said. “Progress seems to come from the side of progressive social movements. »