Tagged: Development

Atheism and Human Development: The Political Economy of Secularization

By Ricardo R. Fuentes Ramirez 

Figure 1Introduction 

With “Political Economy of Secularization,” we refer to the analysis of the underlying economic processes embedded in the tendency of religiosity to decline across the world. The building blocks for this analysis are mainly found in Karl Marx’s understanding of religion. While contemporary secularization theory mainly rests upon Weber and Durkheim’s ideas on this subject, we argue that in Marx’s writings on the subject we also find important insights. The objective of this paper is to sketch a theory of secularization within a Marxian Political Economy framework, and support it with the most recent data on development and religiosity across the world. We argue this approach fills important theoretical voids in traditional secularization theory and contributes toward responding to the challenge of explaining the rise in religiosity in the world as a whole.

Religion as Human Estrangement

One of Marx’s earliest remarks on religion is found in a letter to Arnold Ruge, a German writer with whom he briefly co-edited a journal titled “The German-French Yearbooks.” In 1842, when he was 24 years old, Marx wrote that “religion in itself is without content, it owes its being not to heaven but to earth, and with the abolition of distorted reality of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself” (1975). In this brief statement, we find Marx’s central thesis on religion and secularization. Religion is but the reflection of a distorted reality, or as he later on develops, of a society where humanity is alienated, or estranged.  With the transition to a society free of alienation, religion will eventually collapse. In 1843, he continued expanding on this idea in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. There he argued that religion is “the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has lost himself again” (2008, p. 41) At this point, he writes one of his most memorable quotes on religion:


“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions” (2008, p. 42).

“Real suffering,” may be of a mainly physiological nature, or a mainly psychological nature. Physiologically, human beings may suffer from hunger, disease, inadequate shelter or clothing, natural disasters, etc.; which all may lead to religious attitudes as explanatory or coping mechanisms. This is similar to Norris and Inglehart’s (2011) “existential security theory.” These authors sustain that “as societies transition from agrarian to industrial economies, and then develop into postindustrial societies, the conditions of growing security that usually accompany this process tend to reduce the importance of religious values. The main reason, [they] believe, is that the need for religious reassurance becomes less pressing under conditions of greater security” (2011, p. 18). On the other hand, Norris and Inglehart recognize that economic development, or greater “existential security,” do not necessarily ensure lower religiosity. We wish to stress this point even further, as it is crucial in Marx’s understanding of religiosity. As a result of what Marx called human estrangement, even people that are not living in the poorest conditions within their countries, and truly live in conditions of human security, might still find themselves in conditions that require sources of illusionary happiness. Therefore, to understand Marx’s theory of secularization, it is crucial to understand what he means with human estrangement, or the alienation of human labor. The objective in this section is not to provide a comprehensive analysis of the concept, but a brief introduction focusing on what is most pertinent to the subject of secularization. According to Marx, the source of alienation is found in the development of private property; that is, the transition from ancient communal modes of production toward modes characterized by private property over the means of production and the exploitation of human labor. Therefore, his concept of alienation is fundamentally related to the act of labor. As Erich Fromm (1992, p. 47) explained, work is “the active relatedness of man to nature, the creation of a new world, including the creation of man himself.” To illustrate Marx’s concept of alienation, it is best to juxtapose human labor in ancient communal modes of production, with labor within capitalism. In the first case, work was the expression of men and women’s power. The product of human labor, although primitive, was fundamentally linked to those who directly produced it, always based on their will and planning. In capitalism, workers are degraded into mere appendages of machines, destroying, as Marx described in Capital, every remnant of charm in work, and turning it into a hated toil. Aptly describing the work conditions of most laborers around the world today, Marx concluded that workers under capitalism find their work unfulfilling, miserable, and physically and mentally exhausting. Therefore, their work is experienced as something alien, and the worker becomes alienated from his or herself as a worker, as well as from the product of his or her work. For Marx, capitalism is the highest expression of alienated work since the origins of private property. Thus, alienated society fuels religion by creating diverse forms of suffering, ranging from physically brutal working conditions to menial and degrading work.

However, religiosity is also linked to our scientific knowledge. Taking this into account, we may conclude religion is a reflection of the relationship between human beings and nature in two distinct forms: how we transform nature and ourselves through labor, and our technical understanding of nature. Marx (2008, p. 36) argued that when the development of the productive power of labor is in a low stage, and the relations of humanity with itself and with nature are correspondingly constricted, this is “reflected in the ancient worship of nature, and in the other elements of the popular religions.” Similarly, Engels argued that as advances in natural sciences progress, “the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body” (2008, p. 188). Human religiosity therefore has inherent contradictory tendencies. While the development of our understanding and mastery over nature tends to undermine the belief in supernatural beings, the increasing alienation linked with this development enables religion. In contemporary terms, the latter translates into an issue of psychological or mental health. Under capitalism, scientific knowledge has exponentially grown to an extent arguably enough to have completely debunked religion. However, the negative effects on mental health brought upon by capitalism help religion persist.

In sum, Marxian secularization theory argues that religion is immersed in various processes that can both enable and disable it. First, the scientific and technical developments of human society tend to undermine religiosity through two processes: 1) an increasing understanding of nature eliminates the need of religion as an explanatory mechanism, while 2) increasing standards of living eliminate the need of religion as a coping mechanism. There has been a historic tendency of development in science and technology, which therefore translates into a historic tendency towards secularization. However, this same development in science and technology has gone hand in hand with the development of modes of production characterized by exploitation and alienation. This last process tends to serve as fuel for human religiosity. As we will show below, we understand that the most recent statistics on religion and human development support this theory.

We may now see a fundamental difference between the secularization theories of Marx and other 19th century thinkers such as Weber or Durkheim. While the latter argued that capitalism would ultimately destroy religion, Marx was clear that because capitalist industrialization represented a historical peak in human estrangement, it would do nothing of the sort. Humanity would have to transition to a post-capitalist mode of production, where men and women are self-realized and emancipated from alienation, in order for religion to disappear. Nonetheless, various processes could surely counteract alienation even within capitalism. Healthy workers, with access to education, and high living standards within egalitarian societies, will probably have less negative effects from estranged labor than workers with lower standards of living, lack of access to health and education, and living within highly unequal societies.

In other words, alienation is undermined by what recent theorists have termed human development. Human development generally refers to broadening the scope from strictly economic growth, so as to include elements such as education, health, and equality, which more aptly represent the conditions in which a population is living. Most Marxists would argue that although human development might be achieved in certain areas of the world economy, capitalism would ultimately undermine human development in the world as a whole. To discuss if global human development is achievable within capitalism would go beyond the scope of this paper. For our current objectives, it suffices to say that where human development is achieved, we should expect to find higher degrees of secularization, as it serves as a counteracting force to human estrangement. Thus, as Norris and Inglehart (2011, pp. 14-16) have also argued, developed countries should tend to show degrees of religiosity and secularization more proportional to human development rather than mere economic growth.

Lack of Secularization in the Third World

In the case of developing countries, their population growth rates and religious cultures have translated into a net rise in world religiosity that undermine the idea that religion will steadily decline. However, there is a tendency toward secularization, not an iron law of secularization. We argue that with all other things being held constant, religion would disappear as a result of economic and human development. Nonetheless, things are never constant, and sufficiently strong counteracting tendencies may undermine others. Two aspects contribute in explaining higher degrees of religiosity in the Third World: intense and highly exploitative working conditions, as well as problems related with hunger, sickness, and violence. In other words, processes related to alienation as well as low existential security plague developing countries. “Real suffering” in physiological and psychological terms translates into more people yearning for illusionary sources of happiness. As developing countries “catch up” to developed countries, increasing existential security enforces the tendency toward secularization. If their economic development were accompanied with human development, the tendency toward secularization would be reinforced even further. Capitalism tends to develop the forces of production on a global scale. In other words, it should tend to develop the “backward” regions of the world, developing countries should be catching up, and secularization should be rising. However, as stated above, sufficiently strong counteracting forces can nullify this tendency.

Many Marxian economists, such as Andre Gunder Frank (1978) and Samir Amin (1976), have studied why most poor developing countries remained poor during the 20th century. World capitalism took a particular imperialist character, dividing the world into two fundamental groups: core capitalist countries (the First World) and peripheral countries (the Third World). Their relation hampered the development of peripheral countries through a vast array of political and economic institutions and processes. While there is debate on the mechanisms, and the ways they may or may not be undermined, there is agreement on the fact that the relation between core countries and peripheral countries obstructed growth and development in the latter. Even when accounting for the so-called “emerging markets,” it is clear that growth and development are still difficult feats for most developing countries, and in great part because of their past and current relation with advanced developed countries. In other words, the tendency toward global secularization has been undermined by a particular counteracting force: economic imperialism and global inequality. This does not mean secularization theory is fundamentally flawed. On the contrary, with the analytical tools of Marxian Political Economy, we have a clearer understanding on why the tendency toward secularization was hampered, and the steps that may be taken in order to enable it.

Recent Statistics on Secularization

This understanding of secularization may be evidenced using recent statistics on development and secularization. In theory, secularization should not only rise with economic development, but it should rise at a higher rate where it is accompanied by human development. The utility of the proposed framework becomes evident when we focus on the United States. Previous assessments of secularization worldwide categorized the United States as an outlier, as it possessed both a highly religious population as well as high levels of development. However, when taking into account that US citizens have less access to health and education, and live within a more unequal society than most of their European counterparts, we actually expect to find higher degrees of religiosity. This idea is supported with Norris and Inglehart’s (2011, pp. 106-108) analysis of frequency of prayer and economic inequality in advanced capitalist countries. In addition, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has recently introduced a new measure, the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), that, as we will show below, shows that the United States is not an outlier, but actually fits our theory.

Using the 2005-2008 wave of The World Values Survey we may analyze the relation between human development and religiosity. Specifically, we may observe the relationship between the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) and the percentage of people in each country that consider religion is not important in their lives and the percentage of people who declare themselves as not religious or convinced atheist. In Figure 1 we may observe that the relationship between the percentage of convinced atheists in the population and the IHDI is not linear. Instead, we find a polynomial relation where the number of atheists begins to rise most significantly after the IHDI has surpassed a value of approximately 0.6. The UNDP categorizes countries as representing Very High Human Development (0.8<HDI), High Human Development (0.7<HDI<0.8), Medium Human Development (0.535<HDI<0.7), and Low Human Development (HDI<0.535). In other words, when countries enter a stage of Medium Human Development, the number of atheists begins to rise, and the rate at which they rise increases as they continue on to stages of High or Very High Human Development. The only outliers were South Korea, France, Germany, and Sweden. However, they showed percentages of atheists above what was expected, so they do not undermine our main thesis of increasing secularization. Another important aspect is the case of the United States. As previously mentioned, most studies found the United States as an outlier, with unexplainable high levels of religiosity given its stage of development. In our data, the United States is below the trend line, but it is nowhere near of being an outlier that undermines our thesis. Its levels of religiosity are explained with our theory and data as a result of lower human development and higher inequality.

This particular question in the World Values Survey provided three possible answers where those being surveyed should classify themselves: Religious Person, Not a Religious Person, Convinced Atheist. In theory, it is possible for the ‘Not a Religious Person’ group to be decreasing enough as to nullify the increase in atheists, so it is best to add the last two groups. This combined group of people that responded as not religious or atheists may be called the total of irreligious people. In Figure 2, we see the same trend observed in the case of atheists by themselves. As countries enter levels of Medium Human Development, the percentage of irreligious people begins to climb faster, and increasing even more in higher stages of human development. In this case, a new particular outlier stands out: Thailand. Even though this country has a very religious population of the Buddhist tradition, more than 60% of those surveyed answered they are not religious. This is probably a result of translation issues in phrasing the question, particularities of the branch of Buddhism and how it conceives itself as a religion, or a combination of both. In the case of the United States, once again, although below the trend line, it is not an outlier and does not contradict our theory.

Figure 2

Secularization may also be reflected in religion losing its importance in people’s lives, even though they are not necessarily outspokenly labeling themselves as irreligious. Thus, we also analyze the question in the survey where people state how important religious is in their lives (very, rather, not very, or not at all important). As in the previous exercise, first we will focus on those who answered not at all important, and then on the sum of those who answered not very and not at all important. In Figure 3, we find that the relation between the percent of the population that consider religion is not at all important in their lives and the IHDI follows the same trend as in the previous cases. The only outliers reflect higher secularization than expected, and the United States is not a problematic outlier.  Finally, in Figure 4, we do the same exercise but with the sum of those who answered religion was not very and not at all important in their lives, and also find the same pattern.

 Figure 3 Figure 4

What’s probably most interesting of this analysis is that, according to our theory and findings, if the world as a whole were to arrive at a level of human development and equality similar to that of Sweden or Norway, we would expect to find that religion stopped being of importance for more than half of the population, and openly irreligious people would be rapidly approaching becoming half of the population. In Marxian terms, our findings support the idea that as countries develop in terms of science and technology, secularization rises; but it increases most when human development and equality counteract the effects of alienation.

Concluding Remarks

Marx (2008, p. 42) stated “It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” This idea resonates with the discussion on secularization and development in the Third World. If we operate under the assumption that secularization is desirable because it translates into sexual liberalization, women’s equality, LGBT rights, etc.; then achieving economic and human development in the Third World becomes even more of an imperative. The criticism of rising religious extremism today must turn into the criticism of the vast array of political and economic processes that hinder development in the Third World. In other words, the criticism of religion today is fundamentally linked with the criticism of political and economic imperialism and global inequality. For Marx (2008, p. 136), humanity will never fully strip its veil of mysticism and vanquish its religious reflex, until production takes place through the free association of men and women, “it is consciously regulated by them in a settled plan,” and “the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to nature.”  The disappearance of religion is therefore a very long run process. Nonetheless, Marx’s theory provides insight into how we may undermine the negative effects of religiosity in the short and medium run as well.


Amin, S. (1976). Unequal Development: An Essay on the Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Engels, F. (2008). Dialectics of Nature. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 152-193). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Frank, A. G. (1978). Dependent Accumulation and Underdevelopment. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Fromm, E. (1992). Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Continuum Publications.

Marx, K. (1975). Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge In Dresden. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works V.1 (pp. 393-395). New York: International Publishers.

Marx, K. (2008). Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 41-58). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Marx, K. (2008). Capital (Extracts). Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 135-141). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2011). Sacred and secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

World Values Survey Association. (2013). World Values Survey 2005-2008. Retrieved from http://www.wvsevsdb.com/wvs

United Nations Development Program. (2013). 2013 Human Development Report.

Retrieved from http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2013/

A Review of Dan Brown’s Inferno: Neo-Malthusian Reactionary Discourse in Popular Fiction

By Ricardo R. Fuentes Ramirez

Dan Brown’s latest book Inferno is definitely a page-turner. You will not drop it until your done. Like all of Robert Langdon’s adventures, there are various recurring themes and elements. However, this does not make the book repetitive or unoriginal respect to Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, or The Lost Symbol. On the contrary, there are sufficient new elements that make the book wonderful in its own right. The recurring elements from his previous books just give it the flare and addictive nature of all of Langdon’s adventures. The only element I found problematic was a certain twist of events at the end of the book. Twist and turns are part of Brown’s style, but in Inferno, two of our characters (Langdon and Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey) develop a strong disdain toward one particular character (Bertrand Zobrist), only for it to be unrealistically switched to understanding and even a bit of admiration at the end. The shift was so sudden that it was borderline plain bad story telling. Other than that, the book is all we have learned to love of Brown’s work.  His previous books definitely had implications on current debates (the best example being the complex and ever changing relationship between science and religion), but they were always focused on particular historical elements that captured the reader’s interest, such as the Illuminati or the Holy Grail/Mary Magdalene story. In this case, the historical element isn’t a secret organization or a bible conspiracy theory, it’s Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, especially the canticle on Hell: Inferno. Personally, I found Dan Brown’s historical “did you knows” or “fun facts” less mind boggling compared to previous books. To be fair, readers more interested in world literature, instead of secret organizations or conspiracy theories, might enjoy Inferno more than the previous Robert Langdon books. In terms of the implications on the current debates, the issue is overpopulation and sustainability. Here is where Dan Brown really messes up, and becomes an advocate of a Neo-Malthusian, bourgeois, reactionary understanding of a whole array of topics. The novel has implicit views on population growth as the fundamental cause behind economic and environmental sustainability issues. The book’s tone supports conservative arguments that criminalize and attack the “poor and overpopulating masses” as the culprits, while ignoring the role of large corporations with truly unsustainable production techniques. I personally don’t think he intended to do so, but he definitely did, so it is worthwhile discussing this vision.

The upside is that he is nudging readers to reflect and react to the fact that humanity is currently facing a survival threatening sustainability problem. The problem has two elements, fundamentally linked, that of environmental sustainability and that of economic development. Humanity is consuming Earth to its oblivion, while simultaneously goods and resources seem insufficient to satisfy all our needs. The problem with Dan Brown’s rhetoric is that it promotes the idea that the fundamental variable is population growth. Hunger, sickness, pollution, melting ice caps, are all explained with overpopulation. According to this vision, Malthus was right; population grew exponentially while our means of subsistence lagged behind. The vision ignores the fact that science and technology have also been developed exponentially in the last centuries. World population grew more in the last 200 years than it grew in the previous 200,000 years. However, science and technology have also been developed much more in the last 200 years than in the previous 200,000 years. Therefore, we most likely have the technological capacity to satisfy our needs and wants in a sustainable manner even with population growth. This isn’t a novel idea that should have escaped Dan Brown’s preparatory readings. It’s been around as early as merely 10 years after Malthus’ death. In 1844, Engels wrote in his Outline of a Critique of Political Economy:

Yet, so as to deprive the universal fear of overpopulation of any possible basis, let us once more return to the relationship of productive power to population. Malthus establishes a formula on which he bases his entire system: population is said to increase in a geometrical progression – 1+2+4+8+16+32, etc.; the productive power of the land in an arithmetical progression – 1+2+3+4+5+6. The difference is obvious, is terrifying; but is it correct? Where has it been proved that the productivity of the land increases in an arithmetical progression? The extent of land is limited. All right! The labour-power to be employed on this land-surface increases with population. Even if we assume that the increase in yield due to increase in labour does not always rise in proportion to the labour, there still remains a third element which, admittedly, never means anything to the economist – science – whose progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population. What progress does the agriculture of this century owe to chemistry alone – indeed, to two men alone, Sir Humphry Davy and Justus Liebig! But science increases at least as much as population. The latter increases in proportion to the size of the previous generation, science advances in proportion to the knowledge bequeathed to it by the previous generation, and thus under the most ordinary conditions also in a geometrical progression. And what is impossible to science?

Overpopulation (or lack of technology adequate for our growing numbers) is not the issue behind hunger, sickness, pollution, or melting ice caps. The problem lies within our economic system, our mode of production. How can we say that goods and resources are scarce, when we have, simultaneously, hungry people and surplus food being thrown away, empty houses with no tenants and homeless people, and pharmaceuticals stocked in warehouses while there are sick? In assessing the causes of pollution and global warming, how can we reduce it to population growth, without mentioning the millions of tons of waste and contaminants that come from unsustainable industrial production methods? The roots of our problems lie within the unequal distribution of resources and the unplanned character of our economy. With a more sensible distribution of goods and resources, along with replacing market forces and profit seeking behavior with social planning, we just might escape a Dante-like apocalypse. However, as Dan Brown presents the issue, it’s not only ignoring the actual roots of the problem, it’s a borderline (and for some an openly) racist argument. To say we are overpopulated is to say someone shouldn’t be here. Who? Well, population isn’t actually rising in the First World. Every single country with a population growth rate above 1% is a Third World country. In other words, the world’s problems are a result of the uneducated poor who simply cannot stop having babies (according to this Neo-Malthusian discourse). Dan Brown does right by bringing the sustainability issue to focus. If we do not do something, humanity, sooner than later, might actually face a species-threatening crisis. In fact, evidence points to the fact that we already are in this crisis. Where Dan Brown fails is in pointing the reader into actual solutions. We shouldn’t be focusing on population growth. We should be focusing on the system as a whole; on how, what, and for whom we produce goods and services. In other words, capitalism is the problem! The solution: socialism (or if this is a bad word, then economic democracy, participatory economics, or any other euphemism). In the spirit of Dante’s work, the most treacherous beings on Earth are the members of capitalist class, as their existence actually threatens the survival of our species. Therefore, the deepest corners of Hell are saved for them. Our job is to make their Hell on Earth, by making our Paradise on Earth.

The Millennium Development Goals: A Critique from the South by Samir Amin

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted by acclamation in September 2000 by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly called “United Nations Millennium Declaration.” This procedural innovation, called “consensus,” stands in stark contrast to UN tradition, which always required that texts of this sort be carefully prepared and discussed at great length in committees. This simply reflects a change in the international balance of power. The United States and its European and Japanese allies are now able to exert hegemony over a domesticated UN. In fact, Ted Gordon, well-known consultant for the CIA, drafted the millennium goals!

The claim is made that the MDGs follow up on the conclusions reached in the cycle of summits organized in the 1990s. That’s going a bit too far. The preparatory meetings to these summits had tried something new by organizing assemblies of so-called civil society representatives parallel to the official conferences where only state representatives were seated. Although things had been organized to reserve the best places for the charitable NGO’s, which are beneficiaries of financial support from large foundations and states, and largely to exclude popular organizations fighting for social and democratic progress (authentic popular organizations are always poor by definition), the voices of the latter were sometimes heard. In the official conferences themselves, the points of view of the triad and of the South often diverged. It is often forgotten that the triad’s proposals were rejected in Seattle not only in the streets, but also by states from the South. It is also important to remember that the reconstruction (or at least the first signs of reconstruction) of a group (if not a front) of the South took place at Doha. All of these divergences were smoothed away by the supposed synthesis of the MDGs. Instead of forming a genuine committee for the purpose of discussing the document, a draft was prepared in the backroom of some obscure agency. The only common denominator is limited to the expression of the pious hope of reducing poverty. In what follows, I will examine how these goals are formulated and the conditions required to reach them.

The Official Millennium ‘Development’ Goals

Eight sets of goals were defined for the next fifteen years (2000–15). The accomplishment of each of the targets that specifically define them is based on measurable indicators, generally altogether acceptable in themselves.

Each of these goals is certainly commendable (who would disapprove of reducing poverty or improving health?). Nevertheless, their definition is often extremely vague. Moreover, debates concerning the conditions required to reach the goals are often dispensed with. It is assumed without question that liberalism is perfectly compatible with the achievement of the goals.

Goal 1: Reduce extreme poverty and hunger by half.

This is nothing but an empty incantation as long as the policies that generate poverty are not analyzed and denounced and alternatives proposed.

Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education.

UNESCO devoted itself to this goal beginning in 1960, hoping to achieve it in ten years. Progress was made during the two decades that followed, but ground has been lost since. The almost obvious relationship between this lost ground, the reduction in public expenditures, and the privatization of education is not examined in fact nor in theory.

Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women.

The equality in question is reduced to access to education and the empowerment is measured by the proportion of wage-earning women. The neoconservative Christian fundamentalists of the United States, Poland and elsewhere, the Muslims of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other countries, and the fundamentalist Hindus agree on eliminating any reference to the rights of women and the family. Without discussion, declarations on this question are only empty talk.

Goals 4, 5, and 6: (Concerning health) reduce infant mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-fourths; stop the spread of pandemic diseases (AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis).

The means implemented in these areas are assumed to be completely compatible with extreme privatization and total respect for the “intellectual property rights” of the transnational corporations and, curiously enough, are recommended in Goal 8 concerning the supposed partnership between North and South!

Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability.

A general principle is asserted (“to integrate the principles of sustainable development” into national and global policies), but no definite content is made explicit. Moreover, any mention of the refusal of the United States to promote conditions necessary for environmental protection (i.e., their rejection of the Kyoto Protocol) is carefully avoided.

It is presupposed, then, that the rationality of capitalist economic strategy is compatible with the requirements of “sustainable development.” That is obviously not the case since capitalist strategy is founded on the concept of the rapid discounting of economic time (with the timespan governing investment decisions never exceeding a few years at maximum), while the questions raised here relate to the long term. The specific goals are thus in fact reduced to nothing much: reduce by half the population having no access to clean water, improve living conditions in the slums—two ordinary goals of simple public health.

The criteria for measuring the results (CO2 emissions, change in the ozone layer) undoubtedly make it possible to monitor the degradation of the environment, but certainly not to curb it. Note the strange timidity of the writers concerning biodiversity (there is no question of infringing on the greater rights of the transnationals!): they propose only “to observe” the evolution of land areas protected from the destruction of biodiversity! But above all not to stop it!

Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development.

The writers straightaway establish an equivalence between this “partnership” and the principles of liberalism by declaring that the objective is to establish an open, multilateral commercial and financial system! The partnership thus becomes synonymous with submission to the demands of the imperialist powers. Progress in access to the market is measured by the share of exports in the GDP (an increase in this ratio is thus synonymous with progress regardless of the social price!), progress in the conditions of nondiscrimination by the reduction in subsidies.

To carry out this “liberal partnership” would require, in the end, nothing more than the fight against poverty (the only “social” goal allowed). To this is added, like hair in soup, “good governance,” a phrase favored by the U.S. establishment that is never defined and is taken up uncritically by the Europeans and the institutions of the global system (UN, World Bank, etc.).

Many targets are added to this completely contradictory text, which fill in its gaps and offer recommendations. I am singling out five of them for further examination:

Enhanced debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries.

In fact, the program implemented in this regard for the heavily indebted poor countries imposes a genuinely colonial tutelage on them. That the governments of the countries in question have internalized the abandonment of their sovereignty changes nothing. Indeed, in the past, heads of state had sometimes abdicated in the face of colonization. But such abdication had never been accepted as legitimate by the peoples involved.

Deal comprehensively with developing countries’ debt problems through national and international measures to make debt sustainable in the long term.

This exhortation is not accompanied by any further information concerning what is to follow (international negotiations? within what framework?) or the principles on which such a measure should be founded. However, certain reasonable things can be said on the subject, such as the necessity for an audit that makes it possible to classify the debts (immoral, illegal, acceptable…) and an elaboration of legislation that makes it possible to define for the future the legal conditions of debts and the creation of courts charged with deciding the law in this area. It is perfectly obvious that all of this is ignored by the writers of the MDGs!

In cooperation with pharmaceutical companies, provide access to affordable essential drugs in developing countries.

The significance of the generous intention to provide access to drugs is immediately nullified by the specification that this would be “in cooperation with the pharmaceutical industry,” precisely those who prohibit anyone from calling their abusive monopoly into question!

In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies—especially information and communications technologies.

Here again an intention is subjected to a condition that empties it of any meaning—“in cooperation with the private sector”!

More generous official development assistance for countries committed to poverty reduction.

Is there a better comedy than this proposal, endlessly repeated for the last fifty years by those who are responsible for implementing it and yet never do it?

The Real Goals of Dominant Capital

A critical examination of the formulation of the goals as well as the definition of the means that would be required to implement them can only lead to the conclusion that the MDGs cannot be taken seriously. A litany of pious hopes commits no one. And when the expression of these pious hopes is accompanied by conditions that essentially eliminate the possibility of their becoming reality, the question must be asked: are not the authors of the document actually pursuing other priorities that have nothing to do with “poverty reduction” and all the rest? In this case, should the exercise not be described as pure hypocrisy, as pulling the wool over the eyes of those who are being forced to accept the dictates of liberalism in the service of the quite particular and exclusive interests of dominant globalized capital?

Besides, the MDGs cannot truly be taken seriously by their promoters in the imperialist triad, which implements them only when it is convenient and ignores them otherwise, nor by states in the South that, not wanting to take any risks at the present time, refrain from formally rejecting the proposals. In another time, a text of this type would not have been adopted and the states of the South would have, at least, imposed a compromise.

The MDGs are part of a series of discourses that are intended to legitimize the policies and practices implemented by dominant capital and those who support it, i.e., in the first place the governments of the triad countries, and secondarily governments in the South. The real goals, openly recognized as such, are:

1. Extreme privatization, aimed at opening new fields for the expansion of capital. Such privatization calls into question the existence of national state property, which should be liquidated on open markets, by foreign capital among others. Beyond that, privatization aims at eliminating public services, particularly in education and health. Here, the ideas developed in the MDGs concerning the elimination of illiteracy and the improvement of health lose all credibility. The privatization of property and access to important natural resources, in particular petroleum and water, facilitates the pillage of these resources for the wastefulness of the triad, reducing the discourse of sustainable development to pure, empty rhetoric.

2. The generalization of the private appropriation of agricultural land. Just as with agricultural and food products, land, too, must be subjected to the general law of the market. This general offensive aims at nothing less than extending the policy of “enclosures” (referring to the “enclosures” implemented in England in the sixteenth–eighteenth centuries and then extended to the rest of Europe in the nineteenth) to the entire world. Its success would lead to the destruction of the peasant societies that make up nearly half of humanity. This destruction, now underway (and liberalism would like to see the tempo accelerated), is already the major cause of pauperization in the third world, which results in emigration from the countryside to the urban slums. But that is of little importance, since the minority of so-called modernized rural producers who will survive the massacre, and be subjected to the demands of agribusiness, will produce the superprofits that the latter aspires to capture. Nothing else matters.

3. Commercial “opening” within a context of maximum deregulation. This is a way of lifting all obstacles to the expansion of a trade that is as unequal as it can possibly be in conditions characterized by a polarized world development and a growing concentration of power in the hands of the transnationals that control the trade in raw materials and agricultural products. The example of coffee illustrates the disastrous social effects of this systematic choice. Twenty years ago, all coffee producers were paid nine billion dollars and all the consumers paid out twenty billion for this same coffee. Today these two figures are respectively six and thirty billion. The gap between them is the gigantic profit margin captured by a handful of oligopolistic intermediaries. It goes without saying that in these conditions campaigns in favor of so-called fair trade, even when their promoters are moved by the most impeccable moral intentions, are not up to the challenge. The correction of these deteriorating terms of trade for the producers can only be obtained by the political intervention of government authorities—both national legislation and international negotiations and legislation.

4. The equally uncontrolled opening up of capital movement. The fallacious pretext advanced is that deregulation would make it possible to attract foreign capital. Yet it is well known that China, which attracts more of this capital than other countries, has maintained a tighter control over foreign enterprises. Elsewhere, direct foreign investments are targeted at little more than pillaging natural resources. In fact, the IMF imposed the opening of “capital accounts” in order to facilitate the indebtedness of the United States, allow speculative capital to engage in pillaging raids, and subject the currencies of the South to systematic undervaluation. This undervaluation, in turn, makes it possible for local assets in these countries to be purchased for next to nothing, to the evident advantage of the transnational corporations.

5. States are forbidden in principle from interfering in economic affairs. Internally, the state is reduced to narrow police functions. Internationally, it is reduced to guaranteeing debt service, as the first (and almost exclusive!) priority in public expenditures. The debt is hardly anything more than a particularly primitive form of exploitation and pillage.

This model is presented as being without an alternative because it is imposed by the “objective” requirements of globalization, which negate the power of national states. In reality, the causal relation is just the reverse: this particular form (among other possible ones) of globalization is allotted the objective of destroying the ability of nations and states to resist the expansion of transnational capital.

That is why all these principles, openly adopted by the writers of the MDGs, can only produce what I have elsewhere described as apartheid on a world scale, reproducing and deepening global polarization. As a counterpoint, the restoration of a margin of autonomy for states and the recognition of the legitimacy of state intervention (the definition even of democracy) within a multipolar perspective are the inescapable conditions required to attain the social objectives proclaimed by the MDGs.

In fact, then, the social goals proclaimed by the MDGs do not constitute the real goals of the whole exercise. Their supposedly democratic packaging must, in turn, be subject to a legitimate doubt. No democracy can possibly take root if it does not support social progress, but, instead, is associated with social regression. This is undoubtedly the reason why the vapid term “governance” is served up as an accompaniment to the empty rhetoric of the MDGs.

The writers of the document appear to have paid no attention to the facts. In the course of three decades following the Second World War, the highest rate of growth known in history took place, along with full employment and notable upward social movement and, if not always a reduction in inequality, the stabilization of structures aimed at more equitable income distribution. But it appears that because the systems in existence at that time regulated markets, these procedures were “irrational” and their results “bad.” In the course of the following three decades, accompanying the welcome deregulation, there has been a collapse of growth, a breathtaking increase in unemployment, precariousness, and other manifestations of pauperization, and mounting inequalities. Yet it appears that this system is nevertheless better and more rational. That is undoubtedly because in the preceding systems the rate of return for capital was in the range of 4 to 8 percent and since then it has doubled, moving to between 8 and 16 percent.

The New Doctrinaire Liberalism

The central question concerns the concept of development maintained, explicitly or implicitly, in the Millennium Development Goals. It can be formulated in this way: In the successive globalized economic and political systems of modern times, who was forced to adjust to whom? The subjects in question can be class or social groups, regions or nations.

In capitalist logic founded on private property, it is capital (the firm) that commands and employs labor. Workers do not have direct access to the means of production, which are not used to their liking. In its global expansion, capitalism is polarizing, that is, it is founded on asymmetrical adjustment. The peripheries are shaped to serve the model of accumulation in the dominant centers. The ideology of capitalism ignores the concept of substantive development, for it recognizes only expanding markets.

It is significant that the term “development” appeared only after the Second World War (during the colonial period, the exploitation of the colonies was cynically spoken of), supported by the governments of the Asian and African states that arose from national liberation movements. In this sense, the 1955 conference of Asian and African states at Bandung was the birth place of the project of developing the new third world. It was a multidimensional project of modernization: of the economy (through industrialization), the society, and the state. This modernization project appears within a type of globalization and is not at all an invitation to economic and cultural autarky. But it does imply that in this process the North would adjust to the requirements for the development of the South, development conceptualized as a “catching up.” Globalization in this context is then recognized as having to be the result—beyond the conflicts—of negotiations between partners who recognize the divergence of their interests. In Latin America, desarrollismo proposes an analogous model of development.

At each of these steps, capitalist globalization rests on transnational social alliances, without which the models of accumulation in the dominant centers and dominated peripheries could not be reproduced. The “colonial” model, challenged after the Second World War, involved the management of the societies of the peripheries by local comprador classes of a given type (merchant intermediaries, large landowners). The new model resulting from decolonization involved social reforms that deprive the older comprador classes of their power and substitute hegemonic blocs of a new type (national populist). This model is the basis of the successes (not the failures!) of the economic and social transformation of the third world in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. But it was always fought—with violence—by the powers of the imperialist triad.

The turnaround in the political conjuncture beginning in the 1980s brought us back to former times, before development, which has, in effect, been shown the door. It is significant that the new language of the dominant economics even abandons this term and substitutes “structural adjustment,” i.e., adjustment of the societies and economies of the South to the requirements of the pursuit of accumulation in the North. Simultaneously, this turnaround in the balance of power to the benefit of capital appears everywhere—in the North as well as the South—as a strengthening of the subjection of labor to capital. The new doctrinaire liberalism acknowledges only expanding markets, not the deliberate political transformation of social and economic structures.

Although imposed on the societies of the South with extreme brutality, the new model (neocolonial some say, but the term is poor—it is really a question of “paleo-colonial” thought) had to be clothed in a discourse that gives it the appearance of legitimacy. It was necessary to reintroduce the word “development” (as in the Millennium Development Goals) but empty it of all meaning. This was done by reducing it to the fight against poverty and for good governance.

A series of documents prepared this revision in the meaning of words. The agencies set up to manage the rest of the world (85 percent of the earth’s population, the dominated peripheries) by collective imperialism (the triad) here fulfilled the functions expected of them. The World Bank (which I call the Ministry of Propaganda for the G7) produced, in this spirit, distressing documents called Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP). The IMF (the triad’s collective colonial monetary authority) imposed the priority of debt service, the debt itself being the means of imposing structural adjustment. The WTO, far from being an institution responsible for managing world trade, is devoted to the objective of shaping the productive systems of the peripheries to the needs of the commercial expansion of the North, that is, to operate like a collective ministry of colonies. The European Union —lined up with the general offensive of the imperialist triad—integrates the relations between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) within this same context, pursued literally in the convention for the development of the ACP.

It could be asked why the governments of the countries of the South have subscribed to all of these commandments drafted in the imperialist centers. The response, in general terms, is that we should look to the social hegemonic blocs mentioned above that make possible the reproduction of asymmetric globalization. There is a new comprador class in the countries of the periphery that actually derives its existence from the new model of globalized liberalism. This comprador class participates in the new government arrangements that followed the erosion of the national populist models inspired by Bandung.

To be more precise, it is possible to distinguish among the reasons that led the South to “rally to liberalism.” There are those that are probably unique to so-called emerging countries (China in the first place). In these countries, the current governments live on illusions: they think about “catching up” (through strong growth) while they are constructed as the industrialized peripheries of tomorrow, and dominated by the new monopolies on the basis of which the imperialist centers reproduce their domination (monopolies of technology, access to the planet’s natural resources, and weapons of mass destruction). They think of building a “strong and independent nation,” but in that connection must ignore that the United States prepares “preventative wars” against them that will not allow them this opportunity. History will undoubtedly be given the responsibility to dissipate these illusions.

Here I will place more emphasis on the rationales offered with respect to the most vulnerable peripheral regions, Africa in particular. The discourse developed in this regard by dominant thought is well known: Africa is marginalized in the new globalization. This is by its own fault, having sunk into an excessive nationalism during the Bandung period. It can only get out of this difficult situation if it accepts being “more integrated” into globalization by a totally uncontrolled opening that will allow foreign capital to “develop” it. The miseries associated with this option, for which there is no alternative, will only be “transitory” and can be attenuated by programs that “fight against poverty.” This option will require, moreover, democratic political management called “good governance.”

This discourse abounds in contradictions and inadequacies. Africa is no less integrated into globalization than other regions, but it was and is differently integrated. The forms of the new proposed integration, based on agro-mineral specialization, are not new but are, on the contrary, a return to the old (paleo-colonial). These forms can only accentuate the pauperization and exclusion of huge masses of the population, in particular the peasants. But simultaneously and independently, they facilitate the pillage of the continent’s natural resources (petroleum, minerals, and wood), which is probably the principal objective of large transnational capital in Africa. Foreign direct investments will come to Africa for nothing else.

The responsibility of the current government teams—and behind them the new comprador classes—should not be excused. But that does not absolve the dominant forces in the imperialist centers of the global system from responsibility either.

The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is undoubtedly part of the new liberal thinking, but not with any great conviction it seems. It should be remembered that originally behind this initiative was the justified refusal of the racist “afro-pessimist” discourse and the proclamation by Thabo Mbeki in 1998 that “Africans should and can appropriate modernity,” a way of indicating the renaissance of Africa that he called for. But Mbeki rushed into the same discourse of specifying that that appropriation should be done “in cooperation with the developed countries,” ignoring, or pretending to ignore, that that has never been the case up to now. NEPAD even includes in its title the term “partnership,” commonly used for a long time by the European Union and adopted, in turn, by the Millennium discourse of the United Nations.

In its content, NEPAD’s founding document, New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is not, in fact, very coherent.* It identifies the bottlenecks that block development in Africa, which it identifies in all aspects of reality (infrastructure and energy, education and health, family agriculture and environment, and modern technologies, notably computer technology), giving the impression that it takes into consideration the hostile practices of world trade. But at the same time, the document lines up with dominant liberal thought: it abandons the centrality of industry that the Lagos Plan had, in its time and with good reason, taken as the axis of development for this least industrialized of the earth’s continents. It adheres to an agro-mineral model of growth (paleo-colonial), and it adopts the discourse on the reduction of poverty.

Unquestionably even more serious, the NEPAD document lines up with liberal thought on the discourse of “good governance.” This is a concept that is useful as a way to dissociate democratic progress from social progress, to deny their equal importance and inextricable connection with one another, and to reduce democracy to good management subjected to the demands of private capital, an “apolitical” management by an anodyne civil society, inspired by the mediocre ideology of the United States. This discourse comes at the very moment when the interruption in the construction of the state (begun in the Bandung period) imposed by structural adjustment has created, not conditions for a democratic advance but, instead, conditions for the shift towards the primacy of ethnic and religious identities (para-ethnic and para-religious, in fact) that are manipulated by local mafias, benefit external supporters, and often degenerate into atrocious “civil wars” (in fact conflicts between warlords). As Bernard Founou-Tchuigoua argues, it is less a question of a North-South partnership (here EU/ACP) than a new phase in asymmetrical structural adjustment.

The NEPAD document’s exposition, its hesitations or anodyne character, acquires its meaning in this context. For example, the wish to alleviate the debt is expressed, but this is done precisely because the debt has fulfilled its function of imposing structural adjustment. NEPAD also proposes an “integrated” (Pan-African) development, just like the EU, giving its preference to arrangements with regional African groups. But, in the end, this document remains, as far as its proposals on trade, capital transfers, technology, and patents are concerned, aligned with liberal dogmas.

I will say in conclusion that a system of this type hardly has any future. Neither the MDGs nor NEPAD will make it possible to attenuate the seriousness of the problems and curb the resulting processes of political and social involution. The legitimacy of governments has disappeared. Thus conditions are ripe for the emergence of other social hegemonies that make possible a revival of development conceived as it should be: the indissociable combination of social progress, democratic advancement, and the affirmation of national independence within a negotiated multipolar globalization. The possibility of these new social hegemonies is already visible on the horizon. I bet that at the end of 2015, no one will propose a balance sheet of the achievements of the MDGs or NEPAD, which will have been long forgotten.


*The NEPAD framework document was adopted by the 37th Summit of the Organization of African Unity in July 2001 at Lusaka, Zambia and is available athttp://www.nepad.org/nepad/knowledge/doc/1767/nepad-framework-document.

Appendix: The UN Millennium Development Goals

Goal 1: Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty

  • Reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day
  • Reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger

Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education

  • Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling

Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women

  • Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005, and at all levels by 2015

Goal 4: Reduce Child Mortality

  • Reduce by two-thirds the mortality rate among children under five

Goal 5: Improve Maternal Health

  • Reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio

Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases

  • Halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS
  • Halt and begin to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases

Goal 7: Ensure Environmental Substainability

  • Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes; reverse loss of environmental resources
  • Reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water
  • Achieve significant improvement in lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers, by 2020

Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development with developing countries, develop and implement strategies for decent and productive work for youth

  • Develop further an open trading and financial system that is rule-based, predictable and non-discriminatory, includes a commitment to good governance, development and poverty reduction—nationally and internationally
  • Address the least developed countries’ special needs. This includes tariff- and quota-free access for their exports; enhanced debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries; cancellation of official bilateral debt; and more generous official development assistance for countries committed to poverty reduction
  • Address the special needs of landlocked and small island developing States
  • Deal comprehensively with developing countries’ debt problems through national and international measures to make debt sustainable in the long term
  • In cooperation with the developing countries, develop decent and productive work for youth
  • In cooperation with pharmaceutical companies, provide access to affordable essential drugs in developing countries
  • In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies—especially information and communications technologies

Source: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/.

 Retrieved from Monthly Review   /

South Park and Immigration: Reserve Army of Labor and Unequal Development

South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are far from leftists. They probably coincide more with political libertarianism, agorism or Austrian economics than any other ideologies (although I’m sure they don’t wish to be forced into any label). Nevertheless, on many occasions their ideas and beliefs, as they communicate them through their comedy, coincide with many ideas usually associated with the left. Their show, although it may sound unlikely to many, has tremendous potential as an instrument of political agitation and even education. We will occasionaly share some episodes that exemplify this potential. It’s always good to sometimes think, analyze, or reflect on subjects while laughing out loud. 

In this episode, Stone and Parker create an analogy for the issues revolving around the immigration of many Latin Americans into the US. In the episode, people from future America come back to the past looking for jobs. They are willing to work for less, taking jobs away from present day Americans. The boys take on a racist (actually “timecist” because it’s discriminating toward other time people) and conservative position because they lost their jobs as well. Eventually, they recognize their wrong doings; and realize that the issue is helping the future get better. In other words, the issue is, as the “liberal aging hippie douche” says in the episode, that multinational corporations impoverish Latin American countries, creating the need for their workers to seek better jobs elsewhere. If US workers want to stop the immigration of cheaper labor, they should fight against the impoverishment of Third World countries by the hands of global capitalism (i.e, fight for world socialism!). The episode is also handy to visualize the concept of the reserve army of labor. Unemployment incentives people to work for less, lowering average wages. In other words, unemployment sometimes can actually help capitalists.

Watch South Park Episode 6 from Season 8.

The false promise of capitalist development: Singapore’s inequality battle

A more recent article with more information on inequality in Singapore. Sustaining the argument that most Third world countries who intend to achieve development through the market system will eventually hit a wall.The optimal alternative to underdevelopment is socialist development.

Singapore’s inequality battle
New Mandala/Australian National University
December 23rd, 2011 by Elvin Ong

There have been growing concerns over rising income inequality in Singapore in the last decade. Based solely on income from work per household member, Singapore’s Gini coefficient has increased from 0.433 in 2000 to 0.465 in 2010. After accounting for government transfers and taxes, it has increased from 0.425 in 2000 to 0.446 in 2010. If returns from investment assets are taken into account, the Gini coefficient is likely to be much higher, as the rich are more likely to have surplus assets that they can invest for returns.

In contrast, the rest of Southeast Asia has similar or less inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) as compared to Singapore. According to the CIA World Factbook, Indonesia’s Gini coefficient is at 0.368, Philippines is at 0.458, Malaysia is at 0.462, and Vietnam is at 0.376. Only Thailand has a remarkably higher Gini coefficient at 0.536.

Recent academic work has suggested that high inequality within countries is highly correlated with a whole host of social ills. In the book “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better”, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that high income inequality, rather than low average per capita income, is correlated with social ills such as crime, obesity, teen pregnancy, mental health, and drug addiction.

In Singapore’s case, although social ills are an increasing concern, they are less of a concern than the prospect of a permanent stratification of broader classes in society. Between 2001 and 2011, real incomes for the 20th percentile of the population saw no increase at all, whilst real median incomes only saw an increase of 11%. When placed alongside the statistic of increasing gini coefficient, this means that the rich are getting richer at a much faster pace than the rest of society. In addition, there are also concerns that social mobility has declined, with the less well off trapped in a cycle of poverty.

How should the Singapore government respond to this increasing income inequality?

On the one hand, government rhetoric has been clear and unambiguous. They acknowledge the problem and recognize that there needs to be increased social welfare provision, but abhor the creation of a welfare state such as in the Scandinavian, Japanese, or Australian models. For these government purists, Singapore, as a small country with no natural resources, needs to maintain financial prudence. The nightmare scenario is that increased social welfare provision, coupled with higher taxes to pay for these benefits, will kill the competitive work ethic of the population, make people lazy, and result in a downward spiral of the free-market competitiveness of the Singaporean economy in a globalized world. They point to the debt-ridden countries of Southern Europe and America as examples of this scenario. Most recently, Sim Ann (President’s Scholar, former career senior civil servant and the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament) reiterated such a view in a newspaper commentary.[1]

On the other hand, some current and former senior civil servants have been quick to point out the crisis of inequality in Singapore, and strongly urge the government to chart a different course with respect to social welfare provision. Donald Low (former Director at the Ministry of Finance and Civil Service College) and Yeoh Lam Keong (currently Managing Director at the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore) co-wrote a commentary that was also published in the local papers, arguing that a much broader and inclusive social welfare provision strategy should be adopted, rather than targeted benefits for the poor.[2] They point to the success of generous government subsidies in the early years of Singapore’s industrial development, such as mass public housing and almost-free mass primary and secondary education.

These ongoing public debates about the level, type and form of social welfare policy should definitely be encouraged and are unlikely to die down any time soon. Yet one wonders whether these debates miss the point. Rather than debate about policy, the real debate could be about politics instead.

There is a significant agreement amongst political economists who study inequality, most notably the late Michael Wallerstein, that two key factors affect cross-country income inequality – first, the institutionalization and level of collective wage bargaining unions; and second, the role and presence of Left parties in competitive democratic governance. On these two issues, the Singapore story is simple: our unions are crippled due to their inability to strike and their close (some say subordinate) relationship with the ruling PAP; and, Left parties have little ideological traction and salience amongst the population, and are uncompetitive in elections organized under biased electoral rules.

The primacy of politics means that politics often has far-ranging social and economic consequences. At the risk of sounding overly pessimistic, the outlook for the still-authoritarian Singapore on the inequality front strongly suggests business-as-usual continuity rather than hopeful change.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/notes/sim-ann-沈颖/tackling-inequality-charting-our-own-path/285475898170435

[2] https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=305534386147209

The false promise of capitalist development: Singapore’s economic boom widens income gap

This article is a few years old, but it illustrates in a nut shell the false promise of capitalist development. Most Third world countries who intend to achieve development through the market system will eventually hit a wall.The optimal alternative to underdevelopment is socialist development.

Singapore’s economic boom widens income gap
By Melanie Lee

(Reuters) – Carol John, 27, doesn’t own a bed. Every night she sleeps on thin mattresses which she shares with her three young children. Outside her one-room flat, a smell of sewage lingers in the common corridor.

Just a few kilometers away, on Singapore’s Sentosa island, Madhupati Singhania relaxes on his $435,000 yacht berthed at the city-state’s swanky One 15 Marina Club.

Income inequality is nothing new in free-market Singapore, but two years of blistering economic growth and a government policy of attracting wealthy expatriates have created a new class of super-rich, while a string of price increases for everything from bread to bus fares have made life harder for the poor.

“I can’t save anything, it’s so difficult for me,” John told Reuters. John, who is unemployed, relies on her husband’s S$600 (US$420) monthly salary and a S$100 government handout.

“We don’t benefit at all from the economy. As far as I know, my husband’s pay hasn’t gone up,” she said.

Singapore’s economy is firing on all cylinders, with a booming construction sector, record tourist arrivals and a fast-growing financial sector all contributing to a gross domestic product set to grow nearly 8 percent in 2007.

But the rising tide is not lifting every boat.

The proportion of Singapore residents earning less than S$1,000 ($690) a month rose to 18 percent last year, from 16 percent in 2002, central bank data released late last month show.

At the same time, the proportion of those earning S$8,000 and above rose from 4.7 percent to 6 percent in the same period.

“When a country becomes richer, you tend to see a widening of income inequality. Over the last few years it has been worse,” said econometrics professor Anthony Tay at SMU university.

Despite sporting a first-world GDP per capita of $29,000 — second only to Japan in Asia — Singapore has an income inequality profile more in line with third-world countries.

Singapore’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, has worsened from 42.5 in 1998 to 47.2 in 2006, and is now in league with the Philippines (46.1) and Guatemala (48.3), and worse than China (44.7), data from Singapore’s Household Survey and the World Bank show.

Other wealthy Asian nations such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan have more European-style Ginis of 24.9, 31.6 and 32.6.


CIMB-GK Research economist Song Seng Wun believes that growth itself partly explains the widening income gap.

“In an environment where growth is huge, there are lots of opportunities for risk takers, and inevitably, you will get this widening (of the income gap),” he said, adding that those in stable jobs will also benefit, but to a lesser extent.

Opportunity is what attracted Singhania to Singapore. He intends to buy a new 47-foot yacht for $1.3 million.

“You’ve got everything you want in Singapore. You want to buy a fast car, you want to buy a big boat, you want to buy an aeroplane, whatever you need, you can get in this country.”

Singhania, who runs a business consultancy firm, was originally from Mumbai but decided to move to Singapore and become a Singapore citizen, citing its first-world comforts.

The Asian Development Bank blames the widening income gap in Singapore and many other Asia countries partly on globalization, which it said favors the well-educated, and recommended policies to create more equal opportunities and wealth.

Singapore’s government has made the reduction of the income gap a priority, but argues welfare should not be a crutch, and rules out unemployment benefits or a minimum wage.

While the ruling People’s Action Party is in no danger of losing its stranglehold on parliament, the growing income disparity has hurt its credibility.

“There is definitely envy, but this is not enough for civil disturbance,” said sociologist Ho Kong Chong at NUS university.

“These emotions of despair and desperation are missing in Singapore because of the government’s housing policy and transfer payments,” Ho said.

Singapore’s extensive housing program provides owner-financed flats in government-built blocks and the state also provides modest income supplements to those in low-income jobs, although there are no unemployment benefits.

Carol John, who left school when she was 15, does not know much about support schemes. “In the years to come, I’ll just leave it in God’s hands, whatever he gives me, I’ll take it.”

($1=1.448 Singapore Dollar), ($1=.6894 Euro)