This is the transcript of an interview Sheritha Brace from International Affairs Forum conducted with Alf Nilsen (Professor of Sociology at the University of Pretoria) on the COVID-19 Crisis.
- You’ve written that World Bank poverty metrics that show an overall world decline don’t actually present a complete picture – particularly, as they relate to the global South. Would you expand on this view?
Let’s start with the basics – the World Bank has been actively involved for a number of years now in the production of what I call a “glad tidings” narrative about global poverty, and at the heart of that narrative is the message that extreme poverty is decreasing to such an extent that it is now at the lowest level ever recorded in human history. I think it’s very important to take note of the fact that this narrative is one that does very crucial ideological work, because the message at its core – the message that extreme poverty has never been lower – implicitly (and indeed sometimes also explicitly) tells us that the political and economic system that the World Bank has been instrumental in putting in place over the last forty years – neoliberal capitalism – is working out quite well for the vast majority of the world’s population.
Now, my argument is this: the World Bank’s “glad tidings” narrative is fundamentally false because the poverty estimates that it is based on are entirely meaningless. The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than $1.90 dollars a day, and that, in my view, basically amounts to playing with a loaded dice, as it is pretty much impossible to sustain secure and dignified human life with such an utterly paltry income. Indeed, if anything, setting the poverty line at such a level arguably tells us a lot about how incredibly low we set the bar for what we consider to be acceptable living standards for people in the global South – and that, of course, should be cause for introspection, not just for the World Bank, but also for anyone who buys into their “glad tidings” narrative. If we think further about how we measure poverty, it is incredibly important to be aware of the fact that as soon as we start using slightly more generous poverty lines – $2.50 a day or $5.50 a day – there’s much less to be happy about, and – as LSE anthropologist Jason Hickel has pointed out in his excellent book The Divide – if we set the global poverty line at $10, which isn’t really very generous at all, some 80% of the world’s population live in poverty and the number of poor people in the world has increased significantly since the early 1980s, which, incidentally, was the point at which the neoliberal restructuring of capitalism really began to pick up steam.
To be fair, the World Bank has, in one of its most recent reports, proposed new and revised global poverty lines. But this, in my view, is much too little much too late from an institution that has spent so many years investing much energy and effort into producing an entirely false narrative about a political and economic system which quite simply is not fit for the purpose of providing secure and dignified lives and livelihoods for the vast majority of people on our planet. Just think of the fact that the vast majority of poor people in the world – some 70% when measured at $2.50 a day, according to economist Andy Sumner – live in what the World Bank refers to as middle-income countries. What this means is that the economic growth which has resulted from countries in the global South being inserted into world markets through global value chains – a development strategy which the World Bank has touted since the 1980s – has failed to substantially to improve the lives of the poor in the global South. And we know the reason for this – and that’s inequality. The vast amount of value that is produced in the global economy ends up in very few pockets – the pockets of the global 1%, to put it very simply – while the labour share of income – that is, the part of national income that workers receive as wages – has been declining in both the global South and the global North since – again! – the 1980s.
If we want a meaningful conversation and meaningful action on how we create a different kind of future for ordinary people, we need something the World Bank’s poverty metrics and “glad tidings” narrative doesn’t offer us – namely a clear understanding of the power structures that have made neoliberal capitalism such a perversely unequal political and economic system, and an equally clear idea of how we can fundamentally transform those power structures once and for all.
- In your view, what has been the effect of the pandemic on inequality in the global South? What about in comparison to the global North?
Well, most fundamentally, I think the global Covid-19 pandemic is a moment of truth. It has revealed more clearly than ever just how unfit for human life our current political and economic order is in so many ways. And an important part of this is of course also the fact that the pandemic has revealed how extremely hollow the “we-are-all-in-this-together” narrative that has been the soundtrack of our lives during the past months actually is, precisely because of how the impacts of the pandemic have been shaped by inequality.
To me, one of the clearest examples of this is provided by Narendra Modi’s India, where migrant workers – that is, the workers whose cheap labour and disposable lives have fuelled India’s so-called growth miracle – took to interstate highways in desperate attempts to return to their villages as the Modi regime declared a national lockdown with four hours notice. What this scenario showed us was the consequences of the world’s largest democracy having consistently failed to extend social rights to its poorest and most vulnerable citizens for a very long time. India is of course not the only example of this – we see similar kind of dynamics elsewhere, across both the global South and the global North, including in South Africa, where I live and work.
Now, to be more specific, the most recent research we have access to tells us very clearly that middle-income countries in the global South – recall, these are the countries where 70% of the world’s poor live – are set to be hit by dramatic increases in poverty. Researchers at King’s College in London estimate that, at a poverty line of $1.90 a day, we might see 400 million new poor. And if we adjust the poverty line slightly upwards to $3.20 and $5.50, some 500 million more people might be pushed into poverty as a result of the pandemic. They also show that the global income shortfall below each of these poverty lines might increase by as much as 60 per cent. There’s a real possibility that daily income losses could amount to $350m among those living on less than $1.90 dollars a day and as much as $200 million for those who have recently fallen into extreme poverty. The researchers are clear that these dramatic numbers are directly related to extreme precarity among the working poor in middle-income countries.
Now, this is happening at the same time as the global 1% have been enriching themselves during the pandemic. Just think of the fact that American billionaires – Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos stand out as cases in point – have collectively boosted their net worth by some $434 billion while the pandemic has ripped through the world. This is perverse and enraging in many ways, but also entirely par for the course in the context of the political and economic system that we live under. And in my view, what it shows us is the absolute necessity of fundamentally transforming the political and economic structures that make it possible for the global 1% to amass such wealth at the same time as precarious workers are being pushed further into poverty.
- How much of a setback do you think the pandemic has had on efforts aimed at combatting inequality? What challenges must be overcome?
This is an interesting question because it begs another question in response: what are the efforts that have been made to combat inequality over the past twelve years – that is, since the outbreak of the global financial crisis in 2008, which brought the issue of inequality squarely to the centre of debates in the public sphere?
If we ask that question in terms of what the powers that be have done, the answer, in my opinion, is this: nothing at all. I say this because that’s what the evidence tells us. The World Inequality Report, published in 2018 by Thomas Piketty and his colleagues, for example, shows that income inequality, which has been on the rise from the 1980s onwards, has also kept increasing since 2008. We know why this has happened – it has happened because the response to the crisis of 2008 was economic austerity. Now, austerity policies are basically just neoliberalism on steroids. They’re not designed to ameliorate inequality in any way whatsoever. They do, however, work very well to impoverish the poor and enrich the rich, and that is precisely what they have done over the past 12 years.
This is why I think that, if we want to talk about efforts to combat inequality, we have to look elsewhere than to the powers that be. We have to look to the streets, where ordinary people have been organizing and mobilizing in protest against inequality. As much as it’s now hard to recall a time before the pandemic, it’s nevertheless the case that 2019 was recognized even by a business-friendly newspaper such as Financial Times as the year of street protest. And as we of course know very well, those protests are continuing even in the midst of the pandemic – I’m talking here, among other things, of the Black Lives Matter protests that have shook America and the world recently, and I do so because these protests are not just about police violence. Inequality is also part and parcel of the structural racism that these protests are calling time on. And we also know that, in contexts where governments have often failed dismally to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic in ways that address the needs of their most vulnerable citizens, ordinary people have organized the most amazing self-help initiatives to do what those in power either can’t do or – I suspect – don’t want to do.
So when we talk about overcoming challenges, I think we need to look to these protest movements. We need to realize that protests are not bringing disorder and violence – they are bringing necessary social change to a political and economic system that is itself very violent in its consequences. And these movements are doing that by engaging in what socialist feminists like Tithi Bhattacharya and Susan Ferguson refer to as life-making work – work that, in sharp contrast to capitalist profit-making, nurtures human life.
- Populism has had a surge in recent years around the world. As many countries have turned inward during the pandemic, what do you foresee as its impact, if any, on populism?
I think that populists will do with the pandemic what they do with social problems and challenges more generally – that is, rather than responding with the kind of competence and solidarity that is actually needed, they will weaponize the pandemic for their own political purposes.
I say this because this is what is already happening. Over the past few months, we have seen authoritarian populist rulers – Trump, Bolsonaro, and Modi are cases in point here – use the pandemic to further bolster the us-and-them narratives that are their political currency. Witness, for example, how the Modi government has tried to scapegoat India’s Muslim minority for the spread of the pandemic, all the while handling the crisis with an incompetence that simply beggars belief. The denial of and disregard for scientific expertise that we have seen in the cases of Trump and Bolsonaro share a similar logic, as it works to fuel the warped image of people and elite that sustain them politically. And, as Naomi Klein has pointed out, Covid-19 has provided populists with an opportunity to practice disaster capitalism – in other words, turning a public health crisis into an opportunity for corporations to boost profits. Trump’s proposed stimulus package – essentially austerity for ordinary people and bailouts for the corporate sector – is one example of this. Modi follows closely behind with initiatives to slash labour laws and opening up new sectors of the economy to private investment, all the while leaving the working poor to fend for themselves as their livelihoods vanish and a life-threatening virus spreads like wildfire.
Whether or not these strategies will boost or break these populist rulers remains to be seen. But it is profoundly encouraging, in this respect, to see the kind of advances that the Black Lives Matter movement has made in this context. This is so both in terms of increased public support for their activism and in terms of the headway that the demand for defunding the police – a crucial aspect of any strategy for meaningful social change towards a society that nurtures human life – has made in a very short time. It brings home the point again, that prospects for a liveable future are to be found in the social movements that are busy trying to change the world.
- The Covid-19 crisis has also put strains on democracies worldwide. What impact, if any, do you think the pandemic will have on democracies as it continues?
I think the current situation is one of great risk and great hope all at once.
On the one hand, we have seen that the Corona-pandemic has provided governments with an opportunity to crack down on dissent and protest. One obvious example here is China, which has cracked down severely on protestors in Hong Kong. But equally disconcerting is the fact that India – supposedly the world’s largest democracy – has used the national lockdown to further pursue a war on dissent that has been ongoing since Narendra Modi took power in 2014. More specifically, the regime has arrested several activists that were involved in the large-scale protests against anti-Muslim citizenship laws from early December 2019 through to late March 2020. And in addition to that, the authorities have persisted in keeping civil rights activists like Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, and Anand Teltumbde locked up while the virus is spreading in Indian prisons. More generally, there is also every reason to be concerned about how the use of emergency powers and surveillance tools will impact on democratic rights. Just like Covid-19 has amplified already existing inequalities, there is no doubt that it is also providing opportunities to governments – and especially authoritarian populist governments – to further intensify the ongoing onslaught on basic democratic principles.
But there’s also hope, and here I return once again to the social movements that are currently engaging in the hard but necessary work of transforming our world. These movements are on the frontline in the pushback against authoritarian populism – in fact, they are the frontline! And, what is more, they are also expanding the meaning of what democracy looks like. There are some, of course, who don’t see it that way – prominent scholars have bemoaned the “mob rule” of crowds tearing down statues of slave traders in British cities. But what such observers fail to understand is that democracy is about much more than the elections and the parliamentary proceedings that they tend to study. Democracy is – as Angela Davis has said about freedom – always a constant struggle. And that struggle has the potential to fundamentally deepen democracy. And I would add here that refusing, through collective action, to accept that city spaces should pay homage to those who battened themselves by holding human beings in bondage is, in my opinion, democracy working at its very finest.
- Some are of the view that effects from the pandemic can actually be leveraged for positive change. In your opinion, what types of realistic changes in the global South are possible in a post-pandemic world?
Well, I think the most important thing by far is to work, through collective action, to transform what we think of as realistic changes in the global South. This follows from my criticism of how World Bank poverty estimates speak volumes about how incredibly low we set the bar for what we consider to be acceptable living standards for people in the global South. To be more specific, I think that it’s important to insist that economic policies that basically say that countries and workers in the global South should be content with obtaining a position in global value chains that allow for some very incremental and ultimately very limited progress up the poverty ladder are way past their sell-by dates, and need to be discarded. I also think it’s necessary to insist that middle-income countries can do far more to expand necessary social protection for the working poor and for vulnerable citizens, and that this will be a driving force in any substantial attempt to root out poverty.
But to do so, we need to understand something very fundamental, which is that changes such as these will not result from those currently in power making the “correct” choices on the basis of shared moral concerns and neutral expertise. Rather, changes such as these will result from struggles that have to be waged and won against vested interests. This is one thing that the post-pandemic world shares with the pre-pandemic world, namely that human development can only happen if we break with neoliberal capitalism, which is something that by necessity means going up against the determined opposition of those that profit from this system.