Hindsight’s blinkered perspective

2014-07-15 00:00

“THE misery of people here is very great, with beggars innumerable and increasing every day … pigs and calves live better than they.” That rhyming comment could apply to the legions of the poor in many parts of the world today. And South Africa is no exception.

But that statement was made nearly 300 years ago by the Archbishop of Dublin, writing about conditions in England’s first colony, Ireland. Land seizures and a system of gross exploitation had reduced most of the Irish population to destitution.

What has this to do with South Africa today? Actually a lot. Because one of the arguments by the powers that be — and their supporters — at that time in Ireland was that the misery of the mass of Irish people was a consequence of them breeding too much. There were simply too many poor, too many children “in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers”, as the great Irish satirist Jonathan Swift noted.

We are now hearing the same arguments, especially in Africa; that one of the roots of widespread unemployment and economic crisis is overpopulation. It is an argument that the labour movement, overall, rejects out of hand. Because, from a trade-union perspective, the problem lies not with people, but with the distribution and management of available resources, and that an unregulated system of cut-throat competition and individual greed is a recipe for disaster. The labour movement also points out, correctly, that in countries where, often through bitter struggles, workers have achieved higher standards of living and education, the rate of population growth slows or declines. And the world today still has the capacity to produce enough food, clothing and shelter to satisfy the needs of the population.

If we look back nearly 300 years to before Western colonialism began its serious pillage of the African continent, echoes of what happens here today could be seen in Ireland. The poverty that resulted from rapacious colonialism was blamed on the fact that the poor of that country produced too many dependents.

In South Africa in 2014, we have similar arguments: that it is the result of the poor producing too many offspring; that fewer poor children would mean a better life for all. What this argument means is that the small slice of the economic cake given to the majority — or won through sometimes desperate battles — is held to be the problem. This ignores the fundamental nature of the system and implies that the social and economic environment in which we operate is static. It is an argument no democrat, whether religious or not — and no serious trade unionist — would condone.

Today, from the United Nations down, there is at least lip service paid to the concept of all people being equal in that they should have equal rights and opportunities. Yet, especially at times of economic crisis, beneficiaries of the present system seek for, and promote, scapegoats. So it was in Ireland in 1729 when crop failures increased the misery of the poor and swelled their numbers. The gentry of the day laid the blame on the victims and Swift, then dean of St Patrick’s cathedral, used his satirical pen to hold them up to ridicule by making an outrageous proposal that might shock them into thinking more deeply.

His “modest proposal” to prevent poor children from being a burden “to their parents or country …” was simple: eat the children of the poor. He wrote: “I have been assured … that a young healthy child well-nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled …”

But this satirical example that the children of the poor were regarded no better than animals fell largely on deaf ears. The idea that population growth was the ultimate cause of poverty was not put to rest. Nearly 70 years later, an English vicar and economist, Thomas Malthus, maintained that the poverty of his day was the result of population outstripping food production. But he believed that divine intervention in the form of famine and disease would eventually restore the balance. He was perhaps influenced by one of the founders of modern, liberal economics, Adam Smith, who believed that some sort of “invisible hand” would balance demand and supply.

We now have the advantage of hindsight across three centuries. And yet the same old concepts continue being promoted — and, I argue, they ignore the underlying facts.

• Terry Bell is a journalist, commentator and author specialising in political and economic analysis and labour matters.

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