On the notion that Capitalism has raised millions out of poverty… this is based on a Capitalist’s definition of poverty where a people living in small-scale subsistence agriculture do not earn money daily, therefore they live in poverty. This alone discounts other measures of wealth such as need, hunger and access to cultural and familial identity.
This pro-Capitalism argument is often brought up in response to the suggestion that conditions in factories around the world provide very poor work conditions; child labor, low wages, etc. This argument, that Capitalism has done more than anything else to raise these people up, is misleading and discounts the concerns raised by using a series of steps.
First, it starts by pointing out that people who never earned a dollar a day now earn one. This argument appears to have merit at first. It is factually true because many of these people came from farms where money is not the only form of trade, a notion difficult for us first-worlders to understand. By making the claim that earning a dollar-a-day pulls people out of abject poverty relies on assumptions about poverty. Any metric that attempts to define poverty and its abatement should include the impacts such abatement would have against an individual’s already established well-being by taking into consideration other factors of wealth, that cannot be provided by a broad brush of ‘increased earnings to a pittance are better than the nothing they had before’.
Moving people away from a culture of farming by luring them into cities with promises of financial wealth can cause these people to give up other necessities such as shelter, access to food, and the security of family in order to earn their first dollar for a day’s labor. The truth is that many people moving to the cities for work fail to find jobs and end up working in the sex trade, in the underground economy, or becoming destitute.
Those who successfully make this transition from farm to factory often end up with contractual obligations and commitments (some explicit and some implicit) that essentially subjugate individuals to forced servitude, with their pay docked to cover costs such as room and board so that their take home pay ends up being much lower than a dollar-a-day. When one looks at the pay many receive on a per-item basis it can easily end up being shown as less than a penny-per-item, out of the hundreds of dollars charged for that item at its final retail value). Clearly profit and not altruism takes the lead in the balance in how many factories are run and managed.
Second, the argument in support of the Capitalists moves on to state that there are lines of people outside factories around the world, all waiting to earn that single dollar-a-day. This evidence at first seems to reinforce the earlier assumption. However, just because there are many people who now want this dollar-a-day ignores the obvious desperation created by the unfair economic practices and low wages. If the wages were in fact good wages for the area this should stimulate the surrounding economies and create new jobs. But this rarely happens. Pointing out the lines of people outside factories attempts to justify the earlier definition, while discounting the original complaint about poor factory conditions.
Further more, the line of people waiting to earn a dollar-a-day is not a validation of the Capitalist’s definition. Rather, it points to the failings of Capitalism to handle the needs of everyone standing in that line. The people in that line become unpaid servants to the Capitalist’s objectives, as they act as an implicit warning to those inside the factory doors, that should they choose to complain about earning a low wage, or unsafe conditions (or mistreatment such as rape), that they can be replaced by one of the many other people standing in a line outside that very door.
Third. The arguments go to even greater lengths to step away from the original complaint, and redirect the discussion by listing all the benefits that arise from those poor work conditions and low wages. It is pointed out how the overall boost in the economy and business from ‘cheap’ cell phones and computers has allowed an explosion of opportunities, what with the creation of apps and user created content. This is a disgusting attempt to bribe the complacent listener into accepting that the awful work conditions of others is a worthwhile moral cost, because of all the great things that have come about as a result.
I imagine that similar arguments were made by our forefathers when discussing slavery in America. Think of all the great things that came about because of cheap cotton that existed because it was picked by hand for free. We had inventors creating and selling machinery, employment at fabric mills, clothes designers, seamstresses and tailors, shops and fancy parties, commerce and trade with nations overseas. All of this ‘greatness’ was possible because we allowed slave labor to continue. Yes. Great economic expansion took place, but at what costs, and in a historical perspective we now consider that time to be a stain on America’s moral relevance.
Clearly there is much lacking in the current practices of many factories in third world countries. To simply wipe those concerns away by suggesting Capitalism is the greatest savior for the world’s impoverished is to ignore the root of the statement, that people work for low wages in dangerous conditions all around the world. It is a simple and unfortunate tactic of redirection, that does a disservice to all of us, and only, yes only serves the corporate and economic interests of a few.
It should not be construed from the above argument that I am anti-Capitalism or a pro-Marxist. When the current trade deals were first enacted I admit I was hopeful that raising the needy around the world would give them a chance to expand their circumstances and organize their labor forces. But in many places these changes were not given a chance to occur. When workers of a region began to get involved in bettering their lives the factories moved to new locations. Those workers who had been pulled away from their farms and other lives were suddenly left economically stranded.
I am deeply bothered by the assumption that Capitalism’s successes in paying people a dollar-a-day is a triumphant excuse to perpetuate a system that is ultimately brutal. It blindly denies the validity of the original complaint, and even hints that there is no other option.
I challenge the claim that Capitalism has done more than anything else to raise people out of poverty. This is a bit like saying, Putting millions of people in prison has given many their first guaranteed three meals a day. It completely discounts other measures for Quality of Life. Changing the age-old way people have lived by a lure of factory work has been devastating to countless, as factories move in and then move out when costs get too expensive. For many places it is now too late to undo the damage done. A new question arises, what can be done to help the people that have been left with nothing.