winter's tales

It is an interesting and somewhat terrible time to be poor in the developed countries. Poverty is not just deprivation, of course – it is a form of life. I know all about it, in one way. I’ve been poor for the last six or seven years, and I’ll probably get poorer as time goes on. So I have a day to day acquaintance with the how-to-get-by that makes up poverty in America. But I have no acquaintance with the culture of poverty for the simple reason that the culture of poverty has been so penetrated by cultural forms generated by the middle and upper classes that the older forms have disappeared. My only knowledge of them is from the vast literature that either touched on the poor or sprang directly from them between around 1600 to around 1930. In the U.S., the last bit of this culture fed into the flowering of the American novel in the 50s and 60s. Read Augie March or Native Son, and then pick up your average American literary novel today – on the recommendation of someone I met, I’ve been reading Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, Lunar Park. The latter has no down – or its downs are all chemical and emotional. It isn’t that the point of view of down has totally disappeared from the national consciousness, but when it does emerge – say, in Rap music – it pretty quickly merges with middle class norms, adopts the middle class way of seeing itself.

On a world wide scale, I’d call this (to use an ugly, sociological term) the sqalorization of poverty. The erasure of forms in question is about liquidating the dignity in how-to-get-by, and with the loss of that dignity goes the loss of a point of view. The point of view is then turned into something that is simply want. This suits the intellectual norms of the governing class to a tee – all sides of the ideological divide essentially define poverty in terms of want. It is a consumer group at low ebb.

Hmm, depressing stuff for the holidays there, Mr. LI. But it is important to remember certain cold human truths when reading economists. As in the article by RBA that we referenced yesterday.

RBA’s point in the article is to shoot down a few of the recent myths about international trade, aid, and less developed countries –LDCs, as they are known among the international headhunters. These myths fluctuate. Although RBA doesn’t point it out, the current controversies over agriculture demonstrate how the right can shift left and the left can shift right without anyone knowing or caring. In the fifties, when the literature on LDCs were born, there was one truth that was held to be self evident – the path to wealth was paved by diminishing the labor pool attached to the agricultural sector and building up the industrial sector. It was right wing economists, notably Peter Bauer, who criticized the nascent Cold War model – a model very influenced by what seemed to be the Stalinist success in industrializing a supposedly moribund and stagnant economy. Now, of course, it is the left that defends the indigenous structures that make up the agricultural sector, while the right calls for the end of trade barriers in order to bring about international agricultural efficiencies. In essence, the liberalization argument is that the wealthy economies, by subsidizing their agricultural sectors, are penalizing farmers in the third world by making third world goods too expensive to compete.

RBA shoots down this argument with relative ease, I think::

“Yet the reality is that liberalizing agricultural trade would largely benefit the consumers and taxpayers of the wealthy nations. Why? Because agricultural subsidies serve first and foremost to transfer resources from consumers and taxpayers to farmers within the same country. Thus, citizens of developed countries would derive the most benefit from having those subsidies cut. Other countries are affected only insofar as world prices rise. But the big, clear gainers from such price increases would be countries that are large net exporters of agricultural products-rich countries, such as the United States, and middle-income countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, and Thailand.

What about the poorer countries? For one thing, many poor countries are actually net importers of agricultural products, and so they benefit from low world prices. An increase in prices may help the rural poor, who sell the agricultural goods, but it would make the urban poor-the consumers--worse off. Net poverty could still be reduced, but to what extent depends in complicated fashion on the working condition of roads and the markets for fertilizer and other inputs, on how much of the gains are captured by poor farmers versus intermediaries, and on the poverty profile of each country.”

Underneath this reasoning, one sees the old idea still working away. To gain the technostructure of modern agriculture in order to capture the benefit from the liberalized regime, farmers would be subject to the same invisible hand that has swept across the U.S. and other developed countries, making it almost impossible for the family farmer to compete with agribusinesses. Not that it is absolutely impossible: niches are still viable: organic foods, some kinds of truck farming, etc. That hand has already moved across the third world, which is why the third world has gone to the cities. Stalin’s collectivization of the Ukraine was a criminal variant of the current of history, perhaps the most important current of history, of the past one hundred years: the collapse of the peasant culture. Perhaps it is this collapse that has lead to the squalorization of poverty – perhaps there is an intrinsic, but hard to suss out connection between peasant culture and the poverty’s former forms of life. The underground connection between these worlds – worlds of the urban masses and the rural masses – can be seen in Giovanni Verga’s wonderful novel, The House by the Medlar Tree, which chronicles the fall of the house of the Malavoglia. Malavoglia are fishermen, not farmers, and so inherently more mobile. But the mobility between the village and the metropolis is on very old routes of custom that you can see underneath all the realistic and naturalistic novels of the nineteenth century – from Lucien de Rubempre’s trip to Paris to Eugenie Grandet’s encounter with a dandy.

Wow, I’m not sure I want to keep going on such a downer subject. And it’s Saturnalia Eve!

Sorry. Good night, sweet ladies, good night, sweet ladies, sweet ladies good night.