An “examination” of world poverty that leads nowhere.
15 December 2008
By Barry Freed
Phillipe Diaz’s “The End of Poverty?” pretends to take up the cause of the world’s oppressed. According to the short plot summary (written by producer Beth Portello) which appears on the main IMDb page for this film, it was “Inspired by the works of 19th century economist Henry George, who examined the causes of industrial depressions.” The fact that the film methodically ignores the contributions of the far more influential and widely celebrated 19th century investigator of industrial depressions and poverty, Karl Marx, is but one indication of this film’s intellectually shoddy and ultimately dishonest character.
“The End of Poverty?” is structured as a series of three intermixed components, which goes on for nearly all of a seemingly endless 106 minutes: (1) interviews with impoverished people in the “Third World,” which, here, is synonymous with the “South;” (2) interviews with historical, economic and political thinkers (mostly from the “First World”) who sketch out some of the history of European colonialism and its effects on the colonized peoples and (3) full-screen white-on-black statistical statements, like “X percent of the world’s people consume Y percent of the world’s energy” etc. Along the way, some of the commentators point out that the rise of capitalism was based on — and a large share of its profits continues to be based on — the ruthless exploitation of the colonial world. Although the talking heads often use the circumspect word “system,” references to “capitalism” appear more frequently as the film progresses. Thus, the viewer might reasonably expect the film to culminate with a call for the end (overthrow?) of the system which causes all this misery: capitalism. Don’t hold your breath.
The film’s portrait of the world’s wretched is peculiarly skewed. Most of the interviews with poor people and footage of pitiful living conditions are from South America, notably Bolivia. The time allotted to Africa is a distant second and focuses on Kenya, with a much smaller Tanzanian component. There is precious little footage from — or mention of — Asia. Most of the interviewed poor are or were connected to the land in some way. Industrial workers are essentially ignored. Causes of poverty such as war and ethnic victimization are similarly overlooked. “Does poverty exist even within the over-consuming ‘North’ as well?” one might ask. As far as “The End of Poverty?” is concerned, the latter is invisible. Other viewers might be forgiven for wondering about the effects on poverty of the overthrow of capitalism in the Soviet Union, China and Cuba (the “Second World”?). Again, silence reigns. Thus, as a study of the world’s misery, the film is impressively inadequate.
As the film enters its final stage, there is a half-hearted invocation of the long-forgotten U.S. economic philosopher, Henry George. In his 1879 “Progress and Poverty,” George proposed that poverty could be eliminated(!) by the abolition of all taxes save one: a tax on land. Not only was this panacea unoriginal (it had been advocated for more than 50 years by the followers of classical British economist David Ricardo), it was wacky. Karl Marx thought that George’s theory was “the more unpardonable in him because he ought to have put the question to himself in just the opposite way: How did it happen that in the United States, where . . . in comparison with civilised Europe, the land was accessible to the great mass of the people, . . . capitalist economy and the corresponding enslavement of the working class have developed more rapidly and shamelessly than in any other country!” For Marx, adherents of George’s view “. . . try to bamboozle . . . the world into believing that if ground rent were transformed into a state tax, all the evils of capitalist production would disappear of themselves. The whole thing is therefore simply an attempt . . . to save capitalist domination and indeed to establish it afresh on an even wider basis than its present one.” (See Marx’s letter to F. A. Sorge, June 20, 1881.) The film does not make so bold as to try to resurrect George’s single-tax panacea. Instead, it offers an updated version: the “Commons” paradigm. The supporters of this Liberal nostrum believe that the solution for the world’s poor is to remove all of the land from private ownership and to hold it in common. Unsurprisingly, they do not explain how to achieve this little miracle.
In the film’s last few minutes, some of the commentators raise the specter of the supposed limitations (as judged by what standard — present-day capitalist production?) of the world’s resources and the excessive and unequal consumption of those resources by the “North.” Diaz’s real aim here is to guilt-trip gullible people in the industrialized countries into adopting moralistic “use less energy” schemes, as if conscience-stricken lowering of consumption in the “First World” will magically increase consumption in the “Third.” The accelerating global descent into depression, triggered by the unprecedentedly massive “mortgage securities” fraud perpetrated by the U.S.’s financial sector, will, no doubt, achieve Diaz’s aim of lowering consumption in the “North.” Does he actually believe this will benefit the world’s poor?
For Diaz and Co., the “North” is one undifferentiated entity. Its working class, whose exploitation remains necessary for the survival of the capitalist system and which regularly loses some of its ranks into the maelstrom of poverty, does not figure in their calculations. And this is the most pernicious omission of their retreaded Malthusian ideology. For it is ONLY the working class of the developed countries — once it becomes conscious of its historic class interests — which has the social power to reorganize production on a rationally-planned, world-wide, for-need basis, in order to lift itself AND the colonial masses out of the chain of misery. Because “The End of Poverty?” conceals this vital knowledge from anyone who is interested in ending poverty, it is, finally, an obstacle to achieving that goal.