As the Davos class head off from their annual get together in Switzerland, it's a good time for a quick stocktaking of the stories we're told about global affairs.
There are, essentially, two grand narratives about these times we
live in. We can think of each as a kind of foundational logic, invoked
as a way to frame the vastly complex reality we see all around us, and
therefore help determine how we understand and respond to it.
One says that whereas there are of course problems, we've basically
never had it so good. The other says, whereas there are of course lots
of positives, we've got the fundamentals of economics and politics so
badly wrong that we're risking our very survival.
The Best of Times
The best of times narrative draws on a cluster of evidence. The most
important is how much wealth there is. The human race, it says, has
never been wealthier than we are today; since 1980, global GDP has grown
by an astonishing 635 percent.
Since wealth is commonly used as a proxy for well-being, this feeds a
deep sense that we have never been better off, overall. There are reams
of data to support this: The World Bank says the number of people living
in extreme poverty, which it defines as living on less than $1.25 a day
(adjusted for purchasing power parity), has dropped roughly 30 percent over a comparative period. Similar downward trends can be seen in hunger, child labor, child mortality, maternal deaths in childbirth, illiteracy, incidence of violent conflict and so on. In other words, not only has the wealth pie exploded, but humanity as a whole is reaping the benefits.
Focus on these facts and one conclusion shines through - whatever
we've been doing, we need more of it. In practical terms, this means
more GDP-defined industrial growth; more, if hopefully greener,
consumption and production; more "a rising tide lifts all boats"
economics; and more foreign aid-based development. It is unleashing
enormous progress pretty much everywhere, and whereas no one denies
there are problems, the direction of travel is as positive as any
reasonable person could expect. The cornerstones of this narrative are
that extreme poverty has been halved since 1990 and can be eradicated by
The Worst of Times
The worst of times starts with structural fissures. Rising wealth
inequality is currently top of the popular list, followed by climate
change and poverty. All three, it says, are evidence of fundamental,
even lethal, flaws in the operating system. This narrative has its own
library of evidence. Inequality within and between
countries is rising steeply, and so aggregates - e.g. GDP growth - are
profoundly misleading. The reality is more accurately captured by killer
facts such as those Oxfam put out in January showing that the richest
1% are on track to have as much as 50 percent of global wealth by 2016.
As for global poverty trends, it says the data have been so manhandled
over the years that their only real value now is as political and
marketing tools. Lies, damn lies, and statistics. Most importantly, the
World Bank's $1.25-a-day poverty line is so low as to be insulting. Some
economists argue that a realistic figure would be more like $10 a day.
The UN body UNCTAD
has determined that anyone living on less than $5 per day is unable to
achieve "a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing" - the
inalienable right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights. If you use that figure, a soul-scorching 5.1 billion people are living in those conditions today. That's close to 80 percent of humanity.
Then, there's climate change. No one with a level head disputes the basic science, which is predicting between a 3 and 5-degree Celsius
rise in global mean temperatures by 2100. Left unchecked, this will
decimate the planet's biodiversity, unravel the fabric of economies,
uproot whole societies and outright kill hundreds of millions, if not
billions of people. And this doesn't begin to talk about instability in
the global financial system that could pull the rug out from under,
In other words, real-life poverty, far from having been halved, is
endemic, and the idea that it can be eradicated by 2030 is ridiculous
because of the false accounting base it starts from, the willful
blindness to systemic threats it invites and, critically, because it is a
necessary feature of the current system. The poor must be kept so poor
for the rich to be so rich.
Focus at this level and one conclusion is obvious: Whatever we've
been doing, we need to change it, in a hurry, and at the level of
operating principles. At the top of the list is what we mean by
progress, which leads to the design of the money system and the
centrality of debt; growing private (i.e. corporate) influence in both
national and global politics; and overall levels of production and
Motivations and Tricks
The two narratives not only call on different facts; they use
different paradigms. The former is concerned with what we seem to have
got right and sees such goodness and achievement that it logically
embraces the idea that we need more of the same system, albeit with some
tweaks. The latter doesn't deny progress, but says it's not what we've
achieved so much as what security and morality demand, and that unless
the fundamentals evolve significantly, nothing will really change.
This juxtaposition would be important at any time, but is critical
this year because this is the year of the UN Sustainable Development
Goals (SDGs). In September, heads of state will gather in New York to
agree on this next-generation agenda. Right now, the overwhelming bulk
of the actors involved - from most large NGOs to governments to the World Bank to corporations
- have chosen to headline the best of times. It's been building in the
niche world of international development for a while now and will make
itself felt in mainstream media in the coming months, thanks to well-funded public campaigns.
It's easy to see the appeal. It's a marketeer's dream: It is hopeful,
compelling and, critically, it bathes both the people speaking and the
product they are selling (the SDGs) in a positive light. It thus feeds
off a deep thirst for hope in a world that, to the mainstream audience
they crave, feels increasingly unknowable and dangerous, and then
validates the logic of the status quo. It also makes it more likely that
we might end up with a toothless wish list that feels palatable because
hope and dreams are what we expect the development industry to trade
in, rather than the hard work of system change. That's a very neat
Ultimately, though, it is just a trick, a distraction, that massages
the truth out of the picture. It denies the deep cracks in the edifice
that might end up undoing genuine gains and sets up expectations that,
like fast food, can taste great today, but will assuredly be regretted
tomorrow. It is certainly no basis for expanding understanding of the
systemic flaws that drive inequality, poverty and climate change.
Indeed, it's worth wondering if it is deliberately so.
The alternative is not to abandon hope, but to use it to unlock the
courage to stare deeply into our challenges. Societies throughout
history have risen to challenges every bit as daunting as ours. If we
direct attention to the level of the system and its operating
principles, if we model ways of describing the whole rather than
deploying only positive half-truths and disingenuous hope, we have every
reason to believe we can help create a real best of times. Step one:
Speak to the whole truth.
Directing attention to the level of the system (not level at all but highly imbalanced) and directing attention to its operating principles is what we endeavour to do each and every day in order to motivate others to look more inquisitively at the foundations of our capitalist run societies and more critically at those who like to call themselves and be called 'leaders'. Understanding capitalism is crucial to the realisation that the only alternative, the one that will work in the majority interest, is socialism.