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Sunday, July 2, 2017


Two columns in the NY TIMES this morning, combined with my son Patrick’s account of a recent family trip to Tokyo, give me a striking and somewhat counterintuitive picture of the way of the world, a picture that does not bode well for America in the decades ahead.

The first column, by Nicholas Kristof, chronicles the dramatic improvement in the health and living conditions of the poorest hundreds of millions of men, women, and children in the world.  Since 1985, Kristof tells us, the incidence of leprosy, an age-old scourge of the poor and malnourished, has been reduced by 97%, and may be reduced effectively to zero by 2020.  Kristof writes, “There has been a stunning decline in extreme poverty, defined as less than about $2 per person per day, adjusted for inflation. For most of history, probably more than 90 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty, plunging to fewer than 10 percent today.  Every day, another 250,000 people graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. About 300,000 get electricity for the first time. Some 285,000 get their first access to clean drinking water…Family planning leads parents to have fewer babies and invest more in each. The number of global war deaths is far below what it was in the 1950s through the 1990s, let alone the murderous 1930s and ’40s.”

These figures are staggering.  If one believes, as I do, that each human life has the same worth, and that one person’s pain or suffering ought to count for as much in the universal felicific calculus as another’s, then the sheer magnitude of these improvements swamps those bad things currently being done to and by Americans that I and many others obsess over.  One does not have to be a Polyanna, not even a Tigger, to celebrate the fact that every day 285,000 people get access to clean drinking water for the first time.

The second column I read this morning is by the always interesting Frank Bruni, a lament to the increasing unlivability of his beloved New York City.  Bruni writes sadly, angrily, of the congestion in the subways, of the breakdown of the city’s infrastructure, of the eternal political antagonism between the mayor and the governor.  When I grew up in New York, seventy years ago, it was a manageable city, a human city, a city where a boy from a lower middle class family in Queens could ride the IND line to Manhattan and explore.  Later, in the 60’s, when I returned to teach at Columbia, things had become a good deal worse, especially for the shrinking working class population.  Bruni’s column suggests that the New York to which I shall be returning this Fall as a member of Columbia’s Society of Senior Scholars has become unmanageable for all but the very rich, who wall themselves off from the quotidian life of what was, and perhaps still is, America’s premier metropolis.

Patrick’s description of Tokyo –vast, modern, new, as active below street level as it is above – offered me an image of what New York might have been, had the necessary public expenditures been made over the decades to repair, replace, and expand the public spaces.  The only great city with which I am intimately familiar now is Paris, and though it is not a Tokyo, new, gleaming, utterly modern, yet it remains a thoroughly human city where one can enjoy the delights of an urban existence.

What lessons do I learn from these two columns and Patrick’s travelogue?  The first, as you might expect, is that Marx was right.  Capitalism is and remains the most revolutionary force ever unleashed on the human world, revolutionary both for ill and for good.  As Bruni writes, “For most of history, probably more than 90 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty, plunging to fewer than 10 percent today.”  It is capitalism that accomplished this.  Marx was not a Luddite.  As he observed in a famous passage in the Manifesto,  “[T]he bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.”  [Compare this with the following remark by Sherlock Holmes:  “It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”] 

Socialism, when it comes at long last, will conquer the hideous inequality of capitalism, but the groundwork, as it were, will have been done by capitalism’s destruction of feudalism and slavery.  We may allow ourselves to dream, with Leon Trotsky, that under socialism, “[m]an will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”  [The great concluding lines of Literature and Revolution.]

The second lesson I learn from today’s proof texts and Patrick’s report is that in this century, it will not be America that leads the way to a better world.  America is very wealthy, if one aggregates rather than averages, and it is and will remain the one great military superpower, but for all that, the rest of the world may simply pass us by, so that we become an immensely rich, unimaginably powerful backwater.  The evidence suggests that our universities will continue to be the Mecca for graduate students in many disciplines, but those coming will prepare themselves for substandard living conditions, as American students traveling abroad did when I was young.  Large regions of our nation will wear virtual warning signs, “Proceed at your own risk!  The natives are poor, nasty, brutish, and short on human decency.”

Well, I seem to be in a dyspeptic mood today.  A Trump presidency will do that to you.


howie b said...

The Trump show has to say the least torpedoed my mood too and made me bearish on America: clarify for me, is Trump a random event a wild beast terrorizing us or is he some kind of grim reaper of the God of history?
Is there any way up or out or is this the end?
I am happy to hear that this isn't the end of the world if it's the end of America as we know it

s. wallerstein said...

I don't know when America did lead the way to a better world except in the struggle against fascism during World War 2.

Since then, America has not only defended reactionary governments the world over and done its best to overthrow or subvert progressive ones, but also has exported a way of life based on the individual ownership of the automobile (as a symbol of status and virility), which will probably destroy humanity as we know it through global warming. Through its unofficial propaganda center in Hollywood America has inculcated values having to do with guns and violence and with social status based on fast cars and big houses.

As you note, American universities are good and since World War 2, the American counter-culture has produced great stuff, jazz, poets like Allan Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, a life-style based on ecological living and the rejection of the normal road to status, etc.
The movements which have come from below, the Black Liberation Movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, have all been positive, but none of them arose from official America, which as far as I can see, has been pernicious.

Howard Dinin said...

In a world dominated by the hegemony of the superlative, we must learn to stop rendering all judgments, or even mere assessments, in the language of ritualized hierarchical values—what is "Make America Great Again" but a reconfiguration of the devotional rhetoric that adjures us, "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before Me?" We worry a lot about whether the United States is better or worse than other nations at constituing a model for the rest of the world. We seemed to have substituted a sense of our worth as a political entity with our position in the world measurable purely in quantitative terms: aggregate wealth, median income, number of household refrigerators, how many times over we can annihilate sovereign nations with our nuclear arsenal...

We have lost the ability, if we ever had it, of looking at ourselves simply as the historically defined sequence of phenomena and behaviors that describe us as a discrete culture. We are who we are, and worthy of scrutiny as much as and no more than a java or a Lapland, an Estonia or Bali. We do seem by virtue simply of the hyper-productivity of our enterprise, our institutions, and our citizenry to have accumulated a superfluity of artifacts to analyze, but these do not accrue to any universal spiritual sense of worth.

If we somehow managed to detach our autonomic impulse to judge, to react, to emote from our curiosity about life, we could, perhaps look more dispassionately at ourselves as a people, as well as our role in the current state of civilization of mankind as whole. We do occupy a disproportionate segment of the attention of the rest of world, We are only some three humdred million-odd souls on a planet of seven billion. We must, indeed, do what Kristoff did in his assessment in the improvement of the poverty snapshot of the world's populations. And we can't seem to help to look backward, as well as elsewhere, to make those invidious comparisons that seem always to leave us short—though if one's memory is long enough, and not that long at all, if one encourages the extension of one's span of attention, one can always recall yet another period when things could not possibly get any worse. And even if they do get worse, at least in material ways, the first step to improvement is not necessarily to declare defiantly (without necessarily defining who or what is being defied, unless, in fact, it's ourselves) that we will make things better, even at the expense of making things for the moment worse for somebody else.

LFC said...

Before celebrating too much about the decline of extreme poverty, some things should be noted.

I followed Kristof's link (the link on the word "plunging") for his claim that extreme poverty is "plunging below" 10 percent of world pop. today. The link, which goes to a site called, contains a chart showing that estimated extreme poverty (below $1.90 a day) for 2015 is 9.6 percent of the world pop. The latest year for which actual figures (themselves of course not nec. perfect) appears to be available, at least at the World Bank site, is 2013, when 10.7% of world pop., or 766,000,000 people, were in extreme poverty as defined by that $1.90 a day line, acc. to the Bank. The point is that extreme poverty is still unacceptably high, and it's concentrated of course in particular countries and parts of the world.

Ditto for child mortality, which has gone down significantly since 1990, but as of 2015 an est. 5.9 million children under age 5 still died, the large majority from preventable (and poverty-related) causes. One can do the same glass-half-full-half-empty analysis w/r/t, say, access to clean water. Kristof says 285,000 people each day get access to clean water for the first time. He doesn't say how many children are born each day into families w/ no access to clean water. Without that latter figure, one doesn't have the net figure, which is what should matter.

In sum, the global statistics have been improving, but much remains to be done w/r/t extreme poverty and its concomitants (access to clean water, adequate sanitation, employment, health care, housing, education [e.g., number of children worldwide who are in school [as opposed to working full-time or roaming the streets], etc.).

s. wallerstein said...

And $1.90 doesn't buy you much.

In Santiago (Chile) bus fare is around a dollar, much less than in New York City, I know, but out of the reach of someone who is extremely poor if they also want to eat.

From recent news I learned that renting a bed (not a room) in what used to be called a "flophouse" is about 150 dollars a month or more. With $1.90 a day you can't do that and you sleep in the street.