Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric

S. Subramanian finds uncomfortable reading in the power play between the North and the South

October 7, 2010

Thomas Pogge is a moral and political philosopher with an untiring record of engagement with the conception of global justice and the facts of global injustice. Politics as Usual is a connected treatment, based on previously published essays, of the nature and consequences of the geopolitics underlying the transactions of the global North with the global South in the contemporary world. One productive and coherent way of addressing the book's concerns would be under the following headings: the crimes of North against South; the means employed to commit these crimes; their mealy-mouthed justification; the attempts at cover-up; and the notions of global justice and redress of global injustice to which these considerations lead.

The crimes are catalogued in a long and numbing list of acute deprivations and disparities in levels of living (and, indeed, in levels of dying), as reflected in global statistics on - among other things - the distribution of income and wealth, health and literacy outcomes, access to water and sanitation, morbidities and mortalities, and the casualties of commerce, climate change, environmental degradation and war. The enormity of world poverty, Pogge argues, is a crime commensurate with the enormity of the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis.

Profit and power have been the motive for these crimes, and the opportunities and means for their perpetration have been available in a host of mechanisms designed by the affluent countries of the world to secure an appallingly unjust global order, one bent and beaten into submission to serve their own exclusive and exhaustive interests. These mechanisms would include colonialism; war; the enforced prioritisation among poor countries of military spending over spending on public welfare; unfair international trade practices; legalities governing investment and intellectual property rights whereby power works for the North and the rules work against the South; structural adjustment; the burden of international debt; and the vagaries and conditionalities of international "assistance". The organs for the implementation of these injustices are constituted by a number of supranational institutions, including, prominently, the Security Council of the United Nations, the Bretton Woods Twins and the World Trade Organization.

"Politics as usual" is reflected in the cant, hypocrisy and utter moral irresponsibility with which the global order has been sought to be justified, by employing the language of an allegedly principled "war on terror", or by invoking the grotesqueries of "humanitarian intervention" to seek legitimacy for the prosecution of pre-emptive war. A great ally in the conduct of the more everyday, systematic oppression inherent in the nature and magnitude of global poverty is the last component in Benjamin Disraeli's three-fold classification of lies: statistics. Here, Pogge deals interestingly with aspects of the moral obtuseness of certain quantitative social indicators, and with the concealments and misdirections facilitated by statistical manipulation, as reflected, most saliently, in the World Bank's estimates of global poverty and in the formulation and monitoring of the Millennium Development Goals.

The unsavoury aspects of globalisation are plainly to be seen in the global processes at work, and in their global consequences. The ruling view that prevails in the affluent countries of the North is that there is no injustice involved in this state of affairs, and that therefore the North has no obligation to do anything in the matter. There are others who would enjoin on the global affluent a positive duty of "assistance" to the global poor - not for reasons of justice (for no injustice is perceived in the global order), but from considerations of the ordinary decency that attaches to acts of beneficence.

Pogge, in contrast, demands both less and more than this formulation. Less, because he will insist only on the negative duty of desisting from doing harm to others and profiting from it; and more, from asserting that global poverty and inequality are directly a consequence of the harm done by the rich, through the subversion of global institutions and the global order to advance their own illegitimate interests.

Arising from this, Pogge sees world poverty as a manifestation of global injustice, which seeks rectification through both (a) reparation in the form of "assistance" and "aid", and (b) the reform and reconceptualisation of supranational institutions, within a framework of normative individualism that is compatible with a "cosmopolitan" view of justice.

Many may sense a certain harsh relentlessness in Pogge's pursuit of justice. But that is the world's fault, not the author's. "Our children", says Pogge, "should not grow up among killers." The book makes for painful reading, but it may not be a bad idea to leave it lying around for an adolescent to pick up and read. She or he might thereby grow into an adult with less complaisance, ignorance, insularity and hubris than appears to constitute the prevailing norm among those on what Pogge calls "the winning side".

Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric

By Thomas Pogge

Polity Press, 224pp £55.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9780745638928 and 638935

Published 9 April 2010

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