In the March 23rd issue of The Nation magazine, the normally right on Katha Pollitt rightly slams Peter Singer for his book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. I have not read Mr. Singers book, nor heard of it until reading Pollitt’s review, but where Pollitt is correct to criticize Singer, she does so for all the wrong reasons. Apparently, Singer’s main emphasis in his book is simple: upper middle class and wealthy First Worlders should contribute more to eradicate world poverty and hunger. Further, to quote Pollitt, "as Singer would be the first to remind us, an ordinary middle class American lives like Louis XIV compared to the destitute villagers and slum dwellers of Africa, Asia and elsewhere around the globe". So, as Singer would have it, we should all throw money in the collection basket, perhaps pledge a certain portion of our income, raise billions, and the world will live happily ever after. Wonderful! It breaks down like this: Those in the bottom half of the top 10% should give 5% of their income, with graduated increases for those who make more. Those of us who belong in the lower income levels can contribute 1% of our income. Further, "….if the rest of the developed world followed suit, the total would be eight times what the United Nations estimates is needed to reach the Millennium Development Goals for global health, education, employment, gender equality and so on by 2015".
Basically, Pollitt’s condemnation of Singer’s book rests, roughly speaking, with his failure to understand that the western world is in the midst of the greatest economic downturn since the 1930′s. Under such circumstances, how could Singer, or anyone else, expect such liberality from those who, just a few short years ago, were rolling in cash? Such an inquiry belongs more in the likes of Money Magazine rather than The Nation. Pollitt asks the wrong question for all the wrong reasons.
I recall an interview with John Lennon many years ago where he was asked why he didn’t do more to help eradicate world hunger. After all, Lennon was a multi millionaire, billionaire in today’s dollars, and since he was such an activist, why not set an example? Well, I do know that Lennon was very generous with his money, giving millions to such organizations as day care, medical facilities for the poor and the like. The question was a fair one, and Lennon certainly could have emptied his pockets, and the poor would have lived comfortably for a short while, which is at least something. But Lennon’s answer was indicative of a true revolutionary. Yes, he could give his wealth to the poor, but after all the money was gone, nothing would have changed. The poor would still be poor, children would still be dying of preventable diseases, colonialism would still be transferring wealth from the poor to the rich, and we’d be right back where we started; wondering why the poor were so poor. This is the article Pollitt should have written concerning Singer’s naïve proposal.
Only a fundamental change away from the exploitation of capitalism will cure the hunger of the planet’s poor in a manner that will make Singer happy. To paraphrase the famous quote by Dom Halder Camara, Singer shouldn’t be simply looking to feed the poor, but rather, asking why the poor are hungry. "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." Unmistakably, Singer wants to cure the problem of world hunger without challenging imperialism, hierarchy, capital relations or patriarchy. In like manner, no doubt Singer will urge the use of a band aide to keep the heroine addict from mainlining with a needle. At best, Mr. Singer is immature but well intended. But I sense the more ominous and threatening; Singer is more than happy to keep the masters of the world sitting atop the mountain while we throw pennies to the poor.
To benefit those who are truly in need of help, both here in the wealthy west, as well as in the very impoverished areas of the planet such as Africa, South America and Asia, only revolutionary change will lift the poor out of poverty. In my well worn and marked up copy of Looking Forward: Participatory Economics For the Twenty First Century by Albert and Hahnel, the point is well made that "capitalism institutionalizes inequality, promotes poverty, wages war, and denies dignity". Certainly, this is where Pollitt should have aimed her criticism of Singer’s scheme. I always look forward to reading Katha Pollitt’s articles, but she missed an opportunity. The left should re-examine its priorities; asking the wealthy for money is easy, but asking them to reform the very system that makes them wealthy is very difficult. Only reform will feed the poor.