Thanksgiving Day 2005

“The poor are not those who have been ‘left behind’,” Vandana Shiva writes in a recent essay. Rather, “they are the ones who have been robbed.”

Indeed. As Shiva continues:

Two of the great economic myths of our time allow people to deny this intimate link, and spread misconceptions about what poverty is. First, the destruction of nature and of people’s ability to look after themselves are blamed not on industrial growth and economic colonialism, but on poor people themselves. … The second myth is an assumption that if you consume what you produce, you do not really produce, at least not economically speaking. If I grow my own food, and do not sell it, then it doesn’t contribute to GDP, and therefore does not contribute towards “growth.” … Yet sustenance living, which the wealthy West perceives as poverty, does not necessarily mean a low quality of life. On the contrary, by their very nature economies based on sustenance ensure a high quality of life measured in terms of access to good food and water, opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, robust social and cultural identity, and a sense of meaning in people’s lives.

I believe that this line of thought captures the modern American dilemma far more accurately than any of the Thanksgiving Day crowd in the States cares to admit. Much less dares. For that matter.

To repeat it here for the sake of emphasis:

The poor are not those who have been “left behind.”
The poor are the ones who have been robbed.

You will search in vain the proclamations of the Christian Fascists for anything remotely like it.

And yet—imagine the thousands of senses in which this single insight rings true. Not only in the flagrantly obvious sense of those people who manipulate States and international institutions and laws in order to steal other people’s lives and countries and resources.

But also in the many less obvious senses in which sick people organize social orders and engage with others so that they can prey upon one another and do nothing but take, take, and take some more.

Wouldn’t a healthy society—say, the kind in which you might like your children to live—at least your grandchildren—be one in which to participate is to give to others, rather than to take from them?

Or vice-versa (acknowledging that principles such as these never can be expressed with much precision—nor should we expect them to be): A society in which there is no conceivable difference between one’s giving and one’s participation?

In other words: Wherein everything is free because everything is a gift—and nothing is taken?

Do you act because, in acting, you want to take something from others? Or do you act because you are giving something to others, and would not act otherwise?

(More eloquently: Do you act so as to use humanity, whether in your own person or in others, always as an end, and never merely as a means?)

Conversely, the extent to which one engages with others only because one can take something from them—what should we call a society wherein one’s social relations are defined as forms of extortion? And the greater the extortion, the higher the ranking?

I’ve always felt that the more a social order forces people to take from others, the sicker it is.

Absolutely nothing has changed my mind.

Two myths that keep the world poor,” Vandana Shiva, Ode, Issue No. 28
Third World Network

The Midas List, Forbes, February 14, 2005
The World’s Billionaires, Forbes, March 10, 2005
The 400 Richest Americans, Forbes, September 22, 2005

The Equality Issue in World Development, Gunnar Myrdal, Nobel Prize Lecture in the Economic Sciences, March 17, 1975
The Possibility of Social Choice, Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize Lecture in the Economic Sciences, December 8, 1998

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