Poverty is not a defect…
Traveled to Mozambique during our long silence:
So, Africa is poor, not in the way Roxbury, or South Side Chicago is poor, but the way rural Mississippi was poor when Robert Kennedy visited it during the 1960s. This sort of poverty is somehow different than our own looks, because there is no context for the poverty.
You look at the people and you wonder, “Where do they get their clothes?” Because, when you look around, there is not even a store in the area from which clothes could be purchased, or even stolen. But, they are wearing clothes, nonetheless, and you wonder, “How can this be?”
And, people literally build their own small hut, or, rather, weave them from plants in the area – very few built-up structures, and those are cinderblock, which is, surprisingly, very expensive, even though there is mud and grass, and, hence, the materials for permanent structure readymade at hand. I only saw one case where someone was using native clay material to build their structure.
It is really very confusing.
The region of Mozambique we visited was coastal, but, so far as we could tell, not much of their diet is drawn from the sea. They grow corn and manioc, even though there is very little nutrition in either. The fish we saw were dried clams of some sort, and the occasional man or woman standing by the side of the road holding up a prawn for sale – to whom, it is unclear, since the roads are mostly empty and ill-maintained.
Meanwhile, we were told, Chinese trawlers are off the coast vacuuming the sea life off the ocean floor, because there is very little Mozambique can do to enforce its rights without a navy.
The sights are overwhelming. Women walking down the empty roads with large baskets on their heads, miles from anywhere, and you wonder to yourself, “To where could they be walking.?”
But, they are walking, seemingly unperturbed by the fact that the roads have no destination – there is one, but, of course, you can’t see it because your eyes are western and in the west the destination is always a mall or job or some other silly crap. No jobs here: only about 300,000 real wages jobs in the entire country and all of them are government jobs or the urban classes who cater to the few with wage income.
We stayed in the town of Jangamo, which is located in Inhambane Province (In-yam-bah-ne’). Our niece is working on a project there, and her boyfriend is helping to rebuild an old cotton gin abandoned by the Portuguese at the end of colonialism.
Her project is to develop personal care products from natural sources to be exported to the west. His project is to restart the gin and export the raw cotton to buyers.
Wonderful ideas, but I couldn’t help but look at the local area and its lack of internal development and wonder why these projects aren’t aimed at serving the needs of those in the area. It was very touch and go, because I was interested in making sense of this illogic without discouraging them.
The development path is illogical because it is externalized activity: you work not for yourself and family, but for overfed and over consuming westerners, and, from the proceeds of this activity, acquire the means to feed yourself. Jangamo becomes a part of the process of alienation of self, your activity no longer directly improves your life.
Yes, it might improve it indirectly, but until that goal is realized, you have worked very hard for nothing. Moreover, anything which can come between you and that goal, can and will come between you and that goal: fluctuations in the price of raw cotton, fashion trends in big western cities, etc.
I mostly tried to point this out indirectly, by asking what is the need for this or that item: how fish added to the diet of the area might improve the health of the children and such. But, I tried to avoid saying anything which might be interpreted negatively.
Finally, one evening, as he and I rode in the back of the pickup together from Inhambane to Jangamo, I blurted out to what suddenly occurred to me:
We were talking about the failure of Frelimo to realize its dream when it liberated the country from the Portuguese, and I suddenly said, “Some places weren’t meant to be a country. Everyone can’t have a flag and national currency, and all that stuff.”
And, as the words were leaving my mouth I realized Jangamo was Mississippi in the 1960s. I had been trying to put it in its own box, but clearly Jangamo was a township on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.
That’s when I realized how really hopeless the situation was…
What you have to understand is that the United States is the perfection of the Fascist dream of nationhood. Nowhere are the symbols and realities of national life more developed than here.
Our capital markets are more liquid and more extensive than any nation on earth. Our military might is equal to that of all other nations combined. Our universities, cultural icons, language, and institutions attract people from around the world to an extent unseen since the days of Rome.
Our currency is THE MONEY of nearly all global transactions – commodities are priced in dollars, oil, gold, and every other currency on the planet is denominated in dollars.
This is the realization of the Fascist idea of national renewal.
But, it also means every other nation is an incomplete, deformed, realization of that same Fascist ideal, as every other auto market is more or less an incomplete version of the American auto market, every other venue is a more or less imperfect form of Broadway, or, every form of celebrity is a more or less inferior form of Hollywood celebrity.
Hence, economic development, to mean anything, must mean selling into the American market, and work, as such, is not a thing to be valued unless it results in commerce with the American market.
Jangamo, then, is just another labor pool for Washington – as Mississippi was in the 1960s – a labor pool whose exploitation was restricted by segregation and outmoded social relationships of plantation life.
My use of term like inferior, incomplete, imperfect, and deformed, are not value judgments; they are terms which try to describe a relationship where one thing blocks the full flowering and all round development of another.
Broadway, therefore, drains the best talent from around the world, as auto design and engineering is shaped by the needs of consumers in the US market, or, the national interests of other nations are shaped by the military presence of the Pentagon.
The deformities in Jangamo’s economic development are also circumscribed not in Jangamo, but by economic conditions in the dollar zone.
Which means this: Jangamo is poor not because they work too little, or too ineffectively, but because we Americans work too much.
I saw this as some sort of epiphany one day as we went to visit the local hospital in the town. On the way there we passed a small hand-made roadside stall which was the local equivalent of a 7-11. Each of these little shops are often inscribed with some slogan which is special to the owner.
Our niece translated the slogan of this little shop: “Poverty is not a defect.” This Frelimo slogan was meant to state the poor need not be ashamed of their condition, but for me, in that moment, its real meaning was obvious:
Poverty is not an accident. It is not some malfunction in the way our economy worked; some disease, or sickness in it. It is not the result of greed or avarice. It is its rational result of its own processes.
Poverty IS THE PRODUCT OF OUR ECONOMIC ACTIVITY; and all productive activity itself is the production of poverty.
You can’t fix this by working more, or harder, or more productively, or by organizing work more efficiently, or by freeing capital markets, or by easing monetary policy, or by stimulus plans…
You can’t fix it by printing more money, or building more factories, or moving more of them overseas, or funding healthcare or any of the shit we blithely describe as the ultimate solution to the creation of wealth in our society…
The enemy is our own activity.
This was my Damascus moment at that fork in the road on the way to visit the Jangamo hospital staffed entirely by Cuban physicians in a town with 99 percent unemployment – a town too poor to train the residents of Jangamo to heal themselves.