One of the most popular claims made by people who want to insist that the world is still making “progress” is to cite the number of people in China who have been pulled out of “poverty” in the last few decades. This is the same claim that the Chinese government itself makes for its own internal political purposes. But the more truthful statement is that the Chinese government has pulled millions of people out of “subsistence”. That is a different thing and the difference is worth thinking about.
The word “poverty” is derived from the Latin pauper which means “not wealthy”. It is related to paucity, a lack of. The Christian vow of poverty is the deliberate decision to lack property and there are many quotes in the New Testament where Jesus advocates for such a position. Most religious creeds have similar notions. Yet our default definition of poverty implies an involuntary state into which someone has fallen and must lifted out of.
Poverty is a relative concept. It is defined by convention and always has specific cultural assumptions built in. When used in political context, it is subject to the standard distortions that come with spin doctoring. I first came across the relativity of the concept of poverty back when I was at university. But I didn’t learn it in sociology class.
Back then, I was paying my way by working part-time at a dingy hotel in the CBD. It was Melbourne’s answer to Fawlty Towers. The guy who owned and ran the place was an unusual character who didn’t mind leaning into the grey area of illegality to make a dollar.
The hotel was the cheapest in the CBD and its customer base reflected this. Colourful regulars included a middle-aged guy who was diddling his secretary. He had a regular booking for Friday after lunch. The bed sheets in the room were duly changed before the evening customers arrived (thankfully, not my responsibility). That’s the kind of place it was.
In hindsight, it was a good job to have since it was the kind of place where you can learn some valuable life lessons. The other advantage of the job was that there were long periods where there was nothing to do (I was on the reception desk) and I was able to get some of my university work done on the job.
On one particularly slow day at the hotel, I was leafing through the newspaper and there was an article on poverty which included calculations on how to measure your own situation. I ran through the calculations and realised I was living 1/3rd below the poverty line.
That was news to me. At the time I was living in a share house that had a swimming pool in the backyard. I owned a (cheap) car. I did karate training three times a week, played in a band and was probably the fittest I have ever been in my life. From memory, I was even able to save a little money each week. Nevertheless, according to the newspaper article, I was living in abject poverty.
Poverty is relative. A healthy, single young man who stays active is obviously going to need far less than an elderly person for whom regular medical bills might be a fact of life and who may need to pay for additional help to get daily tasks done. A generic measurement of the “poverty line” necessarily averages out over such demographic differences.
But poverty is also relative between cultures and societies. When Europeans first came to Australia, they saw the aboriginals and assumed they lived in extreme poverty. There was no question the aboriginals lacked the physical goods that any European of the time would have considered basic to survival. And, yet, the aboriginals had been living in Australia for upwards of 60,000 years.
This brings us to our second concept: subsistence. In Latin, it means to stand firm, to be on solid ground. Subsistence also used to have the connotation of independence because the person who stands on solid ground is not in need of assistance. In the early history of modern Australia, the British sometimes offered aboriginals various objects like cooking utensils or blankets only later to find that they had been discarded in the bush. The aboriginals did not need such goods. They were independent.
The same thing occurred at the geopolitical level when the Japanese and Chinese refused to trade with Western nations and even tried to close their borders to westerners. They didn’t need what the West was offering.
It was the West that needed to trade because it had started down the path of industrial capitalism. Industrial capitalism creates a surplus of goods and poverty (a lack) of people to sell them to. Over time, it also leads to a poverty of the natural resources needed to create the goods. Thus, nations running industrial capitalist economies have always lacked markets for the their products and natural resources for their factories.
Industrial capitalism swapped subsistence for poverty, often quite literally. The enclosure acts in England and the highland clearances in Scotland forcibly removed populations who were living in subsistence i.e. who knew how to take care of themselves. This was the continuation of the wars of religion which had also displaced enormous numbers of people and removed them from their subsistence.
What has been happening in China in the last couple of decades is exactly this process of removing people from subsistence. Upwards of 100 million people have been moved from the land, sometimes forcibly, and relocated to the cities where they are housed in new high rise apartment buildings. There are well-known terms for this process in Chinese called “exchanging homestead for apartment” and “exchanging land for security”. The “security” in this case is the social security net including basic healthcare, pensions etc.
It has been said that China has done in a few decades what it took the West centuries to achieve. That was only possible because the Chinese have had the benefit of letting the West make all the mistakes. Industrial capitalism requires a social security net in order to function. That is something that had to be learned the hard way in the West. The boom and bust cycles must also be smoothed out. That is another thing we learned the hard way. That and other lessons were available to the Chinese alongside all the technical know-how to build railways, bridges, tunnels and high-rise buildings.
What is forgotten in all this apparent material prosperity is the alienation that comes with industrial capitalism. The nihilist, pessimist and existentialist movements of the 19th and 20th century in Europe were the direct result of people losing their subsistence. In China, we would expect the hundreds of millions who have been removed from their subsistence and placed in apartment blocks to be suffering from the same alienation of modernity that we in the West have adapted to over centuries.
I don’t think it’s too hard to see that the corona hysteria and lockdowns in China were driven by exactly those psychic forces. In this respect, the first SARS hysteria was the obvious precursor to the corona event and the details of the two match almost exactly including a purported origin in exotic animal species.
On my work trips to China, one thing that surprised me was the palpable feelings of nihilism and pessimism of the Chinese colleagues I dealt with. These were intelligent, university-educated people who had high-status jobs. Without any prompting on my part, they were happy to express their hatred of the Chinese government.
But the problem clearly went beyond politics. One of my colleagues summed it up best in a saying that he said was in common use in China and which captures the nihilist sentiment. I can’t remember the exact names of Chinese dynasties he referred to, so I’ll just use placeholders here:
The Japanese inherited the culture of the Tang dynasty, the Koreans inherited the culture of the Ming dynasty, and the modern Chinese inherited nothing.
The emotional undertone of such a statement reminds me a lot of the tone of late 19th century German intellectuals. The break with tradition was felt hardest in Germany because, just like modern China, it was enforced on the people by the government (Bismarck) rather than evolving organically as it had in Britain.
What lift people out of poverty really means is to remove them from subsistence and place them in a system where they are graded according to the amount of riches they possess. This activates the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses psychology but also makes the individual dependent on the State thereby triggering the Devouring Mother-Orphan archetypal dynamic.
Welfare states are inevitably introduced in the declining phase of civilisation. They are part of what Toynbee called the Universal State. Thus, the Devouring Mother-Orphan dynamic is, in fact, a psychological description of conditions in the late stage of civilisation where the general public are Orphans in need of subsistence from the State. I’ll be exploring this more in my upcoming book on the Orphan.
The modern West, however, has taken this dynamic to an extreme never before seen and now most of the population of China is being pulled into it as well. In fact, the Chinese government has provided perhaps the ultimate version of the Faustian Universal State (Benevolent Totalitarianism) and that is why many western “elites” openly express their admiration for China and why we copied China’s covid response.
In Toynbee’ s model, when the Universal State fails, the Universal Church takes its place. The conditions for this are already building and could very well include China too. Could we see a genuinely global religion arise and what would such a religion look like? Whatever it is, I suspect a vow of poverty might be at its heart.