Prior to colonisation, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity. They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well – so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor. This way of life was violently destroyed by colonisers who forced people off the land and into European-owned mines, factories and plantations, where they were paid paltry wages for work they never wanted to do in the first place.
In other words, [Max] Roser’s graph [purporting to show that “poverty has declined from 94% in 1820 to only 10% today”] illustrates a story of coerced proletarianisation. It is not at all clear that this represents an improvement in people’s lives, as in most cases we know that the new income people earned from wages didn’t come anywhere close to compensating for their loss of land and resources, which were of course gobbled up by colonisers. [Bill] Gates’s favourite infographic takes the violence of colonisation and repackages it as a happy story of progress.
Jason Hickel on poverty.
For next time you hear people claiming poverty has declined since the 19th century. (Hickel also goes on to point out that the “$1.90 a day” figure usually used to denote the poverty line is, in reality, almost certainly far too low by any humane measure.)