Book Review: Jason Hickel’s The Divide
After the millions ploughed into ‘international development’ over the past seventy years, why it that global inequalities not only persist, they are getting worse? In The Divide, anthropologist Jason Hickel provides a combative and analytically rigorous explanation, dismantling the myths that continue to cloud our thinking around global poverty.
Hickel masterfully weaves together the most radical currents in political and economic thought to plot the course of global development, from its colonial origins to the rise of post-war industrial planning and the neoliberal era of privatisation, deregulation, and consolidating corporate power. ‘It is easy to assume that the divide between rich and poor nations has always existed: that is a natural feature of the world’, he tells us (p.3), before tearing down economic orthodoxies which have long encumbered development thinking. In 1500, living standards were roughly equivalent between European countries and the rest of the world. So what happened? Hickel shows us how the rigorous application of ‘free trade’ principles in the British Empire caused famine in Ireland and India; how efforts at economic ‘improvement’ accelerated violent land enclosures; and how more recent trade regimes have destroyed livelihoods and denied poor countries access to life saving medicines. He draws attention too, to the long and sordid history of Western-backed coups in the global South; time and again, elected leaders who threatened Western business interests with redistributive policies (Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Salvador Allende in Chile, Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso) were deposed and replaced with kleptocratic regimes more amenable to the status quo.
Too often, development has equalled domination dressed up as altruism, and Hickel is insistent on the need to shift away from this model of charitable giving: ‘poor countries don’t need our aid, they need us to stop impoverishing them. Until we tackle the structural drivers of global poverty – the underlying architecture of wealth extraction and accumulation – development efforts will continue to fail’ (p.32). By example, he points out how the international aid to poor countries is vastly outstripped by financial resources flowing in the opposite direction. Developing countries ‘sent $3 trillion more to the rest of the world than they received’, through unjust debt repayment, uneven terms of trade, and wealth siphoned off by multinational corporations through pricing scams and tax evasion. Similarly, while Western countries are eager to offer their ‘expertise’ devising technocratic solutions for communities living in poverty, on the most important issue of the twenty first century – climate change – they have repeatedly flouted their international commitments. The core of the argument is clear: poverty is created.
With influential voices continuing to push the simplistic ‘progress’ narrative – that, despite a few unfortunate side effects, overall humanity’s prospects are improving thanks to the spread of global capitalism and enlightenment modernity (Stephen Pinker, I’m looking at you) – Hickel’s intervention is timely, reminding us that the structural determinants of poverty have time and again been reinforced by Western nations ostensibly committed to eliminating them. Whilst gains have been made – in arresting the spread of disease, or improving access to education – the claims made by the World Bank, the UN, and Millennium Development Goal advocates often fail to stack up. Nowhere is this clearer than with the declared reductions in global hunger and extreme poverty, which rely on sleight-of-hand and dubious methodologies (shifting baselines, narrow definitions, switching from absolute to relative numbers) to demonstrate signs of progress.
Nevertheless, despite its damning indictment of the present world order, The Divide is not a pessimistic book. The final section offers a constructive take on how to move forward, proposing remedies for the gaping chasms of wealth inequality that currently plague our world. Hickel concludes with a foray into the emerging movement around Degrowth and its challenge to consumer capitalism. The preoccupation with ramping up GDP growth at the expense of more holistic conceptions of wellbeing sum up the contradiction at the heart of development thinking; with extreme weather events and mass extinction already a reality, ecological considerations often feel tacked on to economic policy as an afterthought rather than a central and imperative part of any political project for the twenty-first century. Hickel offers tantalising suggestions on how to fix the Divide while taking such concerns seriously, highlighting tax justice, debt resistance, regenerative agriculture, and basic income as just some possible solutions – but sadly fails to develop these themes as much as he might.
While the historical picture of exploitation and domination Hickel paints will be familiar to many (recalling, for example, Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America), I appreciated his ability to translate such a disorienting amount of complex information into a clear, compelling narrative. Hickel is one of the few academics taking responsibilities as a public intellectual seriously, willing to ask difficult questions that challenge and inform our political discourse. Despite the scholarly approach, The Divide is free from jargon, and remains accessible for those unfamiliar with debates in development economics. His work sits well alongside thinkers such as Raj Patel, Naomi Klein, and fellow anthropologist David Graeber, whose 2011 book Debt, did much to demystify the financial system in the wake of the Occupy movement.
The Divide resonates with our current political moment, where the idea of a ‘rigged system’ is increasingly taken as a given, faith in neoliberalism is dwindling, and people show a growing thirst for alternatives to the current development paradigm. It’s a window of opportunity and a cause for hope. As Hickel himself concludes, ‘once people begin to reject the single story of development, the future is fertile and rich with possibility. We need only have the courage to invent it.’