(Roughly) Daily

“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”*…

The image above captures the received wisdom about extreme poverty and the way that it has declined over the last couple of centuries. But Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel would have us take a longer view, suggesting that the story is neither so simple nor so laudatory as we might assume…


• The common notion that extreme poverty is the “natural” condition of humanity and only declined with the rise of capitalism rests on income data that do not adequately capture access to essential goods.

•Data on real wages suggests that, historically, extreme poverty was uncommon and arose primarily during periods of severe social and economic dislocation, particularly under colonialism.

• The rise of capitalism from the long 16th century onward is associated with a decline in wages to below subsistence, a deterioration in human stature, and an upturn in premature mortality.

• In parts of South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, wages and/or height have still not recovered.

• Where progress has occurred, significant improvements in human welfare began only around the 20th century. These gains coincide with the rise of anti-colonial and socialist political movements.

Capitalism and extreme poverty: A global analysis of real wages, human height, and mortality since the long 16th century.” By way of context, Hickel is a “degrowthadvocate. In any case, the data is arresting– and surely worth pondering.

* Confucius


As we dig deeper, and lest we think pre-capitalist life was Edenic, we might recall that it was on this date in 1381 that “boy-King” Richard II met with the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt (AKA Wat Tyler‘s Rebellion or the Great Rising), which had arisen for a variety of reasons, including the socio-economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death in the 1340s and the high taxes resulting from the conflict with France during the Hundred Years’ War.

At the meeting, Richard acceded to some of their demands– most notably, the abolition of serfdom. But after he had the opportunity to gather his forces, he put the rebellion down, rounded up the leaders (some of whom were executed; others imprisoned)… and re-instituted serfdom.

Richard II meets the rebels on 14 June 1381, in a miniature from a 1470s copy of Jean Froissart‘s Chronicles (source)
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