Review: The Divide

Jason Hickel’s book (subtitled “Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets” in the US and “A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions” in the UK) delves into questions that matter to me, in my post-colonial woke state. In some case, I agreed with Hickel (meaning he’s not wrong); in others, I disagreed (meaning he’s wrong). 

First, where he’s not wrong (i.e., “I agree with him but maybe we’re both wrong”): The colonial period — and a current reality of post-colonial theft by corrupt locals and global elites — was and is terrible for many people now living in “developing” countries. Hickel is right to point out that these countries have been attacked, undermined and stripped of wealth, choice and opportunity. He is right to trace the flow of stolen money from “poor” countries to private bank accounts in “rich” countries (the UK and US being top destinations). He is right to explain how various development agencies are more interested in “hitting KPIs” than actual development.

When he’s wrong, it’s the basic stuff. The World Bank isn’t conspiring to rob the poor; they’re just ideological and incompetent, slaves to the “raving scribblings of some forgotten economist”. The WTO is not trying to (or capable) of exploitative trade regimes. It’s enamored of GDP statistics, fine-tuned rules, and a lack of imagination. These organizations (the IMF, UN, et al.) are the bastard children of quarreling “great powers” who try to dominate but mostly fcuk things up. Should Hickel complain of their harms? Yes, indeed. Does he attribute causality (and thus solutions) correctly? No, I think not. That doesn’t mean trust the World Bank. It means that countries — and citizens — need home-grown solutions. That doesn’t mean trust politicians. They often cause the problems they blame on others (Donald Trump is a gift: a political disaster of random oversized id.)

I had these mixed feelings about the book while I was reading, but I ended up liking the book for its passionate — and often carefully considered — critique of the world’s current order. I agree with Hickel in the main (historic and present exploitation often buried under “sorry we killed you, but we meant well!” propaganda), and most of my remaining criticisms center on his optimistic solutions and ideological critiques.

From here, I’ll add notes in order of topics’ appearance.

  • In 1949, Truman defined “development” as the path towards “fixing” countries of the Global South (GS) damaged by decades or centuries of colonialism by the Global North (GN). This idea implies GS should pursue GN policies and goals. The invention of “underdeveloped” gave space for the existence of a permanent underclass that would be served by charity and photojournalists, but not actual reform.
  • Hickel is right that development aid is a drop in the bucket compared to bad policies and right to question the bona fides of aid organizations that fail to lobby for structural change. (He notes, correctly, that they would go out of business if they reached their professed targets.) He’s also right that absolute poverty (headcount) matters, and that it should be counted via “lack” rather than an arbitrary (and miserly) $1/day “budget”. So, yeah, there are 4.3 billion poor people, which shows how unequal and fucked up the world is. 
  • Hickel says “something is fundamentally wrong with our economic system” (p 13), but I think it’s the political system (in which I include colonial institutions). Perhaps we mean the same thing, as I’ll admit that bad politics can lead to an unfair economic system, but does he mean the same, or does he trust in the (aggregate) honesty of politicians? I don’t.
  • Hickel says that newly independent counties were doing well with their post-colonial policies until their old masters used the World Bank, trade, etc. to derail them. I think progress was more uneven, and their need for advice thus great. I think that GN tried to impose colonial policies but also that GS made some big mistakes. I agree that GS people suffered but GN suffered as well from bad policies (as they are with respect to mismanaged social welfare).
  • I now think humans are lucky to survive their stupidity and greed. A few years ago I thought stupidity and greed rarer. I changed my mind based on the fact that our mistakes are aggregating into larger fuckups, as more dumb spills into more lives.
  • GS “pay” $billions per year to GN via corruption, theft and exploitation. That’s one reason they stay poor. Hickel claims that “unfair trade” strips much more, via underpaid wages. I don’t agree with that one (wages reflect productivity more than bargaining power in global trade), I do agree that the GS is heavily (self-)exploited via pollution, weapons sales, resource exploitation, etc. 
  • Statistical assumptions explain why either 300 million or 900 million Indians are “poor.” but which figure is right? Speaking of explanations, Hickel is sometimes too quick to dismiss the wealth-creating potential of markets, e.g., ignoring China’s entrepreneurs.
  • Inequality is so bad that average global income would need to be $1.3 million/person to raise wages for the poorest above $5/day (holding inequality constant). There’s a crying need for redistribution but — surprise — no political support from the beneficiaries of this scandal.
  • Today, we define “great powers” as those who have invaded, conquored and exploited others (UK, FR, ES, PT, BE, US, RU), not made their diverse subjects wealthy (Ottoman, Mogul, Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires). In this definition, we allow the victors to write exploitation into “inevitable history” rather than question that definition of “empirical success.” 
  • Most colonial wealth was from theft, not productivity. That’s not success. (It’s the same with wealth of the industrial revolution, as the resulting cost from climate disruption might ruin our current prosperity.)
  • Hickel uses massive statistics to impress readers on the magnitude of theft and destruction. I’d put those statistics in terms of, say, the average GN citizen back in the day, or today. The waste was terrible, but it’s ahrd to see in the 000000000000s!
  • Hickel quotes Polanyi, who opposed the commodification of land and labor as impoverishing the poor who lived on the commons. (Hickel calls this the birth of capitalism, but capitalism is millennia older.) I disagree with this IF the poor have free will, but not if their commons is stolen and they are forced into wage labor. That’s not a reason to hate markets for land or labor, but a good reason to hate (political) theft and exploitation.
  • It’s hard to overstate the horrors and evil of colonialism, but the income gap between rich and poor growing from 3:1 to 35:1 makes vampires jealous.
  • Hickel says GS counties made a lot of post-colonial progress, but then he cites the Peróns of Argentina with approval, so I’m less impressed. I agree though, that GS countries should hide from GN exporters while they grow their industries (under intra-GS competition, in my opinion). 
  • Hickel and I have different definitions of “neoliberal” (he says they like to subsidize business; Hayek and Friedman are rolling in their graves), but we agree that GN countries supported terrible GS leaders.
  • Hickel thinks various debt crises are aimed at exploiting the GS, when they are basically organized theft by elites. I agree with him that indebted countries (e.g., Greece in 2009) should just go bankrupt. I disagree with him that they would have an “easy time” thereafter in the markets. 
  • Hickel mixes a few too many conspiracy theories into his text. He’s got a good survey of anti-capitalism without an appropriate skepticism of their claims. His command of macroeconomics, use of data, and understanding of Adam Smith and free trade is sometimes way off. Thus, he assumes victims where there are suicides and threats in good ideas. He sees GS countries as powerless but also purposeful when the opposite is true, as we can see by the “wages of corruption.”
  • Hickel loses credibility with excessive claims on the damage of land grabs and climate change. That undermines his effectiveness only because he continues to miss other driving factors (political greed at many levels). 
  • Hickel ends his book with ideas for helping the poor via structural adjustment. He begins with global debt forgiveness and then moves to global democracy, just wages and recapturing the commons. I agree with these (in theory) but see little hope empirically in a world that is as exploitative as the one he described. OTOH, I am happy to agree that we should dump GDP for GPI, lower consumption, pursue UBI, etc.  At the end of this chapter of fantasies, I had no more wishes left in my magic wand — except perhaps that the rich would agree to Hickel’s changes. Here’s the first step.

My one-handed conclusion is that you should read this book, first, for its description and criticism of the way the world’s poorer people have been made and kept poor. Second, you should read it for a list of good ideas for a better future. Third, don’t read it for its explanation of economics, markets or corruption. People are far more creative — and calculating.

Addendum (23 May): The brutal indifference of colonial murder

Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Divide”

    1. In general, I agree that governments can play a big role in the R side of R&D. Sadly, many governments are putting money into D, which undermines “capitalist creative destruction” by choosing winners.

      There are also important areas where network effects, monopoly power, standards and information matter. Both government and market failures are possible there, so I agree there’s a gov’t role but it needs to be measured.

      (But maybe I miss some of her perspectives in this comment?)

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