Poverty Capitalism: Interview with Ananya Roy
Ananya Roy: Microfinance is one of those rare poverty alleviation ideas whose popularity cuts across the ideological spectrum. Proponents of social justice have hailed microfinance as an instrument to fight the redlining of the poor by exclusionary financial institutions. Although microfinance is not a substantial sector in the budgets of multilateral and bilateral donors, it is quite literally everywhere in the world of development, repeatedly touted as a poverty panacea. New portals of development, such as Kiva.org, have also made it possible for the globally minded citizens of the global North to feel an immediate and intimate connection to microfinance and to the poor women who are most often microfinance borrowers. There are at least two distinct paradigms at work within the world of microfinance: one where microfinance is a global financial industry and an increasingly profitable asset class; the second where microfinance is a part of an overall package of pro-poor development.
Ananya Roy: Yes, this is a fundamental contradiction that lies at the heart of microfinance, and indeed many other poverty-alleviation efforts as well. Many proponents of microfinance see it as an alternative to state-led development, and as testament to the entrepreneurial efforts of the poor. Ananya Roy: Microfinance bears many of the characteristics of subprime lending. Very few genres of microfinance tackle such issues; those that do not systematically depoliticize the question of poverty. Josh Leon: Microfinance has long been applied in rural settings, an obvious place to look for the world’s poor.
Ananya Roy: Many poverty alleviation interventions have been developed and implemented in rural areas-such as the famous conditional cash transfer programs of Mexico and Brazil and the microfinance programs of Bangladesh. Ananya Roy: Your poetic question is about microfinance but it also speaks to broader trends-to millennial challenges and hopes.
The End of Capitalism Has Begun
Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. The biggest information product in the world – Wikipedia – is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue. Information is a machine for grinding the price of things lower and slashing the work time needed to support life on the planet. We’re surrounded not just by intelligent machines but by a new layer of reality centred on information.
There is, alongside the world of monopolised information and surveillance created by corporations and governments, a different dynamic growing up around information: information as a social good, free at the point of use, incapable of being owned or exploited or priced. I’ve surveyed the attempts by economists and business gurus to build a framework to understand the dynamics of an economy based on abundant, socially-held information. Once you understand that information is physical, and that software is a machine, and that storage, bandwidth and processing power are collapsing in price at exponential rates, the value of Marx’s thinking becomes clear. I’m concentrating on the economic transition triggered by information because, up to now, it has been sidelined. Today, the thing that is corroding capitalism, barely rationalised by mainstream economics, is information.
The equivalent of the printing press and the scientific method is information technology and its spillover into all other technologies, from genetics to healthcare to agriculture to the movies, where it is quickly reducing costs. The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information; and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial.
SparkNotes: The Jungle: Chapters 27-28
Marija’s entrance into prostitution culminates the essential accusation that Sinclair levels against capitalism: throughout The Jungle, he charges capitalism with trafficking in human lives. Human beings are despicably regarded as useful resources-means to an end rather than individuals-and are used until they are worn out and then ultimately thrown away. As a prostitute, Marija epitomizes this trafficking in human bodies, as society’s perception of her worth lies wholly in her ability to satisfy the basest desires of humankind. Just as the prostitutes are kept in a form of slavery, Sinclair often compares wage laborers to slaves, another form of trafficking in human bodies. Throughout the novel, human lives are bought and sold, although most wage laborers don’t even realize that they are part of a vast market of human flesh.
To this point, the meaning of the title The Jungle has been made painfully clear: the world of the wage laborer is a savage realm characterized by a Darwinian struggle for survival. The structures of capitalism are a jungle of hidden nooks and crannies, each containing yet another dirty secret. Sinclair’s novel exposes the various levels of deception within the factories as well as the day-to-day details of the wage laborer’s life. Having gone to such great lengths to illustrate the evils of capitalism, Sinclair now offers socialism as the solution to the problems that the first twenty-seven chapters of the novel have explored in detail. The socialist political meeting proves anything but a jungle; rather, it is a haven from the cruel reality of capitalism.
As the speaker catalogues the abuses and suffering of wage laborers, Jurgis reacts to socialism like a new, devout religious convert. Unlike the preacher at the religious revival meeting, who wanted commoners to better themselves according to the existing system, the socialist speaker wants commoners to motivate for change outside the system.