Politics as Usual, Thomas Pogge

In Book reviews on May 30, 2011 at 7:30 am

Political philosophy focusing on institutions has taken a pretty severe blow recently, in the form of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, so it’s nice to see the old Rawlsian framework put to good use here by Thomas Pogge, Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale.

Less an elaboration of a new framework (as Sen’s is), than a scatter shot attack on the idea of ‘Western’ morality, Pogge examines a separate topic in each chapter. Our complicity in the starving of millions through trade arrangements, the dilution of the Millenium Development Goals through cynical manipulation of language, the mismatch between rhetoric and action on human rights violations (using Rwanda as an example), the list goes on.

His pleasingly concise prose means the chapters aren’t too long, though it is certainly wearing to be chastised so thoroughly for one’s complicity in the deaths of 18 million a year. However, that responsibility is diluted amongst democratic citizens, so it’s not you alone that’s doing it, you’ll be pleased to know. It’s all of us. Particularly decision makers and politicians. Decision makers because there’s a disproportionate burden of responsibility on those negotiating trade agreements, for example, where vastly greater power is on the ‘Western’ side of the table, meaning almost any proposal, no matter how belittling, is likely to be accepted by the ‘developing’ country. They, though, aren’t elected.

Politicians, in theory, care about what we all think. So, through such supposed democratic mechanism, our responsibility is borne. Maybe we don’t agitate enough, then, for institutional reform at the global level? Or simply give enough to charity? Well, either, both, and certainly not neither, Pogge argues.

He also addresses the claim that it’s not ‘our’ policies driving the global poor’s face into the mud with a boot – it’s their own corrupt governments. Well perhaps, he says, these causes are equally contributory. If such causes (both causing a harm, with the removal of both necessary to eradicate it, such as in pollutants entering a river at two separate points upstream) are identified in other spheres, we don’t simply say ‘Yes, but they have to do something, too, so we won’t do anything,’ we stop and then make the others stop.

Furthermore, corruption is actively incentivized (to bastardize a noun) by the international borrowing privilege, and the resource privilege, where any group with de facto control of a country can borrow as a government and sell its resources, too. Coups, therefore, are an easy way to power, since enriching oneself at the expense of the populace’s resource base and unloading debt on future generations is sanctioned by international law. Pretty hard going, then, infuriating and despair inducing in equal measure.

You might want to avoid this then, if you’re already having a bad day. Sadly, though, it’s a bad day every day for the hundreds of millions living below the ‘poverty line’ (another concept demolished in the book). And we’re involved, and individually bear responsibility for their suffering. So scratch that – whatever day you’re having, just read it.


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