By Zaida Green
17 April 2015
A new study by the UK’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI) reports that the number of people globally living on less than $1.25 per day is likely to be far higher than the already staggering 1.2 billion estimated by the World Bank.
“There could be as many as a quarter more people living on less than $1.25 a day than current estimates suggest, because they have been missed out of surveys,” the report notes, suggesting that the total number of people living in extreme poverty could be undercounted by as much as 350 million.
If, as the report claims, global poverty figures are “understated by as much as a quarter,” then more than 2.5 billion people, or over a third of the world’s population, survive on less than $2 per day.
The most deprived layers of society—people who are homeless, or are living in dangerous situations that researchers cannot access—are left uncounted by household surveys, which by design are incapable of covering them.
Elizabeth Stuart, lead author of the report, told the World Socialist Web Sitethat “the poor quality of the data on poverty, child and maternal mortality” are some of the report’s most significant findings.
If one were to define poverty as living on less than $5 per day, over four billion people, that is, two-thirds of the human population, qualify as impoverished, according to World Bank estimates.
Meanwhile the world’s multimillionaires and billionaires, their stock portfolios soaring, are splurging on supercars, yachts and luxury apartments in record numbers. While the monetary policies pursued by the world’s central banks inject unimaginable amounts of wealth into the coffers of a parasitic financial aristocracy, the bulk of humanity struggles to survive amid poverty, austerity and war.
In March, Forbes reported that the combined net worth of the world’s billionaires hit a new high in 2015 of $7.05 trillion. Since 2000, the total wealth of the world’s billionaires has increased eight-fold. The magazine reported, “Despite plunging oil prices and a weakened euro, the ranks of the world’s wealthiest defied global economic turmoil and expanded once again.”
The amount of wealth controlled by the top 1 percent of the population will exceed that owned by the bottom 99 percent by next year, according to the Oxfam charity.
This week, the International Monetary Fund released its semiannual World Economic Outlook, where it warned that there would be no return to the rates of economic growth that prevailed before the 2008 financial crash for an indefinite period.
The IMF’s report further notes that despite record profits and huge amounts of cash being hoarded by major corporations internationally, private investment has plummeted in the six years since the official end of the post-financial-crisis recession. The report documents the single-minded focus of governments, central banks and policy makers in general on the further enrichment of the global financial elite at the expense of the world’s productive forces and the vast bulk of humanity.
The sheer levels of inequality across the globe, expressed in dilapidated infrastructure, the assault on the living standards of workers and youth, and the erosion of democratic rights, themselves inhibit serious studies of poverty, as demonstrated by the ODI’s report.
The ODI study notes that more than 100 countries do not have functioning systems to register births or deaths, making accurate counts of child mortality and maternal mortality impossible. Twenty-six countries have not collected data on child mortality since 2009. According to current estimates, anywhere from 220,000 to 400,000 women died during childbirth in 2014. Fewer than one in five births occur in countries with complete civil registration systems.
Many surveys are outdated, forcing researchers to either extrapolate from old data, or make assumptions about the relations between other data sets. The most up-to-date estimate of people living in extreme poverty was published almost four years ago. Only 28 of 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa had a household income survey between 2006 and 2013. Botswana’s poverty estimates are based on a household survey from 1993.
Estimations of poverty are further complicated by disagreements over the poverty threshold. Some nongovernmental organizations have set their own national poverty lines. For instance, in Thailand, the official national poverty line is $1.75 per day and the poverty rate is 1.81 percent. However, urban community groups have assessed the poverty line to be $4.74 per day, bumping the country’s poverty rate to nearly half the population at 41.64 percent.
Wars and other violent conflicts have a devastating effect on research of any kind, halting studies, ruining infrastructure, and destroying records. The vast sums of money spent on war dwarf those needed to significantly reduce social misery. The United States alone spent $496 billion on defense last year, while, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization, “the world only needs 30 billion dollars a year to eradicate the scourge of hunger.”
These staggering levels of poverty, inequality and military violence stand as a damning indictment of the capitalist system, the sole aim of which is to enrich the financial oligarchy that dominates society at the expense of the great majority of humanity.
Photo by Nikolas Georgiou.
Workers’ movements and their supporters from throughout Greece embarked on a caravan to Athens earlier this month to speak with and make demands on the new SYRIZA government. They are asking for concrete support for their struggles, each of which is based on self-organization and horizontality. Saturday, April 4 marked the first day of a caravan that traveled to various towns throughout Greece, meeting with and gathering other workers in struggle in each location, who then all made their way to Athens.
The struggles range from the Thessaloniki-based recuperated factory Vio.Me and the self-managed television and radio station ERT, who together are spearheading the caravan, to workers occupying their workplaces and resisting permanent layoffs in a variety of ways in other parts of the country. The caravan culminated in Athens with 500 women cleaners who are in negotiations with SYRIZA for what they hope will be their fair rehiring.
What all of the participants have in common is that they organize in assemblies, where each person has equal decision-making power, and attempt to break down hierarchies and power structures. They are petitioning the new SYRIZA government for a variety of things, the core of which is that they are able to maintain their horizontality and self-organization, which some want to see codified in law.
Almost everyone involved in the movements here in Greece would agree that it was through their struggle and support that SYRIZA was able to come to power. In some cases, SYRIZA members were and are movement participants, and in others the party actively supported and agreed to continue to support the movements’ activities and demands in the future.
Now, a few months after SYRIZA’s electoral victory, some movement participants are beginning to question whether the party will make good on its promises of support. These movements range from those opposing the mining project in Chalkidiki, the struggle for refugee and migrant rights, those opposing anti-terrorism laws, and many other struggles — from workers and students to autonomous health clinics.
Many people with whom I spoke believe that there are active negotiations taking place within the new government and that change will indeed come; others have already lost any confidence that the government will make the promised changes — and then quite a few fall somewhere in between, believing that there are good faith negotiations taking place, but that if there is no pressure from below, the government may not act on what they promised. The workers’ caravan to Athens comprises each of these perspectives, and thus they want to both speak to, and make demands on, the government.
Over the past few years, the two most important workers’ struggles in Greece based on self-organization and around the principles of autonomy and horizontality have been those of Vio.Me (a former producer of construction materials) and ERT (the occupied national public television). Vio.Me was occupied in 2012 and after numerous assemblies the workers decided to not only occupy, but put the workplace back into production, without bosses or hierarchy — recuperating it — intentionally using the same language as the movements in Argentina.
The case of ERT began in June of 2013, when the former government laid off all of the national television worker in the country. Both the Athens and Thessaloniki broadcasting agencies held assemblies and immediately decided to occupy the stations and continue to broadcast. While in Athens many workers eventually went back to work due to a combination of a violent police eviction and rehiring offers by the government, in Thessaloniki the ERT remained occupied and has been running and broadcasting news without hierarchies or bosses since June 2013.
In both Vio.Me and ERT, the workers describe what they are doing as something beyond just keeping production going, and explain how they are creating new relationships — both in how they are working together and with the concept of what the job is they are doing. As ERT describes, they are creating a different sort of news and they are doing so in an entirely different way. Similarly, Vio.Me has decided to produce ecological over toxic products. Both workplaces are also operating in innovative new ways with regard to consultation and communication to and with the broader community.
I spoke with Theo Karyotis from the Open Initiative of Solidarity with the Struggle of the Workers of Vio.Me (Solidarity Initiative) and Stavros Panousis from ERT — two of the main organizing groups of the caravan. The Solidarity Initiative is an assembly-based community group that works together with the workers from Vio.Me to help defend, spread and deepen their struggle. Theo explains the purpose and composition of the Solidarity Initiative below:
Self-management is an idea that brings together different ideologies from the left, so within the Solidarity Initiative we have people from different backgrounds — we have anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, Trotskyistis, autonomist organizations and individual activists.
What the Solidarity Initiative does is to help the workers organize and carry out the campaigns of Vio.Me — though now it has less and less responsibilities since the workers are taking more and more into their own hands. At first we helped a lot with foreign language communications and helped organize political campaigns, like the marches, writing certain texts, and so on. Of course we did this with the workers and the workers had final say.
It is important to be clear that we are two different entities, so for example sometimes the workers write a text on an issue and the Solidarity Initiative writes a different text. But again, the workers have a final say — the Solidarity Initiative always has at least five workers in the assemblies, and they have significant influence over any decision.
The ERT has been run collectively ever since it was occupied in 2013. Stavros described the massive solidarity they immediately received, with people from all over coming to encircle the outside of the station and prevent eviction. Below, Stavros describes both what they are and what they want to be. When I asked if they are an alternative sort of broadcasting he responded as follows:
No, we are pirates. We are not like a regular program. For all of this time we have managed things in a self-organized way — I think this is the most important thing we have accomplished. We have done things in a very special way and it is important to say that it was not in our minds to do it this way before. Well, maybe a few of us believed in this way of organizing, but as a whole the situation guided us to do things in this way, in this horizontal way. There was no manager or no one between the workers.
It was a long journey to get here since many people at first had resistance — people said things like ‘no one else can get be the one to film since I am the film maker,’ and ‘no one else tells the news, I tell the news.’
Each day we had fewer camera people and reporters from the inside, but life, the real situation, persuaded people to change their point of view and that if you — the people — don’t take the microphone and the camera and go outside, there will be no news. You will not be paid, maybe, but people want to help, so they went out and got the news and brought it in.
As time passed, you, the stranger, the one getting the news who was not before a part of the ERT, became a part of our assembly and could decide things related to what we are and what we are airing. It was our greatest accomplishment. We were (and are) changing the concept of news.
The new government has plans to take control of the ERT in Thessaloniki and run it again in a traditional way, both in terms of internal organization — with bosses and hierarchy — as well as in terms of programming. The assembly of the self-managed ERT wants to continue to organize in a horizontal way internally, and as they explained, most important is that the news continues to come to them in a democratic way. Their vision is one where people in communities have a say in what they want to see, can send in videos and can vote on what sorts of programming is done.
Both struggles had the support of SYRIZA in their campaign for state power, and in the case of ERT a worker was elected to the government. The purpose of the caravan, as explained by the participants, is to make sure that SYRIZA continues with their support.
The way people involved in the caravan describe their relationship to the government and their intentions range from a sort of meeting with allies, to reminding SYRIZA officials of the struggles to which they are committed and who their real base is — to those who see the caravan as a direct expression of workers’ power and as an ultimatum to the new government. The caravan is thus both a reminder and a confrontation.
As with so many people from the movements with whom I have spoken over the past weeks in Greece, they see the victory of SYRIZA as a possible opening for movements to gain more support for in the work they are doing — but everyone stresses that this can and will happen only if the movements stay organized, maintain autonomy and exert pressure on the new government from below to remind them of the base from which they arose.
As Theo from the Solidarity Initiative describes:
This week there is a big caravan and march to Athens from various places in Greece that is a joint effort between various workers’ struggles. One of the organizing groups is the recuperated workplace Vio.Me.
SYRIZA has always been sympathetic to the struggle of Vio.Me, which really is a struggle against the capitalist class and against the judicial system. SYRIZA declared themselves friends with Vio.Me, and the current Prime Minister and then President of SYRIZA even visited the factory and said they had just demands and should be supported. So now SYRIZA has to find a way to bring that into action.
We also have the struggle of the 500 women cleaners who worked in the Finance Ministry and were fired overnight. SYRIZA was elected on the promise they would hire them back. Now they are trying to make a compromise based on the agreements they are making with the Europeans, so are trying to hire them back under conditions that are negative for the workers.
Stavros from the ERT assembly explained:
The EU wants us to throw the towel in the ring — and the only people who can resist this are us. What is most important is to take our own lives into our own hands. We know how to do this. So we try and persuade the government, with others, to make the law not against us, but with us. That is the only thing we want. And then maybe, to invest in these solutions — in socially oriented solutions. And not from above.
We are taking part in a caravan with Vio.Me and others, and we are trying to make people sensitive to these cases, and to make people in government change the laws.
It is a sign to a government that is turning its back on its strongest allies — not allies in the party itself but allies in real life (though most people also voted for SYRIZA)… So we are going to shake them and say: look if we fall, you fall — maybe not the next day, but the day after.
Marina Sitrin is a writer, lawyer, teacher, organizer, militant and dreamer. She is the editor of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (2006, AK Press); the author of Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism & Autonomy in Argentina (2012, Zed Books); and co-author, together with Dario Azzellini, of They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy From Greece to Occupy (2014, Verso Books).
I am going to come out of the closet, and make a shocking, even shameful, admission. I am not a happy person. In fact I am the sort of chap who complete strangers come up to in the street and advise to cheer up, since it might never happen.
I am not, I should emphasise, an unhappy person either. I love to laugh, and some of my novels have been admired as pretty good comedies. I think I am pretty much like most people, with moods that shift and transform. Sometimes I am happy, sometimes sad, most of the time I am pretty much neutral, with my mind elsewhere. Disappointment, fear and loss are as much a part of my life as achievement, hope and joy. It is all of a piece.
However this indeterminate state no longer seems to be socially acceptable. It is required of me, both implicitly and explicitly, that I remain in a state of continual near-explosion – passionate about this, excited about that, looking forward to something else. If not, I am antisocial, a grumpy old man. Worst of all I am a failure, because if I was a success, I would be happy. Neither am I a good person, since happiness has come to be seen as a moral end in itself.
This kind of happiness fascism is a relatively recent import from America. The British, not so long ago, were perfectly at ease with being hacked off. Moaning was once a pleasurable and acceptable pastime. No longer. Everything, as the (ironic) theme song of the Lego Movie insists, is Awesome.
Happiness, we are confidently assured, is the objective of life and it is something we “get” by working hard, shopping, playing and exercising, giving to charitable causes and taking part in the drama of late capitalism. Because capitalism loves the goal of happiness – since it can offer endless products that will promise it. When they fail to do so, it can offer alternative products which make an identical promise. And so on. Commerce thrives on unhappiness. You’d be happy if you were thin enough/fit enough/popular enough/entertained enough. And here’s the product to help you.
I am not an advocate for misery – far from it. Happiness is good for you and for those around you – there is no greater favour you can do for loved ones than show them your happiness. But you mustn’t be ashamed if you can’t.
I wish I were happy all the time – I just don’t think it’s a very realistic possibility. The daily parade of disaster on the news is sobering enough. The fact of my own mortality is a downer. Old age and sickness frighten me. The difficulties of human communication produce as much isolation as connection. The corruption and venality of the powerful are daily reminders of the ubiquitous nature of injustice. The lot of most people in this country who simply work and work harder and harder in order to spend, or simply survive, strikes me as profoundly un-jolly.
And if you doubt any of that, just look at the faces of the people in the bus and train on their way to work – or for that matter the “depressive hedonism” of drunken kids in a kebab shop on a Saturday night. It’s no coincidence that all the greatest works of human drama – from Elektra to Hamlet to A View From the Bridge – are tragedies.
Of course, a lot of these truths should rightly be ignored – humankind, as TS Eliot observed, cannot bear too much reality. I just think that it is important to remember that we need Nick Drake as well as Pharrell Williams, and that we have Mozart’s Requiem Mass as well as Mantovani’s Moon River. Once it was respectable to listen Morrissey and Ian Curtis without being thought of as a loser. The lugubrious Tony Hancock and Leonard Rossiter were national heroes. There is no equivalent today.
We can, it is suggested, find happiness through good works. This is also an ideology. I am as likely to be disappointed by “doing the right thing” as I am elevated. That’s why it’s so hard to do. The secret truth is that being unselfish can leave you just as empty as being selfish. Not that I’m advocating selfishness – just pointing out that if “goodness” were easy, it wouldn’t be particularly admirable. It would simply be a form of hedonism.
I am sincerely glad that we have all cheered up since the 1970s and 1980s. But there’s a danger that all this positivity is becoming counterproductive. One of the main barriers to satisfaction is the demand that you be happy – for we add another layer of unhappiness to our lives if we feel we are failing in what is deemed to be its primary purpose. The UN now has an International Happiness Day during which we are all instructed to be happy on pain of being branded a sad sack or general all-purpose wet blanket. If I wasn’t grumpy before, I was after this particular injunction, a classic case of happiness bullying. There is plenty of evidence that cheerfulness is not fuelling the zeitgeist quite as much as we suppose. Depressive illness is at record levels. Children are stressed like never before, as are teachers. Suicide is the main cause of death for men under 35.
There is plenty of unhappiness to go around. Why dwell on it? There’s no need, I agree. But we shouldn’t refuse to acknowledge it. TV and the internet disseminate a form of propaganda by insisting on and showcasing shiny, creative, fulfilling lives. It makes me feel inadequate because my life, although creative, and fulfilling and quite well paid, does not send me into paroxysms of ecstasy every day. It is just life, sometimes good, sometimes bad, often a confusing mixture of both.
The ancients took a different line on happiness. As Oliver Burkeman observed in his excellent book The Antidote, the Stoics were particularly keen on being mindful about all the disastrous things that might happen to you – if only to understand that they probably wouldn’t be as bad as you thought. Now instead of Seneca, we have new age gurus who tell us if we think positive thoughts we will float around on a pink cloud and get what we always wanted.
I would not go so far as Slavoj Žižek who, asked what he found most depressing, answered “the happiness of stupid people”. But I know what he meant. Anyone intelligent and sensitive and thoughtful cannot look at the world and themselves without some inkling that everything, although strange and remarkable, is not always awesome. Anyway, the light relies on the dark to exist. If we could acknowledge it, the weight of denial could be lifted. And you know what? We’d all be a lot happier for it.
By Andre Damon
16 April 2015
The US Senate voted Tuesday to pass a health care “reform” bill that incentivizes care providers to cut services for Medicare patients and expands the means testing of the program, requiring recipients with higher incomes to pay more in premiums.
The passage of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 is a significant milestone in the ongoing drive to degrade and ultimately dismantle Medicare, the government health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.
The expansion of means testing is a move towards transforming Medicare into a poverty program, undermining political support and setting the stage for its de-funding and ultimate elimination.
Moreover, the bill will “create a new payment system with financial incentives for physicians to bill Medicare patients for their overall care, not individual office visits,” according to the Associated Press, creating a significant financial incentive for care providers to ration care.
The claim that the shift in payment methods to doctors is aimed at improving the overall “value” of health care services is a fraud. In fact, the bill includes language specifically incentivizing or punishing doctors based on factors such as “resource use”—i.e., the frequency of tests or services. The aim is to force doctors to provide less care or face financial penalties.
The bill increases Medicare premiums through means testing by about $35 billion and cuts an estimated $37 billion in payments to hospitals and nursing homes. By some estimates, however, the program could cut Medicare funding by hundreds of billions of dollars over the longer term through the change in the compensation system for doctors. The bill also extends the Children’s Health Insurance Program for only two years.
With this reality in mind, Republican House speaker John Boehner, who drafted the bill along with Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, called it “The first real entitlement reform that we’ve seen in nearly two decades” and “a big win.”
Like the vote in the House last month, the Senate vote proceeded in bipartisan fashion. The measure passed 92-to-8, with only far-right Republicans voting against it. President Obama has indicated that he would sign it without delay.
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden called the bill “a milestone for the Medicare program,” declaring, “The Senate is voting to [eliminate] the outdated, inefficiency-rewarding, Medicare reimbursement system.”
Obama was likewise full of praise for the passage of the bill. On Tuesday, Obama declared, “I applaud the Members of Congress from both parties who came together” to pass the bill. He added that its passage was “a milestone.”
Obama declared, “This bill… creates incentives to encourage physicians to participate in new, innovative payment models that could further reduce the growth in Medicare spending.” In other words, the bill will facilitate the slashing of Medicare spending and effect a reduction of care for Medicare recipients.
The basic framework of the bill was originally introduced in the Obama administration’s 2016 budget released in February, in which the White House called for raising $66 billion over ten years by charging higher Medicare premiums to upper-income patients.
Significantly, the passage of the bill has been met with silence by the liberal and “left” organizations around the Democratic Party. Some Medicare advocates, have, however, voiced strong opposition to the bill.
Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, said that the bill “asks too much from beneficiaries—and nothing from the pharmaceutical or insurance industries.” Paying for the program should not “rely on increasing out-of-pocket health care costs for people with Medicare, jeopardizing access to needed care, and further diminishing the already tenuous economic circumstances facing many beneficiaries and their families.”
The far-right National Review, which favors the ultimate abolition of Medicare and Social Security in their current form, praised the measure as “a bill that actually reforms Medicare.” It declared in an April 13 article, written by Ryan Ellis of Americans for Tax Reform, that “conservatives should give their full support,” noting that the bill “not only would pay for itself but would result in large net savings to the Medicare program over time.”
Ellis writes that Medicare “Part A (which pays for hospital visits and is financed by the payroll tax we all pay) sees significant savings” under the bill. “The present value of future Part A benefits will decline by $387 billion, or just under 2 percent.”
He adds that the bill will lead to “hundreds of billions of dollars in reduced unfunded liabilities and debt from Medicare. All without a penny of tax increases. H.R. 2 is a conservative Medicare-reform bill.”
The real significance of the bill has largely been hidden from the American people by the media, which has presented the passage of the bill as a largely technocratic measure aimed at doing away with the necessity of the yearly passage of the so-called “doc-fix,” which adjusts Medicare reimbursements to care providers based on the growth of medical costs.
The current payment formula has been in place since 1997, tying reimbursements to doctors to the overall growth of the economy. Since health care costs have risen faster than economic growth, this formula would lead to significant cuts in reimbursements without regular adjustments that have been made by Congress. The “fix” ends the formula, but its real significance is the move to abolish the system of compensating doctors based on the services they provide to patients.
Within the private sector, there is already a significant move toward “value-based” care, which incentivizes care providers to skimp on providing services in order to maximize their profits. Forbes notes that “health insurance companies led by UnitedHealth Group, Anthem, Aetna and others are already shifting billions of dollars in payments to providers away from fee-for-service medicine to value-based care as well.”
The drive to slash Medicare spending and ultimately dismantle the program constitutes a significant element of the broader strategy of the ruling class, which is seeking to boost its wealth and profits by dragging back the living standards of the working class to those that existed in the 19th century.
The bipartisan unity with which both houses of Congress have passed this right-wing attack on Medicare expresses the fundamental fact that, for all the talk of “partisan gridlock,” there exists a unity within the political establishment when it comes to asserting the most fundamental social interests of the financial oligarchy that dominates political life in the United States.