Book Review: Poverty, Ethics and Justice

Poverty, Ethics and Justice, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011
H. P. P. Lötter
Reviewed by JUAN JOSÉ CRUZ, Universidad de La Laguna, Canary Islands

H. P. P. Lötter addresses poverty as a global phenomenon and illustrates his exposition with case studies from the First World (mainly Britain), impoverished countries, and the so-called emergent nations that have come to the fore recently. In this regard examples from his native South Africa are very representative.

The book is structured in two parts. The first one deals with the nature, persistence and consequences of poverty; the second addresses moral principles to defeat it. For my part, I find four main themes in the author’s discourse: The international distribution of poverty; social Calvinism; the disenfranchisement of the subordinated ; and finally, the mandate to fight poverty by means of both social networks and moral persuasion.

Lötter reminds us from the beginning that poverty includes not only the lack of resources, but of access to social services as well. So considered, poverty is a “ruthless killer” (56) that affects over half the population of the Earth. It physically decimates populations but also threatens with the decomposition of social cohesion in societies allegedly richer.

That poverty is fought with modernization and (export) industrialization is fully questioned here. And examples come to one’s mind: Maquiladoras in the Americas, or cotton mills in Southern Asia provide employment for millions. However, in their current bargaining conditions native workers can’t purchase most of the goods they produce. Another ill-conceived consequence of forced modernization according to Lötter takes place in the agricultural sector. Recently, as foreign nations and even corporations purchase lands in poor countries in Asia and Africa, more and more displacements of peasants take place. Societies that are forced to take an incredible rise from preindustrialisation to agribusiness are condemned thus to perpetuate poverty.

Nothing can be further from the goals of international cooperation. I believe in this regard that Lötter’s analysis would be bolder if it gave larger space to discuss why globalised capital slights national efforts to fight poverty.

Poverty “strips human beings of their humanity” (31), especially in groups that have adopted and adapted the ethic of capitalism. Relative poverty in a First-World city consumes enough resources to be considered above the standards in many urban settings in the Third World. However, circled in by the expectations of a developed environment, the disfavoured enter a cycle of dependency that puts them away from the networks of social cohesion. They thus leave ‘normal citizenry,’ ‘the national fabic,’ or any other secular appellation to the ‘Chosen People’ vindicated by religious zealots of different denominations. And this secularized doctrine goes global too.

Accordingly, It is not because of the free circulation of capital that poverty and injustice are on the rise, but because of the local lack of resourcefulness or mismanagement that states fail (46-47).

And the problem is accentuated as a majority of ‘poor’ people (at least in Western societies) are not destitute, but members of the working classes whose wages can no longer allow to keep the status they used to enjoy until the 1980s. Eventually, a significant number experience the kind of downward mobility that leads to social exclusion, and resort to the informal economic niches and captive social networks spared for the ‘unchosen’. For Lötter, this includes acceptance of crime among disenfranchised groups sceptical of the social state. They (as the riots that have broken out in Western European cities show) project the Robin Hood myth on invidividuals who “steal from the rich to benefit the poor, or who steal from the rich simply to get back at those seemingly unfairly advantaged by the status quo” (117).

Relying on John Rawls, Lötter points out that without social guarantees, liberty becomes the privilege of a caste. However, the complex power relations established in the post Cold War, postfordist world leads him to introduce Jürgen Habermas’ notion of communicative action, so the necessary changes become feasible. Indeed, were it not for its Habermasian turn, a leap of faith would be needed to achieve social cooperation: [It] does not only mean that we avoid negative impact that harms, injures, wounds, spoils or causes pain to one another. Social cooperation also means that we fulfil roles and functions and share burdens and risks to enable one another to protect and preserve what we judge valuable, or to enable ourselves and others to survive life’s vicissitudes and to achieve the flouring of our talents and potential as much as we are capable of (17).

By asserting the responsibility of the whole for the welfare of all, Lötter claims both the social responsibility of the ruling blocs and the moral accountability of us humans, in a “shifting site of obligations of justice” (184). His conclusion maligns the Neocalvinism that blames the subaltern for their luck. Also, ethical elements are needed to redress historical injustices. Examples come to my mind, like the current Qiniso dialogues in South Africa, the official apology of Kevin Rudd to the victims of White Australia, and the consensus that is taking shape in Spain on the recognition of fallen Loyalists as heroes in the Civil War. These events require political decisions, but they too need the personal conviction of the population to heal the wounds opened.

Lötter imagines in the beginning of his essay a CEO who concludes that his wealth depends on the welfare of all the individuals who contribute to the assets of his company, so it is on his own self interest that he needs to treat people decently. As we read on, we get to learning that the preservation of political liberties and social safety nets depend on the way we members of the Affluent world attend to the pleas and rights of the less fortunate. And as members of the former middle class, and a part of the professional-bureaucratic segment, we owe much of our security to the ability of our fellow citizens to have poverty in check. Yes, Professor Lötter, Malthus was wrong.

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