A Blunt Tool
The End of Poverty?
Joseph Stiglitz, Susan George, John Perkins
(Cinema Libre Studio)
US theatrical: 13 Nov 2009 (Limited release)
Recently the poor seem to have lost their status as a subject of interest for the Western creative class. Once upon a time, the writings of Jacob Riis and Michael Harrington, WPA documentation, and even Preston Sturges’ films made the struggles of the poor (working or not) a constant and difficult-to-ignore pop-cultural theme. The hobo, a poignant representation of those millions made homeless by the Great Depression, became such a stock in trade during the 1930s and afterward, that he became a cliché.
Today, poverty is rarely a primary concern for the arts. We are more often asked to consider the plights of those afflicted by disease, hunger, political repression or environmental devastation. Perhaps it offends our idea of progress to think that true, soul-shrinking poverty is still with us. Better to have the problems of the poor divided up into subcategories that can then be addressed by individual charity drives and NGOs. Maybe a neat T-shirt.
Phillipe Diaz’s powerful, none-too-subtle documentary The End of Poverty? means to change that. It presents images of desperation and neglect, backed by Martin Sheen’s fulsome narration, and asks straight out, “How can we still have so much poverty?” The answer—because Western capitalism not only creates but feeds off Third World poverty—is uncharacteristically revolutionary among today’s issue documentaries, and all the more refreshing for its bluntness. The fact that it often resembles a late-night TV plea for children’s charity is definitely a minus, but one definitely worth overlooking.
If Diaz’s central argument is not new, its vibrant presentation here underscores an important point: even the left wing in the Western world appears to have given up on calling for a fundamental reworking of the capitalist model. The mix of academics, government officials, and everyday people interviewed deftly put forward the thesis that the Third World—described here as a global developing south, as contrasted against the industrialized north, much like in the theorizing of Frantz Fanon—exists essentially as a resource farm and dumping ground for the First.
To bolster its case, The End of Poverty? provides a thumbnail history of colonialism as a particularly rapacious form of capitalism that sailed out of Europe to land on far shores, a Bible in one hand, rifle in the other. As talking heads recount, colonial powers not only subjugated most of the global south (a loosely defined region stretching from Latin America across Africa and right on through the Indian subcontinent and into the Pacific), but also systematically demolished their homegrown industries. Once the British had ensured that Indian textile businesses would no longer be in any shape to meet their countrymen’s needs, the subcontinent became a vast new market for textile manufacturers back in the homeland.
Having set up that paradigm, the film draws parallels between colonialism and modern international financial structures. Again and again, speakers describe how nondemocratic entities like the World Bank or International Monetary Fund pressure developing nations into two destructive courses of action. First, a country (usually just a few decades removed from colonial subjugation and possessed of only the wobbliest infrastructure) is pushed into privatizing state assets in deals that reap huge profits for corporations like Bechtel and result in little gain for the country’s government or people. (The vividly told story of Bolivia’s privatized water system yields an unusually positive ending, following the popular uprising that ended that experiment.)
Second, the country is pushed into taking out massive loans to finance giant infrastructure projects (dams, in particular), after which the country’s crushing debt forces it to rely on revenues gained from exporting natural resources to the First World, usually via that infrastructure it was talked into building. It’s a neat little circle. If the country resists the program, the chillingly deadpan testimony of John Perkins (author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man) describes the devastating results.
Most of this information has been presented before, in other documentaries or in the reporting of people like Naomi Klein. What makes The End of Poverty? stand out (aside from an unusually lush soundtrack of indigenous music from the nations where Diaz filmed), is the strident line the film takes on the subject. Instead of calling for more aid or a reexamination of economic priorities, it asserts that capitalism needs to be dug up by the roots and flung into the dustbin.
The End of Poverty? delights in upending some of the polite fictions promoted by think tanks and university academics. This is highlighted when one interviewee calls the lie on the old idea that a weak nation like the Netherlands became a financial powerhouse by developing a superior economic model, and not by more efficiently (and violently) exploiting the people and resources of their subject colonies.
Diaz submits there is more blood and greed behind the south’s wretched poverty than the north would like to admit. He illustrates with stories from the fields of Kenyan farmers evicted by an American corporation to the quiet offices of former World Bank chief economist and Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz, who confirms that most all the horrible things you have heard about his former bosses are true. That Diaz is able to cobble together a convincing thesis from such disparate material, and without resorting to easy outs (no paeans to the supposedly anti-capitalist Hugo Chavez, for example), is especially impressive. Almost by definition, this is a film that paints with a brush as broad as the sky, leaving details to the interviewees’ writings. But given the heartbreaking enormity of the crisis, and the precision and passion leveraged by the filmmakers, one can certainly forgive the occasional lapse into generalization.