A strong argument could be made that what we call underdevelopment—poverty, undernourishment, high child mortality, low life expectancy, backbreaking struggle to wring sustenance from the earth, constant war and conflict—is the “normal” condition of humankind, its “default” state in a manner of speaking. It could be argued that if we take the long view of human existence on earth, “underdevelopment” is not the terrible and shameful exception that people make it out to be when they talk about Africa today; it is a condition the overwhelming majority of humans who have ever lived have experienced and accepted as the lot of humankind. The curse God put on Adam in Genesis can be seen in this light:
Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground;
Consider the following: humans, as various species, have been on the earth for about 6 million years 1. During most of that time—more than five and a half million years—the various homo species lived no better than the other animals, scrabbling for an existence, avoiding large predators, and thankfully taking whatever sustenance nature gave them in the form of nuts, fruits, wild roots and small game.2 Some who see where I am going with this may say that this is a disingenuous argument, because these other forms of humans were not fully human, and cannot be compared to humans today.
Perhaps, but the argument still applies to Homo sapiens, modern humans, who, according to some estimates, appeared 200,000 years ago. For nearly all of that 200,000 years, all humans lived much worse than humans live today in sub Saharan Africa. For example, if the humans who inhabited Europe some 50, 000 years ago were placed beside their descendants today, they would be considered even more “underdeveloped” than today’s Africans.
Now if we narrow our focus down to the part of human history that constitutes modern development, the driving industrial production that propelled the West beyond the rest of the world is only 250 years old. This is a mere blip in the 200,000 year history of Homo sapiens.
Looking at things even more closely, the society of obscene wealth and mass consumption that we enjoy in the West and some parts of Asia today is a mere 70 odd years old, appearing in leading Western societies mostly after the Second World War, and originating in the incredible economic boom that followed the terrible bloodletting of that war of mass destruction. God’s terrible curse on Adam and his progeny only really came to an end in some parts of the world after an Armageddon, the most destructive war in human history.
Consider further: in the 19th century, the wretched poverty and terrible squalor of the poor areas of London—the leading city of Western civilization at the time, where cholera killed some 13 thousand in the first three months of 1849—and other cities in England actually fare worse in any comparison with some African cities today. These horrible conditions are ably chronicled by Marx’s great collaborator Frederick Engels in the classic The Condition of the Working-Class in England, as well as by famed journalist Henry Mayhew in his newspaper writings. “We then journeyed on to London-street…,” wrote Mayhew, “As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer the sun shone upon a narrow slip of the water. In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong green tea, and positively looked as solid as black marble in the shadow—indeed it was more like watery mud than muddy water; and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink.” 3. Of course, mortality rates were high, especially infant mortality.
Photographic images of the poverty in New York in the 1890s can be found here
Even as recently as the 1920s and 1930s, some parts of Europe and North America lived in the kind of poverty—and worse—that you find in Africa today. In 1920, just 1 percent of homes in the US had electricity and indoor plumbing. In the 1940s, a third to half of the houses in the US had no flush toilets—if you wanted to do your business you had to go to an outhouse even in winter, or use a chamber pot. 4.
And the further east you go in Europe, the more recent the fabulous development that now separates Europe from Africa. British historian Rodric Braithwaite writes of Moscow in the early years of the 20th century, “The worker-peasants who toiled in the new factories—dark, dirty, damp and dangerous—lived for the most part in Dickensian squalor. They worked seven days a week, and slept at night crammed promiscuously into wooden barracks erected by factory owners, or on the factory floor by their machines….Others crowded into tiny rented rooms in unsanitary apartment blocks. It is barely surprising that crime, disease and drunkenness all flourished.”5
So what’s the point here? That the peace and fabulous prosperity we have in the developed societies of today is a very, very recent exception to the human rule. It is of such short duration that we cannot blithely assume that it is here to stay—it could be an aberration that could even disappear in the next few hundred years. If any of our ancestors from anywhere in the world from a thousand years ago could be brought to life today to see how people live in the developed countries, it would seem to them a wondrous miracle, a work of magic, even the work of the Devil.
So if even Europeans themselves were “underdeveloped” until just yesterday, European intervention is a far from necessary condition for anyone to be underdeveloped. If underdevelopment is the normal condition of humankind through the ages, all peoples start out from that condition, and may just happen to continue in that state of affairs for a very long time, even into the present. It is not necessarily something imposed on them from outside.
As humans, we are all just emerging from “underdevelopment,” and that some regions are a hundred or so years late to the table is nothing in the grand scheme of things, and it is certainly no reason to go reaching for theories of exploitation.
Societies do not emerge from various phases of societal development at the same time. For various reasons that have to do with geography or contact with others or history, some societies began working metal later than others, some societies did not have an agricultural revolution, and even today continue as nomads and hunter gatherers rather than as settled agriculturalists, and still others live as small bands as opposed to organized states. The industrial age did not come to European nations at the same time, and it had nothing to do with one European nation “underdeveloping” the others.
Finally, there are a number of societies around the world that were until very recently living what look like Neolithic lifestyles. For example, the Highlanders of New Guinea were still using stone age tools when they encountered Australians for the first time in 1931; they wore grass skirts, and had no manufacturing, no metal tools, no writing, no form of money, no centralized government.6 This suggests that developmental progress is not automatic, and people can remain in the earliest phase of human development if there is little contact with the outside world.
Of course, there are still questions, such as why industrialization happened in Europe first, and whether some African societies were on the cusp of industrialization before Europe arrived to disrupt them. These will be tackled in later posts.
1.The figure 6 million years is from Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday which, by the way, is one of those fabulous books you just wish everyone would read. He used it in reference to the time when the chimpanzee and proto human lines are said to have diverged. Diamond writes, ”Modern conditions have prevailed…for only a tiny fraction of human history; all human societies have been traditional for far longer than any society has been modern.” P 7. (Viking, 2012) Diamond is a very nice man, and he uses the word “traditional” where a more prejudiced and unscholarly person like me might say, “Weird, wacky, primitive, scary and just plain dangerous.” For example, among the Kaulong people of New Britain, when a man died, his widow asked her brothers to strangle her as was the custom, and if they were squeamish about such a horrific act, she found ways to shame them into doing their “duty.” The book is a treasure trove of unbelievable things “traditional people” did and in some cases still do around the world. To paraphrase a famous statement, the past is a foreign very scary country; they do things differently there.
2.Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A brief history of humankind (Penguin Random House, 2014), p 3-5
3. The Unknown Mayhew: Selections from the Morning Chronicle 1849-1850, (Penguin English Library, 1984) p 21. In Engels’ more famous work, he describes some sections of Manchester: “Everywhere half or wholly ruined buildings, some of them actually uninhabited…..in the houses, almost uniformly broken, ill-fitting windows and doors, and a state of filth! Everywhere heaps of debris, refuse and offal; standing pools for gutters, and a stench which alone would make it impossible for a human being in any degree civilised to live in such a district.” Condition of the Working Class in England. (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1973) p 82
5. Rodric Braithwaite, Moscow 1941: A city and its people at war (Knopf, 2006) p 16
6. Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday, (Viking, 2012) p 2-3