Two columns in the NY TIMES this morning, combined with my son Patrick’s account of a recent family trip to Tokyo, give me a striking and somewhat counterintuitive picture of the way of the world, a picture that does not bode well for America in the decades ahead.
The first column, by Nicholas Kristof, chronicles the dramatic improvement in the health and living conditions of the poorest hundreds of millions of men, women, and children in the world. Since 1985, Kristof tells us, the incidence of leprosy, an age-old scourge of the poor and malnourished, has been reduced by 97%, and may be reduced effectively to zero by 2020. Kristof writes, “There has been a stunning decline in extreme poverty, defined as less than about $2 per person per day, adjusted for inflation. For most of history, probably more than 90 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty, plunging to fewer than 10 percent today. Every day, another 250,000 people graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. About 300,000 get electricity for the first time. Some 285,000 get their first access to clean drinking water…Family planning leads parents to have fewer babies and invest more in each. The number of global war deaths is far below what it was in the 1950s through the 1990s, let alone the murderous 1930s and ’40s.”
These figures are staggering. If one believes, as I do, that each human life has the same worth, and that one person’s pain or suffering ought to count for as much in the universal felicific calculus as another’s, then the sheer magnitude of these improvements swamps those bad things currently being done to and by Americans that I and many others obsess over. One does not have to be a Polyanna, not even a Tigger, to celebrate the fact that every day 285,000 people get access to clean drinking water for the first time.
The second column I read this morning is by the always interesting Frank Bruni, a lament to the increasing unlivability of his beloved New York City. Bruni writes sadly, angrily, of the congestion in the subways, of the breakdown of the city’s infrastructure, of the eternal political antagonism between the mayor and the governor. When I grew up in New York, seventy years ago, it was a manageable city, a human city, a city where a boy from a lower middle class family in Queens could ride the IND line to Manhattan and explore. Later, in the 60’s, when I returned to teach at Columbia, things had become a good deal worse, especially for the shrinking working class population. Bruni’s column suggests that the New York to which I shall be returning this Fall as a member of Columbia’s Society of Senior Scholars has become unmanageable for all but the very rich, who wall themselves off from the quotidian life of what was, and perhaps still is, America’s premier metropolis.
Patrick’s description of Tokyo –vast, modern, new, as active below street level as it is above – offered me an image of what New York might have been, had the necessary public expenditures been made over the decades to repair, replace, and expand the public spaces. The only great city with which I am intimately familiar now is Paris, and though it is not a Tokyo, new, gleaming, utterly modern, yet it remains a thoroughly human city where one can enjoy the delights of an urban existence.
What lessons do I learn from these two columns and Patrick’s travelogue? The first, as you might expect, is that Marx was right. Capitalism is and remains the most revolutionary force ever unleashed on the human world, revolutionary both for ill and for good. As Bruni writes, “For most of history, probably more than 90 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty, plunging to fewer than 10 percent today.” It is capitalism that accomplished this. Marx was not a Luddite. As he observed in a famous passage in the Manifesto, “[T]he bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” [Compare this with the following remark by Sherlock Holmes: “It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”]
Socialism, when it comes at long last, will conquer the hideous inequality of capitalism, but the groundwork, as it were, will have been done by capitalism’s destruction of feudalism and slavery. We may allow ourselves to dream, with Leon Trotsky, that under socialism, “[m]an will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.” [The great concluding lines of Literature and Revolution.]
The second lesson I learn from today’s proof texts and Patrick’s report is that in this century, it will not be America that leads the way to a better world. America is very wealthy, if one aggregates rather than averages, and it is and will remain the one great military superpower, but for all that, the rest of the world may simply pass us by, so that we become an immensely rich, unimaginably powerful backwater. The evidence suggests that our universities will continue to be the Mecca for graduate students in many disciplines, but those coming will prepare themselves for substandard living conditions, as American students traveling abroad did when I was young. Large regions of our nation will wear virtual warning signs, “Proceed at your own risk! The natives are poor, nasty, brutish, and short on human decency.”
Well, I seem to be in a dyspeptic mood today. A Trump presidency will do that to you.