Towards an Intellectual History of Modern Poverty

by guest contributor Tejas Parasher


Picture 1In Chapter 3 of The History Manifesto, David Armitage and Jo Guldi support historians’ increasing willingness to engage with topics generally left to economists. Whereas the almost total dominance of game-theoretic modelling in economics has led to abstract explanations of events in terms of market principles, history, with its greater attention to ruptures and continuities of context and its “apprehension of multiple causality,” can push against overly reductionist stories of socio-economic problems (The History Manifesto, 87). Citing Thomas Piketty’s Capital as a possible example, Armitage and Guldi propose a longue-durée approach to the past that, by empirically documenting the evolution of a phenomenon (say, income inequality or land reform) over time, can disclose context-specific factors and patterns that economic models generally elide.

In this blog post, I ask what intellectual history in particular might have to gain (and contribute) by following Armitage and Guldi’s provocation and taking on a topic that Western academia has almost totally ceded to economics since the 1970s: the study of global poverty. Extreme or mass poverty in the Global South is a well-worn term in the literature on cosmopolitan justice, development economics, global governance, and foreign policy. Across economists like Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Collier, Abhijit Banerjee, and Esther Duflo, poverty is usually invoked as a sign of institutional failure—domestic or international—and a problem to be solved through aid or the reform of market governance. I want to suggest here that the contemporary dominance of economic analysis has foreclosed other approaches to mass poverty in the twentieth century. These are discourses that global intellectual history is uniquely able to excavate.

Picture 2

Delegates at the London Round Table Conferences (1930-1932) on constitutional reform, representation, and voting in British India. Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Sept. 14 1931.

To illustrate my point, I want to turn to a common trope I have found while researching political thought in colonial India. Between approximately 1929-30 and 1950, the Indian National Congress and other organizations fighting for self-determination began to demand the introduction of universal adult franchise in British South Asia. The colony had seen very limited elections at the provincial level since 1892. Through a successive series of acts in 1909, 1919, and 1935, the British Government gradually widened the powers of legislatures with native representation, while keeping the electorate limited according to property ownership and income. In its report to Parliament in 1919, the Indian Franchise Committee under Lord Southborough emphasized that the ‘intelligence’ and ‘political education’ required for modern elections necessitated a strict property qualification (especially in a mostly rural country like India).

Against this background, extending rights to vote and hold office to laborers and the landless poor was anti-imperial both in the immediate sense of challenging British constitutional provisions and, more generally, in inverting the philosophy of the colonial state. Dipesh Chakrabarty has accurately and evocatively described the nationalist demand for universal suffrage as a gesture of “abolishing the imaginary waiting room of history” to which Indians had been consigned by modern European thought (Provincalizing Europe, 9). Indian demands for the adult franchise were almost always articulated with reference to the country’s economic condition. The poor, it was said, needed to directly participate in politics so that the state which governed them could adequately represent their interests.

M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948) began making such arguments in support of adult franchise soon after he gained leadership of the Indian independence movement around 1919. His ideal of a decentralized village-based democracy (panchayati raj) sought to address the deep socio-economic inequality of colonial society by bringing the rural poor into decision-making processes. Under the Gandhian program, fully participatory local village councils would combine legislative, judicial, and executive functions. As Karuna Mantena has noted in her recent study of Gandhi’s theory of the state, panchayati raj based on universal suffrage was seen to empower the poor by giving them an institutional mechanism to guard against the agendas of urban elites and landed rural classes.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, most demands for extending suffrage to the poor shared Gandhi’s premise. Even when leaders fundamentally disagreed with Gandhi’s idealization of village self-rule, they similarly considered the power to vote and hold office as a crucial safeguard against further economic vulnerability. In the Constitution of Free India he proposed in 1944, Manabendra Nath Roy (1887-1954), the ex-Communist leader of the Radical Democratic Party, argued for full enfranchisement and participatory local government on essentially defensive grounds, to protect “workers, employees, and peasants” from privileged interests (Constitution of Free India, 12).

By far one of the most sophisticated analyses of the problem of poverty for Indian politics during these decades came from B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), a jurist, anti-caste leader, and the main drafter of the Constitution of independent India in 1950. Ambedkar had been a vocal advocate for removing property, income, and literacy qualifications for voting and holding office since 1919, when he testified before Lord Southborough’s committee. As independence became increasingly likely from the 1930s, Ambedkar’s fundamental concern was to ensure that the poorest, landless castes of India had constitutional protections to vote and to represent themselves as separate groups in the legislature. Writing to the Simon Commission for constitutional reform in 1928, Ambedkar saw direct participation of the poor as the only way to forestall the rise of a postcolonial oligarchy: “the poorer the individual the greater the necessity of enfranchising him…. If the welfare of the worker is to be guaranteed from being menaced by the owners, the terms of their associated life must be constantly resettled. But this can hardly be done unless the franchise is dissociated from property and extended to all propertyless adults” (“Franchise,” 66).

During the height of the Indian independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, there was thus an acute awareness of mass poverty as a key problem confronted by modern politics outside the West. Participatory democracy was in many ways the answer to an economic issue: colonialism’s creation of a large population without security of income or property, placed at the very bottom of networks of production and exchange that favored either Western Europe or a native elite. This was the population that Gandhi repeatedly described as holding onto its existence in a precarious condition of lifeless “slavery,” completely lacking any economic power. Only fundamental changes in the nature of the modern state, to make it accessible to those who had been constructed as objects of expert rule and as backward outliers to productivity and prosperity, could return dignity to the poor.

Picture 3

File photo from the 1952 general election, the first conducted with universal adult suffrage. Photo No. 21791a (Jan. 1952). Photo Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India.

My intention in briefly reconstructing Indian debates around giving suffrage, self-representation, and engaged citizenship to some of the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world is straightforward: attempts to address the effects of inequality in the Global South through the vote and local democracy rather than exclusively through international governance and economic reconstruction need to have a central place in any story we tell about twentieth-century poverty. Before they were taken up in the literature on efficient economic institutions and the rhetoric of international aid and development in the early 1950s (a shift usefully analyzed by anthropologists like Akhil Gupta and Arturo Escobar), colonial narratives about Africa, Latin America, and Asia as regions of intractable, large-scale poverty, famine, and market failure informed the political thought of anti-imperial democracy. The idea that existing economic conditions in India were problematic and deeply unjust was the basis of giving greater political power to the poor. A global conceptual history of ‘mass poverty’ in the twentieth century can therefore situate popular Third World movements that sought to increase the agency of the poor alongside more familiar, and more hegemonic, projects of Western humanitarianism.

This brings me back to my earlier point about what we might gain by re-thinking, with The History Manifesto, the relationship between intellectual history and economics. Once we start to trace how the categories and variables deployed in economic analysis emerged and changed over time, and how they were interpreted and practiced in a wide range of historical contexts, we can access dimensions of these concepts that may be completely absent from economic modeling. On the specific question of global poverty, an intellectual history that documents how the concept travelled between Third World thought, social movements, and global governance might give us theories of poverty alleviation that entail much more than simply distributive justice and resource allocation. This would be a form of intellectual history committed, as Armitage and Guldi put it, to “speaking back” to the “mythologies” of economics by expanding the timeframes and theoretical traditions which inform the discipline’s methods (The History Manifesto, 81-85).

Tejas Parasher is a PhD candidate in political theory at the University of Chicago. His research interests are in the history of political thought, comparative political theory, and global intellectual history, especially on questions of state-building, decolonization, and market governance in the mid-twentieth century, with a regional focus on South Asia. His dissertation examines the rise of redistribution as a discourse of government and economic policy in India through the 1940s. He also writes more broadly on issues of socio-economic inequality in democratic and constitutional theory, human rights, and the history of political thought.


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