books globalisation social justice

Book review: Why Global Justice Matters, by Chris Armstrong

I had a rather sad thought while reading Why Global Justice Matters. It occurred to me that I had read very similar books twenty years ago, outlining how aid, debt and trade are all tilted towards the global North. Poverty persists, inequality worsens, and the terms of globalisation remain firmly in favour of the richest.

The Doha Round of World Trade Organisation talks were supposed to address these issues. They started in 2001, got nowhere, and ultimately went quiet a few years later. With them went the campaign momentum that builds around regular meetings, and it feels as if the global justice movement has been subsumed into a broader debate about inequality, the energy shifting into the climate change movement instead.

Chris Armstrong is a professor of political theory at the University of Southampton, and his book is a useful introduction for a new generation. It’s short and accessible, the kind of thing you could easily read with a group of students and discuss. There are only three chapters, with an admirably straightforward structure:

  • What is the problem?
  • Why should you care?
  • What can be done?

Students of international relations will be familiar with what is wrong – a billion people still in extreme poverty, and three billion more on the cusp. Half of those in poverty are children. Development, preferably through free market capitalism, is consistently prescribed as the solution, but almost all the growth goes to those at the top. Inequality grows, and the richest get much richer while the poor only get marginally less poor. As Oxfam reported this year, the world’s poorest 4.6 billion people share the same amount of wealth as the world’s 2,153 billionaires. Something is badly wrong with the global economy, and climate change will make it worse.

For people of compassion, it is obvious that this is wrong and that humanity can do better. I agree with Armstrong when he suggests that we see “the quality of the lives lived by the poorest of the poor as an important benchmark of human progress.” But for those benefiting from the system, there is still a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that anything can be done about it.

That’s where the book differs from those of 20 years ago. Writers such as Ha-Joon Chang or Joseph Stiglitz might have hoped that blowing the whistle would be enough – that lifting the lid on the scandals of globalisation would prick the conscience of those in power and drive change. That hasn’t happened, and that’s why the book’s middle section is so important.

Everyone should care about global injustice, says Armstrong, because we live in a global economy. We shouldn’t enjoy the benefits of globalisation without the responsibilities – the cheap clothes, for example, without acknowledging the realities of sweatshop labour. There is also common cause between the global poor and the local poor, all of whom suffer from a distant and self-interested elite. The same forces that perpetuate inequality in developing countries are eroding democracy and equality in developed countries. Another factor is that inequality makes global problems harder to resolve, from climate change to migration to pandemics.

The chapter on what can be done is the longest, a riposte to those who say that even if inequality is a problem, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. “Political progress often depends on what we think we can achieve”, says Armstrong, not what is actually possible. It might be hard to imagine an end to global injustice, but that shouldn’t stop us from making improvements where we can – clamping down on tax havens, reforming global institutions to amplify marginalised voices, ending perverse subsidies, controlling arms flows to dictators, or funding climate change adaptation.

“The goal of global justice cannot only be to eradicate severe poverty” says Armstrong. “It must also be to rein back the huge inequalities that characterise our world. If our lives have equal moral weight, then we ought to have more or less equal prospects in life.”

 

30 comments

  1. ” clamping down on tax havens, reforming global institutions to amplify marginalised voices, ending perverse subsidies, controlling arms flows to dictators, or funding climate change adaptation.”

    Certainly difficult when countries like the UK and US are neck-deep in the sort of Neo-Colonial practices that direct and enable global injustice.

    1. Yes, and many global institutions still reflect global power at the end of the Second World War. It’s completely in their interests to reform them, or developing countries will eventually bypass and sideline them, as China has very clearly been working on for years.

  2. Since goodness knows when, the compassionate have known that such changes are needed yet it never happens, at least, to no adequate degree. I had hoped that climate change could make the distant self-interested elite realise that everything in the world affects us all so we must consider one another and that they are the most powerful to make an adequate change. Fear drives selfish behaviour and we can’t find a way to change all powerful people. We can only hope that some will have the courage it needs and this may influence others. But many powerful people will not give it up because they are obsessed for other reasons too, ie., ego can outride fear. So we can try to pressurise the powerful, repeat how this needs many together and watch for even the little acorns of selfishness and fear in ourselves in case they ever get a bigger hold on us.

  3. Extreme poverty has fallen from 30% of the global population in 2000 to 10% now. Not a sign that the system is failing so those who don’t like it have to have a new complaint. Now: ‘It’s a failure because you haven’t eradicated extreme poverty’.

    We seem to be in a period of categorical thinking, any poverty is just as much a sin as lots. Compare anything to perfection and it comes up short. Doesn’t matter as long as you shamelessly repeat it until it’s accepted as true.

    The fact Bangladesh is one of the fastest growing countries in the world, lifting itself out of poverty in the back of the sweatshops decried for the last 20 years by books like this is not one that gets shouted as it goes against the narrative.

    1. I had a feeling you’d be commenting on this one Martin. You rarely miss an opportunity to drop in and insist that there’s “nothing to see here” when I write about global justice.

      I’ve written about falling poverty rates, so there’s no denial about that from me, but you raise an interesting point about categorical poverty. According to international definitions, people leave extreme poverty when they begin earning over $1.90 a day.

      Earning $1.91? Congratulations, you’re no longer extremely poor!

      So yes, there’s a problem with categorisations and the task is very much unfinished.

      1. But surely Jeremy, DevonChap (Martin?) is making an important point? Yes, there’s an unacceptably large number of very poor people in the world, but nonetheless matters have improved enormously over the past 50 years: in 1970 there were about 1.8 billion people living in extreme poverty compared with about 700 million today. And that’s despite the global population having doubled over the same period. And yes, the world bank’s target of ending extreme poverty by 2030 may not be achieved – but we’re likely to get very close to it. As Martin says: hardly a failed system.

        And improvement isn’t only at the extremes. For example, over the same period the incidence of childhood mortality, disease and hunger has improved remarkably amongst populations generally.

        So things are slowly improving – justice is being done. Surely that’s a cause for modest celebration?

    1. I was commenting, not on the book, but on Martin’s accurate observation that re world poverty, matters have improved massively over recent years. That’s true whatever the book might say. And it’s important: many people think that global poverty is getting worse. Yet it’s not – far from it.

      PS: the book looks surprisingly expensive – even from Amazon.

  4. Some people are unable to see the main point. Those unwilling to are suffering from egotism. DC argues for the wrong reasons.

  5. Any “progress” under the current economic system has had too high an ecological cost. We need system change driven by “degrowth” and a world parliament.

    1. As I noted above, ‘in 1970 there were about 1.8 billion people living in extreme poverty compared with about 700 million today. And that’s despite the global population having doubled over the same period.‘. That’s a massive improvement – rather more than your miserable-sounding “progress”. I suggest you get used to it, rather than dreaming about degrowth and world government.

      1. I do not understand why arguments that inequality/poverty has improved much or little are argued here. The point surely is that there is still too much suffering and we can make even more positive steps to improve further. Quieten your egos you lot! That would help much.

        1. there is still too much suffering and we can make even more positive steps to improve further.

          Of course that’s true. But that’s not a reason for ignoring the considerable progress that has been made – apart from anything else, it must be helpful to learn what it is that’s made that progress possible.

          1. Of course! But the article is about the book and Jeremy’s additional comments on this. That is what I am referring to as ‘the point’ (of the article), which the complaints are not appreciating. (You find what you are looking for all too often).

          2. the article is about the book and Jeremy’s additional comments on this

            True. But I was commenting on DC’s point. And my observation that matters have improved enormously over the past 50 years is accurate and surely worth making?

          3. The easiest and briefest way I can think of to answer you is this: If someone says ‘We can make things better than they are’ what is the purpose of a reply that says ‘You’re complaining about the bad when there have been substantial improvements’?
            (You inadvertently got caught up with DC’s red herring which is an attempt (consciously or not) to deflect from the matter at hand merely to criticize where criticism is not warranted. His comment may be fact but it is not pertinent to the article’s point).
            Hope this helps!

          4. Hope this helps!

            Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Yes, of course we can – and should – make things better than they are. Jeremy says ‘that this is wrong and that humanity can do better</i'. Surely he's right? And surely the best way to start is not to ignore the important fact that things have improved enormously in recent years (something Jeremy accepts), but to take note of it and try to understand how it's been achieved?

            I hope this helps.

      2. ” I suggest you get used to it, rather than dreaming about degrowth and world government.”

        I’ve been trying to get a debate going with Steve Keen and other with this point as there are many who indeed think green growth cannot happen and growing certain parts of the economy will just make the problem larger. Decoupling isn’t happening anywhere near enough to avoid making envorinmental overshoot worse or deal with climate change.

        1. Decoupling isn’t happening anywhere near enough to avoid making envorinmental overshoot worse or deal with climate change.

          That’s true.

  6. Hope this helps!

    Apologies for the formatting error. Here’s my intended reply:

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Yes, of course we can – and should – make things better than they are. Jeremy says ‘that this is wrong and that humanity can do better‘. Surely he’s right? And surely the best way to start is not to ignore the important fact that things have improved enormously in recent years (something Jeremy accepts), but to take note of it and try to understand how it’s been achieved?

    I hope this helps.

  7. These arguments remind me of people who respond to Black Lives Matter by saying that All Lives Matter. Yes, of course they do, but black lives are being treated as if they don’t, and to broaden it back out to all of humanity glosses over that injustice.

    In a similar way, if I protest that hundreds of millions of people are still in poverty, they are not served by a reply that says hundreds of millions aren’t.

    I know about the success stories. I also know, having read books on development and justice such as this one, that the measures that lifted people out of poverty elsewhere do not necessarily apply to those who find themselves at the back of the queue.

    1. if I protest that hundreds of millions of people are still in poverty, they are not served by a reply that says hundreds of millions aren’t.

      True. But that’s not all I’m saying.

      measures that lifted people out of poverty elsewhere do not necessarily apply to those who find themselves at the back of the queue

      Also true. But ‘not necessarily’ is not the same as not at all.

        1. Fair enough. But it’s not a reason to object (as Dichasium seems determined to do) when someone points out that matters have improved massively over recent years – and that understanding how that’s happened might contribute to the alleviation of today’s poverty.

      1. Jeremy’s article is not a history lesson. It is a short article about what can be improved. There is no valid reason (unless required by an exam) to mention what has improved. You may not be aware that some people just want to make a dig, exercise their ego, and hopefully, start a curfuffle. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. I’ve now said enough. (Perhaps read more of Jeremy’s good work. If you promise to return my copy of the said book (addresses via Jeremy’s personal site) I can post it to you if all agreed, as you found its price rather off-putting).

          1. Now you’ve got me wrong – In response to J’s reply to DC you asked about the validity of DC’s comment which I have tried to help with. Dc’s motive can be easily seen in this ‘Not a sign that the system is failing so those who don’t like it have to have a new complaint. Now: ‘It’s a failure because you haven’t eradicated extreme poverty’.
            That is clearly not what J’s article was saying. Neither were you thankfully. DC initiated a debate that has continued at cross purposes.

          2. Neither were you thankfully.

            Thanks. And may I assume therefore that you accept the validity of my observation that understanding the reason why levels of poverty have reduced massively over recent years could make a valuable contribution to the alleviation of today’s poverty?

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