Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What does it mean to be poor?


Poor is a relative condition. And as such it is has become a nominative virtue which one can easily ascribe to one's own condition. It is also a negative ascription which is based primarily on our identification of another who is deemed to be rich. By negative ascription I mean that we name ourselves poor only as not being rich – like they are. And as such we bestow upon ourselves the merit of a position that refuses to identify with excess. Filthy rich – we say. And we mean rich as wasters of money.

The hummer is an example of a symbol upon which this image has been transferred. The vehicle itself – while vaguely envied – is seen as an excessively expensive to purchase with a horrible fuel consumption waste. It is not uncommon to hear it referenced with statements that speak of our impending environmental crisis predicated on over consumption. Because the vehicle is both a symbol of a bourgeois lifestyle and it is associated with something evil like climate pollution, it transfers onto the 'rich' status an even greater negative connotation than the 'snobbery' of being rich could connote on its own. We gladly drive our 95 Chevy Astro.

But if we are poor because we are not rich then we are also not very poor by the same process. We again negatively assess our condition in the light of not being as poor as others we can clearly identify. This again is a valued position because we suggest to ourselves that there is merit in avoiding the wretchedness of the very poor. In this we are appealing to our sense of accomplishment or achievement. And as Max Weber would correctly deduce we are ascribing our virtue through identification with the symbols of a material status. Our work ethic has once again proven just who good and up right. It is important therefore to own and have available those material possessions that allows us to avoid dependence on others. Examples of this are seem in the 'need' of every dwelling to possess a lawn mower or every child in household to have 'their own room'. This concept can be seen just as clearly in third world slum where ramshackle 'homes' may lack any amenities whatsoever but a television set is prominently available.

So what?

We, the proletariat, wring our hands in frustration and despair at the 'plight of the poor'. We point easily to the immorality of the rich with disgust. We are quietly and vaguely heartened that our ethic has kept us from the agony of the desperately poor. So it is with exasperation and relief that we approach poverty. And as long as poverty is framed in the context of virtue we are condemned to inaction and ultimately to failing the real needs of our human companions.

"Blessed are the poor…"


7 comments:

roverT said...

I love this,pretty much everyone in North America can (and often does) call themselves poor by a mistaken definition...of course that leads us to inaction.

jc said...

Impoverished people need more Capitalism. The billions/trillions that we have sent to Africa over the last 30 years hasn't done a thing to put a dent in poverty. They are poorer now then they were 30 years ago.

Outgoing... said...

jc - i think your comments precisely typify one of the perspectives that I am trying to outline in this post. For most (and obviously for you) poverty is a moral/ethical condition (mostly negative) of the poor. Your identification of the "Africa's" lack of connection with Captialism frames the problems in terms of power - essentially you have identified their lack of connection with the ideological position of Capitalism as a deficient one. What is interesting about how you have framed your comments is that you have retained your position of control in that your judgement can identify whether or not "Africa" is complying with the standards you have identified. Essentially, you are condemned to perpetually be in the 'richer' subject position and they the 'poorer' one. Let me be clear that this would have been the case regardless of which ideological position you would have intoned as the appropriate issue to deal with poverty. What has happened through the words you have used is that a dualism has been created into which people are arbitrarily placed into certain status positions in respect to an ideological framework.
Beyond that it is clear that your comment was attempting to seduce a response to the idea that Capitalism itself could be seen as a vehicle to repairing the issue of poverty. To that end let me ask you directly how the adoption (or entrenchment - I'm not sure how to interpret your qualifier 'more') of Capitalism might serve to address the poverty issue?

jc said...

To expand... It is nice to supply aid to people in need in certain contexts. For example it was good to give aid to people after hurricane Katrina because it was able to help them in a time of emergency. The money and supplies(however poorly managed by the government) helped people get there lives back to normal. Fortunately we live in a semi-capitalist economy that promotes the production of wealth so that we have money to spare to help people in times of emergency.

It seems as though a movement towards Capitalism in some of the third world countries such as China, India, Vietnam... etc. is raising many worlds most poor people out of poverty. I think a movement towards capitalism would greatly improve the situation of those in Africa. In the case of Africa it does not seem evident that any amount of aid will bring those people out of poverty. Without a rule of law to protect individuals from corrupt governments, free trade, and peaceful environment, to name a few of the ingredients, I don't see how any one can expect a person to lead a productive lifestyle there.

I am not sure what you meant by the comment "Essentially, you are condemned to perpetually be in the 'richer' subject position and they the 'poorer' one." I certainly think that middle class Canadians are much richer than the average African. I don't think it is necessarily doomed to be that way forever.

I also don't understand the comment about dualism either.

Outgoing... said...

In a more crass way - you have exercised a position of power over the people in Africa becuase you have moralized thier poverty to their lack of espousal of Capitalism. Essentially you leave yourself as the judge as to whether they have met your criteria - in this case conformance ot capitalisitic ideology. That means they will remain for you - the judged and you the judge. That position makes you richer than they are. And it proves one of the things that I was argueing in the post. That our moral framing of poverty leads not only to inaction but to a perpetuation of the 'problem' of poverty.
The use of the word dualism was a syntax error on my part. I meant tot use the word dichotomy there. and again I was trying to outline how the moralizing project of poverty that is common especially in Western thought has created an inevitable dichotomy between 'us' and 'them'.
In regards to your suggestions that Capitalism has redemptive power to address poverty, let me say this:
Capitalism cannot help but classify people in ranks. These ranks may very well differ in material conditions of life but will not address the actual position of people in relationship to those who own the greater status position. The real power of capitalism was shown for it true weakness in the case of Katrina - in that it was not able through right to free trade and the 'freedom' to sell your own labour, and invisible hand of the market to protect or respond effectively enough to help the people who died and were left in poverty as a result of the disaster. It took the benevolence of the wealthy acting to redistribute their resources that mediated any 'damage' casued by the storm. Even so it was the poorest without out access to the means of production that were victimized the hardest in this event.

jc said...

Hmm... I think I am going to have to leave this discussion because I can't make heads or tails of what you are saying. Thanks.

Natasha said...

Just wanted to say - excellent post here Dale!