Monday, November 24, 2008

Poverty Has A Face

I have seen this video over and over again on CNN.  As a mother it broke my heart on many levels.  The pain that this man is going through having to bring his children to beg for money is evident on his face. 

Much of the talk in the news about the economy has been very abstract.  We have heard about bank failures,  and the dips in the stock market.  We have seen executives fly in private jets to hold out their hands and beg for money, but we have not really seen how this crises is effecting the average person.

We have been socialized to walk by the underclass when see them lying on the streets.  It is almost as though we feel that by acknowledging their humanity we will somehow end up in the same situation.  The reality is that the economic situation is worsening everyday, and those people that we thought less of might very well be us soon.

We have already seen the recurrence of tent cities. When I see the pundits on CNN wax on in their tailor made suits and expensive jewelry, I cannot help but notice how disconnected they are from the realities of this hardship.  To them, this man and his children were just another story;  something to fill in the 24 hour news world until they could move onto something more attention grabbing.

Now more than ever we need to rediscover the sense of community that capitalism has crushed within us. Capitalism has pit us against each other with the false idea of promoting a "healthy form of competition". 

It has caused us to believe in the lie of meritocracy.  No matter how hard you work you can never pull yourself up by your bootstraps, when you don't have a boot.  The people have not failed, it is the system that has failed. 

As I look at this man, with the stigma of poverty covering every inch of his being, I know that his reality was created in a boardroom far from  the street on which he begs.  The hunger pangs of his children were created with the stroke of a pen that signed his pink slip. 

Food, shelter, clothing and education are all human needs, they are not arbitrary desires and yet we have commodified them.  By placing a dollar value on the necessities of life we have assured the suffering of millions across the globe.   What makes one being more entitled to food than another?  A CEO does not work any harder than a single mom trying desperately to keep a roof over the head of her children. 

This worshiping of the golden idol must come to an end.  This uneven culture that we have built upon consumption is slowly becoming our undoing.  It is not healthy for us as a people, and it is not healthy for the earth.

We have placed environmental concerns secondary, in an effort to raise more capital.  What is the value of capitol if it cannot clothe you, feed you, educate you, or house you.  It has no tangible value other than that which we give it. To create it we must kill something.  Think of the irony of that, to make a dollar we must kill a tree.  Each time we touch it, we are hold a symbol of destruction.

At the end of the day I don't want to hear anymore about CEO's and their jets, or their business retreats.  I want to learn about the ways in which we are going to dismantle a system that is so irrational that we have endowed corporations with the same rights as a living and breathing human being. 

I want to learn about the ways in which we are going to reconnect with the earth and each other.  Capitalism is a virus that we have allowed flourish and in its wake the bodies are beginning to stink of decay.  It is time for solidarity and it is time for peace. 

The proletariat need not look at each other and assign blame, for indeed we are faultless; it is those who daily live in splendour on the labour of our sweat that should feel ashamed. While they sip on their expensive wines, the children of this world go hungry.  Socialism is not the devil that we have been lead to believe.  Honestly what could be more awful than a system that daily sets us against each other, in the support of gain.  What could more awful than a system that daily reifies racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and ableism; all to ensure that we are divided from one another.

The end of capitalism may not necessarily bring an end to all of the divisions that currently plague us, but it will certainly go a long way to  healing the sickness that we have allowed  to infest our society.


Yvette said...

Beautiful post, and so incredibly true.

Anonymous said...

I can only repeat Yvette. This post is heartbreaking and galvanizing, every word rings true. Once I thought it was possible to dismantle this system, one in which inequality and greed are not only inevitable but instrumental, but this crisis has happened with practically no vocal opposition or organisation from activists. If an 800 billion dollar failure of the capitalist system is not a rallying cry into action for the masses, I don't know what kick in the pants they need.

Meanwhile the number of heartbroken, hardworking people like the man in that clip grows and grows.

Rj said...

I still don't understand why people consider socialism the devil. Can someone explain it to me? People who did not vote for Obama still keep talking about socialism is soooo bad--and I can't take it anymore. They remind me of the book 1984. Then again, I'm poor (situational, not generational); and I do have the boots, I'm just trying to get the knots out of the straps.

Anonymous said...

Boo freaking hoo ... three white males going hungry. I care about these trash why? Though, if this is happening, things are truly intolerable for the "Untouchables" of America. Yeah the system needs to be reformed from the ground up, but the example the media picked shows the system's pro-white pro-male bias. They only care when people in their preferred group are in trouble, instead of the womyn and people of color who suffer like this even in the best of times.

Politicalguineapig said...

Rj- as far as I can guess, it comes from people equating socialism with communism. I'd love to hear other explanations, if anyone has them

Anonymous said...

You know, Anonymous, you are right about the media's white male bias, but we have to be compassionate and care about EVERYBODY who is suffering. These men are not trash, and neither are their children. They are human beings, however imperfect, period. In this case, snark is not called for. Your comment made me instinctively wince - it is the the inverse of the white racists I grew up with who responded exactly the same whenever there was a similar news item on poor POC.

Anonymous said...

While it's true that contemporary capitalism has the tendency to destroy communities, the concepts that really are capitalism (innovation, creative destruction) are fundamental advances that have brought millions out of poverty and empowered many (and we all know there is a long way to go). Capitalism itself isn't the problem, it's the underlying culture - I see your problems is with the lack of solidarity and community that humans have, and I don't see capitalism in itself as mutually exclusive from solidarity and community at all - but obviously contemporary capitalism that is driven by conspicuous consumption, etc is something that needs to be changed, but we need to change the people and their desires, the institutions that hold people back, but not the concept of freedom and invididuality that capitalism is based off of. I would just not hate the system that has brought us out of the dark ages and has brought power and hope to so many.

Renee said...


Granted the media put a white face up because of racism. We are meant to have more pity for a white person suffering as that is not the expected norm however not caring on that basis is also not appropriate. He is a human being like any other and he is in pain. No one no matter what color of their skin should be forced to beg for change to feed their children. Calling him trash is also a racialized statement. The term white trash may not have the same social power as nigger but it is specifically meant to demean another human being along the same lines.

Anonymous said...

My apologies, Renee ... sometimes I can see nothing but the inherent inequalities of the system, and it fills me with rage at the blind eye that many turn to those who suffer. I also thought that white males receiving the same type of treatment they visit on others might help many of them see what they do. I realized after I posted that not only was this not the place for such rage, but that those that are largely responsible for such injustices would not be awakened even by spending years in the shoes of those who they view as the sweepings of the street.


tanglad said...

@Anon7 -- I agree that creativity and innovation are vital human forces for progress. But why are such forces coupled with capitalism, making capitalism seem inevitable and synonymous with progress? Innovation and creativity have always flourished in a variety of social systems. And they haven't really fared well in advanced capitalist ones.

@Renee -- When I moved to this country, I was pretty shocked at how such levels of poverty can exist here as well. This is a painful and much-needed reminder that Global South extends to developed countries as well.

Ojibway Migisi Bineshii said...

Great post Renee! I could easily be another story for CNN or other mainstream news. If I did not have a loving family to take me in during these economic times then I would be homeless as well.

Homelessness has always struck close to my heart. When I was a child my Dad gave a pillow to a man who slept occasionally on our front steps. I have had many dreams of homelessness in my life.

I feel that it is clear we can all assume that capitalism perpetuates poverty. Capitalism does perpetuate division as well. As a human race we have the power to create a better way. It saddens me to not see basic needs being taken care of in our world. I have been there - going to the food bank, hungry. Because it is so close to home and because I have been so close to it but somehow I remain out of it I have such compassion. You never know why or how people became homeless. It always irked me when people would see homeless people and say, "get a job." What job?

My hope in these times is that we wake up, create a new system, meet basic needs and more for everyone on this planet. Its about time we step out of the dark ages!

Xiphactinus audax said...

Capitalism isn't the problem, imo, human nature is. We've got a very, very long history of this sort of thing, after all (dating back at least to the development of agriculture, and doubtlessly much further than that).

Manju said...

"I still don't understand why people consider socialism the devil."

Just quickly:

1. Statism/freedom: since locke (at least) free markets have been theoretically connected to the larger doctrine of inalienable rights that we see in the US bill of rights for example. In reality, nations with the freest economies (US, Canada, Japan) tend to enjoy the highest level of civil liberties as well, in comparison to more socialistic nations (cuba, north Korea). Power corrupts and therefore capitalism, in theory and reality, has offered more protection from tyranny than socialism. I'm talking in relative terms of course (tyranny can exist within capitalism, and equally important no capitalist country is purely capitalistic)

2. Poverty. If poverty is the criteria then surely capitalism is morally superior to socialism, as the more socialistic nations are poorer. some of you here are pointing to the white privilege of showing sympathy toward this poor man in the video. but what about american privilege? can we share a moment to express sympathy to all those individuals and communities that have been destroyed by global socialism?

3. globalization. the collapse of communism (and to a lesser degree socialsim) has allowed us to see nations transformed by global capitalism. The percentage of people living on less than $2 a day has decreased dramatically in areas most affected by globalization, like India Brazil china and Russia, whereas poverty rates in other areas have remained largely stagnant. this is not to say these areas are without mind numbing poverty, but rather wehn compared to the tyranny they were comping from, it is clear that free-markets are a liberating force.(and not just the totalitarian states like red china and the USSR). For over half a century India, for example, embraced a political philosophy, Fabian Socialism, aimed at eliminating poverty and redistributing wealth. But one can't redistribute what one doesn't have, and the result was malnutrition and starvation statistics rivaled only by sub-Saharan Africa. Now when globalization, outsourcing, and free-markets are introduced over the last decade, an astounding 120 million people cross the poverty line. Just a coincidence?

AR said...

If an 800 billion dollar failure of the capitalist system is not a rallying cry into action for the masses, I don't know what kick in the pants they need.

This was not a failure of capitalism; the crisis is entirely attributable to government interventions, the most severe of which is inflation and federally-subsidized easy credit which naturally leads to this sort of boom-bust cycle.

1. Statism/freedom: since locke (at least) free markets have been theoretically connected to the larger doctrine of inalienable rights that we see in the US bill of rights for example

Of course. It is amazing to think that anyone can imagine freedom of the press when all presses are government property.

AR said...

What makes one being more entitled to food than another?

I was thinking about Marxist ethics, and I came to the realization that the idea of surplus value and the exploitation of labor depends on the implicit acceptance of an ethic most people associate with capitalism. Labor is being exploited by owners of capital because, Marx argues, labor produces the entire output but receives only part of the profits. To believe that this is a bad thing, though, requires the further moral assumption that people are entitled to what they produce.

Does it not follow from Marxism that people who did not work would not be entitled to anything, even the necessities of life, for those to come only at the expense of human labor, for the same reason that owners of capital are not, according to Marxism, entitled to their profits?

Of course, one could then argue that people should voluntarily provide for people out of simple altruism and decency, but that would be charity, not entitlement.

Ellie said...

I am in agreement with Manju and AR, well said! Just here chiming in with the belief that capitalism is not the cause of society's woes...

victoria said...

I'm looking forward to the day when we can get beyond the hypothetical arguing of whether or not capitalism is better than socialism is better than __________ism of your choice. While we argue people suffer and die.

Like Renee said, people are in need because basic human necessities have been given a price tag that many cannot afford. Any system that does not acknowledge that food and shelter are basic human rights and cannot provide for those basic human rights is a system that needs to be dismantled.

AR said...

Pop-quiz: Which of the following nations have suffered peace-time famine in the 20th century?

1) The United States
2) The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
3) The People's Republic of China

This isn't hypothetical. The manifest failure of socialism to provide even the most basic of human needs without infusions of market-produced wealth can be seen by looking at actually socialist nations over the past century or so. The only way to imagine that dismantling capitalism would in any way improve the situation is to believe that we and our leaders are so much more competent and less corruptible than every other people that have tried socialism so far that one would have to wonder why we haven't achieved post-scarcity on our free time by now with our huge saintly brains.

Amazingly, socialism has as its opponents the former government of the USSR, and present governments of China, Vietnam, and others who are now switching their systems to something that can improve the overall standard of living for their people. There is no better argument against socialism, it seems, than having to live with it.

Renee said...

@AR you know very well that the countries you listed are not socialist or communist in the way that Marx envisioned.

Canada is considered a socialist country what say you to that? Even your great USA is not a pure capitalist country. Pure capitalism does not work. Many western countries function with high levels of socialism.

AR said...

Have you ever considered that the complete inability to implement socialism as Marx envisioned says something more about the faults of his vision than of those who have tried for it?

Canada is socialist to the extent that Obama is "socialist." It still depends on the production of wealth by it's market sector to actually fund it's government activities.

fan said...

"A CEO does not work any harder than a single mom trying desperately to keep a roof over the head of her children."

No, but the former is moving large amounts of food to feed many people while another is doing work that is easily replaceable. Now, you can say that X CEO does a bad job which may be true but the fact still remains is that they have a more important job in relation to the other persons.

"Capitalism is a virus that we have allowed flourish and in its wake the bodies are beginning to stink of decay."

Capitalism is the only system that works. Socialism does not work economically. You can claim it was never implemented correctly but it never will be. Socialism cannot produce to the capacity that Capitalism can which means that those countries are poorer. Hard to say you are better off when you look at the country next door and see a more prosperous nation.

"Canada is considered a socialist country what say you to that?"

Wait, what?!? When did that happen. Oh, yeah, it never did. It is capitalistic. It has pieces of socialism within it but all capitalist countries do. Very few people would say a truly capitalist country is good. Of course there needs to be some regulation and safety nets. But a capitalist country with some socialism is a much better country than a socialist country even with some capitalist aspects. The major arguing point is how much are we willing to harm the economy and innovation in an attempt to put up these socialist programs and safety nets.