Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Myths About Poor People

One crucial means by which the ideology of progress is sustained is the pervasive yet tacit act of mapping progress schematically onto the existing human population on the basis of race, class, gender, health status, and so on. As a consequence, certain people are made to bear pre-modern traits and represent the conditions from which more enlightened humans have evolved.

This past year poor people have been a  particularly favorite target of this ideological mapping, which imbues them with such primitive features as: laziness, irrationality (they spend their money on tvs and cellphones rather than food!), selfishness, addictive behavior, and foolishness (they needed to be educated about how to take care of themselves). The Poverty Myth:  people are poor because they don't want to work and they waste their money on drugs and tattoos. In the Social Darwinist view, these are the feebleminded runts of humanity who deserve to die off.

Aside from the structuring idea of progress, other assumptions underly The Poverty Myth.

1. A vast majority of human beings are naturally lazy and inept. Now, I don't think most people overtly think about this implication. However, ascribing to The Poverty Myth logically entails this belief on some level of consciousness. The fact of the matter is that the majority of the world lives in poverty. Somehow human beings were able to travel across continents, oceans, and ice bridges; successfully adapt to every climate on earth; learn how to hunt mammoths and buffalo.... and yet most humans are inherently lazy and stupid?  Admittedly, there is a certain plausibility to the Great Man Theory of history, if one does not look too far back. But if you examine the earliest years of human existence, the human population was just too small, and the number of obstacles overcome were too great, to sustain that theory. In order to figure out how to cross the Pacific ocean in a small boat, or to survive in the Arctic or the desert, the genius and perseverance of almost every member of these small communities was required. So if the majority of the world's population can't even manage to feed itself hundreds of millennia later, humans have undergone some major devolution.

2. (in response to my conclusion to #1) They may not be naturally lazy and inept, but a vast majority of human beings are handicapped by __CULTURE__ or __SIN__ or __RELIGION__ (fill in the blank however you like). Regardless of how you fill in the blank, the condition of poor people is attributed to their habits and beliefs. Even if it is learned, it is still their fault.  Once again, though, if one goes back to the earliest human beings, one has to wonder if any of these things was really absent then, and why is it all of a sudden working against humanity now? Of course, the real culprit is our social system. In the modern world, capitalism necessitates unemployment (the "natural unemployment level"), low wages, and de facto (or real!) slave labor. Capitalism organizes production so that wealth is continually redistributed into the hands of fewer and fewer people. In the modern era, poverty occurs because people cannot organize production to satisfy their own needs, cannot earn enough money to feed themselves, and sometimes cannot find any role in society at all.

Plus, one has to account for the fact that the characteristics associated with poor people often apply as or more aptly to rich people. In this society, rich people (particular those with an inheritance) are much more likely to be lazy and and feel entitled than poor people. Rich people do cocaine and get addicted to prescription pain meds and spend their money on frivolous, irrational things (like jewelry for their pets).

TIME OUT:  How are we defining "lazy" and "hardworking"?  If we are defining the latter in terms of duration of a task or the physical strength required, poor people have rich people beat.  Poor people work multiple jobs. They work in plantations, mines, and factories. They work as maids, field hands, and construction workers. This is the hardest work of all! If you are trying to argue that wealth is associated with hard work, then you would have to define the latter in terms of intellectual labor. Of course, it is not always the case that the ideas come from the top of the hierarchy, or that innovation is independent of opportunity (both in terms of education and employment). Maybe that woman in the Apple sweatshop could be a Steve Jobs if she were born into different circumstances. To contend that the fact of her current existence alone proves she does not have such capabilities is to merely employ circular reasoning. Furthermore (and this is a whole different story for another day), it is not so easy to prove that wealth is a function of good ideas.

3. Starvation and disease are appropriate punishments for laziness. Let's just assume for a second that poverty is caused by laziness. Is it really just - does it fit the "crime" - that lazy people should starve to death? [Well, sure. If someone refuses to do the work to feed themselves, why should they not starve?] Social science to the rescue! Pretty much every human being on this planet has enough of a self-preservation instinct  - and a strong enough drive for food  - to make that level of laziness impossible. No one is so lazy that they will not feed themselves if they can feed themselves. [Yes, but if someone is always there feeding them, why would they do it themselves?] Clearly, for most of the world, someone is NOT there feeding them, and that is why so many people die of starvation. Even in a welfare state, most people find it demeaning to live on "handouts" and anyway, these are often not sufficient to sate the basic human urges that would impel them, in the absence of obstacles, to work harder. People who talk about welfare queens and the high life of food stamps obviously do not have an experience with poverty that would enable them to make such judgments.

So let's get rid of this ridiculous notion that a considerable number of people are too lazy to feed themselves. The only plausible indolence is the lack of desire to work beyond what is necessary to obtain the means of satisfying basic human urges and necessities. 

So what. I am lazy. I do not like to work. I rarely work for the entire 8 hours that I am at the office because it is not necessary. Do I deserve to live in tatters on the street, watching my body decay of malnutrition and AIDS? 

Or is laziness more of a tendency that everyone has to some degree, depending on conditions and varying according to the circumstances  - not a static and consistently manifested trait, not an essence.

Where did we get this idea that laziness is the worst thing in the world? This is where we circle back to the ideology of progress.

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