Disadvantaged

bum with a sign: 'spare me'This morning, my uncle described his first encounter with African-Americans, which happened when he was drafted into the Army in the late 1950s. They were nice enough, he said, but they cursed constantly, using the foulest language he’d ever heard. And every month when they got their paychecks, they went and gambled for hours until one of them had won all the money from everyone else, forcing them to go borrow ten dollars to live on for the next month. “I found that incomprehensible,” my uncle said. “It was as if they had nothing to live for.”

Today is Blog Action Day, and this year’s theme is poverty. The coordinating site suggests ways that participating bloggers of various types might post on-topic, and for personal bloggers like myself, the suggestion is, “document a personal activity of the blogger that is helping the disadvantaged.” Hmm. Well, I’m not doing anything to help alleviate poverty per se, but I would like to think that the range of materials I publish online, here and elsewhere, for free to anyone with internet access — which is, in the United States at least, anyone who can get to a public library — constitutes “helping the disadvantaged” as much as anything might. I don’t make any great claims for my own work, but I think a lot of the stuff I’m helping to put online at qarrtsiluni and Postal Poetry is first-rate. Like Andrew Carnegie, whose philanthropy was so instrumental in the spread of free public libraries, I tend to believe that “It is the mind that makes the body rich.” But unlike Carnegie, I don’t exactly speak from a position of privilege.

I’ve never been a gambler, but I do cuss a lot and at one time in my life had very little to live for apart from drinking and carousing. I spent most of my paycheck on booze, and switched apartments frequently to avoid paying rent. After a while, I found a basement to store my stuff in for free and began crashing on people’s couches. It was actually a fairly satisfying existence, though I think if I’d done it for more than a couple of years, it would’ve gotten old. But simplifying one’s needs and learning to satisfy them in a way that doesn’t directly engage complex thought processes is a sure route to something that looks at least superficially like contentment. A couple years later, when I read Down and Out in Paris and London, I recognized the lifestyle in George Orwell’s description:

I had no sensation of poverty, for even after paying my rent and setting aside enough for tobacco and journeys and my food on Sundays, I still had four francs a day for drinks, and four francs was wealth. There was — it is hard to express it — a sort of heavy contentment, the contentment a well-fed beast might feel, in a life which had become so simple. For nothing could be simpler than the life of a PLONGEUR. He lives in a rhythm between work and sleep, without time to think, hardly conscious of the exterior world; his Paris has shrunk to the hotel, the Metro, a few BISTROS and his bed. If he goes afield, it is only a few streets away, on a trip with some servant-girl who sits on his knee swallowing oysters and beer. On his free day he lies in bed till noon, puts on a clean shirt, throws dice for drinks, and after lunch goes back to bed again. Nothing is quite real to him but the BOULOT, drinks and sleep; and of these sleep is the most important.

Then there is the kind of poverty I enjoy now, where the deprivations, still self-imposed (given that I do have a college degree and a few marketable skills), are mainly social (no wife or girlfriend, no kids, no employment, no car and thus no easy way to go do things with other people). I have simply made a decision to try and be content with very little, with the critical difference that now I’m living a life of the mind. I guess I’ve been pretty successful in this regard — successful enough to feel rather sorry for those with other life goals, and to suspect that most people might be happier if only they were more like me. Which is complete bullshit, of course.

Poverty used to be considered an unmitigated virtue. Up until the 16th century, begging was treated as a valid vocation: beggars were considered closer to the heart of reality, and were also valued as objects of charity, helping the less virtuous bribe their way into God’s good graces. I believe this is still the attitude in much of India. For some reason, though, attitudes changed rather suddenly in early modern Europe, when begging was outlawed in city after city and beggars were driven out. Poverty now became a problem to be solved through wage-labor. Through sheer coincidence, this was right about the time that the enclosure movement began, creating vast numbers of hungry peasants through the privitization of common lands: disadvantagement was an active, intentional process. And needless to say the deliberate destruction of traditional, subsistence economies was essential to the creation of impoverished, utterly dependent laborers in the global South, as well. The first great lie internalized by the conquered and the enslaved was that they were poor, ignorant, and without a valid culture of their own.

To what extent do any of us choose our destiny? The typical American answer is, “to a very great extent” — we are nothing if not positive thinkers. My favorable quotation of Andrew Carnegie above exposes me as a typical American, too, I guess. But that means that if you’re poor (or sick, or overweight), it must be your own fault. Even a lot of poor people believe this, to their extreme detriment, along with some admixture of blame for a scapegoat (black people for poor whites, white racists for poor blacks). These are the second and third great lies.

Can poverty ever be eliminated without first confronting these poisonous assumptions head-on, I wonder? I don’t have any answers — that’s why I’m not a political blogger. I am by no means certain I’m even asking the right questions. If, as our politricksters are continually suggesting, more jobs are the answer to all social ills, what about that mind-numbing spiritual poverty that Orwell wrote about? This I suppose is where art and poetry could enter the mix, by making people feel intellectually empowered and creatively enriched. But should poverty really be the target of our social uplift efforts in the first place, given that our economic system is based on a gambler’s worldview in which there can ever only be a few winners and everyone else must lose?

Perhaps you think socialism is the answer. But if we impoverish the land past any reasonable hope of recovery — witness the almost total loss of topsoil in Haiti, for example — what then? What happens when the global population so far exceeds the ecological carrying capacity that no redistribution of wealth can buy us a new earth?

29 Comments


  1. I don’t have any answers — that’s why I’m not a political blogger. I am by no means certain I’m even asking the right questions.
    And that’s probably why this post rings so true. No shortage of answers — go to any pub and you’ll find more answers than fleas on a stray dog — but it’s rare to find someone who asks lots of genuine questions; someone interested in exploring ideas rather than disseminating opinions.

    I feel richer because I can visit here and find much about which to wonder, and to inspire me. Thanks Dave.

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  2. As pohanginapete said! I believe the education and socialist systems of the Nordic countries works very well though it’s not completely eradicated poverty.

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  3. What’s interesting here is that you and I live very different lives but there is one key similarity. I have only recently become happy. By this I mean I wake up in the mornings and I want to get up and get on with my day. I don’t see hours as too many but too few. I am excited by life…..and it’s all down to poetry. Before I read, sure, I thought, but I had no means of expressing it in ways that could make me content, so I wasn’t. Okay, I wasn’t unhappy but I didn’t feel like I do now. Since I turned my life over to poetry, reading, thinking, writing, the magazine, I don’t go out as much, no longer watch tv (though I wasn’t a tv junkie before but I did watch it every night for an hour or two). I am committed to other things. You are very right, if more people opened up their minds to their passions, or their bodies (thinking of sports), then we would be a much happier world. Acquisitiveness would surely fade. I’m sure a lot of people buy stuff because they are bored, want outward displays of how well they’ve done, because they don’t really enjoy their jobs. I keep trying to persuade my other half to ditch his job and move us to Vancouver where we would look at earning a low-key living, having just enough, and enjoying life more. As the markets meltdown, I feel almost hopeful that this isn’t that far away. I will be honest and say I couldn’t live with nothing, but I could sure live with a lot less and feel happier for it……greed, money, they weigh you down.

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  4. I was captivated by your essay, Dave, and thought it ended a little too soon. Leaving Socialism at Haiti seems abrupt.

    And you were saying. Yes, go on, please.

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  5. Dave, thanks for writing this very personal post. You’ve given me a lot to think about, especially as I consider and try to adapt myself to living more simply within Quebec socialism after so many years as basically an American businessperson trying to sustain herself by a life of the mind and the arts. To some extent, I still feel a bit lost after giving up the rat-race; much more of my identity hinged on being paid (a lot) for my work than I realized, even as I fought against it by wanting more time to write, to do music and art, even to cook and see friends. Finding a sustainable balance where no aspect of our lives feels impoverished is a personal thing, and only by living it out can we really discover who we are and what causes us to struggle – theorizing isn’t the same thing. When someone actually get rid of possessions, get off the hamster-wheel, start biking instead of driving, cook or grow your own food, say goodbye to former relationships and family — or experiment with dislocation and temporality — then a person begins to discover real things about themselves. This post feels authentic and true because you’re taking about stuff you KNOW. (I liked the Orwell passage too.)

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  6. Many thoughts, stirring and Rorschachy post.

    Right on about simplicity, the failure of the Horatio Alger pathogen – and, the aphorism about how only people who have never truly been poor romanticize poverty is important, too.

    The post raised, for me, the vast difference between poverty and simplicity, or monastic vows taken with the entire support of a community vs. not having enough money to buy food and having no alternative but prostitution of one kind or another, or trying to live with serious illness and injury lacking the ability to access medical care, etc..

    I’ve made choices similar to yours, in my case giving up the credit-market-based existence of most Americans years back to do the artist thing, risking all security and stability to place the creative/independent/writing life first above all.

    And its a mixed bag, if I’m honest about it: I could wax sanctimonious about my elevated choices, but don’t because I would never tell anyone else (particularly a single woman who’ll have to deal with the kinds of continual harassment I do) to take these risks, to make themselves vulnerable in these ways, to have to maintain the combination of courage and sheer stamina required to just keep going in poverty as a continual target of predators and at continual risk of many kinds. Frankly? It sucks.

    I think if we make choices toward simplicity in the context of family or a small community of some kind, the risks are smaller, because we can duplicate the best of the monastic thing – help each other survive, protect each other, help share the load, get everything done that needs to be done without anyone being expected to sacrifice their integrity.

    But real poverty? Different animal, and one influenced heavily by all the other failings of our species: poor and black? You’re going to have a mighty different experience than Orwell did (and don’t get me wrong, I love Down & Out in Paris & London, but it’s not the experience I would have – have had – as a woman living under the radar/outside of the ‘protected’ spheres of tradition, either).

    Simplicity is, all of that said, essential to my creative well-being. I need woods, a lot of solitude, integrity and autonomy in my daily life and choices, and an observer status in re: the buffeting of consumer culture. Stopped having a TV 18 years ago, live small, decide for myself, do not function in a ‘we,’ relate to communities but in important ways am not of them, that kind of thing.

    But doing that and surviving it, all contexts considered, is less about merit or ‘choice’ than it is about coming to terms with the fact that as the land currently lies, there is no simplicity in poverty: just an endlessly complex and dangerous onslaught.

    So for me, it’s recently been about coming to terms with a balance between community and solitude, (clean) help while maintaining autonomy, enough money and access to medical care to be less vulnerable and enough self-determined time for my life be at least somewhat my own to determine. Which last is a privilege, and shouldn’t be, in my opinion.

    Um. Stopping now, since I’ve just written more paragraphs than your post. (Thanks for the food for thought & prompt toward articulation – this is much on my mind lately!)

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  7. A potent statement about the dichotomies that fester at the core of our time and current civilation

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  8. ..deb – Now do you see why I left the post unfinished, and ended simply with some questions? I’ve learned the hard way that finished-seeming, classic essay-type posts seldom garner substantial responses like the ones above.

    Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. Some really excellent points here. Just having readers of this quality makes me feel immeasurably rich.

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  9. Dave, you are asking the right questions.

    Jo, what you said is on my mind, too — very much so lately. About having enough, not too much. I want out of my life and into one that feels better, that fits better.

    Theriomorph, what you said is incredibly insightful and educational. You’ve made a very difficult choice. You are brave. And you are right on that there’s a difference, a big one, between simplicity and poverty.

    I have certain issues (health problems) that make certain choices (running off to live on my own) complicated at best. So I am part of a “we,” for now, even though the other half of my “we” wants very different things in life. And though he is a wonderful person, I end up feeling trapped most of the time: between what I have and what I want (or in this case don’t want), between where I want to be and where I am, between the way I want to (and do) see the world and my place in it and the way he sees the world and my place in it.

    So in trying to weigh my options, come closer to living the life I want, I also realize there are risks involved. Big ones. I know that, for a single woman with health issues, simplicity can slip into poverty very easily. I’ve seen women make that slip. I know what a difficult balance it is, how impossible it can be to come back. So here I am. Trying to do the small things I can do to live in accordance with my ethics and my desires, but missing the bigger picture.

    This is tangential to what you are saying in your post, Dave, but I think it’s central to what Theriomorph said in her comment. Hope you don’t mind my addressing her directly.

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  10. Dana – Not at all. I wish commenters answered each other more often.

    Thanks for weighing in.

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  11. I spent my 20’s in the kind of we-choices Dana describes, and also working ALL THE TIME at the expense of writing (or walking in the woods, or silence, or solitude), and then this first half of my 30’s doing the in many ways much happier but also much riskier autonomy thing (and paying a lot of consequences).

    I really think, the more I look at both, that there are deep consequences to either/any course, and it’s just a matter of each person deciding their own possible risks and tolerances day to day. And knowing the ‘right’ course might have to change, too.

    For all my impulse to always shout: simplify! Head for the hills! Find the first person singular again! – particularly to writers, and women writers even more particularly, because so many of the demands on women are about directing all their creative energy into nurturing others – I just can’t presume, pretend to know what is right for anyone else. It’s a hair’s breadth decision for me day to day, and the risks and costs of every course are enormous.

    I do think, though, that there are alternatives to accepting world-shrinkage by a) ‘settling’ for a job/relationship/whatever that takes integrity and time and creativity away but gives a certain amount of safety/security/stability by way of income, healthcare, whatever – or b) by poverty’s destruction of health, confidence, well-being and freedom. Either one of those things can destroy the artist’s work, and often does – and I think there are other creative ways people can support each other in living simply but safely, with both solitude and community.

    Communes generally got nuts, fast, but there are more boundaried possibilities than the ’60’s models (which I could never do). I think American culture has really lost track of the whole family/village thing, and I think it’s an essential survival strategy, as well as the route to ethical, small living.

    For me the writer’s rocket science is the balance between time & money, solitude and community. Ie: the balance between simplicity and poverty. Haven’t figured it out yet, that’s for sure. And really wish I could remember where I left that trust fund, but since I can’t, I’ll have to keep working on it.

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  12. Dear Theriomorph,

    Yes please on the commune-starting please. (Do we have to invite Dave?)

    Love, Dana

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  13. Dear Dana,

    Dave has his own family commune.

    But we might want to steal his Mom.

    Love, Theriomorph

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  14. Dear Theriomorph,

    I think Dave would be sad if we stole his mom.

    But his mom does seem pretty cool. Maybe she can just come visit every now and again. She wouldn’t have to bring Dave.

    Love, Dana

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  15. very interesting post and discussion. I think that definitions of poverty are fasciating, there is a definite difference between real poverty and simplicity but society often seems to view simplicity as poverty because societal values are so out of kilter with what really matters

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  16. Can I join too? If you promise not to treat me like everybody’s mother?

    Having done the “we” thing for thirty years now, I can affirm that it is a path filled with struggle and compromise but for me, I think it’s been the right choice. I’ve learned a great deal about life from staying in that relationship, even though at times it’s been a big challenge, and because we are both artists we’re able to understand and support each other in our work. Frankly, I’m glad we made some money and could help each other. Now the challenge is not to blow the second half (third, whatever) of life when we actually do have time to devote ourselves to art.

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  17. If you promise not to treat me like everybody’s mother? Heh. Well, speaking for myself, I am definitely not looking for unsolicited mentoring or re-creation of The Unit: one dysfunctional family is enough, thanks. : )

    I just have a big ol’ naturalist-crush on Marcia Bonta.

    society often seems to view simplicity as poverty because societal values are so out of kilter with what really matters

    Seriously. What I find, having done the simple thing for some while now, is that I can’t even wrap my head around a lot of the values people have/place on things – ‘But WHY?’ is my response to a lot of ‘stuff’ stuff. What gives others pleasure seems like a lot of (redundant) millstones, to me. I have stuff I want, too, I guess – it just doesn’t tend to be things.

    Unless it’s acreage & cash to start the Art Farm I’ve been planning for a decade now. Sigh.

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  18. Beth, for what it’s worth, you’re a big-sister figure to me, not a mother figure.

    Dana and Theriomorph – I promise to stay away from your commune. You know I’m a basically a misanthrope, anyway. :)

    A lot I could say about communitarianism, but none of it’s based on first-hand experience. Martin Buber’s Paths in Utopia is a neglected classic on the subject of intentional communities, and I tend to share his conclusion that they can only work if people share a worldview, not simply an ideology.

    Thanks for all the kind words about my mom. But my dad’s work on peaceful societies might actually be more relevant to this discussion. http://www.peacefulsocieties.org

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  19. (pssst, Dana; we could go take over the compound in PA)

    I haven’t read Paths in Utopia in a very long time, should read it again. Love Buber’s worldview, and yeah, that probably is the thing.

    A lot I could say about communitarianism, but none of it’s based on first-hand experience.

    Well, me too; all the first hand experience I have of communes is of the mess left behind, which has left me entirely uninterested in duplicating any of that – but I do love the idea of separate spaces in a large, wild place (a cabin of her/his own!) with good clear boundaries (including legal ones), a shared commitment to getting done what needs to be done and to supporting each other in making it unnecessary for there to be a car for each person, etc., and shared meals/readings as an option or weekly thing. The Cummington Community for the Arts did this pretty well; separate living spaces, chores and maintenance in exchange for living there, optional shared meals, weekly arts events, group trips into town, that sort of thing – but, yep, you guessed it, eventually ran out of money to pay taxes and insurance.

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  20. I absolutely loved this post. You even got me to read a little Marx. He seemed to say that those who ‘manured’ the country side became superfluous after a decline in ‘intestine’ war among the titled class. Yes that’s me, the publican contrarian (a la Dick Jones’ description), bringing up war, when you speak of peace.

    I love the way Marx used the word ‘identity’ as ‘sameness’, its meaning inverse to what I think of as popular present day solipsism, which I take to be a kind of homelessness felt by someone who has a home and doesn’t really want to move, who feels something is lacking; where identity is something sought, but it is something to be possessed of, not possessed by.

    I poked around a bit looking for something on poor laws and enclosure outside of England, but the terms seem peculiar to England, but gather that the actions they denote were not. It’s a bit shocking to think of the entire list of contents of our bourgeois elite culture as a reciprocity to the eviction and the de-landing of the peasant class throughout Europe. You scribe aching questions in me: is this realistic model, if so was it the case in 16th century Italy? Were people replaced, though perhaps not by sheep, there as well? Is all wealth gained at a net impoverishment at a larger scale?

    OK. I’m writing much faster than I’m thinking…

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  21. (pssst, Theriomorph; that’s exactly what I was thinking. They have a lot of land. They’d never even know we were there.)

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  22. What a rocking commentary………love it. Off to check out theriomorph, who must be an interesting writer with all that has been said here. I feel immeasurably richer too for having the people I know here in my life.

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  23. Bill — yes. Proudhon got it in one: Property is theft.

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  24. Hey Dave,
    Such a personal post from you is a rare treat. Like others have said, I love that I can come here and find sheer honesty (as “sheer” as honesty ever gets, anyway).

    I’ve been thinking a lot about socialism myself lately. It’s probably on a lot of our minds lately, what with all the broken levees around capitalism these days. In fact, a couple of days ago I woke up feeling all vimmed and “radical”, ready to shake my fist in the air and shout VIVA REVOLUTION! Proletariat, rise!

    Then I went and fixed myself a bowl of cheerios mixed with cap’n crunch, just the way I like it, and got back to working for The Man.

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  25. Theriomorph – I should think the way to help an artists’ community pay its bills would be to run a retreat center and/or residency program, but you’d know more about that than me, I’m sure. I do feel compelled to point out that the model of widely spaced cabins is not ideal for wildlife habitat. Forest fragmentation would be greatly diminished by grouping residences.

    Bill – I am interested by the fact that find Marx (Capital, I presume?) enjoyable reading. I tend to avoid systematic thinkers whenever possible, but to each his own.

    Nathan – Thanks for the comment. From the recent posts on your own blog, I gather that you are fighting the good fight against homelessness and hopelessness. My hat is off to you.

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  26. Dave, please, don’t banish me for handholding with Marx! I’d thought you were suggesting him! And everyone else at the commune. :@(

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  27. Sorry, comrade – too late! We’ve already reassigned you to a work camp in North Dakota.

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