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?