Poor or Impoverished? And How Do They Get That Way?
Strategies to fight poverty in all our countries, and exclusion, dismissal and distrust of the poor everwhere are characteristics of the economic culture of our time,
an economic culture that manufactures more poor.
The time is ripe for an updated reflection.
José Ignacio González Faus
The cultures we live in tend to make us believe that people are poor and impoverished for one of two reasons. Either it’s their own fault (they’re lazy or they failed to make the right choices according to the natural, supreme laws of the market), or it’s the result of natural design, with nature decreeing that some human beings will be free and powerful while others are weak and enslaved. Most often, whenever we try to refute one of these two explanations, we run up against the other.
The poor are poor because of human actionsThese explanations are not unique to our epoch alone. People have used them throughout human history. For example, in ancient Israel, sick people were declared religiously “impure” and set apart from society so they would not contaminate others. This made it easy for the rest to turn their back on the sick. In India, people were said to have been born into the lower castes as punishment for bad deeds in previous lives; the separation of castes was thus based on religious grounds. In the capitalist system—according to Max Weber, who traces its roots back to Calvinism—the wealth of the rich is a sign from God that they are predestined to eternal salvation, while the poor are apparently destined to eternal punishment.
Instead of looking at more of these examples, let’s consider what is unique to our culture. We have created a secular version of these ancient explanations that replaces the old religious garb with scientific, economic and sociological trappings.
In response to these dominant explanations, another current of thought, like a kind of “anti-entropy,” can also be found throughout the whole of human history. Its religious version, which can be found at the core of the Judeo-Christian Bible, teaches us that “God doesn’t want people to be poor.” The non-religious version of this line of thought can be found, above all, in the Marxist tradition, which states with equal conviction that nature did not make people poor. This tradition goes even further, to posit that the full realization of nature will lead to the disappearance of poverty as all human beings become equal.
In both versions, the conclusion is the same: people are poor because of human actions. And thus the poor, at least the vast majority of them, are impoverished and oppressed. No one denies that there are specific cases—whose numbers may vary and can be debated—in which people are poor as the result of their own free choice or some anomaly of nature. But these cases do not contradict the rule, which holds that people are poor because human beings produce the poor, whether directly or, more often, in a mediated or indirect way.
Why do people act in a way that impoverishes others? Without aiming to be exhaustive, I will examine three hypotheses that challenge the dominant political theory, which can be called “possessive individualism.” The first thesis addresses the adjective, the second the noun, and the third, our general attitude towards them both.
First thesis: Some people are poor According to the first thesis, people are poor because human beings have an insatiable desire for “more”—to do more, be more. This desire for more is what in the Christian tradition is called “original sin,” and in other non-religious traditions has been identified and described in other ways: “radical evil,” “fallen.” It is in this sense that Max Horkheimer, a non-believer, could say, “original sin seems obvious to me.” We human beings tend to believe that the way to “be more” is to have more. Our desire to have more necessarily means that others have less, given that nature’s goods are not inexhaustible.
because we all invariably want more
The idea of “having less” brings to mind certain well-known statistics. According to United Nations Development Project reports, the three richest people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest two billion. Some 325 people possess the equivalent of the GDP of 45 countries.
In the richest country in the world, the United States, 20 million households earn less than a third of the mean income and 8 million earn only a fifth of it ($9,200 a year, compared to a mean of $55,000). While 10% of the population earns twice the mean income, half of those earn three times the mean and a tenth of them six times; meanwhile, nearly 70% earns less than the mean and some 60 million people fall below the official poverty line. Also in the United States, 172,000 people earn $1 million a year, a few thousand earn $10 million, 250 earn $50 million and a small group of perhaps a hundred earn over $100 million a year. And we’re talking only about income here, not property.
In such a hard-working country, these enormous differences cannot possibly be the result of laziness. In fact, the obsession—or need—to work at any price has given rise to a disease, “workaholism,” which is leading to what one sociological study in the United States called the “corrosion of character” due to the constant threat of losing one’s job, having to move and other insecurities inherent in such a system.
The following numbers help shed some light on this history: if the earth were a small village of 100 inhabitants, 57 would be Asian, 14 European or North American, 8 African, and so on, with a total 70% people of color. Fifty-nine percent of the village’s wealth would be owned by 6 of these people, and they would all be North Americans, while 80 people would live in makeshift houses, 70 would not know how to read, 50 would suffer from malnutrition and only 1 would have a computer.
Property and money: In the Jewish neighborhood of Toledo, there’s a street dedicated to one Mateo Leví, who according to an old legend opted to die under torture rather than reveal where he kept his money. True or not, it is an apt parable of the condition of the very rich. It teaches us how far we humans can go in adoring what we have: we would rather die than lose or share it. And the more we have, the greater this idolatry.
The gods of our secular society
I use the words adoration and idolatry. This brings me to another, very basic notion. It is said that we live in a secular society, and we are very proud of that. But I have my doubts. I believe instead that we live in a theocratic society, but one dominated by a false god. The god of our society is property. And its decalogue—handed down not on Mount Sinai but rather, for example, in the books of Locke—contains but one commandment, the right to property. This is a valid right but one that must be limited, to respect and protect others. But in our society, it has become an absolute and virtually exclusive right.
Thus, according to Locke, people have the right to kill to defend their property. This leads to the idea that “my property is worth more than a human life,” a “law” that obviously can only come from a false god. For this reason, Charles Péguy wrote that a bankbook is like the gospel, the summary of modern philosophy and the only “book” strong enough to hold its own against the Christian gospel.
This idolatry is somewhat understandable, given our human condition. Although “wealth” and “importance” are, abstractly, words with different meanings: they are in fact virtually inseparable. Money additionally provides “security” and “effectiveness.” These four pillars, so basic to our lives, are what have always led human beings to need and seek gods. Is our society, which adores money and seeks everything in this god, truly or only nominally secular?
From a psychological or anthropological perspective, we can appreciate that “we all want more” is true for everyone, although we seek “more” in different fields. And if we are without in one field, we look for more in another, or we seek recognition for doing without.
According to Jean Paul Sartre, man has a passion for divinity, the absolute, totality, “more.” For this reason, he said, “others” bother us, take up space, “are hell.” The words of this atheist philosopher can also be given a religious reading. Christians say that God, the Absolute, the Infinite could not have created anything outside himself had he not first decided to “withdraw and limit himself,” to make room for finite beings and time and space. Simone Weil wrote that “God created the universe like the sea that pulls back to reveal the coasts.” Human beings are not God, but we aspire to divinity, to the absolute. If this desire for the absolute does not withdraw, does not “limit” itself, others cannot appear as my equals. They appear instead as inferior to me, impoverished, subhuman.
In the light of these reflections, if we’re honest, it’s not hard to understand why there are poor. It’s our own doing .
Second thesis: People are poorHuman beings are enormously interconnected. We are far less isolated than we are led to believe by cultural individualism, that ideology that arose largely to defend the absolute nature of property. All of our actions have repercussions on the entire social fabric, structuring good or evil, equality or inequality, wealth or poverty. They also structure systems in which the rich get richer at the cost of the poor, who get constantly poorer. It is hard for us to accept this because the individualism that dominates our culture teaches us that what I do affects me alone and has nothing to do with anyone else.
because we make them poor
Thinking like this is nothing more than putting into play the aspiration within all of us towards the absolute or the divinity. The thesis we set against this individualistic notion can be visualized through a scientific theory known as the “butterfly effect,” which has been popularized to some extent—it was even the topic of a film—and maintains that something as light and imperceptible as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing in London can have repercussions in Australia.
Stated in slightly more technical terms, the most recent scientific theories on the construction of our material reality have taught us that elemental particles can no longer be conceived of as finite, specific units, as the old atomistic model held. Now they are always and only conceived of within a system of relations and interrelations, with margins of indetermination.
Thus, economic individualism—especially the kind found in the United States—translates the long superceded Newtonian cosmology and physics to anthropological and sociological levels. It has not yet gone through the kind of revolution required by quantum mechanics and the indeterminacy equation.
Brand names: The god of the global economyLet’s leave the analogies from physics now for a quick economic example. A powerful multinational company like Nike, Coca Cola or Reebok typically ends the year by announcing a substantial jump in profits. Then surprisingly, on the heels of this triumphal report, the company announces that it is closing its factories in the United States, Germany or Spain to move to Mexico, the Philippines or Myanmar. When asked why it is doing this after such a successful year, the answer is invariably, “We must be competitive.” This was reflected in a splendid film made in the United States, titled significantly I Am The One.
This is one of the ways the desire for “more” is expressed. The consequences? The multinational company opens up factories in a country on the condition that it not be subject to local labor or environmental laws—if there are any, that is. If the country doesn’t accept this condition, the company can always go somewhere else—from Myanmar to China, for example—where it will “bring capital and create jobs.”
The truth lurking behind this noble mission are unimaginable, subhuman working conditions in the host country: child labor, 12-14 hour days, salaries 18-20 times lower than in the country of origin, the refusal of permission even to go to the bathroom, no protection whatever against work-related risks, accidents or carcinogenic radiation... Conditions so brutal that we hear about them but don’t believe them because they seem impossible.
The immense profits that come from these companies go to make the rich increasingly rich at the expense of the poor who are increasingly poor. No money is reinvested in those who have produced the goods, the workers of the country invaded by the company. Enormous amounts of money, however, are invested in publicity and in creating structures—sometimes even charitable ones—in which the brand is everything, until it becomes a kind of god where value is no longer based on the product’s quality but on its name, because identifying with it provides an identity to those who feel they don’t have one.
We can find examples of this around us every day. In many families, children reject shoes as good as or better than Nikes because if they don’t wear Nikes they won’t be anyone in the eyes of their little friends, even if they walk better. The resistance of many adults to generic drugs comes from this same veneration for the brand, notwithstanding the equal or superior quality of the generic product. A child in a poor São Paulo neighborhood could even kill a classmate for—a pair of used Nikes! He knows that Ronaldo wears and advertises Nikes so wearing them makes this poor kid, raised without an identity, identify a little with the soccer star.
These are extreme cases, and things don’t often reach this point. But by examining the extreme cases, we can get a better look at the pathogenic bacteria and other germs that are active in a sick organism.
It is also true that some of these companies end up dying under the weight of their crazed haste to enrich themselves, because of consumer boycotts when people find out about their methods, or for other reasons. But when they die, others take their place.
I consume, therefore I amThose who act in this way seek to base their actions on accords made by the human community—or rather, by the few who have a voice in it. They look to norms dictated by the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization or even the Multilateral Investment Agreement, which was successfully blocked—at least for the moment.
To counter this, we must at least develop a serious, radical ethical position that sets not only minimum standards but also maximum goals related to our consumption and the use of our money. If property is not a god—and a secular society should not have gods—it can no longer be defined as a right that is mine to use and abuse, as the Romans put it (ius utendi et abutendi). When I was young, the classic Catholic social doctrine that held that property has a “social function” and comes with a “social mortgage” appeared inadequate to us, although it was viewed as subsersive. Now, no one even talks about it anymore.
This state of affairs requires us to resist consumerism as the defining feature of our identity. “I consume, therefore I am.” was posted not long ago in a store in Barcelona. Such reflection is essential to prevent the structural impoverishment we have sketched out here. It demands that we stop believing, in line with the mentality of possessive individualism, that whether I consume more or less has no affect on others.
Third thesis: There are poor becauseThe third thesis holds that people are poor because human beings refuse to recognize the two previous theses. Our refusal to recognize them is not something we do—at least not yet—clearly and openly. Many feel that Nietzsche is the writer who most brazenly and cynically formulated the truths by which our current culture lives, without daring to recognize it. Charles Péguy wrote that “the rich come to believe that poverty has ceased to exist once they succeed in surrounding it in convenient silence” —and this is the very basis of our consumer society. But Nietzsche went much further: “The essential thing about a good, healthy aristocracy is that it accepts in good conscience the sacrifice of countless human beings, who, for their good, must be lowered and reduced to defective beings, to cadavers and instruments.” This “healthy aristocracy,” “freed from all decadent compassion towards the weak, capable of rationalizing and defending itself from all sentimental weakness, knows that life is essentially appropriation, wounding and subjugating the other, the weak, oppression, firmness... and at the very least exploitation.”
we don’t accept our responsibility
There are the two attitudes that describe our way of reacting to the poor, after having helped create them: forgetfulness, silence, ignorance and—when this is no longer possible—open justification of our behavior, calling on the higher “values” of the aristocracy or our own superiority.
The attitude Nietzsche describes is so cruel that many human beings refuse to admit it. But those who pull the economic and military strings of our system of coexistence probably would accept it without shame. Their problem is how to sell these counter values to people still unable to free themselves of their “sentimental weakness” and “decadent compassion,” or to recognize these attitudes in themselves.
Cruelty clothed as necessityConsumerism is the keystone of our entire economic system. It plays an enormous role in our acceptance of the system’s counter values, along with the creation of false needs that clothe our cruelty in apparently authentic necessity. Voltaire wrote that there is “nothing more necessary than the superfluous,” and this is true not only on an individual level. When our superfluous needs are located within a system of behavior, we cannot do without them, not only because of our personal weakness but also because they impose a whole set of established norms on us.
Over two billion human beings try to survive on less than two dollars a day. We open our cars with remote controls while the world’s poor can barely lock the doors to their homes, and even those who once could now have only broken locks hanging there, forever in need of repair. We can watch the news on televisions in our metro stations, while the poor lack access to any information. Our cars can go 120 miles an hour (although the speed limit is much less) while the poor walk miles to get to their school or workplace, where they’re exploited! We can hear stereo music in our cars, while the poor rarely hear any at all. We can give off seductive scents, while the poor often have to smell bad. We can add appetizers to our dinners that would serve as dinners for many hungry people around the world. We spend as much as the GDP of a small country just to feed our idolized soccer teams. What we spend in weapons to kill—which we supposedly don’t want to have to use—would allow so many people to live...
In contrast, in response to the demand that we devote as little as 0.7% of our GDP to international aid to the poor, we insist that “this is not yet possible.” The charm here lies in that reassuring word, “possible.” When we do devote a few cents to international aid, it generally comes with the condition that they be used to buy our superfluous products, which people don’t always need. A trip to Matto Grosso or Calcutta could open our eyes by showing us that all these things weren’t necessary. But once we’re back home, we again feel the need for them.
What those pulling the system’s strings tell usThe greatest idol in our world is energy, because of its power and our dependence on it. These days it is again painfully in the news. Many of our superfluous needs require a great deal of energy. Energy is so necessary to us that we are constantly calculating our reserves and looking to gain access to new oil deposits. The whole world knows that the war in Iraq came down to a dispute over energy: the United States was alarmed by its increasing energy expenditures and calculations of how long its reserves will last while the larger countries that opposed the war—France, Russia, China—did so because they had pre-contracts for Iraqi oil if the embargo were lifted.
We have to recognize the truth in this, even though we stand unconditionally on the side of those who opposed the war. An extraordinary effort has been made to convince people that the war was necessary. Sometimes it was attempted by manipulating our fear of terrorism, sometimes by sketching out pseudo-ethical arguments on UN authority or the need to obey decrees that are constantly disobeyed without any consequences—as in the cases of Israel and Turkey, among others—and sometimes by insisting on the need to disarm those who have far fewer weapons than we do.
The result of our false needs is cruel behavior. Those who pull the strings in our system have shaken off their scruples and can say it plainly: human beings do not have the dignity we pretend to ascribe to them; equality among human beings is a huge lie; the idea that human beings can’t be treated like instruments is simply not true. These are the mindsets our system generates, and they produce the poor. Those who pull the strings formulate things like this, but they make sure we don’t see it or accept it or feel it this way. They disguise things so we can kill with a clear conscience.
Terrorism: A crime that’s also a symptomI’ve cast my thoughts in a non-religious way here, so they would be valid for everyone. But in concluding, I have no reason to hide the fact that they’re inspired by the Christian tradition from which I come. Above all they come from a fundamental part of this tradition—also part of the Marxist tradition—whose absence is notable in what we call the liberal tradition. This is the intimate relationship, indeed the virtual union between justice and peace.
According to the prophet Isaiah, peace is the fruit of justice. This pretty phrase has very serious implications. It implies, for example, that a terrorist act will always be immoral and criminal, but also that it might be a symptom of a lack of justice. The Western liberal tradition invariably refuses to admit this: it insists that terrorism is only immoral, never a symptom. And therefore, it deduces—and imposes its conclusion—that fighting terrorism can never involve any changes on our part, only the elimination of others. Neither the Bible nor the Marxist tradition would see it in this way.
For peace and justiceThe Christian tradition makes a second, similar link between peace and justice, not only at a social level but also at a personal, individual one. The biblical God is a God of justice and nothing else, although this bothers many churches, because if they take it to heart it means they are only here to serve God, not so people will subject themselves to the churches in God’s name. Furthermore, if the biblical God is a God of justice, this God’s greatest gift is peace.
Jesus of Nazareth was known to say, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” And years later, Paul of Tarsus wrote to one of his communities a phrase that is among those I appreciate most in the whole Bible: “This peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds.” Many human beings have shared the experience of this individual peace and its illuminating capacity. And the path to reach it is marked out by other words of Jesus: “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” We search for this rest or peace in a thousand different ways, through drugs, self-esteem courses and various other exoticisms, but it comes from being “meek and humble in heart.” It is the only way to keep this desire to want more from taking possession of us and making us act individualistically. The source of our own peace would thus be the cause of a less unjust world and, consequently, a world with fewer impoverished people.
José Ignacio González Faus, sj, is a theologian. This text, edited by envío, is from a talk he gave in Barcelona in March 2003.