Posts Tagged ‘homeless

28
Dec
11

A Communist’s Defense of the Occupy Wall Street Movement (Part II)

In my last post, I tried to address the criticism of the OWS that they had no clear or defined objectives or goals. Moving on from “what they want”, I’ll be trying to address today “what they’re doing”.

A criticism that’s hits the OWS movement both from the right and the political left is that the protestors “aren’t doing anything”. I’ve heard conservatives complain that the protestors are simply condemning without offering solutions. I’ve heard a few liberals argue that the protestors have made their point and need to leave, and that continuing to stay will only lead to conflicts with the police and discredit the movement as whole. Even some Communists have (in the early days of the movement) disparaged the OWS as “lacking revolutionary potential”, or in other words, being unable or unwilling to act on their positions.

It’s a common criticism, but hardly a fair one.

First, these criticisms are based on the idea that the protest themselves have no intrinsic value or effect- of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The protests serve as a demonstration, both to the government, the corporate world, and the population in general that people are fed up enough to take to the streets for months. A common outlet of frustration and rage is provided by the movement, allowing people to realize that (1) they are not alone in their anger, (2) that other options beyond Republican/Democrat do exist, and (3) that the medium of protest is no longer a thing of the past or something only done by radicals and weirdos.

Not exclusively, anyways...

And that’s just the use of the protests in general, but there’s much more that the OWS has done. Take for example the OWS initiative to reclaim foreclosed houses for individuals who have been evicted. Over the past few weeks, the OWS has been systematically helping people “re-occupy” vacant houses in almost every major city in the US, from New York to Los Angeles. Not only are OWS activists helping people move back into vacant housing, but are also combating evictions, and helping repair the houses newly occupied. Further still, campaigns of advocacy are being conducted by OWS activists on behalf of the homeless. It seems only fitting that, with the collapse of the housing market arguably touching off this series of financial meltdowns, the front line of the fight be the reclamation of empty homes.

Similarly, OWS protestors have taken action through blockading ports along the west coast (as far north as Vancouver). Protesting poor treatment of truckers working for the ports, as well as attempting to damage profits made by Goldman Sachs, a principal investor in two major port operation companies.

This sign must drive OCD protesters crazy...

 And let’s not forget that the occupation itself constitutes an interesting experiment in leaderless, communal living, as the protestors attempt alternatives to mainstream consumerism. If nothing else, the OWS movement has proven that you can, with a little work, operate a library…

…Or offer basic medical care…

…Or just develop (or at least, rediscover) means for direct democracy and anarchic decision making.

Is it the revolutionary overthrow of the world as we know it? Probably not, but this does not change the fact that the OWS protestors have been active in taking steps towards a new future.

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23
Dec
10

A Few Thoughts On The Homeless

Despite being largely a mire of polemic and melodramatic prophecies about an impending Republican police state, the liberal, progressive site AlterNet does occasionally produce some good articles. I just recently found one about new legislation passed in San Fransisco targeting the homeless.

The article’s been linked here.

Now it reminded me of a lecture activist Shane Claiborne gave at my college- he discussed an occurrence in Philadelphia when a similar law was enacting, unfairly targeting the homeless. Indeed, we can probably all think of some time when we’ve heard about something like this.

Now of course such laws are never called “anti-homeless” or anything along those lines and more often than not are simply disguised as anti-loitering laws. The reality, unfortunately, is that law enforcement may be selective about who they fine for “loitering” or “obstructing” the sidewalks or “panhandling”. Is a man in a business suit, asking you for some spare change, just as likely as an unkempt man wearing four jackets? Is a woman in high-heels just as likely to be told to “move along” as a woman with plastic-bags taped to her feet? I think not. Nevertheless, legislation is constantly being introduced for the specific purpose of persecuting the homeless, ranging to anything from fines (exactly how fining the poorest of the poor is supposed to work I can’t say) to imprisonment (as if living in abject poverty wasn’t punish in and of itself).

 

Why? Why are we so bent on attacking the most broken members of society?

 

Perhaps the reason we so despise the homeless is because we’re afraid of them and what they represent. They’re the products of our manipulative and exploitative social system, and a grim reminder that any of us could have the same fate. The homeless don’t respect the illusions of total prosperity we insulate ourselves with. When we categorize our worlds into neat areas and neighborhood based on class, the rich and middle class can live warm, fuzzy lives of blissful ignorance until some unruly schizophrenic shuffles down the sidewalk clutching a battered backpack and muttering something about George Lucas stealing his thoughts. Then the homeless person turns into a stark, in-your-face reminder of poverty, disease, and pain. I’d go even so far as to say that the homeless are dark reflections of our own lives- that we’re not all that different from the homeless. A friend once sent me a comedy routine in which the speaker says “We’re not supposed to give money to the homeless because they’re just gonna spend it on drugs and alcohol. But wait- that’s what I’m gonna spend it on…”. What’s the real difference between a homeless person living in a cardboard box downing cheap booze and a billionaire living in a mansion drowning his sorrows in rare wine?

 

So what’s the solution?

 

Going back to the comedian I referenced just a minute ago, his routine went on to recount “He [the guy a homeless person had asked for money from] said ‘Why don’t you get a job, you bum?’ People always say that to homeless guys- ‘Get a job!’ like it’s always that easy. This homeless guy was wearing his underwear outside his pants. I’m guessing his resume aint all up-to-date. I’m predicting some problems during the interview process…”. Clearly the problem isn’t going to be solved by simply telling the homeless to get jobs and houses and integrate into society. Besides, more often than not it’s society that’s responsible for the creation of the homeless in the first place- these people don’t simply materialize. You take a person, throw him into a Capitalist world where he has to face-off against his peers for jobs and opportunities, there’s a chance he might not make it. Is there really any point in taking the homeless and forcing them back into a world that will either chew them up and spit them back out or cause them to displace others? It’s our way of living as a whole- competition instead of cooperation.

 

And in the meanwhile, how should we treat the homeless? They aren’t where they are because of laziness or choice, and they aren’t animals without need for human compassion and help. We need to resist the temptation to separate ourselves from them or bring in laws to harass the homeless into inconveniencing someone else’s city. Who knows if luck will turn and you or I will end up in the same position as them?

03
Apr
10

Live Long and Prosper?

If you were to look up “Communism” in a philosophy book, you’d probably find it under a section dealing with “Materialism”. The problem with this is that the popular meaning of the word “Materialism” has changed radically over the years. In terms of philosophy, the original meaning of “Materialism” was a category of philosophies primarily concerned with the concepts of property and their effects on human society/history. If I were, however, to use the term “Materialist” today, it would commonly be assumed that I was referring to the idea that the end goal of life is to accumulate wealth (radical hedonism, essentially). This is a recurring problem with many terms connected to Communism- in Marx’s day, “Socialism” meant a society embracing shared property and rejecting the class system, today we use it to refer to a politico-economic system where the majority of property is owned and managed by a massive government- but perhaps that’s off topic.

The issue with trying to categorize Communism in philosophy is that Marx was rather critical of philosophy as a whole. He asserted that analyzing the world should not be an end but merely a means to bring about change and advancement (“Philosophers have merely interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it!” -Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”). While Communism definitely does offer a socio-politico-economic perspective, to claim that Communism is an all-out philosophy wouldn’t be quite correct. While most philosophies make some basic assumptions about the purpose of life (hedonism, as much pleasure as possible; Socratic philosophy, preparing for death;  aesthetic realism, finding harmony in life; the list goes on and on), Communism on the other hand functions more like a scientific theory than a code of ethics or an understanding of existence (indeed, one of the reason people find Marx so hard to read is the fact that he treats economics almost like a branch of physics). Don’t misunderstand me- Marx did have convictions. He saw the exploitation of the proletariat as the principal factor in the toppling of Capitalism and the class system and believed that the toppling of the Capitalism and the class system would propagate justice and equality. It’s like a scientist discovering that running electricity through a gas filled bulb not only creates light but it is his moral imperative to run electricity through a gas filled bulb and create light. As a result of all this, you’ll find no single, coherent Communist philosophy but rather a number of philosophies espousing Communist political theory. On one side you have philanthropic, altruistic humanist communists who have become Communist out of love for their fellow man. On the other side you have cynical and bitter antisocial communists who have become Communist out of a belief in morality rather than man (the author falls into this category). And between these two extremes you’ll find any number of other philosophies- religious Communism, green Communism, Anarcho-Communism, etc. If there’s a mainstream philosophy out there, you’d be safe to bet that there’s a Communist version of it (baring, perhaps, Ayn Rand-style Objectivism).

Now one might argue that the exact same rules apply to Capitalism. “Capitalism is a socio-economic theory too. You can hold any philosophy or worldview and still be a Capitalist!”.

Now this is partly true. You can indeed be a Capitalist and hold the purpose in life to protect and preserve the earth and all its natural wonders. The problem is that if you also accept Capitalism, you have to maintain that it is perfectly legal (and indeed, a basic human right) to purchase a mountain, to prevent anyone else from walking on it, and if the owner so chooses, to blow it to pieces.

“Alright, so Environmentalism and Capitalism don’t mesh so well- but there’s still a ton of other philosophies out there.”

Absolutely, and they too don’t seem to mesh well with Capitalism. If you hold the purpose of life is to live honestly and decently, then you’re presented with a number of challenges (the primary of which is that in Capitalism, the highest profits come from underpaying and overworking your employees and overpricing your products- not exactly honest or decent, is it?). If you declare that the end goal in life is to live long and prosper and see your family happy and secure then you have to deal with the fact that this is the wish of not only you but a large percent of humanity and since in Capitalism there’s only so much room at the top you’ll have to viciously compete with your neighbors for this lifestyle (unless you’re born into it, in which case you just have to worry about the huddled masses eying your house and pool. Even if you believe that the sole purpose of live is to live in decadence and luxury, you have to contend with the very definitions of the words. Do two houses in Monaco count as decadence and luxury, or should you get a yacht as well (or more importantly, will you be any more happy and fulfilled with the yacht than you are now?).

So essentially, no matter what your philosophy is, it has to be accepted that in all likelihood, you’d be able to pursue it better in a society free from Capitalism. You want peace and happiness for your family? Maybe you should opt for a system where a starving homeless man is going to gun down your wife/husband for her/his necklace/wallet. You want to be able to do whatever you love doing? Maybe you should opt for a system where you aren’t forced to take whatever job pays the bills, no matter how painful or bland. You want to be able learn everything there is to know about a subject? Maybe you should opt for a system where education is a high-priced commodity available only to some.

Maybe you should opt for Communism.

01
Dec
09

The Myth

Perhaps the greatest lie originating (and arguably, perpetuated by) Capitalism is the idea that the wealthy are wealthy because they are intelligent, disciplined, and hardworking and the poor are poor because they are ignorant and lazy. As a result, if a man in a business suit and flawless grammar knocks on your door and asks if he can use your bathroom, chances are you’ll let him. You probably wouldn’t do the same for a man in a ragged bathrobe whose grasp of the English language was sub-average. Indeed, the quality of treatment you offer people is usually determined by what social class they hail from. We make assumptions about people based on whether or not they seem to be poor, middle-class, or wealthy.

Quite simply, we’re bigots.

And not without reason either. If a person is less willing to let a homeless man into his house than a man who is (or at least, seems to be) doing quite well for himself, then the person’s fear is not completely unfounded. A wealthy man has less reason to rob you than a poor man. Crime rates, alcoholism, and drug abuse are highest among the lower classes. Likewise the poorer classes tend to have the lowest levels of education. Statistically speaking, yes, you are more likely to be mugged by a poor person than a rich one, but so what? Bigotry is never tolerable, no matter what. So what if you’re more likely to be mugged if you get a poor guy into your house instead of a rich one? You don’t know either man. Maybe the man in the bathrobe is an honest, honorable person who’s had a run of bad luck. Maybe the man in the suit is a sociopathic murderer or a con artist. Judging people according to how wealthy they are is, no matter how you look at it, wrong!

So why is it that we’re prejudiced to trust the middle-class and wealthy rather than the poor? Is it because the poor are ignorant and criminal while the wealthy are intelligent and decent? Of course not! The poor aren’t poor because they’re criminals; the poor have high crime levels because they are poor. Sure the poor man is more likely to mug you, but is that because of him or the fact that he’s cold and hungry? Obviously there are those who are poor because of their own issues- all humans have a propensity towards greed and indolence. At the same time, it is ridiculous to claim that the poor are only poor because they’re lazy. It’s the poorest of the poor who have the heaviest workload. Across Africa, Asia, Latin America and yes, even Europe, Australia, and North America there are millions of those who for ten hours a day for wages of less than a dollar a day! There’s a reason we call them the Proletariat– the working class! It’s because they’re the ones doing all the actual work. They do the farming, the mining, the sweeping, the building, the cleaning, the producing and manufacturing! Why on earth would we even dare to consider these people to be lazy?

Because we’re lazy.

As I’ve said, humans are lazy. More often than not we don’t take the time and effort to investigate something for ourselves; we simply make assumptions or believe whatever our leaders and the media feed us. Since the poor are poor and unable to afford decent (if any) healthcare, we immediately assume that the poor are simply dirty. Since the poor can’t afford decent (if any) educations, we immediately assume that the poor are ignorant and stupid. Since the poor are poor and can’t always afford food/medicine/etc., many are forced into lives of crime- we immediately assume that the poor are naturally criminal. But laziness isn’t the only reason we don’t ask why the poor live in poverty.

Humans are also naturally arrogant. The idea- no, the myth– that the poor are poor because they are lazy makes us feel better about ourselves. We’re where we are because of our efforts! We’re wealthy because of our intelligence, our skill! We’re where we are because of our work-ethic, our self-discipline, and our decency!

Egotistical lies.

We’re where we are because of our own efforts and the efforts of our parents and their parents before them and because of the state of the world we live in and the class we were born into. Personal effort makes up about ten percent of it- the rest is accident of birth and dumb luck. A person pulling himself to the top from nothing is such a rare event that we make a major Hollywood film out of it. If you’re born poor, chances are you’ll stay poor no matter how hard you work unless you get not one but a whole chain of lucky breaks. If you’re born into a middle-class family, you’re probably going to stay middle-class unless you get a bunch of lucky breaks (though less than if you were poor). If you’re born into wealth and privilege than you haven’t done anything to deserve your life and don’t have to do anything to maintain it. Like I said, it really comes down to accident of birth. If you’re lucky, you’re wealthy, if you’re not, you’re poor and probably will be poor for the rest of your life. The Caste System isn’t exclusive to Hinduism.

So in short, don’t believe in the fairy-tale that the wealthy are the best of society and the poor are the worst, or that the poor are poor only because of their own efforts. We are, for the most part, fixed in our place by statistical chance- individual effort has very little effect on us.

It isn’t fair, is it? Only a sadist or an idiot could honestly state that this is an ethical system. Most of us simply shrug our shoulders and say that “life isn’t fair” or “that’s just the way things are…”. I say that when someone’s been murdered, we can’t stick our hands in our pockets and say “life isn’t fair”. I say that when any injustice has been committed, no matter on what scale, the only ethical course of action is to establish justice. Yes, life isn’t fair- but maybe that’s because no one’s doing anything about it!