Posts Tagged ‘Poverty



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.

15
Mar
10

The Frontline

Since the beginnings of civilization (if this oppressive class-system society can be called “civilized”) the poor and working class have been pushed to the front lines of every battle and conflict. In ancient Greece, soldiers were expected to procure their own armor and weapons- resulting in the wealthy being able to procure decent armor and weapons for themselves while the poor had (at best) worn-out leather armor and homemade weapons. As you can doubtlessly imagine, casualty rates among the poorer members of the vying forces tended to be much greater than those among the wealthy.

Now obviously things today have changed since ancient times. We have the resources to maintain a trained and (equally) equipped military in times of peace and war. Does this mean inequality between social classes (with regards to war and the armed forces) has been wiped out? Of course not!

Now imagine, if you will, that you are a military recruiter. It is your job and your duty to convince members of society to join your army and kill for (or be killed for, as the case may be) their country. Now who would you target? The wealthy corporation owner? Of course not. He’s living in luxury- what motivation would he have to take up an austere and dangerous military life? How about the professional middle-class woman? No way. She’s got two kids and a steady job- even the most jingoistic patriot would be reluctant to leave that behind. Perhaps an eighteen year-old from a bourgeois background? Yeah right. You really expect this guy who’s looking at colleges to go out and potentially die? It’d have to be a seriously dire situation before that happens.

How about working class youths fresh out of high school with no way to pay for college, little or no chance at a decent job, and no future?

Jackpot.

So you approach these disenfranchised, poorly-educated, and more than likely desperate youths and offer them a way out of crime-and-poverty. “Education, dignity, power, and the respect and gratitude of the nation- all this can be yours (oh, and there’s a pretty high chance that you’ll be killed or maimed or develop a mental condition as a result of you killing/maiming your fellow man- but we don’t like to talk about that)”.

There’s a catch to everything.

And so the ranks are swelled by the poor fighting in wars they don’t probably don’t understand or have a stake in. It’s really the ultimate con game. The poor line up to die for their country when their countries have done nothing for them. Just look at the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King Jr. was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, not only because it was opposed to his pacifist ideals but also because he saw war as a diversion of funds that ought to be used to aid the poor (claiming “A nation that continues… to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”). It’s just the unbelievable injustice of it all. Society is built on the backs of the poor. The proletariat sweep the streets, clean the gutters, build our houses and buildings, pave our roads, manufacture our products and produce the raw materials that our nations run on and in addition to all this they die for whatever cause the government deems justified. And for the poor and working class who do not go to war- what’s their lot? Why, it’s their “patriotic duty” to tighten their belts, buckle down, and make sacrifices for the war effort. Overtime at the munitions factory. What’s that? You’re arm got caught in the belt and you desperately need surgery? Sorry- you’re just some working class zero, you can’t afford insurance. Government healthcare? If they hadn’t diverted all the funds to help our brave boys on the western/eastern/southern/northern/ front it’d be no problem. You’re out of work now and the cost of living is going up? If you were middle-class you wouldn’t be feeling the pinch as much, would you? Maybe you should’ve thought about being born into a wealthier family!

You get the point.

And this is where you’ll witness a seeming hypocrisy among us Communists. On one hand, we’re screaming for revolution, the toppling of Fascists, imperialists, and the bourgeois and corporate taskmasters. On the other hand, you’ll probably find Communists at every major anti-war rally going on. Our reply? Our reply is this: We are opposed to war as much as war is opposed to us (for there have been few wars indeed where the workers have had any benefit). For us, there is only one war worth fighting and that war has been going on unceasingly since the immemorial. Our war is against Fascism, against imperialism, and the oppression of the Capitalist system. Let there be no war but class war!

03
Jan
10

Sweet [and Sour] Charity

Let the facts be faced, charity is a futile practice. No matter how much money we donate, the poor seem to just get poorer. No matter how much aid is given to third world countries, no matter how many people volunteer at the local homeless shelters, no difference seems to be made.

It’s not because the right measures aren’t being taken. People aren’t (in general) being fed for a day- most charities and aid organizations attempt to help people help themselves. Impoverished families are taught modern farming techniques and are given poultry and livestock, the homeless are offered shelter and are instructed on how to hold a job. At first glance it would appear that charity is working great. There are, sadly, several factors which most people don’t take into account.

Firstly, there’s the overwhelming logistic issue. On the whole, charity and aid aren’t the foremost thoughts in the minds of those who actually do have excess capital. Give a man five dollars and his first impulse probably isn’t going to be to give that money away to someone else. Once we establish that very few people actually do give to charity on a regular basis, we have to realize that the number of people in wretched, abject poverty is monumentally greater than the number of people donating. For example, imagine that all that’s needed to bring one man out of poverty is a mere hundred dollars. If the average person donates five dollars per month (and that’s a generous estimate) it’ll take either (1) twenty months for enough cash to be raised to help the impoverished man (by which time it may be too late) or (2) twenty donors to help a single person. At this rate (and it’s a generous rate), charity will never help more than a fortunate few.

But of course, this is only if the aid gets to these people at all. Corruption is rife both within aid organizations and in every channel that the aid must pass through. Some estimate that only a quarter of all the money given to charity actually reaches those who need it (again, this is a generous estimate).

But of course, all of this is dwarfed by the third and most critical issue: what’s the point of getting people back on their feet when they’ll just get knocked down again? People don’t choose to be poor, people either become poor or are born poor. This is a world dominated by the principals of Capitalism. Competition is brutal, and those who aren’t quite as strong or smart or deceitful or brutal as others will inevitably find themselves forced to the lower rungs of the social ladder. The children of these people, through absolutely no fault of their own, find themselves born into this hellish existence (to call it “life” would be a gross exaggeration). Now imagine enough money filters through to lift a family out of poverty. What then? We’ve simply placed them back into a glorified game of Monopoly where they’ll either be forced back down or force down someone else. Simply throwing people back into the system responsible for their situation is about as useful as bailing water out of a boat with a gaping hole in the hull. Essentially, the capitalist idea of charity is throwing money at something until it’s covered up. It’s costly and completely unproductive.

Now does this mean that charity and aid are wrong? Absolutely not! Helping one’s fellow man through any means is perhaps one of the noblest things a human can do. The problem isn’t with charity and aid- it’s with the system. Until we mend the hole in the boat’s hull, charity and aid serve only to offer fleeting comfort.

And perhaps that alone is something worthwhile.

13
Dec
09

Capitalist Pigs

Recently, I was traveling across the US. As I was waiting at one of the gates, a man sat down next to me. To say he was ‘large’ would be a gross understatement. This man was grotesquely overweight, and nearly as wide as he was tall. As we waited for the plane to be refueled, he began to eat a cheeseburger, the sheer effort of which had him panting, wheezing, and sweating. It was, in short, a nauseating experience.

Of course, there are those who would object to my diatribe. One could argue “It’s the right of a person to choose his or her own weight or amount of consumption!”. Really? If there’s a man who is sitting next to me starving, is it my “right” to devour a steak dinner in front of him? When a child dies of starvation every five seconds, is it the right of a country to be suffering from obesity?

Yet the wealthy countries of the world continue to get fatter, and the poor countries stand in lines handfuls of rice. Sickening, isn’t it? The most obese state in America (Mississippi), is only 2,300 km from the second most impoverished country in the western hemisphere (Haiti). This is obesity we’re talking about- the result of constant binging on food- it’s not an epidemic, it’s not something that people cannot control. In a world where the vast majority of humanity lives in poverty and every year, fifteen million children die of starvation and malnutrition, this kind of egomaniacal indulgence is, as I’ve pointed out, sickening.

Of course, the companies selling the food aren’t exactly helping the situations. It is, after all, in the best interests of these corporations to exacerbate humanity’s propensity to gluttony. The more willing the public is to stuff food down their throats, the higher the demand, the greater profits for the food industry. As a result, the food industry will do all it can to convince you that your happiness hinges on your consumption or that food is a central part of tradition (just look at Christmas). They will attempt to sell the greatest amount of food to the greatest number of people for the lowest cost of production possible (and of course, cheap production tends to mean the food will be low in quality and nutrition). Everywhere you look, there are advertisements telling you to eat this or to drink that. Granted, the obesity level is due largely to individual choice, but at the same time, the food industry plays a significant role.

So what’s the relation of obesity in the West and other so-called “developed countries” to the starvation in others? Well, think of it this way. Aside from the now rare family-owned farm, we get our food from corporations. Since the purpose of Capitalism is capital (money), corporations will naturally attempt to maximize their profits by selling high-quality foods for exorbitant price and low-quality foods for next to nothing. Those who have little or no money to begin with (those who are, for example, living in areas that have been devastated by disease or drought) are of course, unable to purchase any food at all. This leads to the people of these areas to become dependent on charity- a solution which merely prolongs the suffering of the impoverished (exactly why charity doesn’t work is a topic for another day). Of course there are those who would claim that all these people need to do is begin farming in their own countries- conveniently forgetting that the materials and resources needed for farming are controlled by massive corporations. What possible reason would these companies have for simply donating material? Corporations usually don’t rise to the top of the economic food chain through altruism. Of course, when the majority becomes hungry enough, everything becomes a source of food- including the juicy, Capitalist pigs wallowing around at the top of the social spectrum.

12
Dec
09

Classism, Poverty, and Racism

In recent posts, I have been describing how “classism” (the stratification of society according to wealth) has become a new kind of racism. However, I feel obligated to describe how classism, in turn, creates and perpetuates racism.

It all starts with immigration. Immigration is, most often, a result of people attempting to seek a better life economically. Having come from a country usually ravaged by poverty or war or disease, immigrants tend to be poor themselves, and therefore are filtered into the working class/poor class of the country they’ve moved to. This situation, while comparatively better than the lives the immigrant’s have left behind, is still less than ideal. Crime rates and drug and alcohol abuse are still highest among the poor, no matter what the nation.

The issue with this (besides the rates of crime, drugs, and alcoholism) is that upper classes confuse the issues of crime and race. If the majority of crimes are committed by immigrants and minorities, then some will doubtlessly assume that immigrants and minorities are naturally indolent and/or criminally minded. Of course the reality of the situation is that crime rates are high among immigrants because immigrants generally live in abject poverty. With the evils of racial profiling and generalization, it becomes assumed that all immigrants and minorities are thieves and drug dealers, and therefore should be treated with suspicion or even open hostility. Inversely, this ill-treatment creates among immigrants and minorities feelings of animosity to the native majority. Racism, after all, works both ways.

So begins a cycle of abuse and distrust that only perpetuates racism. An innocent person (from a minority) locks himself out of his own car and is forced to break into it, only to be shot by the police who assume he’s a thief. In retaliation, a police officer (who had nothing to do with the shooting) is stabbed by an angry minority group. In response to this, a pair of children from a minority are beat up in school by their classmates- and so on and so forth in a long, tragic, and utterly pointless spiral.

In short, anywhere that there’s Capitalism, there’s classism, anywhere there’s classism, there’s poverty, anywhere there’s poverty, there’s crime which in turn leads inevitably to racism and bigotry. The only way to abolish racism is to abolish both poverty and the class system. Granted, some might argue that all that is needed is understanding and respect, but the fact remains that no matter how many murals are painted of people of all races holding hands around a globe, the poor are poor, the wealthy are wealthy, and the social divide spawns fear, crime, and racism.

15
Nov
09

The New Racism

Racism really isn’t as complex of an issue as it is made out to be. Essentially, it’s the idea that certain groups of people are inherently less valuable than others. Now the roots of racism are complex- there’s the issues of ignorance, exposure, generalization, association, history, psychology and a myriad of other factors that go into creating this twisted idea.

 

Now we imagine that we’ve come a long way since the oppressive days of segregation, slavery, and colonization and perhaps, on some level, this is true. Bus seating is equal, there are no more separate water fountains, and a person can eat in a diner no matter what race he is. While there is still racism against minorities (especially against Arabs and Latinos these days), in general people are treated equally no matter what ethnicity they are.

 

What class they are is a different story completely.

 

Classism is the idea that certain groups have value depending on their social status- essentially this is racism (bigotry isn’t strong enough of a word) based not on the color of one’s skin but the size of one’s bank account. While this has several causes, one of the greatest is the idea that people’s social status is proportionate to their intelligence, creativity, and efforts. If this were true (and it isn’t), it would mean that the rich are wealthy because they worked their way to the top and the poor and hunger and filthy because they are lazy. This lie is only reinforced by the fact that crime is higher among lower classes than among the wealthy- one might imagine that the poor are poor because they are criminals, rather than poor are driven to crime because they are poor.

 

The ramifications of classism are many, the most apparent being the way the poor and working class are treated by the middle and upper classes. If you were walking along the street and saw a person running towards you (a person in a suit, carrying a briefcase, and wearing a Rolex watch) you’d probably stop and see what he wanted. Would you do the same thing if the person running at you was dressed in a ragged bathrobe and pushing a shopping cart? I doubt it. You see, it doesn’t matter who the man is or why he’s running at you, the simple appearance of wealth or poverty changes the way you relate to him. You assume the man in the suit is sane and decent and the man in the bathrobe isn’t (showing just how pervasive the idea is that ‘the wealthy are the best of society and the poor are the worst’). The way one dresses (the most obvious indication of class) affects one’s thoughts of, and actions toward, him. In addition, the fact that many minorities are members of the working and poor class tend to reinforce racism already present in society.

 

Of course when you look at the big picture, you can see how none of this makes sense- if a ship is sinks and down in the shark infested waters is a rich man, a middle-class man, and a poor man, should the rich man be saved first? Not at all. Once you strip away the cheap, material things by which we judge each other, we’re all human. The rich man is no more worth saving than the middle-class man, the middle-class man’s live is no less valuable than that of the poor man, yet despite this, we treat each other differently according to wealth. The rich have the best educations and the finest medical care, the working class has the worst.

 

The way I see it, equality isn’t the equal treatment of people in terms of race– equality is the equal treatment of people, no matter what.

22
Jul
09

Professional Amateurs

The word “amateur” is derived from the Latin word “Amo” meaning “to love”. We use “amateur” to describe someone who is doing something as a hobby or for fun, rather than being paid to do so. An amateur baseball player plays for the fun of it, a professional baseball player plays for a living.

One of the most common arguments against Communism is that by abolishing the class system, money, and private property, people will have no motivation to work hard (or work at all) since they have no chance of advancing their position in life. It is claimed that the only reason most people can put with their mindless, soul-crushing jobs is that they are being paid to work. They can then take their money, gradually move up through the ranks of society, and buy material goods that bring them comfort and happiness (though whether material goods actually make us any happier is a debate for another post). If we take all of this away, then why would anyone do anything?

The answer is quite simple: people will do almost anything for the love of doing it.

I’m a writer. I don’t get paid to write, I don’t move up through the ranks of society, I don’t buy things in an attempt to make myself more comfortable of happy. According to Capitalist logic, I shouldn’t be writing since I have no motive- no reason for doing so. Quite simply, this logic is flawed. Yes people will do almost anything for money- after all, the single purpose of Capitalism is money- but there are other motivations. People will do things because they are physically forced to do them (slavery), people will do things out of fear for their wellbeing or the wellbeing of others (extortion, blackmail), and people will do things because they love doing it. Of course, the greatest of these is love- after all, even when enslaved or extorted, people will do the least amount of work possible. When they are doing what they love doing, however, the activity doubles as the end goal. In these cases, they will do as much work as possible.

Take the example of Giotto Di Bondone. Born in the late 1260s in Tuscany, Giotto was a shepherd boy who taught himself to paint. He was not being paid and was not coerced in any way to paint, he painted simply because he enjoyed painting. One might describe him as an “amateur” and while that word today often connotes substandard, Giotto’s paintings were anything but inferior. Indeed, Giotto’s abilities were so impressive that legends spread claiming he could paint a picture of a ewe so realistic that a lamb would confuse it with its actual mother, and that Giotto could draw a perfect circle without the use of any device. In short, Giotto, an uneducated, untrained Tuscan peasant was as a child a better artist than the best-paid painter in Florence (of course, Giotto eventually was paid to paint, but the fact remains that he was a gifted and prolific painter even before he became a professional).

Now this opens up a world of possibilities.

What if we all did jobs according to our talents, rather than our need to pay the bills or desire to become “wealthy” (again, the concept of true wealth will be discussed later)? What if everyone who was skilled at painting, math, cooking, and speaking could become artists, mathematicians, chefs, and orators? If everyone could become what they are talented at (and I’ve yet to find a person who doesn’t enjoy his or her talents) then we would have more work accomplished at a higher quality. It is this that Communism attempts to achieve: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”.

Of course, one might argue that Capitalism attempts to achieve this as well, but this is simply not true. Granted, there are a fortunate few who can pay the bills and do what they love, but in reality the cast majority of people aren’t so lucky. Thousands- no, millions– of would be inventors, mechanics, actors, politicians, farmers, athletes, cooks, designers, musicians, programmers, and composers never get to be anything more than day-laborers, waiters, drug dealers, prostitutes, and street-sweepers. Is it because they didn’t try hard enough? Possibly, there is a handful who are, quite simply, lazy. But to state that the millions of poor, the hungry, and homeless are the way they are out of choice is ridiculous. Most never had the money to pay for a decent education, preventing them from ever rising out of the gutter. Others are simply held back by bills and debt. Still others are simply unlucky, some unforgiving disaster reducing them to taking whatever work is available. In the Capitalist world, it takes every ounce of energy to keep your head above water, let alone find a job doing what you love to do.

Of course, that doesn’t stop us from trying. Some attempt to struggle through Capitalism to achieve their dream job, others turn their talents into hobbies, instead of careers, and still others- such as myself- attempt to bring about a system based on people doing what they love. The astronomer Galileo once commented that he did not “…believe the same God that would endow us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgoe their use…”. Like Galileo, I do not believe that humans, gifted with the talents to compose a beautiful symphony or sing like angels, are meant to push aside their skills to make room for their careers. Instead, let as all be professional amateurs.