Some reflections on the politics of poverty and the poverty of politics.

Poverty, Charity and Obeisance


I heard the word Rickets used on the Today programme this morning.

Fifty years ago when I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s Rickets were, like unemployment, something that belonged to the past…admittedly it was a past living in parents’ folk-memory: a past where polio, TB and Rickets made common cause with the poverty of the times and the poverty of the imaginations of an entire political class. The folk-memory of shared horror was the 1930s depression as seen through the prism of sacrifice in World War II.

A few days earlier I had been in Canterbury standing by the place where Thomas Becket was murdered in his cathedral. It brought to my mind the extraordinary achievement of the collectivist spirit of the Middle Ages – exemplified by the monks who lived in Canterbury.

St Bernard of Clairvaux changed more than the hearts of a few men…he created an active social model that tamed the wildest parts of Europe and built great things upon the certain foundations of a community of shared values and self restraint.

It is not necessary to go back to the monastery and for all of us to take vows of poverty; chastity and obedience in order to see within that model they are still possibilities for a greater good for all that also involves greater economic well being for all.

And it was this successful model of mutuality that has often informed political philosophy in the West. It runs like a thread of gold through from Bernard to Aquinas; More to Hooker;  Descartes to Spinoza; Locke, through the philosophy of the Enlightenment and into the analyses of the nineteenth century political philosophers like Bentham and John Stewart Mill as much as Marx and Engels.

Since Thatcher and Regan followed Milton Freidman and Hayek down the rabbit-hole into the Wonderland of unfettered capitalism…it’s been part of a fashionable dialectic to argue that Socialism (and all its works) are dead…tried and tested to destruction in Eastern Europe and the USSR.

This was and is a necessary lie…

The markets’ maniacs worship the golden calves of acquisition and avarice whilst setting aside reason. They indeed won’t be reasoned with.  Although there’s plenty of perfectly good political philosophy persuasively arguing the limits of the market’s mechanism in practical as well as moral terms, they are ignored.

However, pretending that the wanting Marxist analysis is the only other intellectual game in town rather suits the noisy, anti-intellectual populism of this right-wing commentariat. These philosopher-kings run amok in political debate confusing socialism with Marxism; and markets with capitalism; scientific method with opinion; and Darwinism with creationism. They dismiss ideas they’ve basically barely grasped and as often wilfully misread.

But such sleight of hand was the necessary precondition for those espousing a return to the unbridled, unrestricted capitalism of the sort that thrived in the USA and Europe is the last quarter of the nineteenth century and had ended in a catastrophic banking and wider financial collapse in the 1890s and again in the 1930s.

In the 1960s they might only persuade electorates bedded down with social medicine, free education, secure housing and social security to abandon the social market of post war democracy, if they first persuaded them that the untrammelled markets made unending wealth when unfettered by regulation. This alchemy would make riches readily available to all.

This is the Las Vegas dream…everyone will leave a winner. In fact casinos make money out of the fact that everyone leaves a loser – grateful losers who leave thinking they’ve had a good time. Losers who choose only to recall the free drinks and cheap food; losers who never quantify the true amount of money they’ve freely lost; money often they couldn’t afford to lose…and even if they could, money that they might have better spent.

The inconvenient wastefulness of gambling is glossed over as easily as the lessons of history go unlearned. These are peddled to us as free choices that we make freely. In fact they are poor choices – like smoking – choices we would be better off not making. More human beings will have died from smoking than in the Second World War by the time we’ve finished. But the market will not tell us this: and the market is always right.

It’s most interesting that those proponents of the morality of markets often also argue most strongly for traditional Christian values ignoring the fact that the Christian church has consistently and repeatedly warned that market-capitalism demeans. It is at best a morally flawed world view and at worse straightforwardly immoral.Those people who claim Pope John Paul II for their very own choose to ignore every syllable he had to say about the evils of relentless consumerism spawned by these market theorists and their bondsmen toiling in the financial markets.

All unregulated markets tend to monopoly; all monopolies tend towards corruption. The hard lesson was carved out in the anti-Trust laws in America; death duties breaking the monopoly on land in the UK; and everywhere the growth of trades unions as a countervailing force to the monopoly of capital as represented by the banks within capitalist economies. The great experiment with deregulation and free markets that intoxicated late Victorian Britain and the emergent USA led into a frenzy of imperial expansionism, as the great powers chased down the finite resources needed to fuel their heedless economic expansion. And from that conflict over resources the military conflicts of the last century were shaped.

The same market-moralists, who are always so wise after events, before are always blind to its dangers. If you measure mankind alone by cash output you never question the corrosive nature of the moral input. The things in life that are interest free are undervalued. Money and consumption are our gods and will consume us all.

If we insist upon undervaluing ourselves it’s certain we will undervalue each other. Rickets, TB, poverty, homelessness sit cheek by jowl with conspicuous consumption that insists upon taking an ever bigger share of the cake for itself. The bankers have grown fat upon their bonuses but like the obese they’re now always hungry for more though able to do less and less.

Is this the world we wanted for us and for our children…I doubt it….but until we shake ourselves awake from the meretricious nonsense peddled by those who were meant to know something and ought to know better and return to a sense of community and communal endeavour…we are doomed to lurch from crisis to crisis, leaving an ever larger pool of disempowered poor demeaned by charity and holding a begging bowl.

The fearful thing history teaches us is that from this brew of hopeless poverty the violence of the great revolutions are made. If not our self-regard or regard for others then self interest alone advises us to solve these problems. We must not fear to be the masters of our own destiny. We are the masters of the markets when all is said and done. As Nelson Mandela said:

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”






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