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Eradicating “Poverty” Or The Poor?

Eradicating “Poverty” Or The Poor?

Majid Rahnema 25-08-05

Before starting any serious dialogue on poverty, it seems to me natural and crucial to see whether we all give the same meaning to the word and if that is not the case, to try to clarifying our differences in order to make at least sure that we are taking about the same things. The questions that have to be raised in the first place could thus be the following: Is there only one form of poverty or a multitude of poverties that are quite different from each other? In that case, is it proper to postulate, without any precision, that “poverty” is a shame, a scourge, or even a violation of human rights that should be eradicated? Or, if history and anthropology would teach us that poverty has been- and still remains- a mode of life that has always protected the poor from falling into destitution, should we not, on the contrary, seek to respect or to regenerate it? For the dominant perception of poverty, the one held by most of the world’s economic experts and doctors in poverty, as well as that of the major governments and institutions dealing with the phenomenon, the answer seems amazingly clear and simple. Poverty is generally for them a matter of low income or revenue. For the World Bank and most of its followers, it is even reduced to the condition of people who live only on less than one or two US dollars a day. Significantly, even Ms Deepa Narayan, the author of the rather impressive 2001 Report of the World Bank, seems to have finally found it useful to adopt the same simplified formula. For, regardless of the fact that her team’s interviews with some 60000 poor have led her to recognize that poverty represents something much more complex and different for each one of them, she nonetheless ends up by using that criterion when she estimates that 56% - or almost two third of the world populations are poor: 1,2 billions of them living with less than one US Dollar a day, 2,8 billions with less than two Dollars1. It is the first time in history that such an overwhelming number of people, belonging to highly diverse cultures and environments, are arbitrarily labelled “poor” for the only reason that their daily income does not exceed a given universal standard, expressed in the money of the “richest” economic power in the world.

The definition totally neglects the fact that the overwhelming majority of the world population still meet (as they had always done in the past) most of their vital needs without recourse to money. Historically, it remains a fact that every human being had his or her own personal idea of who the poor were. As a rule, almost every body was living with few things and possessions, sharing with others whatever was produced by their subsistence economy, according to established customs and traditions. There was always a group of “rich” and powerful who constituted an exception to the rule. Yet the others had generally “enough” for meeting what was culturally defined as “necessary” to their livelihood; and when they did not have even that, they had often learned how to live with higher levels of self-constraints and share whatever they had with the less fortunate. Similar to all the other living creatures, all of them were also endowed with what Espinoza would call a potentia, a form of power of acting or might, specific to their constitution, that represented their most reliable form of wealth, a source of life energy on which they could always count in difficult times. Thus, for thousands of years, they were all coping with necessity without considering their predicament as a shame or a scourge. It is in that very sense that in, in the words of Marshall Sahlins, poverty was unknown to Stone Ages. Much later, he argues, was poverty “invented” by civilization.2

In another context, all humans and their social formations were rich in something and poor in another. The poor as a substantive or a noun are said to have appeared in Israel in the 10th century B.C., when a number of rich hoarders of food forced the peasants to sell their lands3 (Albert Gélin). It is equally significant that in Europe and many other countries, the pauper was opposed to the potens, not to the rich. In the 9th century, the pauper was considered a free man whose freedom was imperilled only by the potentes. And, as a rule, the poor were quite respectable and respected persons who had only lost, or stood ion the danger of loosing their “berth”. It is only after the expansion of the mercantile economy, as the processes of urbanization started to cause the disintegration of subsistence economies and the monetization of societies, that the poor were also perceived in terms of their “money” earnings; in other words, viewed as a lower class of humans, lacking in whatever the people in command thought to be the symbols of power and wealth, namely, the amount of money and possessions that were necessary for the latter to meet their particular forms of needs. A common denominator of the different perceptions of poverty has however constantly been that of “lack” or unsatisfied “needs”. This notion alone reflects the basic relativity of the concept. For no human being could be found who would be free from a “lack”, be that material, psychological or otherwise. And when the poor are defined as lacking in things necessary to life, the question still remains: what is necessary for whom and for what kind of a life? And who is qualified to define all that? In smaller communities, where people are less strangers to one another and things are easier to compare, such questions are already difficult to answer. The answer becomes impossible in a world where the old familiar horizons and communally defined bases of comparison are destroyed by the dominant and homogeneous standards of “lacks” and “needs” set out by the market. Everyone could then think of oneself as poor when it is the TV set in the mud hut, which defines the necessities of life, often in terms of the de-cultured models of consumers appearing on the screen. All in all, until the Industrial Revolution, to have few things and to live modestly with whatever was available was possible thanks to a subsistence economy that was still producing for the household and the community. That is why poverty had been, to quote the French philosopher, Joseph Proudhon, “the normal condition of humankind in civilization”.

It was a mode of living based on conviviality, sharing and reciprocity, a mode of relating to others and to oneself, respectful both of others and of the larger social and natural environment. It represented an ethics of living together and building relations, an ethics of defining one’s needs according to what one’s community could produce at a particular time. The unalterable riches of the poor lied in their regenerative ability, trying to make the best out of whatever they could have, share or master in life. Quite different was indeed the condition called destitution (miseria or misery in Latin or other European languages), a condition well expressed by the original meaning of the Arab-Persian words of faqr and faqir, a person whose spinal column is broken. As long as the poor could rely on their potentia, as long as they could still lie on what Ivan Illich has called their “cultural hummock, it was their poverty “bed” that protected them from falling into the murky mud below, into the pitiless world of misery and destitution. This dreaded world has always represented for the poor the breakdown, the corruption and the loss of one’s potentia. Three categories of poverty should however be recognized that, in my view, are qualitatively different from each other: the convivial, the voluntary and the modernized. Convivial poverty, proper to vernacular societies, is the one that I just described.

Voluntary poverty is the predicament of the few exceptional men and women who voluntarily choose poverty as a means of liberation from dependency creating needs can be categorized as imposed conditions. Finally, modernized poverty is a corrupted form of poverty that was generated after the Industrial Revolution. It could be seen as a break from all the previous forms of poverty, where a kind of “voluntary servitude” (in the sense used by Étienne de la Boétie4) starts to tie the existence of its victims to new socially fabricated needs. In this totally new type of poverty, the “lacks” felt by the individual are systematically produced by an economy whose prosperity depends on a regular increase in the number of its addicted consumers, while that economy cannot, by definition, do anything for providing the newly addicted with the means necessary to meet their new consumption needs. The fate of the modernized poor has been rightly compared to that of Tantalus, the mythical King who was condemned to live in a semi-paradise where he was surrounded by anything he desired. But whenever he wanted to reach the objects of his desire, these would withdraw from his reach5. The few semantic, historical, cultural and other factors that I just mentioned could be enough to show that the last reinvention of poverty in its new globalized form is a preposterous oversimplification of the highly complex realities it hides. That may suit the institutions in charge, but it represents not only a conceptual aberration but also a subliminal and dangerous threat to the very potentia of the poor. For it reduces them to nothing but an object, an income which they have to earn under conditions generally imposed on them by the very institutions that have dispossessed them from their means of subsistence.

At the same time, it says nothing about the highly elaborated art of living proper to the poor in coping with necessity. It only suggests that, having lost their chance of joining the bandwagon of progress, their salvation is now in he hands of a new Market economy that no longer produces for the people who need it, but only to meets its own “needs” of profit and those of its few privileged consumers. No other choice was left to the pauperised and the economy’s drop-outs but to accept the rules of the new predatory economy, in the hope of receiving the minimum income it could now provide them for their living. To sum up, the more one enters into the highly complex universe of poverty, the better one realizes the dangers of using the word in general, abstract and un-historical manner. It appears then clearly that poverty is too large, too ambivalent, too relative, too general and too contextual and culture-specific a concept to be defined on a universal basis6. Attempts to find better definitions lead to nowhere. They only show the truth of this other fact: that all attempts at defining poverty are arbitrary: they reveal more about the “namer” than the “named”. Hence, the wisdom of abandoning the very idea of defining poverty with a view to focusing on the great variety of “poverties”, as these are historically defined by societies and humans who live their specific predicaments. Such an approach would then invite us to find out their deeper commonalities. It would also lead us to explore and rediscover the often close relations of poverty with such non-economic and social issues as power, justice, autonomy, domination, governance, ecology, etc. (as indeed a redefinition of wealth), few of theses subjects ever finding their place in the official programmes aimed at helping the poor. As a matter of fact, this is how the various poor look themselves at their problems. They intuitively avoid abstractions and generalizations that are not clear to them or are difficult for them to grasp. Instead, they try to dis-cover the much more real and burning issues that they see through those conceptual difficulties and are important to them.

I have personally learned to combine this approach with the one introduced by yet another particularly renowned poor, the much learned Augustin of Hippo who introduced his “apophatic” way of looking at things: “I do not know what is God, but what He is NOT!” This is what his French followers have called “negative theology”. Following this double approach, it could be said that for the overwhelming majority of the poor in vernacular societies, their major problems are NOT the ones addressed by the World Bank and their other self-proclaimed savours. If there is one aspiration common to most of the people who actually live with one or two dollars a day, it is to prevent the destruction of their convivial environment and of their subsistence economy and, hence, the possible crippling of their potentia, or their particular art of living. This does not mean that they are not in need of a minimum of cash to meet some of their new induced needs, That remains often indispensable, particularly to persons suddenly driven out of their vernacular surroundings and forced to live in shantytowns where their whole art of living is reduced to find some cash to insure their survival. Yet that does not mean, at all, as the World Bank wants us to believe, that they have now come to trade off their convivial poverty against an uncertain daily income that is only decided by the state of the Market. That is not true. For they are quite aware that once the foundations of their convivial mode of life, including indeed those of their subsistence economy, are shattered, their last true and living riches are also lost.

They are then transmogrified into sub-human commodities on a soul-less and anonymous market that not only dispossesses them of their most valuable tools for survival, but it also systematically destroys their capacity to resist and to build for themselves a different future. For the billions who have thus been driven out of their cultural, natural and social “niche” and have been dispossessed of all their means of self-defence by the new market economy, the problems are therefore NOT where the World Bank and similar organizations think they are, or want them to be. Yet the certainties held by these institutions are such that they the continue thinking that what is good for the objectives of an economy in growing expansion cannot be wrong for anyone. As a rule, they all are inwardly convinced that, under modern conditions, problems as food and nutrition, shelter, health, education and modernization can no longer be left in the hands of the poor. Under no circumstances, are they ready to recognize any good in letting the “poor” defend their “unproductive” and “obsolete” subsistence economies. And that brings me to what I think is the core of the so-called poverty question. For the 4 or more billions of “poor” who live on less than one or 2 dollars a day, their major problems are not in a greater share of whatever the Market produces for its own needs. They are in the very way the new Market operates and sets up the social, the political and the human conditions defining their lives. In other words, it is not in doubling or tripling the daily cash income of the people that the present trends of greater pauperisation could be stopped. The basic problem is that all such measures emanate from an institution that is itself the main producer of the scarcities responsible for the present globalization of mass destitution. For such an institution, to stop this production would tantamount to a true suicide, as long at least as it would refuse to “re-embed” itself in the society from which it has “freed” itself. And, in that perspective, the problems of the poor are basically that of ALL the inhabitants of our planet. We are all, more than ever, threatened by the very nature of the dominant economic system: a Janus like institution that actually produces as much mass destitution as it produces different types of material wealth!

A genuine dialogue on poverty should therefore start by questioning the new myth of an unbridled economic growth in totally new terms. Are the lacks imputed to the present poor of the world, the result of their way of living and their “poor” economies, or could it be the opposite? In other words, are not the scarcities of which they suffer the unavoidable effects of the much more productive and modern economy that now claims to save them from their “poverty”? If the question is posed in this fashion, new and much clearer perspectives could be found with a view to rethinking the cake syndrome, i.e., that a sine qua no condition for meeting the growing needs of a growing population is, before anything else, to increase the size of the cake. Such perspectives could then clearly show that the already fabulous size of the supercake produced by the world economy has ultimately resulted in dispossessing the poor of the only ways and means they had in preparing the cakes and the bread of their own choice. Furthermore, a growing number of the poor and their friends are now convinced that unbridled growth has now become not only a major threat to their lives, but also to that of the planet’s presently privileged ones.

All the present movements of protest and resistance to unconditional growth (amongst others, the Zapatistas, the Via Campesina and the hundreds of much smaller and less know ones) express the manifest will of the economy’s victims and dropouts to have their own view of the “cake”: its replacement by a multitude of smaller cakes to be cooked for those who need them according to their own idea of their size and content. They all reject the idea of a unique supercake, designed and cooked by the holy alliance of the major stockholders of the world market and the governments they help to put in place. As hunger and malnutrition is often assimilated to poverty, I would like now to present the specific question of food production as an example of the irrelevance of the myth to the needs of the populations suffering from hunger and malnutrition. There is enough statistical evidence to submit that the world economy produces enough food now to feed some 9 billion people, that is, one and a half times the present world population. The overall production of food is therefore now important enough, not only to feed well every individual on earth, but to over feed them, to the extent that it could theoretically cause globalized obesity. The fact remains that despite this unprecedented level of production, more than 900 million people all over the world are still suffering from hunger or malnutrition.

This paradoxical situation could help us see how the answer to the many questions related to the so-called food scarcity is not in a sheer increase in food production. As the myth of unbridled growth has colonized the people’s imagination, the many real and more precise questions that need to be put in this field are often ignored. Amongst these are such concrete questions as the following: who, for whom, how, and under what types of production and governance are things produced? An impressive number of studies have lately appeared on these questions. I would like to mention the excellent work that Lakshman Yapa of the PennState University has made on them. In his studies, Yapa not only analyses the reasons that indicate how modern systems of food production have been unable to remove food scarcity, but he also shows how that system has actually led all of us, some directly, some more or less indirectly, to participate in the production of scarcities responsible for the irrelevance of present forms of production to the real needs of the people in need7. For thousands of years, each community used its subsistence economy for producing what it needed for its food and there were a very complex set of natural, environmental, social, cultural and human factors interacting with each other to build up the right proportions, balances and equilibriums needed for preserving a sustainable food production for the members of that community. Subsistence economies were not as productive as the technologically advanced ones, but whatever the hundreds of millions of farmers and peasants all over the world were producing served not only to feed the communities concerned, but provided them with the means necessary to meet their culturally defined needs. The industrial Revolution placed a time bomb in this set of interactions, a phenomenon that produced its most disastrous effects with the globalization of Market economy. One of the recent offshoots of the policies aimed at increasing the food production has been the granting of impressive subsidies, by the governments of the North, to their farmers, mainly to their agricultural industrialists and producers.

These subsidies are aimed at helping their farmers to introduce the most advanced farming technologies, machines and fertilizers, with a view to multiplying their productive capacities; not only to meet the needs of the local markets but also to export their products and crops, often at a much cheaper price than what the same products cost to local farmers and peasants. Since the Johannesburg World Conference of 2000, we all know that these subsidies are now of the order of 360 billion dollar a year, that is one billion US Dollars a day! The subsidies have indeed been highly instrumental in increasing the overall production of food. Yet at the same time, they are rightly seen as one of the major blows to the hundreds of millions of peasants and farmers who, to this date, had produced food for the overwhelming populations of the South. For many of them, these subsidies are nothing but a disguised form of genocide. The irrelevance of meeting the needs of the poor only through more modern forms of production and living could be seen in another case.

In the eighties, millions of people in the Horn of Africa suffered from a drought that was much publicized because of the unprecedented number of its victims. Yet it was found that, at the same time, Somalia and Egypt were exporting food for European dogs and cats, because the “modernization” of their economy and their need for foreign currency (namely to buy agricultural machines and pesticides) had led them to shift the focus of their production on export activities. What I said earlier clearly indicates that the proposals offered by the experts, the “authorities” and the institutions in power dealing with the “poverty” issues are made from a self-centred and interested perspective, that is, from the viewpoint of people who are more or less benefiting from the dominant market economy. Their own addiction to the new “needs”, comforts, and material privileges created for them by this economy, leads them to look at the world from a perspective that is indeed quite different from that of the larger majorities belonging to the drop-outs and the victims of that economy. The “poverty” of the populations they claim to save is perceived mainly in terms of their own “needs” and of their ways of meeting them. It comes seldom to their mind that such a self-centered projection further leads them to participate directly or indirectly in the production of the socially and economically generated scarcities that strengthen the processes of modern pauperisation.

To conclude, the “non-thought of received ideas” (As Milan Kundera calls it) on poverty is a reflection of what the “non-poor” and their self- protective society think about this phenomenon. Their basically self-centered perception of the “other” can in no way place them in a position from where they could give the poor lessons of conduct or submit them to programmes of “help” and assistance. The best they could do would only be to learn how to refrain from further participating in the creation of scarcity. By contrast, for those who are ready to look at poverty, free from such self-centered perspectives, the joy of looking at all their neighbours, as full human beings desiring to share their art of living, can take them on more creative paths. They could break the deadlock of the present “aid” programmes by working together with all the “poor-in heart”, for new regenerated forms of voluntary simplicity true to the spirit of convivial or voluntary poverties. The picture of a world to be rebuilt by simple human beings, set to use all their unique potentials for living together and redefining their common riches, could look like a utopian dream. It could seem contrary to all the practices that prevail in a world of conflicting and dehumanizing interests.

Yet, the eternal threat of aging and death that has accompanied all forms of life has never prevented the blossoming of love, creativity and great common endeavors in all human societies. Even in the present times, while stupid violence and unprecedented forms of life destruction are plaguing human societies, equally unprecedented forms of resistance are also appearing in places and under conditions that could have never been imagined. Contrary to what appears at the surface, and while processes of addiction to socially created needs and the development of individualistic trends do prompt a greater number of social actors into participating in modern forms of pauperization, many other things are also happening in the opposite direction, in less visible parts of world societies. The poor and their friends, regardless of the societies to which they belong, can indeed do a lot for changing the perspectives from which these societies look at the fate of the poor. This kind of co-action with them has not to go through grandiose “poverty alleviation” plans that are generally promoting other ends. A constant and unceasing pressure by everyone, on various instances of power, could be used, instead, to take advantage of all the cracks appearing in the various systems of domination. As such, the Gandhian call to “get off the poor’s back”, can still be used to change people’s perception of a new and useful policy toward the poor.

What the Mahatma said long ago expressed the right intuition of a man of wisdom on the basic needs and aspirations of the poor. It meant, on the one hand, that an end should be put to policies and practices that lure or force them into submitting themselves to the new rules of a world market controlled by others. On the other hand, it expressed the need to trust the poor in the deployment of their own capacities for self-defense and regeneration. What Gandhiji meant by his famous injunction was that the poor should be protected from policies that, in the name of their protection, seek in fact to systematically weakening and corrupting their “potentia”. What he meant was that they should not be dispossessed from their own means of production and adaptation to technological changes. He trusted them enough for wanting them to build a better world for themselves and for others, according to their own aspirations. He never meant that the poor should disappear from our sights. Neither that the institutions and the individuals responsible for the propagation of destitution and pauperism should be left in peace by the victims and their friends.