The Problem of the Poor, Research Time, 12/09/2014

The left and right over the last 100ish years has been defined, at least from one prominent perspective, by their relationship with the state. Those who wish there to be a big state to provide social services that help the poor and discourage inequality are the left; those who desire a small state to avoid the oppression of a government forcing one to contribute to causes that you don’t wish to are the right. This is only one way to break down the division, and there are other possibilities.

Colin Ward describes a critical part of the history of the modern state that we often forget about when we think about left and right this way. When the institution of the state as we know it today was first developed in Europe, there were already many voluntary associations who assisted the poor. These networks fed and clothed people who had very little, and gave poor people work in fields and towns to earn their keep and contribute to communities. 

We didn't always hold the poor in contempt in our society.
When the state arrived in Europe, these networks were destroyed, and the poor found themselves oppressed. The networks of medieval guilds and communities encouraged the poor to be fed. When the state and its military and police services began taking over all aspects of human life in Europe, it became legal (and widespread and common) to whip beggars in the street. Poor Laws forced the destitute not into employment and engagement in their communities, but to confinement in workhouses as little more than slave labour.

This attitude toward the poor persisted until the 20th century, but the modern welfare state wasn’t instituted out of some newfound heart of charity, according to Ward. He understands it as an element of the model of total war that began with the First World War and reached its apogee in the Second. 

When a country’s entire civilian population becomes a legitimate military target, to the point where the attacking army actively intends to kill enemy civilians,* then the civilian population must be mobilized as soldiers, or at least as combatants of a new and twisted sort. Mobilizing civilians means providing for their welfare, not only during the current war, but to prepare them for future totalizing wars. This is how the welfare state continues to be promoted in peacetime.

* A definite sidebar. I was dismayed and saddened by the Israeli bombing of Gaza this year, but I was at least given some small stream of hope by the fact that the IDF did its best to provide hospital care to Gazan civilians harmed in the conflict. It was a flicker of conscience and ethics that remained in a situation that had largely gone mad with rage and hatred. Until there is a complete reorientation of the Israeli right away from the blanket and essential vilification of Palestinians and a total social change in the Arab world to move beyond their crude and terrifying anti-Jewish indoctrination, there can be no peace in Israel. 

Those who have become accustomed to state authority today have a similar hostility to the poor as existed in the original states. This is why many on the right today have disdain for social welfare programs. Their opposition is often coded by race, especially in the United States, but the point remains the same. When an entire society is shaped, or overcoded in Deleuze and Guattari’s words, by the state and its centralized, exclusive, absolute political authority, the poor become victimized. 

Ward’s perspective, which he calls anarchism and I prefer to call network politics (see, I’m already becoming a good PR person), actually agrees with the economic conservative who would see the welfare state collapse. He and I agree that a state-administered system of welfare largely reduces populations of the poverty-stricken into permanent lethargy and dependence on systems in which they have no stake for their survival. They lose initiative, and grow content with the feeds by which they take from state coffers, instead of taking control of their own lives.

But where the right-wing perspective advocates letting such people starve, or at least casting them out from any social support systems at all, I have a much more radical solution. The right-wing perspective I describe is still dependent on the state: if the state does not maintain the poor, then they receive no welfare support at all. The state remains the only arm through which society expresses itself.

Reorienting society so that our neighbourhoods and communities are composed of networks of associations would transform the entire way in which we care for poor people. Under state politics, I give up tax dollars to an impersonal state to distribute to those in poverty, and it distributes that money to the poor as a handout with no further responsibilities, so I can shut my door to them. 

If we could develop the social norms to make friends with the poor of our communities and take them into our own homes and public houses, then we wouldn’t need state welfare systems, and the disadvantaged would be integrated thickly into their societies. 

But I’m a hypocrite about this, because even though I believe it’s the right course of action, I’m not yet sure how to organize a neighbourhood or a community so that a majority of its residents take this attitude to their neighbours. And I don’t know how to do it myself — I don’t know which poor people wouldn’t take advantage of me or who need more intense mental health care that I don’t know how to provide.

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