Pseudo-religious notes on poverty and work
Given that I am no longer taken to accepting religious explanations for anything, I have wondered sometimes why I give priority in my thought to the poor, the uneducated, the outcast, and the downtrodden. After all, if one is going to be a “true materialist”, would it not be better to give precedence to those who are thriving, materially speaking? This would be a good indication why being a materialist isn’t necessarily a good thing. But then you have to realize that you are dealing with a loaded term. To explain this better, perhaps it is better to go with an analogy.
Say you are tricked into going on a blind date. The other person you meet ends up being attractive, charming, a good conversationalist, and so on. However, there are little ticks, little hints in the conversation that lead you into thinking that there is more to this person than the façade is letting on. Perhaps you dig into the person’s history some more, maybe only through just “googling” that person’s name. What if the person ends up being a convicted rapist? What if the person ends up being abusive, a sociopath, or otherwise dysfunctional? What if you drive by that person’s house and you realize that she or he is a hoarder, or is already married, and so on and so forth? In other words, in ordinary life, we are taught not to let façades fool us. Just because a person might put their best foot forward in a controlled situation, this does not entail that this is all that there is to know about that person. Or one could even say that one does not know the truth concerning that person.
From this, I could comfort myself into thinking that my intellectual preferential option for the poor is due to my not wanting to be a sucker, to paraphrase Nassim Nicholas Taleb. If you want to know the truth of society, look to the things it isn’t eager to tell or show you. Look at the failures, the people who it wants to keep out of sight, the people it imprisons. Or we could resort to a business analogy: if a person gives you a sales pitch that is too good to be true, you want to know, “what’s the catch?” What are the hidden costs, what is the real duration of the project, etc? When assessing a social order, the real truth of the project called civilization is who gets thrown under the bus. Of course, I should just shut my yap about this particular point and quote a Brecht poem in its entirety:
Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?
So many reports.
So many questions.
Indeed, lots of people like to throw “logic” in people’s faces and want to know if they’ve read so-and-so on X question, and all I care about is what that person had for breakfast that morning. Or rather, where did that breakfast come from, why did he get to have breakfast and some kid on the wrong side of the tracks didn’t, and why does that person have the expectation of the next meal coming so easily that it allows her to philosophize? I guess I am a materialist like that, even a vulgar one. “First grub, then morals”, to cite another Brecht-ism. Or rather, first shelter, clothing, etc. and then we can worry about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. While philistines of all stripes want us to give them the benefit of the doubt concerning these banal material needs being taken care of so that we can contemplate the “higher things” in a given conversation, I just don’t feel good giving that benefit so easily. Or rather, I think the ethereal realm of Ideas is based on three square meals a day and a roof over one’s head, and without these, that realm would disappear in a night of hunger and despair.
Indeed, I have to echo with liberation theology again that hunger is the only absolute (well, they say hunger and God, but I think that is due to confessional weakness, as I have said before). In that sense, the only people who really know anything are the hungry. And the sick. The unemployed. Those whose precarious existence is the real price that this society pays for all of its supposed wonders and successes. This isn’t about morality (though I don’t discount moral explanations). It’s all about not wanting to be sold a bill of goods.
Related to this, I was also thinking about the infamous proof text for right-wing Christianity, 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’” I realized today that the text does not say, “those who do not profitably work” or “those who do not work in a way that increases shareholder value”. Those who bring up this text in a contemporary context thus are reading “work” in a rhetorically loaded manner.
In the U.S. context, this verse is often directed by right-wing politicians (of both capitalist parties, cough, cough) against (black) welfare “queens” in particular, and other lazy loungeabouts who are supposedly bankrupting the country materially and morally. These people are perhaps the most demonized of all in that they are “shirking” the system that otherwise works so well. The strange thing is that I have been in a family on welfare and knew many such families growing up, and all of these people worked, just not in a way that benefited capital directly, or that could be measured by a corporate accountant. My mother, for example, has always worked in the traditional capitalist sense. One of her friends, however, was a true “welfare queen”, at least if my mother’s characterization of her is correct. That woman (let’s call her “V.”) didn’t have a job, was on food stamps, and probably had welfare paying her other bills. She also had a son and was taking care of an adult sister who was developmentally disabled. Come to think of it, she was also taking care of her mother… All of those things are work. Taking care of a child is probably the hardest work that I do at the moment. For those who are parents, no further explanation is needed, and for those who aren’t, no explanation is really possible. It’s tough work. Added on to that is taking care of a sister who is not able to work who has developmental and health problems.
You can give a callous dismissal of all this saying that “we all have problems” and telling of how your grandmother used to run a shop while taking care of the town’s lepers and only slept two hours a night, etc. etc. All that you prove with such objections is that you are a masochist looking to transition into being a sadist. But when looking at the Biblical verse, you can’t say that it can be used in V.’s situation. V. clearly worked, even if she did game the system. So do people on the dole who babysit kids on the side, sell weed out of their living rooms, and stand in long lines for their next meal at a soup kitchen. What people who bring up this verse are really saying is that the capitalist market should determine what real work is, and by that, who should eat and who shouldn’t. They are taking a verse that seems more about taking the garbage out when crashing at a hippy commune and turning it into an explanation as to why stock brokers are entitled to their filet mignon at the end of a long day of crashing economies with derivatives. In that case, you aren’t really arguing Bible anymore. You have moved onto something else entirely.
But say we go with the whole “wages for work for food” schemata. What does the Bible say about what a fair wage should be in that case? Here, I turn again to the New Testament, and the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, found in Matthew 20: 1-6. The brief summary of this parable is that a wealthy man hires laborers to work in his vineyard at different times during the day, some at the very beginning of the day, and some at the very end, and pays them all the same. Whereas traditional Christian exegesis, incredulous that the “parable” has anything to do with work and wages, would have us believe that this is really an allegory between faithful ancient Israel and the Gentiles in the New Covenant, or it is a proof-text to support the idea of the death bed conversion, I prefer to read it here as a simple parable about fairness in pay. The parable questions if there should be any “fairness” to begin with, insofar as breathing is reason enough for anyone to get all that she or he needs. It’s not what we do, but rather who we are, that makes us deserving of eating this day or any other day. In that sense, the last are first because they have to do little to get what they need. The rest of us are scrambling to satisfy the Idol of “More”, but never succeeding for obvious reasons. (Of course, this all assumes the gift economy that the Biblical Jesus was advocating, but that is another post entirely.)
I guess that I would summarize my disparate notes here in stating that I think that leftist concerns are the only rational ones in that they don’t have anything to hide. Or rather, they are trying to bring into the spotlight those aspects of society that its defenders would rather not address. That is why I have little patience or understanding for right-wingers, no matter how astute they might seem on first impression. Those who would rather just stick with the hologram are a complete waste of time to talk to or otherwise consider. They should be engaged insofar are one is interested in keeping a private mental catalog of sociopathic attitudes and behaviors. But you can’t pretend to learn anything from them, nor from the civilizations that birthed their prejudices.