The Political Utility of Poverty – Part 1
Put simply, if poverty wasn’t useful it wouldn’t exist. And what then is its perceived value? Social control.
Consider: One American family who inherited a vast national retail chain, hold wealth equal to the entire bottom 30% of American society. Their stores, which do not pay local income taxes, sell to generally low income Americans low cost goods mostly made overseas by Third World people earning poverty wages. This family donates millions of dollars to groups seeking, among other things, to privatize public education.
The other side of the coin: As of March 2012, 24 million Americans could not find a full-time job and have been characterized by American Taliban politicians as lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling to work and whose benefits and entitlements should be cut or eliminated. It is estimated that 46 million Americans live below the poverty line and 1 in 6 Americans struggle with hunger including 17 million children. These numbers apparently represent the American “exceptionalism” politicians are crowing about because they are not duplicated elsewhere in the Western world. How does this work for you?
Strapped and fearful, middle-class people aren’t about to make waves; they have jobs, albeit low paying jobs and getting lower, to protect, mortgages to pay, medical insurance to pay for, credit card debt to service, and very little in the way of savings to fall back on should things go amiss. Middle-class people are trapped into a politically conservative mind-set because it is believed to be, at the very least, protective of their fragile status quo. In Wisconsin in the gubernatorial recall election earlier this year union members and their families voted for the candidate who vowed to shut down unions. Say what? Were these people fearful of losing what they have, were they delusional? Whatever else that might have motivated them they seemed to believe that voting as they did better protected their interests. The key word in this being “believe”.
Poor people on the other hand are dangerous politically because they believe they have nothing much to lose and so will be inclined to vote for candidates inclined to improve their lot hence the strategy to take away their power to vote, to disenfranchise them. Passing voter ID laws is a weapon of social control that deliberately targets that segment of society who are more inclined to vote for socially liberal rather than American Taliban candidates. The Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania legislature, Mike Turzi, unashamedly boasted of accomplishing exactly that when a law requiring voter ID was passed in that state.
All social organization is predicated on beliefs; it is mutual beliefs that bind its members to it. All functioning societies, primitive or sophisticated, are and have been established on beliefs. Beliefs are thus the foundation stones of human association and the attendant social contracts. No shared beliefs no social contract is a hard and fast rule. To be civilized a society requires personal commitment to behavior which promotes the common good even if not all are direct beneficiaries as in the exercise of charity. Perceived fairness may be the most binding dynamic of a social contract. As John Rawls defined it in “A Theory of Justice” ,”… inequalities within a society must work to benefit the least advantaged.” In order for people to believe in and thus commit to the social contract they must believe it to be fair and it must benefit a broad social spectrum including the least advantaged.
If the bonds of belief are broken and social agreements violated a collective good no longer exists, the social contract is dissolved and so follows the society itself. The subordination and commitment of individuals to that society and its social order devolves into alienation followed by anarchy. When the number of people with nothing to lose reaches critical mass social control shifts from the personal commitments of individuals to the social order to social control via coercion and condign measures by a self-designated elite – that consequence, as has been demonstrated throughout history, is inevitable.
The smaller the portion of a society a state represents the greater the force required to maintain control. Based on the current militarization of police forces around the country and the incessant universal monitoring and covert spying on everyone (Yes, everyone- including you dear reader.) by federal agents someone somewhere has thought about these consequences. Social control replaces and trumps the social contract whenever the status quo is threatened. Correspondingly the greater the mass of those disenfranchised from the social order becomes the greater their potential force and threat. Exponentially higher levels of control as in the form of a police state must follow resulting in higher levels of resentment and resistance. One only has to watch news videos of police in action, as at the Occupy Oakland demonstrations this year, to see this is already happening. Local police departments have been given millions of tax dollars to “upgrade” their gear with military equipment to deal with anticipated future protests. The two forces, threat and control, will inevitably circle each other until one destroys the other or the destruction is mutual. Chaos ensues. Those who would conspire to demean, devalue, and destroy the civil society are playing with a Promethean Fire of grave consequence.
Poverty can no longer be acceptable if we are to have a viable society and that is not just financial poverty but spiritual poverty and opportunity poverty as well. Young people cannot graduate from college thousands of dollars in debt with no expectation but being hounded by debt collectors for the rest of their lives or menial jobs just short of servitude. Historically no amount of state sponsored suppression of an under-class majority has succeeded – those who ignore the lessons of history are bound to repeat them and poverty may prove not to be so useful as once believed.