We Are All Poor

WE ARE ALL POOR

‘Mankind, it seems, hates nothing so much as its own prosperity. Menaced with an access of riches that would lighten its toil, it makes haste to redouble its labours and to pour away the precious stuff, which might deprive of plausibility the complaint that it is poor.’ These words of R.H. Tawney in 1926 referred to the increased wealth of Europe in the sixteenth century, an access of riches squandered on warfare.

Tawney’s observation has not been invalidated by posterity. For we have acquired the mysterious gift of creating, by means of wealth the world has never seen, a poverty so profound and immitigable that no one can foresee an end to it. A subjective feeling of inadequacy now gnaws away, not simply at those surviving on the edge of subsistence, but also at those who, in a more innocent time, might have been regarded as the rich.

How such a state of affairs has come about is rarely debated; perhaps because of its simplicity and its central importance to what we commonly understand by ‘our way of life.’ For an experience of perpetual inadequacy is a natural response to a world, in which permanent economic growth takes priority over everything else. In the presence of limitless expansion, everyone feels poor, under-rewarded, deprived or unrecognized; none more so than the already wealthy, since they measure riches, not against what they have amassed, but against the multitude of things and treasures they still do not possess.

The individual stands alone before the awful majesty of the market, much as the individual was believed, in a more credulous age, to stand before the throne of God. We assess our ‘worth’ in relation, less to any identifiable human need, than to the power of production of an economy which is potentially boundless. No one can ever expect to fulfil desires prompted by this profane version of the infinite.

This is why it is vain work to rail at the greed of bankers, to censure the excesses of those who give themselves exorbitant rewards, since these are felt by their recipients as essential to alleviate some desperate sense of personal impoverishment. It is significant that bankers now refer to their income as ‘compensation’, as though this were to make amends for some terrible calamity that had befallen them. This is no longer a moral issue in a continuously dilating economic universe. If we feel diminished and powerless, pitifully rewarded, this is because capitalism knows a dangerous but highly profitable secret – how to create a universal sense of neediness, which sets up a wanting without end. Human longing, formerly expressed, sometimes contained, by the consolations of religion, is now simply another business opportunity; and because even the wealthiest can access only a fraction of the plenitude of a global market, they become impatient, frustrated by contemplation of what they do not have; this does not, however, prevent them from flourishing what they do have in the company of those who have less; but they persist in pining for all that remains, tantalisingly, just out of reach of their outstretched hands and overstretched means.

So it has come about that no one can now define the meaning of ‘enough.’ By means of this simple development, we are all poor. Bill Gates is poor – imagine all the philanthropic works forgone in the absence of a few extra billions. Bankers are poor, since they require bulky ‘packages’ in bonuses, money, shares and other specie, so that their atrophied imaginations can search the Financial Times weekly supplement on How to Spend It. Russian oligarchs are poor, since so many must go into exile to protect assets diverted from the State into their own pockets. The great landowners of Britain are poor under the heavy responsibility of maintaining their properties and estates. Chief executives are poor, for how can money ever compensate for ulcers, heart conditions and other symptoms of health ruined in pursuit of wealth; show business celebrities are poor, since their full talent is never adequately perceived, and no gains can ever satisfy their mysterious cravings; even footballers are poor, since the period of their competence is brief. It goes without saying that professional women and men are poor, since theirs, the indispensable work of society, is always under-rewarded. Carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers and electricians are poor, carers and service personnel are poor, domestic servants and cleaners are poor, beggars and the homeless are poor. Under the universal flail of poverty, governments are poor, forced to cut public spending with heavy hearts, a course of action they can contemplate only in the superior light of the national interest.

But what could be more conducive to social peace than that all classes and conditions of people should come together in a common desire to relieve their common affliction? The English riots of August 2011 disturbed this carefully crafted equilibrium, for it snapped – briefly – the single ideological thread that unites rich with poor in combating a sense of relentless insufficiency. This is why they had to be represented by the government as ‘pure criminality’, since to succumb to the proposition that they were caused by ‘deprivation’ would shatter the unity of a people dedicated to permanent enhancement of ‘purchasing power’, not as theory, but in the practice and expectation of daily life.

I interviewed a well-known trade union leader in the 1970s, who solemnly said ‘the most beautiful word in the English language is more’. This epic pronouncement effectively marked the passage of the labour movement from a collective demand for a dignified subsistence into acknowledgement that continuous expansion was the true purpose of society, and to be part of it the true destiny of labour. We are living with the consequences of that fateful renunciation of any other objective, from which it is inconceivable that we should emancipate ourselves, or even form a desire to do so.

How easy it is to look at whatever disposable income slips through our butter-fingers, and to see in it a pitiful shortage of what would be necessary for a half-decent life! When economic consciousness crowds out its social and moral rivals, the consequences are unlikely to be benign. Individuals cannot be blamed for reflecting the dominant ideology of the age. We have collectively assimilated economic necessity and in the process identified it as representing our own needs. In other words, we have made our own the desire of a global economy for permanent expansion, and this is duly reflected in our daily assumptions about the world and our own role in it. The impersonality of an economic system has been ‘humanised’ and we tenderly articulate it as if it were simply an aspect of our own deepest desires.

This is the principal reason why bankers have not been punished for the recent crisis. Their unhumbled pride shows they are well aware of their indispensability, as begetters of wealth and also as a modern version of the Fates, engineers of human destiny; since at the first hint of punitive measures against them, they threaten to return to Asgard or Olympus, taking with them the holy substance on which we all depend.

Despite the general lament of the people – all the people – that they are on the brink of pauperism, poverty is not the real problem of the world. The fault lies with wealth; or rather with a narrow monetary version of it, which has been elevated into mentor and guide, but which also turns out to be oppressor and tyrant. And we race to throw away the vast productive power of globalism, in order to sustain the fiction of enduring poverty, which afflicts those wallowing in wealth no less than the most destitute scavenging for a few grains to eat on the margin of survival.

Tawney wrote of a world ‘which turned the desire for pecuniary gain from a perilous, if natural, frailty into the idol of philosophers and the mainspring of society.’ His cautionary chronicling of how old vices were transformed into economic virtues has been lost to the world. The great truth – that a lack of the means of sustenance makes the life of an individual not worth living has blinded us to an even greater falsehood, namely that wellbeing grows in proportion to the accumulation of wealth. The price of this misperception is to condemn humanity to an impoverishment without end.

Jeremy Seabrook
February 2012

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