Monday, July 20, 2009

Kill the poor

IT spotted an excellent quote yesterday. It was from a report on the state of education in the UK:

“Milburn's findings will be controversial in some parts of government, reawakening divisions over how to present a planned election crusade to reduce class divides. It will be seen as reinforcing the argument from John Denham, the new communities secretary, earlier this month that Labour must not become merely a party of the poor.'”

In the Cold War culture, there was a tendency on both the right and among the New Left to transform the Marxism into something it had never been: a philosophy agitating for the ‘poor’. You can see this transformation operating systematically in Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution. Arendt pretty much leaves Marx's sociology and economics on the cutting floor, and consistently substitutes the term ‘poor’ for the the term 'working class'. She does this to the point, almost, of absurdity. For instance:

“The idea that poverty should help men to break the shackles of oppression, because the poor have nothing to lose but their chains, has become so familiar through Marx’s teachings that we are tempted to forget that it was unheard of prior to the actual course of the French Revolution.”

Of course, Marx never appealed to the poor to break their chains, because such a statement would be absurd. He appealed to the workers of the world. He appealed to the working class, the proletariat. He appealed to them partly because, unlike the poor, an amorphous social class and condition, the working class is united by a common social element: they work. Thus, they can, for instance, stop work – strike. Marx did not just think that exploitation kept the working class poor; he felt that it kept the bourgeoisie rich – that the workers produced the wealth that the rich appropriated. Of course, this relationship is obliterated by the use of the word poor. By such means, Marxism becomes a sort of rabid Christianity.

It would be unfair to say that Arendt doesn’t see this point in part – she does speak of how, through the Marxist gaze, poverty is revealed as an social artifice, rather than a product of natural scarcity. But she doesn’t say that, through the Marxist gaze, the wealthy are revealed not as the creators of wealth, but the beneficiaries of wealth created by others. So curiously averse was Arendt to the class categories that Marx used that she just can’t get herself to write them down. Hence, the transition from proletariat to poor, as if these were synonymous categories.

As it happened, this switch is at the heart of Cold War capitalist ideology. It was a happy invention, since not only could the New Left become a moral force – on its long march to creating a generation of jowly moral entrepreneurs, pundits, who can, for instance, deploy their righteousness as they did in 2003 to browbeat anybody opposed to the invasion of Iraq as enablers of the little Hitler himself, Saddam H. – but it set the terms for state social insurance as a question of helping “the least fortunate.” Thus, that social insurance massively supports and sustains the middle class, which would collapse without it, shifted its markers in time for the financialization of capitalism - that structure that depended on the influx of money from pensions, mutual funds, and the whole panoply of tax exempt investment schemes to float the equities market. Thus, we had to privatize social security. Thus, we had to come down hard and stern on “middle class entitlement”, a sort of corrupt milking of the state by people who could easily ‘make it on their own.’ By making social insurance all about the poor, one could then present these “entitlements’ as somehow leaching off the poor, or even taking from them – the poor poor! Which, rhetorically, is a more successful strategy than saying that they are taking from the rich – a truth devoutly to be hidden.

It took almost seventy years to build up a system in which social insurance of various kinds was able to produce a robust middle class. It has taken some thirty years to debauch it, and the result, predictably, is that the middle class is collapsing. This, of course, is a disaster for which we can ascribe, in the UK, an architect – Nu Labour. To read the warm stream of piss that flows, now, on command out of the mouths of Nu Labour drudges – see here and here – is to feel that Nu Labour should play to its strengths, and rename itself the water sports party. That, at least, would make its upcoming, well deserved annihilation more fun.


P.M.Lawrence said...

I am reminded of certain graffiti: "Eunuchs of the world, arise; you have nothing to lose".

Roger Gathmann said...

But, alas, mr. lawrence, telling the eunuchs to 'arise; is like telling an armless man to catch a ball.

P.M.Lawrence said...

I think the irony was the point.

northanger said...

> see here and here

illuminating comments

Roger Gathmann said...

The links didn't come through, North.
And yes, Mr. Lawrence. But irony grows irony, so I thought I'd add some.

northanger said...

Those were your links, Roger. They came through loud & clear.