Fall 2004 - Volume 7 Number 4
Poor-Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion
Toronto: Between the Lines, 2001 Disorderly People: Law and the Politics of Exclusion in Ontario
Halifax: Fernwood, 2002
The British scientist, J. B. S. Haldane was once asked if his life-long study of nature had given him any insight into the mind of God. His iconic reply was that He has an inordinate affection for beetles. Similar statements have described human relations: for example, "God must love the poor, for he made so many of them." Whether speaking of the humblest of insect or of human life, the fact remains that the qualitatively inferior seem to be the quantitatively superior. Students seeking employment in the "helping" professions, especially social work, will quickly encounter the economic victims of society. The poor, it has been pessimistically said, will always be with us. What remains is to understand this phenomenon properly.
Whatever the empirical evidence for the prevalence (if not the inevitability) of inequality, both anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson's book Poor Bashing, and University of Toronto sociologist Joe Hermer and Osgoode Hall law professor Janet Mosher's anthology Disorderly People provide detailed evidence of God's innocence in the conscious development of the unequal distribution of wealth and income which has resulted from contemporary corporate and government policies in Canada.
Poor-bashing and the politics of exclusion which portray the poor as unworthy, lazy, potentially criminal and a threat to social stability divert attention away from the actual causes of poverty and unemployment onto the victims of inequalitythe poor and the unemployed. As these books point out, excluding people by "individualizing" the origins of the causes and of the solutions to poverty and unemployment deflects attention from the laws and corporate decisions that are designed to produce and reproduce the undermining of wages and employment conditions of Canadian workers. By engaging in endless discussions of who are the "deserving poor" (the babies of the unemployed or their parents) a politics of self-restraint is encouraged. Perhaps we are overdue for a critical analysis of the creation of profit and wealth among the undeserving rich.
In any case, we are a long way from the days in which David Lewis, for example, attacked "corporate welfare bums" and the New Democratic Party occasionally mustered the intestinal fortitude to confront directly the real basis of inequality in Canada. Today, however, even "rich-bashing" and an NDP re-rooted in the working class would amount only to a tiny step toward the reversal of the current trend toward a redistribution of wealth from the poor, the working class and even the middle class toward the rich. No matter what your ideology, the growing disparity between the rich and the rest is empirically undeniable. Political problems require political solutions based on a sound analysis of the logic built into corporate capitalism's simplistic policies for reducing corporate taxes, cutting social programs and decreasing public funding for education and health care. The promotion of this fiscal ideology of "the bottom line" based on minimum wage jobs involves portraying the poor as objects which lack the incentive to work.
Swanson reminds us that "poor people have as much control over government experiments or think-tank theorizing about their future as lab rats have in a cancer experiment!" (p. 78). Policies and programs that simply encourage the poor to acquire "skills" to be made more competitive or to enhance their self-image are not the same thing as creating well paying jobs with benefits and pensions. "People," says Swanson, "have taken many so-called training programs and still can't get jobs because they don't exist" (p. 85). On the other hand, the politics of self-improvement and self-restraint should be a two-way street. A Maximum Personal Income/Wage Act that puts an upper limit of $1,000,000 a year on personal income would mean that millions (or billions) of dollars of corporate remuneration would be available for education, health care and job creation.
Both books encourage people, especially poor people, to understand the government and corporate policies that create distraction and exclusion, promote inequality and the internalization of blame ("It's my fault I'm poor; I'm worthless."). Studying the historical and political context of poor-bashing and political exclusion is supported by the authors of these volumes, but understanding is only the first step. As Karl Marx pointed out in Volume 1 of Capital: "Modern society's whole form of motion … depends on the constant transformation of a part of the working population into an unemployed or semi-employed 'hands'…" This "industrial reserve army" is not an accident of history but performs an essential service. "The overwork of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of its reserve, while conversely, the greater pressure that the reserve by its competition exerts on the employed workers forces them to submit to overwork and subjects them to the dictates of capital. The condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness by the overwork of the other part, and vice versa, becomes a means of enriching the individual capitalist, and accelerates at the same time the production of the industrial reserve army…" If Marx is correct, poverty, if it did not exist, would have to be invented in order to reduce wages and, therefore, production costs in order to promote profit accumulation. The politics of exclusion and poor-bashing, as these books clearly point out, provide illusions for a situation that cries out for illusions; they provide distractions that divert attention and analysis from what creates poverty and increasing inequality in Canadian society. It certainly isn't the poor themselves. While it is important to understand this, the point is to change it. This will not be easy because "power has become more and more concentrated in the hands of a minority of financiers and industrialists and to their predatory interests the majority are habitually sacrificed." What was said in the year of Canadian confederation remains relevant today.
Even in 1933, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (precursor to the NDP) exposed the real causes of poverty, causes that will not be diminished by appeals, "United" or otherwise, to the wealthy for sympathy and charity. It is much easier to organize a charitable donation (tax-deductible, of course) than to create the political will necessary for a truly progressive system of taxation which would reduce inequality in the distribution of income and be an important step in the eventual elimination of poverty and, with it, poor-bashing.
Ralph V. Barrett teaches in the Faculty of Business at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at 416-491-5050, ext. 2249 or Ralph.Barrett@senecac.on.ca.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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