Thursday, 17 March 2011

To Have and Have Not : more thoughts about poverty and wealth


It's difficult to know what to do about poverty. For me there is something morally wrong about believing it can be right for one person to earn, say, ten times more than another person.

In the capitalist system which imbues and it seems subsumes our lives, those who take and have the power - financial, cultural, social, political and military power - directly or indirectly award themselves inordinate material wealth and pay inordinately little to those whose labour provides  them with their wealth.

It might be said that if such a state of affairs is morally repugnant, our thoughts should lead to setting up and putting into practice a pure form of socialism where all have an equal share in the material wealth. Yet previous attempts to create socialist communities have invariably failed because those who have taken on political or leadership roles in these communities could not resist the descent towards the accumulation of more and more material wealth as well as more political power. There is, it seems, an inevitability towards a retreat to a "have and have not" community.

It may be asked, "Shouldn't democracy sort out all this fiscal inequality?"
Well the evidence is clear for all to see. It hasn't so far. There may still remain starry-eyed idealists - and I'm one - who still harbour thoughts that the right kind of democracy might deliver a human global community free of poverty. If so we need to find it because our current models of democracy don't address the issue of poverty with any sense
of there being a determined commitment to end the abject deprivation many of our fellow human beings suffer.

Capitalists say that attempts to institute socialism have failed because people who are educated and who learn more sophisticated skills want to earn more than those who have not learnt skills and more than those who they judge as less skilled. This argument also demands that those who take on more "responsibility" will only do so if they are rewarded for it but surely for all fair-minded people these unwritten laws should only be exercised between reasonable limits.

A difficulty which persists in freeing others from poverty is that we seem impelled to acquire material wealth and power in order to ensure our own survival and the survival of our children. In a world where we can see the debilitating consequences that poverty has for others our primitive evolutionary fears may result in us taking more than our own share. At the same time however, human beings have persuaded themselves that they are rational organisms who have also strived to develop codes of morality which insist on fair treatment for everyone. Our religions and our social cultures underpin the moral demand that we should take a care for each other and yet it appears that as capitialism and its concomitant and predominant financial and military power increase their tight grip on our human community,the hoped for essential goodness of our human community is squeezed out. It may be argued that this tendency has been accelerated by new channels of communication which in their tendency to take us away from being in the physical presence of each other, have led us to lose our emotional and physical sensitivity,to become increasingly narcissistic,to strive to be ahead of others and to adopt the attitude,"the de'il tak the hindmost."

It has also been suggested that these new channels of communication can be seen as the most democratic development since human communities were first formed. Their capacity to allow the rapid expression of mass opinion has influenced governments to change policy much more swiftly than the threat of the ballot box and indeed they have in some countires directly led to the downfall of oppressive regimes. If this kind of mass expression can be persuaded to direct its interest towards ending poverty, what might be achieved?

But here is the rub. In recent times even the power of mass expression through the internet and over the mobile 'phone has failed to achieve the wishes of the majority in the face of military power and personal wealth. This is currently the case in Libya where the holding of the oil wealth by a very few, finances military power which may, the way things are, prevail over any burgeoning of democracy. In the case of Bahrain the people's cry for true democracy and regime change are ignored by the Bahraini governing royal family and its militarily powerful Saudi Arabian cousins because they do not wish to share their immense wealth and they have the military punch to make sure they don't need to. These autocrats are also bolstered by hypocritical western "democratic" governments like those of the United Kingdom and the United States of America who fear any disturbance in the area will threaten their short-term to medium term need for oil. What really lies behind this hypocrisy is the selfish determination of a world wide wealthy minority to keep its hold on wealth and power. If this power dynamic remains what hope is there for those people whose poverty disenfranchises them from the hope of a life worth living. What hope for their children ?

It's difficult to know how we can end poverty but I still think we should try.
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