[iii] The literature on poverty as economic violence is vast, rich and far beyond the scope of this
emergency dispatch from the front line of US class warfare in 2013. Here’s a sense of what I
have in mind:
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. precisely described one aspect of the connection between
poverty and violence one year before his assassination, in terms of “…a very obvious and almost
facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in
America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a
real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There
were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the
program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad
on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in
rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills
and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the
war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such. … A nation that continues year after year to
spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual
The nature of poverty as economic violence both includes and transcends the state’s ages-old
funding of rich men’s wars rather than poor people’s families and communities. It’s embedded in
an essential element of modern society that sits at the center of the ‘restructuring’ of Detroit; the
coercive power of the law administered by the wealthy and powerful governing elites in a
class society. This reality of a violent mailed fist inside a velvet glove, which perhaps best
captures the essence of the Jones Day form of Wall Street government now imposed on Detroit,
was beautifully captured in Pablo Neruda’s poem:
In high Peru, in Nicaragua,
throughout Patagonia, in the cities,
you’ve had no rights, you’ve nothing:
cup of misery, America’s
abandoned child, there’s no
law, no judge to protect your land,
your little house with corn.
When your chiefs came,
your masters, by now forgotten
the ancient dreams of talons and knives,
the law came to depopulate your sky,
to seize your revered fields, to debate the rivers’ water,
to steal the kingdom of trees.
They testified against you, stamped
your shirts, stuffed your heart
with leaves and papers,
buried you in cold edicts,
and when you awakened on the edge
of the most precipitous calamity,
dispossessed, solitary, vagrant,
they gave you jail, bound you,
shackled you so that swimming
you couldn’t escape the water of the poor,
so that you’d drown kicking.
The benign judge reads you clause
number Four Thousand, Third Paragraph,
the same used in the entire
blue geography liberated
by others like you who fell,
and you’re instituted by his codicil
without appeal, mangy cur.
Your blood asks, how were the wealthy
and law interwoven? With what
sulfurous iron fabric? How did the
poor keep falling into the tribunals?
How did the land become so bitter
for poor children, harshly
nourished on stone and grief?
So it was, and so I leave it written.
Their lives wrote it on my brow.
(Tr. Jack Schmitt)
At perhaps an even deeper level, violence and the poverty under any social order that is enforced at least in part by coercion – from police intervention to emergency management to war – exist in a virtually biological and physical, symbiotic relationship, as recognized by Bertolt Brecht’s poem:
The headlong stream is termed violent
But the river bed hemming it in is
Termed violent by no one.
The storm that bends the birch trees
Is held to be violent
But how about the storm
That bends the backs of the road workers?