Disparaging the Poor

A bunch of academic pundits and media cognoscenti inform us that among the causes of a person’s becoming unemployed is a yen for job-change because he or she opts for a certain “work-related opportunity cost” so as to “optimise utility function”. Renouncing jargon, others claim the unemployed are loafers. Or The Economist informs us that “the recession this time is behaving weirdly”. All this sophistry and waffle, plus a whole lot more ill-intentioned pronouncements are supposed to “explain” unemployment and hence poverty. Naturally, the three-time Pulitzer winner Thomas Friedman has dreamed up a fantastic solution: all those “muscled out of the workforce should start charging hourly for everything, from cars to drills”. Does anyone want to rent my patch under the bridge? To his credit though, “muscled out” at least hints that leaving the workforce might not have been voluntary. Then there are a lot more horse-feathers flapping around in the hot air expelled by other prodigies who, blithely or maliciously ignoring social context and, in particular, political economy, proclaim that unemployment is about free-loading spongers. This subject is nearly as entertaining as Disneyland for anyone who thinks it’s fun to badmouth less fortunate human beings: “skivers” (as opposed to “strivers”), “wedded to welfare” (single mums), “welfare queen” (hinting at some kind of secret opulence), “misfits”, “free-riders”, “parasites”, “spongers”, “loafers”, “feral underclass”, and the latter-day Rip Van Winkle prone to “sleeping off a life on benefits”, dreamed up by George Osborne. Lurking beneath these labels is the insinuation that members of the said “underclass” are mentally handicapped, violent and criminal. It’s all their fault. They are a threat to the strivers. Owen Jones calls it the “demonization of the working class”, although it must be remembered that many members of this class are excluded from working.

Some more fortunate people are said to belong to a “middle class”, which is so fuzzy in conceptual terms that nobody’s sure exactly what it is. Then there is the group of rich people who, we are told, deserve to be rich, no questions asked. These two latter categories are filled by supposedly hard-working, ambitious, smart and successful people. Yet, despite the best efforts of our most zealous opinion makers – frequently bosom buddies of these Übermenschen – most people actually subscribe to the old saying that behind every fortune there is a crime (or few) and that, in most cases, a few easily-substantiated facts rather tarnish the Merit Theory of Wealth. The correlations tend to be wealth-corruption, wealth-tax-fraud, wealth-inheritance, wealth-robbery and, very often, a little scratching below the surface of things shows a combination of them all. They tend to go together. Otherwise there’d be no need for tax havens.

The rich and their satellites love to put down and revile poor people who depend on welfare payments, carelessly or cynically overlooking the fact that, historically speaking or very recently, their wealth has a lot to do with the poverty of their fellow men and women. The original meanings of the word “charity” are esteem or affection (from the Latin nominative caritas). The implied respect for other humans in this term is now twisted into contempt. And “contemptible” people, the ones we look down on, must be punished, as we know from the history of colonialism, racism, sexism and all the ideologies that have always depended on having somebody to trample on. People receiving any kind of public benefits are clear targets as privatisation tightens its insatiable grip on just about everything: land, water, forests, minerals, indigenous knowledge and the structure of life itself in genetic resources, along with public services such as health care, education, transport, and water and sewerage services, not to mention people-commodities traded in human trafficking, sex slavery, child labour, surrogate motherhood, the baby and child market, and organ sales. The plunderers who are taking over and filling bank vaults with the riches they are appropriating from this common wealth are not going to look kindly on people asking for any form of welfare benefits from “their” institutions. So they malign and punish the poor while they have a field day (in other people’s fields).

In Catalonia, former President Jordi Pujol, founding chairman of today’s ruling conservative party CiU, has recently admitted to very major tax fraud over thirty years. Today’s CiU president, Artur Mas, commented when Pujol was stripped of his titles, that this caused him “great pain”. But he doesn’t feel great pain for the poor. He prefers to cause it. Shortly after coming to power, Mas, considering that the measly welfare benefits paid by the Generalitat (Catalan Government) were too generous, went on the offensive and embarked on monitoring procedures that cost more than the original welfare benefits. (Here we’d like to point out that our criticism of any self-appointed father of conservative Catalan nationalism does not imply the slightest opposition to the mass-based “Process” claiming Catalonia’s democratic right to decide by voting on 9 November for or against independence although – in contrast with Scotland and its vote on 18 September – this right to decide is denied by the Spanish Government).

John Ward, a Tory councillor for Medway who, more emphatic than Mas and Co., was apparently aiming at a nice sound-bite in 2008 when he lambasted “professional spongers” who “breed for greed”, and called for “compulsory sterilisation of all those who have a second, (or third, or whatever) child while living off state handouts.” He was suspended, but not without spawning Internet forums of people who wondered whether he had merely dared to put into words what a lot of upright citizens privately thought. Sterilising the poor isn’t exactly a new idea, and it has had some illustrious proponents who used a collegiate guise to say the same thing. One such enthusiast was Thomas Nixon Carver, professor of Political Economy at Harvard (1902 – 1935), well-known “Republican Brain Truster” and President of the American Economic Association. He was very keen to wield the neutering knife. The Daily Washington Merry-Go-Round reports Point 2 of his economic plan of 1936 as reading, “Reduction of the supply of labor by sterilization of the palpably unfit; […] Marriage would be barred until the parties could afford to buy and operate an automobile”. By “palpably unfit” he meant people earning less than $1,800 per year, which is to say half the population of the United States at the time. Castratio plebis, to put it mildly.

The eugenics movement in the US took off after Sir Francis Galton (1822 – 1911) studied Britain’s upper classes and concluded that their genetic makeup was superior. Early eugenics fans believed in the innate superiority of Nordic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon peoples and called for the forcible sterilisation of the poor disabled and “immoral”. The movement was generously funded by such august establishments as the Carnegie Institution and Rockefeller Foundation. Some US states (with California in the lead in terms of numbers) sterilised “imbeciles” over much of the twentieth century, a total of over 62,000 individuals and especially women (61% by 1961), and Virginia’s sterilisation law was in force until 1974. By 1928 the leading universities were teaching some 376 eugenics courses. This is not a thing of the past, however. In 2013, one of Australia’s most destructive people, billionaire mining heiress Gina Reinhart, called for sterilisation of the “underclasses”. Income inequality, she says, is caused by differences in intelligence and any couple earning less than $100,000 per year should be forcibly sterilised, while higher earners should have ten or twelve children.

Now, some people might be tempted to think after the Pujol revelations in Catalonia (and other scandals featuring many more crooked paragons of society in the Kingdom of Spain and around the world, not least heads of the IMF) that this man is “immoral” and “palpably unfit” to hold any responsible job and that the country might have been better off if this father of seven (most with greedy fingers in one or other very greasy pork barrel) had been sterilised. But what people really want is change. In Spain the groundswell of support for grassroots political movements like Podemos and Guanyem Barcelona (We’re Going to Win Barcelona [City Council]), which is fast being emulated all over the country, is bringing together people from all walks of life at very sizeable meetings in the city’s streets and squares where the main themes of the day are justice, transparency, political ethics, real human rights in all spheres of life, to sum up very schematically. It’s not difficult to deduce that Pujol did Guanyem Barcelona a big favour. Suddenly, old-fashioned Catalan politics looks very rancid. People want sweeping change that extends to the structures of power. And it’s all about political economy. In 2012, it was estimated that 30% of the population of Catalonia was at risk of social exclusion. Things have only got worse since then. The Kingdom of Spain has the second highest child poverty rate – after Romania – in Europe: 21%. The growing rage among the population where youth unemployment stands at more than 55% is so great that, nowadays, only a lunatic would dare to propose the sterilisation solution. Everyone knows that the “immoral”, “palpably unfit” (and “imbeciles” too because, after all, imbecility is often inseparable from arrogance) are clustered in the privileged 1%. However, their wombs and testicles are safe because, what with the burgeoning growth of new, inclusive political formations, people have better things to think about, in particular their basic rights.

All over Spain, Basic Income is gaining ground (with more or less clarity) as part of the election programme of political parties including Bildu, IU-ICV, Anova, Equo and Podemos (heir of the 15M Occupy Movement, clearest exponent of what a universal Basic Income is and implies, and garnering astonishing electoral results that are cracking the foundations of the basically two-party power-share between the “socialist” PSOE and right-wing PP). Largely thanks to Podemos, no doubt, Basic Income is an increasingly widespread subject of discussion and, like any other radical social proposal, is gathering scores of “friends” and “enemies”. There is increasing awareness that the most basic human right, on which all the rest depend, is the right to exist and, for that to be possible, everybody must have an income above the poverty line. This, in a nutshell, is an unconditional, universal basic income for every single citizen and resident in the country. It is no longer seen as “utopian” or “hare-brained” as the well-to-do and their cronies have claimed in the past. More and more people understand that this guarantee is necessary for a truly democratic society. The obstacles faced by Basic Income have been political, just as they were (or are, depending on the place) in the cases of universal suffrage, paid holidays, and the rights to strike, to abortion and to same-sex marriage. Basic Income embodies no logical or empirical (financial) impossibility. It is an objective aspiration which, almost certainly, won’t enjoy universal support. In politics one must choose, and this is especially true of political economy.

The “idea” of mutilating people’s reproductive organs on the basis of cruel judgements by a few palpably unfit individuals merits adjectives that are much more withering than “utopian”. But conjuring them up is just a pastime. The really important, lapidary statement is Thomas Paine’s observation in Agrarian Justice that people don’t want charity; they want justice. And they have begun to claim precisely this.

Daniel Raventós is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom(Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso

Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).



Daniel Raventós is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso.   Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).