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When Will the Poor Rise Up?

When academics and activists, drawn from differing ideological persuasions and dissimilar social milieu, from around the world collaborates in the compilation of a book on the topical issue of social uprising in a time of relative calm, it begs the question, what is the state of the social order? Is it less desirable than its opposite? The question, “Why don’t the poor rise up?” is addressed by twenty (20) academics, labor organizers, and community activists in a book of the same title, Why Don’t The Poor Rise Up?: Organizing The Twenty-First Century Resistance.

Drawing upon their experiences, and research, in communities of oppressed groups from around the world, the authors offer readers alternative perspectives to the mainstream assessment  of the current political and cultural order.  Their opus challenges the capitalist thought on poverty as the failure of individuals due to their personal attributes or as a correctable defect in modern capitalism. They reject the conventional definition of poverty which reduced it to income levels, and official reporting (p.11). The authors explored “critical pathways of thinking about organization, resistance, rebellion and revolution” (p.9), and offer different views on ways in which the underprivileged are defined, the forms in which they resist, and obstacles to popular uprising (p.9).

Praba Pilar a Columbian artist, and Alex Wilson, a Swampy Cree of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, in their piece in the chapter, “Idle No More” proffered their own experiences and that of natives of the Americas, arguing that “Indigenous peoples across the Americas have been rising up for 500 years, presenting multivalent forms of resistance to colonial violence, femicide, epistemicide and ecocide” (p.33). Pilar and Wilson suggested that the origin of the question  itself, “Why the poor do not rise up?,” originated  as a “White Left” inquiry connected to their European worldview and sociological theories “which cast Indigenous people as stand-ins for the proletariat or lumpenproletariat of capitalist Europe” (pp.33-35).

Ajamu Nangwaya, lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Jamaica, whose articles have appeared in publications such as Dissent Voice, CounterPunch, Black Agenda Report and Pambazuka News, an editor of the book, contributed the chapter, “Engendering Revolt in the Anglophone Caribbean” (pp.153-179).  According to Nangwaya, the liberals’ question , “why the poor don’t rise up?” reveals “a popular misconception that people tend to revolt when economic and social conditions in society become unbearable” (pp.154-155). Simultaneously, he discloses his own impatience with the quality of the organization of the oppressed classes, and their current insufficient level of agitation in the Caribbean with his observation that “revolutionary or radical resistance, particularly one with a participatory democratic character, will not take place in the Anglophone Caribbean context in the absence of preparing the working class to become receptive to oppositional political ideas”(p.153). He further states that his article offers “a path toward a politics of awakening the revolutionary potentiality of the Caribbean working class or the laboring classes” (pp.154).

Gussai Sheikheldin, a native of Sudanic Africa, and an academic, examines the case of Sudan in the chapter “Critical Consciousness as an Act of Culture.” Of his social class in Sudan, Sheikheldin writes (p.141):

As a Sudanese who belongs to cultural strata that largely identify with Islam and Arabophone expression…and generally belongs to a privilege class of urban natives who had access to higher education in post-colonial settings, I observe my country with critical eyes. It seems that groups of the center  in Sudan are not only unable to understand the suffering of the peoples of the margins, but can’t grasp their own inability to understand. Although most of the population of the center groups have been living under conditions of relative poverty and political repression by tyrannical regimes, in most of Sudan’s post-colonial years, there is plenty of historic evidence that marginalized groups have been consistently worse off under the same regimes, in addition to enduring more forms of cultural violence. The July 2011 secession of South Sudan, and the creation of the youngest state in the world, is but one result of that history of marginalization.

Kali Akuno, a founder and co-director of  the Jackson, Mississippi economic cooperative network, Cooperation Jackson, in the chapter “Until We Win” referenced the African Americans’ uprising of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, against the extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. He opined that, “we are living and struggling through a transformative era of the global capitalist system” (pp.61-62), and calls for the creation of “Black Autonomous Zones…as centers of collective survival, collective defense, collective self-sufficiency… social solidarity” (p.69). Akuno did not elaborate on his view of “transformative era” or if he meant that the world order has entered a dynamic period of bifurcation or splitting away from the capitalist system, instead he brings to mind the reflections of Septima Clarke, the African American Civil Rights activist and educator,  who in the 20th century nadir of U.S. race relations, moved into the mountains of Tennessee to join the poor at the Highlander Folk School and developed the adult education program which was adopted by Martin Luther King Jr.’s organization in the voter education program.  According to Clarke, “when we have chaos and people say, ‘I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m concerned. I say. ‘Out of that will come something good. It will too…Things will happen, and things will change. The only thing that’s really worthwhile is change. It’s coming.”[1] Clarke made it clear that the oppressed and the poor are not vested in the stability of a social order which defends exploitation and must struggle for transformation.

Why Don’t The Poor Rise Up?: Organizing The Twenty-First Century Resistance is lucid that predicting the spark of transformative mass uprisings is almost impossible, although the conditions which lead up to them are generally well-known (155). Inequality, exploitation and poverty are among the critical issues which inspire popular intervention necessary to change a social order. [2] Another factor is during the critical period of transformation, antagonistic social layers demonstrate a readiness to set aside their differences to oppose the common foe or structure of their oppression, however powerful.[3]

While Why Don’t The Poor Rise Up?: Organizing The Twenty-First Century Resistance is critical of the ease with which the ruling elite of the remaining socialist states, and the establishment left are able to hold state power in some oppressed nations without being able to lift the living standards of the poor (p.24), the book does not sufficiently explain the social forces—internal and external—which have produced them. Likewise,  the discussion of inequality and race in the U.S. have paid little attention to the role of elected and appointed black leaders in defending systems of oppression and their social interests in such systems. Delving further into the role of class in the rapid expansion of wealth inequality, and in defending the social order would shed more light on the issue.  Sheikheldin’s statement that “it seems that groups of the center…are not only unable to understand the suffering of the peoples of the margins, but can’t grasp their own inability to understand”(p.141) is therefore evasive.  They do understand but have taken the position that their privileged status in the center is maintained by the poverty around them.

Why Don’t The Poor Rise Up?: Organizing The Twenty-First Century Resistance is a timely book. It is published in a period when the debates and mainstream thought about poverty and inequality are dominated by ruling elite ideas. The book complement’s Thomas Piketty’s opus, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as well as the yearly reports produced by Oxfam pointing to the exponentially expanding rate of global wealth inequality.  In 2014 Oxfam estimated that 85 billionaires controlled as much wealth as 50% of the world’s population with their wealth increasing daily by $668 million. In January 2016, Oxfam updated their report, pointing to “runaway inequality” which has created a world where only 62 people own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population.”  By January 2017 the situation was more dismal with Oxfam reporting that just 8 men own as much wealth as half of the world. Furthermore in my view, intellectual debates, even when contradictory, are beneficial and valid perturbations in a moribund social order.[4]

Lloyd McCarthy is the author of the book  In-dependence from bondage: Claude McKay and Michael Manley : defying the ideological clash and policy gaps in African Diaspora relations. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Notes.

[1] Clark, S. P., & Brown, C. S. (1986). Ready from within: Septima Clark and the civil rights movement. Navarro, Calif: Wild Trees Press.,p.126

[2] Harman, C. (12 March 2005). Are these uprisings genuine revolts? Are these uprisings genuine revolts?

[3] Mandel, E. (2000). The Marxist case for revolution today. London: International Viewpoint.

[4] McCarthy, L. (2014). Chaos Theory: Towards an Alternative Perspective of African American Leadership, Organization, and Community Systems. Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences, 6(2), 122–155

 

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