Are poor people moral degenerates?

They certainly are according to capitalist morality.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to fucking Jonathan Pie this post because I’m getting royally impatient and pissed off with you ignorant fuckers out there who, in your self-righteous, holier-than-though attitudes consider poor people to be less than human. Recently someone posted on Facebook that a group of volunteers had cleaned up after a homeless camp had been dismantled here in the Comox Valley. There was a nice photo of the volunteers attached to the item. The comments on this post were mostly supportive of the volunteers, but the odd comment slipped in there that was outrageously stupid as in calling the homeless camp residents ‘filthy pigs.’ Piss me off.

Would you call someone in the hospital dying of cancer a ‘filthy pig?’ Would you call someone who is physically disabled and unable to clean up after themselves ‘filthy pigs? Would you call someone who has been injured and unable to clean themselves or their rooms ‘filthy pigs?’

Some of you might answer yes to the above questions because you’re complete morons. Most of you, I assume, would answer no. The reason most of you would answer no is because you believe that the people who are the objects of the questions are not responsible for their conditions. Still, I think that a number of you who answer no to the above questions would answer yes if I had asked about responsibility. If I had asked: ‘Do you think people dying of cancer in the hospital are responsible for their situation?’ No, you would probably say. ‘Do you think that homeless people are responsible for their situations?’ Yes, you might say even though we know that ‘mental illness’, drug use, and other ‘ailments’ are not much different than cancer to the human body. It’s okay to be physically ill, but don’t be mentally ill because that’s a clear indication that you are morally weak. Cancer patients are not considered morally weak but if something goes wrong in your brain for any number of reasons you’re a loser and a moral degenerate and god forbid you get addicted to drugs or gambling.

So, what’s the basis for our beliefs about illness, homelessness, poverty, and disability? Well, it’s not that complicated although it’s shrouded in obfuscation and ideology. It’s all about morality. Capitalist, Neo-liberal morality. What the hell is that? Isn’t morality all about good and bad, and is it not a guide to how to live life properly? Is morality not just a set of ideas that are more of less universal and agreed upon for the most part? Basic things like those that can be found in the Christian Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not kill, covet thy neighbour’s wife and so on?

Well, those ideas are a part of capitalist morality but not even those ideas stand up to careful scrutiny as being universal behavioural precepts. It all depends on context and situation. Killing is perfectly moral if you’re killing an ‘other’. Morality is fundamentally grounded in material life. Veblen would say that ‘habits of thought’ are based in ‘habits of life.’ There is no such thing as a disembodied morality.

So, what is capitalist, Neo-liberal morality? I’m sure you won’t have any trouble identifying it when I point it out to you. It’s actually based on the ideas of people like the 17th Century writer and philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. He’s the guy who people sometimes quote as arguing that life is short and brutish. He and the ideology he helped spawn were (are) firmly attached to a growing labour situation in England whereby people were being systematically weaned from their relationships with their feudal lords and forced, more of less, into new wage based forms of employment. Capitalist morality is based on the ideas that one must be self-sufficient, that one is responsible for all of one’s actions, that one is in a constant power struggle with everyone else in a society, that one must work hard to ‘earn one’s keep’, that people are a bunch of lazy things that need to be prodded into action, that no individual is beholden to any society, that illness is weakness, that poverty is failure, and that all the good or bad that befalls us is our own doing.

Capitalist morality is based on the ideas that one must be self-sufficient, that one is responsible for all of one’s actions, that one is in a constant power struggle with everyone else in a society, that one must work hard to ‘earn one’s keep’, that people are a bunch of lazy things that need to be prodded into action, that no individual is beholden to any society, that illness is weakness, that poverty is failure, and that all the good or bad that befalls us is our own doing.

Of course all of this is a crock of shit and has been established over and over as a crock of shit by generation after generation of psychologists and social scientists. Problem is, the findings of psychologists and social scientists that don’t accord with the basic principles of capitalism with are summarize by C. B. Macpherson in the phrase ‘possessive individualism,’ are summarily dismissed by those people who have a vested interest in an unequal distribution of wealth which means rich people. Of course, that’s only partially true. Rich people are rich often not because of any stellar performance on their part. They often become rich because they have rich families to inherit money from. To get richer, it helps if you’re already rich, family-wise I mean.

So, in order to illustrate my thinking about morality I want you to think about a wall (why not, walls seem to be popular these days), a metaphorical wall that is. In the rough drawing I did below, you see a blue section in the middle, thin lines that surround that blue section and the thick line that surrounds it all and that’s what I call our moral wall. US and Others are located where they are to illustrate our relationship to ourselves and to others. Others, those people we just can’t relate to at all because they live in places very foreign to us, we consider outside our moral wall. They don’t even figure in our conceptions of morality, or of what’s good or bad. They are barely considered human. “US” on the other hand includes all people who share a world dominated by capitalist social relations. The closer one gets to the middle, the stronger the pull of Hobbesian ideas and real concentrations of wealth and power. The concentric rings represent groups of people who are related to the concentration of wealth but in various intensities and amounts. The closer one is to the vortex or black hole at the centre, the more one represents the ideals of capitalism and individualism and the closer to the wall one gets the weaker our relationship is to capitalist production. So, for example, people occupying the absolute (blue) centre are the 1% who control the greatest proportion of human wealth. The people who occupy the 2nd ‘arrondissement’ are still very wealthy but generally work as close advisors or specialists to the people in the dead centre.* The people in the 3rd ‘arrondissement’ are wealthy middle class investors, managers, CEOs, etc. The people in the 4th ‘arrondissement’ are the supporting class, the technicians, educated specialists who do the bidding of the 1% and of the people in the closer ‘arrondissements’. The people who occupy the 5th ‘arrondissement’ are generally technically trained but poorly educated cadre, often moderately well-paid but unhappy because of their distance from the centre. They so want to be rich. They buy lottery tickets. They so want to be like the people in the centre that they have tummy aches over it. They adore the people in the centre and know they can do no wrong otherwise how would they get to the centre of our moral universe in the first place? They must be blessed by God! Whatever the 1% do is fine by them even if it’s often considered illegal. If it is illegal, it’s legitimate to ignore the law of push to have it changed. The people in the 6th ‘arrondissement’ are the uneducated, the poorly trained, the unemployed, the poor, the marginal folks of all kinds. These people either see the 1% as gods to bow down to and revere (Trump followers) or as devils to resist in every way possible (progressives).

Now, the thing about people in the 6th arrondissement is that they often also look at the centre with melting hearts knowing always that their distance from the centre of our moral universe is all their fault. If only they had been better people, worked harder, made better decisions. dressed better, were better looking, went to school, everything would be hunky-dory. We absorb these feelings into the very fabric of our existence. They colour the way we see the world, and how we treat others.

That said, there’s people all the way through the multiple ‘arrondissements’, at least at the lower levels, that know the morality embodied in this fictitious moral world is bullshit. They know that there’s something wrong with a world based on defining personal worth by reference to how much wealth one has accumulated in one’s life and how well one did in the competition for scarce resources. Maybe they have gotten an education and have had to agree with social scientists that capitalism is not a natural human condition, but only a phase in history, one we would do well to escape as soon as possible before it destroys us all. Capitalist Neo-liberlism truly is a world without love (intimate connections with others), compassion and caring. Individuals who demonstrate love, caring and compassion are often ridiculed, marginalized, and called weak.

If we can get through this, I’m optimistic about the future. If we can’t beat the capitalist cancer that threatens to do us all in, we will succumb to the planet’s rejection of us because of our stupid overconsumption and lack of consideration of the world around us, the plants and animals that we need to survive and thrive. A pissed-off planet is not good for us humans. We are going to go extinct one way or another, but we don’t have to rush into it and drag most other species on the planet with us.

  • The dead centre of this moral world of ours is populated by individuals, certainly, but also by organizations like banks that concentrate wealth. So the situation is very complex on the ground but simple conceptually.

My next post: how is about how capitalist wealth is increasingly concentrated and why.

The power of what we think is true or: Marx was a dumbass, everybody knows that! With a commentary by Paul Whyte, political scientist and former colleague.

-This is a blog post which appeared here on November 17th, 2015. A former colleague at NIC, political scientist Paul Whyte, wrote a response to the post below but for some technical reason was unable to leave a commentary. I respect his knowledge of Marx and his capacities as a teacher so I’ve decided to repost my November 17th post with his comments in tow. 

Please read his comment if nothing else. They follow my post. 

 

I write. I used to teach. I suppose that in some individual cases I may have even convinced a few people to change their minds about the way they perceived the world. Mostly my efforts are and were in vain.

Our dominant ideologies around possessive individualism, the nature of countries and what we value in life are so powerful as to frustrate and flummox the efforts of the most competent of teachers to get people to change their minds about anything.

I’ve changed my mind a number of times in my life but generally in line with added knowledge gained from reading and researching writers and authors who compelled me to see beyond what I had previously accepted as true. I came to understand fairly early in my career that there is no absolute truth, only tentative truth which must be abandoned when confronted with superior ways of explaining things.

For the first few years of my career as a sociologist I was a Marxist through and through. That early dedication to Marx’s work was soon tempered in many ways by the works of Harold Innis, Thorstein Veblen, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman, Ernest Becker, Otto Rank and many others. It’s been a ride. Although I’ve gone beyond Marx in many ways, I still often come back to one of Marx’s aphorisms about history in which he said (and I paraphrase): Human history will begin when we stop being so barbaric towards one another.

He was an optimist who actually believed that this would come to pass with the eventual eclipse of class society, a time in which there would no longer be any reason to kill and exploit because of the rise of technology and the elimination of labour exploitation.

Faced with the litany of accounts of death and destruction perpetrated by groups of people over the face of the earth going back millenia and it becomes difficult to accept Marx’s promise. I also being an optimist agree for the most part with Marx on this especially given globalization, the concentration of capital, the erosion of national sovereignty and the degradation of the natural world. These aren’t particularly uplifting processes for me, but they all point to a time in the future where capital will do itself in by increasingly attenuating the profit margin.

Strangely, I write this knowing full well that the vast majority of people who on the off chance might read this will not have read Marx and will have no idea of what I’m writing about here. People are generally quick to dismiss ideas that don’t agree with their preconceived notions about things. That’s certainly true when it comes to Marx’s work. People can easily dismiss Marx (and most other fine writers in history) by thinking they know what Marx (and most other fine writers in history) argued and can therefore cheerfully scrub him (and the others) from their minds. Or they think of themselves as anti this or that, in Marx’s case ‘anti communist’ so that anything that Marx argued just cannot be ok. Mind shut, let no light enter.

One of Marx’s most important ideas was that the division of society into classes would inevitably be relegated to the dustbin of history and along with it barbarism of all kinds. I like that idea, but ‘inevitably’ in this context will probably still be some time in the future. There’s plenty of time left for ignorant, highly suggestible “cheerful robots” (a term from C. Wright Mills) to commit mass murder or other kinds of atrocities in the name of eliminating the evil that they feel is blocking their prosperity or their road to heaven.

Probably the most influential writer for me over the last 40 years of my career has been Ernest Becker.  His little book Escape From Evil published in 1975 after his untimely death in 1974 of cancer at the age of 49, has most profoundly influenced my way of thinking and seeing the world. Escape from Evil, in my mind contains all the knowledge one would ever need to explain the bloody massacre in Paris on November 13th or all the other atrocities ever committed by us towards others and vice-versa over the last 10,000 years, or for the time of recorded history, and probably even further back. It’s all there for anyone to read. But people won’t read it and even if they do, they will read it with bias or prejudice and will be able to dismiss it like they dismiss everything else that doesn’t accord with their ideology or interests. And there’s the rub.

It’s people’s interests rather than their ideas that drive their capacity to change their minds. Change the way people live and you just may change the way they think. It doesn’t work very well the other way around.

Given Marx’s long term view on barbarism and senseless violence we cannot hope for much in the short term. We just have to wait it out. Of course our actions speak louder than our words, so within the bounds of legality, it’s not a bad idea in my mind to oppose talk that can incite some unbalanced people among us to violent action. It’s also a good idea to support peaceful solutions to conflict rather than pull out the guns at the first sign of trouble. Violence can easily invite violence in retaliation. We can resist that. It’s tough when all we want to do is smack people for being so ignorant and senselessly violent, but we can forgive rather than fight, tough as that may be. Turn the other cheek as some historical figure may have said at one point a couple of millenia ago.

Paul Whyte’s comment:

We will be severely challenged in the years to come to keep our heads as globalization increasingly devalues our labour and the concentration of wealth makes for more and more poverty. Sometime, somewhere we will have to say enough is enough and mean it in spite of the forces trying to divide us. We can regain our humanity even though it’s tattered and in shreds at the moment. It’s either that or we won’t have much of a future on this planet.

I too taught – actually alongside you for close to 30 years! Our disciplines were different [mine were Political Science and Introductory (Western) Philosophy] but shared a common past and crisscrossed each others field of expertise. We were, and still are, passionate about knowledge and driven to explore and share with others, primarily students and colleagues while working, but quite frankly anyone who so much as feigned an interest in the things that captivated us. I write also -surprise, surprise! [cheap seque to invite you to check out my new blog site at paulswhyte.com]. Whether our individual efforts prove to be in vain is really for others to judge and regardless of the answer, we/I must admit we were driven to it and not for any accounting of the number of ‘conversions’ we made [and not even for the fame and fortune!].

   “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” K.Marx

It is true to acknowledge the existence of a dominant ideology within society, but freedom of thought arises from the critical analysis of those underlying oftentimes philosophical thoughts and values, questioning their truth especially within a historical framework. History is littered with ‘dominant’ ideologies that were transformed and/or deposed. It may also be true for example as you state “that there is no absolute truth” but that itself is a historically contingent claim. Our inability [to date] to assert ‘an absolute truth’ does not necessarily negate its existence, but simply denotes only our present limitations to human knowledge.

The trajectories of our academic careers are remarkably similar. My early exposure to the writings of Marx, limited like every other English-speaking student/scholar of our generation by the sheer lack of translations of much of his work into English (now it is all available) was nevertheless profound and revelatory. My appetite became voracious leading me to graduate schools in the UK and a lengthy dissertation on Marx’s theory of revolution and the SDF in late 19th c. British politics.

I concur wholeheartedly with your statement about the gains that accrue from a lifelong practice of reading and research. The list of authors whose paths I have crossed now seems legion. Has my earlier career’s affection, and more importantly, affiliation to the Marxist viewpoint wavered – yes many times; altered – not fundamentally; been abandoned – never. Marx’s detailed and nuanced historical materialist conception, particularly as applied to industrial capitalism, seems more accurate today (as you say) in the expansion of globalization and the widening income inequality gap.

I likewise see Marx as an optimist about the unfolding of human history. The class struggle is at the very core of his theory and ‘projections’ about its “inevitable” disappearance [in a future communist society] still strike me as essentially correct. Where I think I depart from you, and many others as well, is in the hope or assertion that such a transformation can ultimately be achieved by peaceful and democratic means. Greater “participatory democracy” might be an advance on the current situation, but I am reminded of the earlier hope placed in the trade union movement to significantly change the overall conditions of the many in a capitalist economy, and we both know how that has turned out.

You are right to state that peoples’ material interests are foundational, and consequentially that their ideas are forged within the context of their particular class affiliation. Most are blinded/hoodwinked from this truism by a dominant ideological lens, representing as Marx said

  “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling    material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” [German Ideology]

This creates for our time promotion of the merits of possessive individualism and the fruits of capitalist accumulation. 

Take courage and write/speak on because as one of Canada’s greatest contemporary troubadours [Bruce Cockburn] said so eloquently, “but nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight, got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight”.

Death is necessary for life…

Try eating live things.  They don’t like it and usually put up a fight.  The fact is that we normally like to eat our food dead.  There are situations where we like to get close to the line between life and death, say when we boil lobster or crab alive, or when we go to a restaurant featuring live fish in large tanks and pick out our dinner as it swims by.  But by and large we like to be assured that our food is nicely and fully dead.  Vegetables are no problem.  We hardly consider them alive in the first place although they are of course.  Not everyone likes their veggies, but their dislike is generally not based on whether or not they are dead.  With animals, it’s another matter.

We ‘relate’ to animals, animate things, especially if they’re young, cute and cuddly.  When we in the West find out that some people in China and Korea eat young dogs, preferably St-Bernards, we find it hard not to gag or throw up.  We know that ‘veal’ really means baby cow but we try not to think about it. Lamb is the same, baby sheep.  So are weaner pigs, that is, pigs that have just been weaned.  We know killing happens.  We wouldn’t be able to eat steak, bacon, roasts or ham without the killing. It’s just not right to think about it or bring it up in polite conversation.  The fact is that humans slaughter millions if not billions of animals every year (for food or as ‘pests’), sometimes by specialists like in the West, but by lots of non-specialists in Africa and other ‘poor’ parts of the world too.  People all over the world realize that they like to eat their food dead and somebody has to do the dirty deed.  Now, isn’t that an interesting way of putting it: do the dirty deed?  Of course you’ve heard that.  To do a dirty deed…ultimately means killing someone or something. The reference to dirt we’ll come back to.  But for now, let’s face it.  Although we don’t like to admit it, death is really important to us.  But of course death is important to us not just in terms of the food we eat.

If things didn’t die, things couldn’t live. If people didn’t die, there would be standing room only on the planet in very short order.  We think there’s a lot of people on the planet now!  If people didn’t die, I’m not sure how they would be born, but that’s an issue for another post.  So our underlying unquestioned assumption that life is good and death is bad is patently ridiculous.  Not that we’ve ever shied away from espousing ridiculous ideas.  No, people need to die so others may live.  The problem is all about the quality of death and dying.  We know that we are born at one point, grow up, mature and then die, at least on a ‘normal’ trajectory.  There’s lots of variation in the length of time we live.  For instance, in some parts of Africa an individual is lucky to live to be 37 years of age.  Here in Canada we’re looking at a normal life span getting into the eighties.  In the ‘poor’ countries, many children die very young.  We think that’s a shame, really. But we don’t like to think about it too much.  We see the starving children in the OxFam or whatever commercials and cringe a little, but it’s not really our problem.  Distant death is barely death at all whether we are talking about time (as in death centuries ago) or space, (as in death in Somalia or Mali, far away in Africa).  We have some vague sense that many people die in Canada every year, but we don’t really know how many, nor are we particularly interested.  But death gets more interesting the closer it gets to us, especially so close that we just can’t deny it.

When my cousin’s daughter was murdered on Halloween night last year, I was shocked and angry.  She was just at high school graduation age.  Some very disturbed young man -who’s since been caught and faces first degree murder charges – killed her that night and she’ll never be coming home. Many other thousands of people died that same day all over the world, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that someone in the family met a very tragic, unnecessary death.  I didn’t know Taylor Van Diest personally.  She lived a long distance from where I live on Vancouver Island.  My uncle Denis (my father’s brother) moved his family (including Taylor’s mom) to the Okanagan Valley decades ago.  He’s since passed away.  That broke the tie that kept our families in close contact.  Since then we’ve had large family reunions, but I haven’t attended many of them.  Too busy working most of the time.  Families drift apart.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s just the way it is in a world that encourages radical insularity and downplays family except for ideological purposes.  Still, when a family member meets such an untimely death, it hurts.  For the immediate family the pain must be almost unbearable and it doesn’t wane.  The passage of time does little to heal the still gaping wound that is the absence of Taylor.  But, like I said, death is only meaningful to us when it’s close and it’s importance to us is inversely proportional to it’s distance to us in time and space.  What I’ve found in my career is that there isn’t just one kind of death.  There are many kinds of death just as there are many kinds of life.  Taylor’s death is not the same kind of death as the death of the pig that made it possible for me to eat bacon this morning.  One seems senseless, the other necessary.  We are horrified by Taylor’s death, rightly so.  When my father-in-law lay dying at Burnaby General Hospital twenty-three years ago, I was struck by the traffic noise, the talk in the hallway, the realization that death matters little to most of us most of the time.  The world doesn’t stop every time a person dies even though we think it should when that person is close to us.  No, we are really little affected by death.  Our systems of death denial are very  strong indeed making it all the more horribly distressing when the experience of death is so personal that our usual systems of death denial no longer work and we have to face it unmediated by ideology.  The experience is soul destroying and extremely isolating.  The visceral reaction of most people in this situation is to reach for meaning anywhere it can be found.  No search for meaning is entirely satisfactory.  There is always a residual emptiness.

To finish this up, I want to just say that death is not the opposite of life.  Living and dying are one in the same thing.  Distinguishing between the two is the result of a feeble attempt on humanity’s part to deny death.  To be blunt about it, the moment we are conceived we are on a death trajectory. How can we live with that realization without effective ideologies of death denial?  More on that in the next post.