Archives for posts with tag: Poverty

Recently, while I was spending some time at a local coffee shop, a homeless person came up to my table outside and asked me for change. I was sitting next to three people I didn’t know. Of course, I instantly thought about what my action would mean to them, not just what it would mean to me (and are these not two sides of the same coin anyway?).

Lots of questions run through one’s head, such as, “Why should I have to give away my money – do I have a moral obligation or no?” and “What will this person do with the money?” (We’re always told the money will just go to support an addiction or some other seedy activity). Eventually I decided that I couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to give the person some change. So I did.

And then he pressed me further, asking if I had any more. This hadn’t happened to me before – couldn’t he just go away and stop making me feel awkward? So I did it again, handing him a dollar bill, since he specifically asked for a dollar and I just didn’t want to lie and hide it!

At any rate, the real motivation is the first: wanting to stop the awkwardness, wanting to stop feelings of guilt and general uneasiness. I’m sure this is a fairly typical experience. What makes this time interesting is what came next.

I walked into the indoor section of the café to go to the bathroom. On the way, an elderly woman approached me with something to say. This same woman I had seen probably four out of the five consecutive days I had been visiting this café (sad, I know).

I’d previously overheard her talking with another frequent patron about taking a photo of the sky, since it looked so intriguing; the next day she brought in that photo, blown up and with several copies, and showed it to the same man. She always dressed comfortably and was in a rather contented, cheery mood.

She seemed to have a lot of time on her hands, so I figured she was retired. But when she approached me after my interaction with the homeless man, she immediately reprimanded me for giving money to him: “You shouldn’t give money to people like him. That guy comes around five days a week, sometimes multiple times a day. You know, all he’ll do is go out and buy cigarettes.”

I was taken aback for multiple reasons: first, why had she bothered to confront me at this moment, when there were plenty of chances for her to introduce herself to me in more pleasant circumstances?; second, why had she needed to respond to my action so quickly, pushing her way through – rather rudely – the cramped section in front of the cashier?; third, why does she care what I do with my money (surely it’s not as bad as buying a $4 latte…)?; but lastly and most importantly – how does she know that’s what he’ll spend it on? This last question was the one that got me thinking.

In my most recent article on this blog I shed some light on the Lacanian notion of the Real, which is the limit or horizon of the subject’s symbolic existence past which exists pure impossibility, and thus is something that must be continuously avoided by the subject.

What this avoidance of the Real demands is a narrativization of the traumatic possibility that there is really nothing we could know that exists outside our knowledge of it; that all sense is mere “belief” and as such has no guarantee in material reality (in Heidegger’s words, “there is no ontological guarantee for the ontic” – there is no complete knowledge that could know itself to be complete… consciousness cannot know itself as truth).

What we actually encounter is not the totality of the Real (this would be death), but rather just ‘little pieces’ of the Real, unexpected disturbances in consciousness, things heretofore known to be impossibilities. Such disturbances are thus in a sense ‘untrue truths,’ ‘unreal realities.’ The particular pattern of the subject’s circling around these impossibilities is the subject’s ‘symptomal torsion,’ the changes in its movement – literal and figurative – within (symbolic) space.

Back to the story above: can we detect an impossible trauma as the cause of the woman’s frankly symptomatic interaction with me in the coffee shop? She obviously thought it was urgent to correct my behavior, to make me feel guilty – wrong, and therefore culpable – for giving money to the homeless man. I had already acted out of guilt when I gave him money; was it really necessary for her to make me feel guilty for feeling guilty?

Perhaps she saw my decision to act the way I did as a threat to her understanding of the way things should happen. But more importantly, I threatened her enjoyment: the way I acted suggested that one might rightly give money to a homeless person; if it were suggested – by my action, or by someone’s political activism, etc. – that her narrativized understanding of the way society works were wrong, how would she feel?

Would she herself not begin to feel guilty for choosing not to give the money to the homeless? Was she not, in this particular situation, attempting to avoid feelings of sadness and guilt by convincing herself – and imposing her manner of seeing the world on me – that she had acted rightly in deciding not to give money to the homeless man?

By rushing to tell me what I should have done differently, she thus sadistically kept tabs on me, restricting my freedom by pulling me into her vulnerable understanding of the world in order to make it less vulnerable, containing the threat my action/belief posed as a traumatic excess for her, a thing not understood, a possibility outside the realm of possibility…

This brings me, lastly, to the question that got me on this train of thought: how does she know that the homeless man will spend the money on cigarettes? Has she ever bothered to follow a homeless person and watch what they buy? To be sure, this is fictionalization at its purest: one is to assume that all homeless people spend their money that way, in order to reassure oneself that one is in the right when choosing not to give money to the homeless.

In this way, one’s guilt is displaced onto the big Other, taken care of by the societal narrative, so that one doesn’t have to confront the problem on one’s own.

But more than just preventing an uncomfortable feeling of guilt, this narrative functions to protect the subject from the slightest annoyance. That is, the protection is not simply from the guilt of choosing not to give money, but from the annoyance of having to make a choice at all, having to go through the – however brief – agony of making a choice, which implies considering alternatives, such as that one might be wrong – or, in the extreme, that there should even exist something at all to make one feel uncomfortable in a certain situation: “Why can’t I just be left alone?”

Is this not also the state of things in liberal societies? “Tolerance” is not about accepting people into the fabric of society, making that society more diverse. What tolerance does it to keep people at a proper distance so that we don’t have to be bothered by them.

Liberalism’s “leave me alone” policy toward government is therefore its same policy with respect to social life: feel free to do what you want, to celebrate your ethnic culture, your sexual orientation, etc., but don’t go too far: it’s okay if you’re Hispanic, but why can’t you speak English?; it’s okay if you’re gay, but why do you have to be so flamboyant?; it’s okay if you’ve lost your job and you’re financially destitute, but for God’s sake don’t disturb my enjoyment by coming into close contact with me, by asking me for change.

In other words, join our (notion of) society as we want you to see it. Otherwise, you risk showing society for what it actually is, complete with its traumas and symptoms.

The basic message of the video above is obvious: “The Green Dragon” (ecologism) is ‘spiritual deception’ for Christians; ‘its twisted view of the world elevates nature above the needs of people, of even the poorest and the most helpless;’ the Dragon’s ‘destructive control’ of the cultural landscape extends into the most important political spheres, is ‘seducing your children in our classrooms,’ etc.

But the sad truth of this cliché right-wing religious response to the environmental catastrophe is that liberalism’s response to the ecological crisis really does ignore the needs of the poor and the oppressed. My assertion here is that, as Zizek points out in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (a reference to Marx), liberal-democratic capitalism may (though probably not) be able to overcome three of the four most prominent threats to humanity, which are simultaneously threats to the functioning of capitalism itself –

(1)   the destruction of external nature (ecosystems).

(2)   the destruction of internal nature (the privatization and corporatization of our own bodies, of genetic material; the robotic revolution and technological takeover of the human body; ‘post-humanism’ – on this, see Donna Haraway’s utterly ridiculous A Cyborg Manifesto).

(3)   the privatization of other areas of the public sphere, of the internet and the intellectual goods that belong to the commons (e.g., the strange notion of ‘intellectual property’).

Capitalism may be able to surpass these threats to its functioning and convince even skeptics that it really is the best we can do, really is the most just way of constructing society, etc., but it cannot solve the problem of slums, of poverty, of the dichotomy of inclusion and exclusion: this is inherent to its very nature.

And so what we should see, beyond the clichés in the “Green Dragon” video, is what it can tell us about the flaw of liberal capitalism: ‘its twisted view of the world elevates nature above the needs of people, of even the poorest and the most helpless.’ In other words, it can only focus on the problems of the environmental catastrophe, and of the other major threats mentioned above, at the cost of exposing its fundamental flaw, that of the generation of inequality based on private property and worker exploitation, a flaw which (as we see above), is easily exploitable in the hands of right-wing ideologues.

Indeed, what should make us worry about the ideological position(ing) of this video is not only the obvious adherence to religious authority and the denial of genuine, rational political efforts to curb what is surely the worst crisis in human history, but also the argument for the excluded masses, for the poor which capitalism leaves out. For however senseless this video is, there is something appealing in it — some would say — and it is precisely this call for a return to human welfare, to the satisfaction of basic needs and of a community of values.

So what should worry us is that the ideology expressed in the video actually does have a point. What the Left must do in response, then, is not simply argue against right-wing policy on the basis of the simple distinction between rationality and religiosity, on the distinction between ‘insane’ ideological positioning and ‘true’ or ‘sensical’ liberal-democratic discourse – surely this is just a straw-man argument, just a dramatic oversimplification and irresponsible glossing of the actual ideological claims? What we should rather do is to accept the challenge as genuine, as a sincere expression of populist sentiment which, if left in the hands of the right, has the destructive potential of any proto-fascist community.

In other words, the threat from the right-wing is real, but its populist sentiment is not to be dismissed as an immature or unthinking commitment to ideology – rather, we must see in this movement against ecologism (which, Green Dragon notwithstanding, does pose its own threats to human agency) a rightful claim to basic human rights, to equality, to wealth distribution, etc.: the much-maligned decline of the Left – the collapse of its political weight and the inability of its leaders to construct a coherent ideology – is a result of this narcissistic, off-hand dismissal of ‘populist’ uprising on the basis of an unthinking commitment to the Left’s own institutional norms, which themselves perpetuate a distinction of classes, a social hierarchy, a self-righteous smugness…

I think Zizek has it right when he says that we have seen the normative functioning of the political inhere in three distinct varieties throughout modernity: (1) the idiotic, conservative return to the pre-modern injunction, “Obey, don’t think!”; (2) the hyper-rational endless interpretative mode of ‘post’-modernism a la Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, et al., with the motto, “Don’t obey, think!”; and (3) Immanuel Kant’s inauguration of the Enlightenment with his original modernist prescription, the categorical imperative, which is today more important than ever — that is, “Obey, but think!”…. In other words, a committed faith/belief/obeisance is constitutive of every properly political and moral act, so rather than dismiss as mere populist irrationality those movements which enjoin their subjects to obey an ideology, one should do some difficult intellectual work and dig deeper to uncover the strategic core (and not be so smug as to assert one’s own infallibility): the thing to do today is to cultivate a society wise to the fact that any political ideal is already false, is already doomed to fail at the level of ‘reality.’

So we do not need perfectionism or obsessive analysis and an endless perusal of facts without normative judgment (values/norms are one thing, facts are another); we do not need to attempt to dis-burden ourselves of every ‘illusion’ or ‘bias’ (as though this is really possible), to relegate important political decision-making to scientific committees and ‘think-tanks’: rather, we need to confront dis-sensus with respect, to develop and debate our values through community-based, rational dialogue.

The move, then, is to obey a belief (ideology), but to do it in a thoughtful, sober, sincere, and strategic manner.

Edited July 30, 2001: Today I listened to an interview with Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute on Ecoshock radio. He made the interesting point that, whereas environmentalism has focused in the past on “saving the planet,” the focus now is just, plainly, “saving our civilization.” So maybe one way to counter the anti-green-movement propaganda above, specifically the claim that environmentalists put the needs of the planet before people, is to shift our thinking away from protecting nature and start thinking about the very real possibility that in a decade or two there could be world wars and failed governments, everyone struggling for resources once the economy collapses under its own weight. When the economy stops being able to keep up with the radical changes (failed crops, zero oil, depleted water supplies) brought on by changes in our planet’s natural forces, it will be obvious that the thing to save is humanity itself.