Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Being Poor: Poverty and Society

Comparing societies around the world and throughout time, a number of distinctions emerge. One of them is this: in some societies, wealth and poverty are viewed as permanent conditions. In such societies, it is assumed that people who are poor will always be poor, and people who are rich will always be rich. Similarly, the wealthy in such societies accumulate influence, power, control, and alleged authority, forming plutocracies. Hence the proverb, "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

But in other types of societies, the permanency and inevitability of one's social class has been dismantled. The possibility of a transition from poverty to wealth, or from affluence to impoverishment, exists in principle for each individual. The concept of social mobility frees humans from a sense of irrevocable fate, even as it introduces a sense of risk for those who possess material wealth.

Paradoxically, in exactly those societies in which the poor have a chance at escaping poverty, there is a heightened awareness of social class. In societies with the possibility of social mobility, one is more aware of one's status as rich or poor, precisely because it is variable, and because one must take care about it. By contrast, in those societies which view poverty or wealth as an inevitable lot, the poor and the wealthy take their situations for granted and are less aware of them.

This can be seen to some extent in the comparison of Moses and Hammurabi. The Babylonian king Hammurabi presided over a society which was largely fixed: those born into the upper class would remain there, and those born into the lower class could not even conceptualize that their condition could ever change. Yet Moses represents a different worldview: a conceptual framework in which slaves could escape slavery, form their own society, and live as autonomous and free in their own land.

French scholar Jacques Ellul notes a corresponding difference in concepts of deity: a distant god who irrevocably assigns humans to their fates, or a God who creates humans with the ability to make meaningful and consequential choices about their lives:

Similarly, and as part of the same process, the West brought about the division of societies and the world into rich and poor. Please note, however: I am not saying that there had not been rich and poor earlier and in other parts of the world. The point is, rather, that everything used to be so organized that wealth and poverty were stable states, determined (for example) by the traditional, accepted hierarchy, and that this arrangement was regarded as due to destiny or an unchangeable divine will. The West did two things: it destroyed the hierarchic structures and it did away with the idea of destiny. It thus showed the poor that their state was not something inevitable. This is something Marx is often credited with having done, but only because people are ignorant. It was Christianity that did away with the idea of destiny and fate.

Ellul further notes that there is a detectable difference in history between those who merely use the word 'Christian' to cloak their own selfish desires with the mantle of respectability, and those on the other hand who sincerely engage in the concepts taught by Jesus. In blunt terms, 'fake' Christianity has been used to justify efforts to keep the poor 'in their place,' while true followers of Jesus have been about the work of helping the oppressed find escape from their misery.

Doubtless there have been Christians who used the notion of "God's will" to determine the order of the world and the distribution of wealth and wretchedness. But that is a deviation from true Christian thought (as Stalin was a deviation from Marx), and in any event it could not suppress the self-assertion of freedom itself. Marx made the Christian line of thought his own and reasserted the authentic message; he is unthinkable without the Christian infrastructure. He is utterly representative of the West in everything he wrote.

In addition to highlighting Marx's Christian antecedents, Ellul points out that the entire spectrum of different types of revolutions are founded on the assertion, by Jesus, that humans were not governed by arbitrary fortune. There is irony in the fact that many of these revolutions, some successful and some not, cast themselves as explicitly anti-Christian, while operating in fact on premises articulated by Jesus.

Once Christianity had destroyed the idea of destiny or fate, the poor realized that they were poor, and they realized that their condition was not inevitable. Then the social organisms that had made it possible to gloss over this fact were challenged and undermined from within.

This notion of a revolution, which has brought benefits to people when well-executed and brought misery to them when poorly conceived, is a product of Western Civilization. Through a long train of events, the Hebrews conceptualized freedom as no other society had previously done, the Greeks systematized such freedom and designed societal institutions to realize it, the Romans actualized and put those institutions into practice, and European culture developed a worldview and artistic traditions to ensconce this notion of freedom.

To be sure, all of this was done impurely. As James Madison noted, men are not angels. European culture has been guilty of exploitation. Yet it was the only culture to articulate liberty. Thus any critique directed at European culture is a critique based on European values. If we point out that Western Civilization has been at times unjust, it is only by a Western standard of justice that this claim makes sense. Ellul writes:

Against all this background we can see why the whole idea of revolution is a western idea. Before the development of western thought, and apart from it, no revolution ever took place. Without the individual and freedom and the contradictory extremes to which freedom leads, a society cannot engender a revolution. Nowhere in the world — and I speak as one with a knowledge of history — has there ever been a revolution, not even in China, until the western message penetrated that part of the world. Present-day revolutions, whether in China or among the American Indians, are the direct, immediate, unmistakable fruit of the western genius. The entire world has been pupil to the West that it now rejects.

When the charge is leveled, that in some instance, representatives of Western Civilization were guilty of torture, all are outraged, and none more so than the inhabitants of Western Civilization. Those in other civilizations are less surprised when any hierarchy - East or West - uses torture. In fact, in those civilizations, torture is blithely assumed to be one of the proper tools a government may use when carrying out justice.

Only those exposed to, and influenced by, Western Civilization are outraged at torture. Any critique of the West, based on the fact that in some instances, representatives of the West may have used torture, is a critique which can be carried out only by accepting the values of the West.

The same is true if the West is criticized because it, in some cases, may have failed to offer freedom of speech or political liberty. Such critiques, true as they are, are based only on values found exclusively and solely in the West.