We all know, thank goodness, that racism is a crime and the mother of crimes, and many of us are prepared to demonstrate against it. The horrific murder of George Floyd has aroused anger amongst black people in the USA but also amongst people of all skin colours and in many parts of the world. A history of oppression is being held up so that it can be seen, judged and challenged. I wrote recently on this site about the systematic dishonouring of black women men and children by the institutions of most nations in the world, including, for example the UK and and China, as well as the USA. Steady, costly opposition will be needed to remove this blight and to liberate its victims, but the effort to do so is noble.
We all know, or should know, that poverty is a crime and the mother of crimes, affecting far more people than racism, ever since societies have existed, yet protest against it is at best weak and often altogether absent. The evident division across the centuries since the invention of cities is between the majority of people whose labour creates a surplus of material resources and the minority whose monopoly of violence allows them to live off that surplus. There are developments of this division over time – Karl Marx thought that the 19th century European development gave an opportunity for revolution- but it remains the most evident feature of most societies throughout the world today.
In some times and places the income of the labouring classes is sufficient for a human life – the UK of the 1950’s, Norway today, but in no place has the division been totally abolished: even so-called communist or socialist regimes have perpetuated it, as for example between party and citizens, governors and governed. The advance of technology has increasingly created another a subdivision of people whose labour is not required for the creation of a surplus, and who are therefore dependent on state benefits, charity, slavery and crime.
Obviously, these extreme manifestations of poverty are seen mainly in poorer nations, but even here in reasonable wealthy Scotland, some of them exist unseen by most citizens, although an increasing number of charity workers, child protection staff and others, are becoming uncomfortably aware that the horrifying individual cases that they deal with, are part of a systemic social problem, the existence of poverty. Every day in our world the knee of poverty chokes the life out of many more people than racist thugs can kill. Poverty is one of punishments for having a skin colour that racist societies dislike.
Poverty, that is, the regular uncertainty of having the means of life, is still the condition of the majority of people in the world, and is increasing amongst the citizens of advanced capitalist states such as the USA and the UK, as witness the huge increase in the use of food banks in them. All over the world there are men who scavenge in waste dumps, women who prostitute themselves to earn food for their families, children who live and die in slums overflowing with sewage, whole communities whose expectation of life is a half of what wealthier communities expect. Even those whose labour provides them with an adequate income live with the constant anxiety of a disaster – illness, unemployment, violence, which will deprive them of income. For them there is no credit available except from those who want to harm them.
If we are being rightly asked to recognise racist people and institutions in our societies, why are we not being asked to waken up to the underlying division between rich and poor? And why is it, that even good people who have protested against racism, may become defensive and angry if asked to think about poverty? Racism it would appear is an evil human attitude, whereas poverty is a basic condition of humanity, possibly invented by God. The poor are not expected to protest, nor to have any right to protest, for they are thought to be at least partly responsible for their own deprivation. And anyway, poverty is just a fact of life.
At present we are beginning to realise why so many black people are angry. My wonder is that most poor people are not angry. They have been the object of violence, they have seen their lives and the lives of their children blighted by poor housing, inadequate diet, decreasing or non – existent public services, along with the suspicion and scorn of wealthier people. They are more frequently and completely dishonoured than those subjected to racism, and in fact often suffer from it as well.
I hope the day of their anger arrives. Meanwhile we who are not poor should refuse with all the passion we can muster, to live in acceptance of this division which degrades the lives of a majority of our brothers and sisters. We should in the UK be determined to sweep away the idle privileged trash who presently rule us, replacing them with a government that is determined to eradicate poverty. But if we are to do so by democratic means, we must create a new consensus that our whole society and every citizen of it, are so dishonoured by poverty that we will vote for its abolition regardless of any small disadvantage to ourselves.
As for those of us who belong to churches, our responsibility was marked out long ago by the Hebrew prophets:
The word of the Lord
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.