Friday, April 06, 2018

What Socialists Mean by Poverty

The number of people in Scotland living in poverty is a disturbing 20% (one million) and it provides an opportunity for politicians to blame other politicians for a problem. Holyrood blames Westminster, Westminster blames Holyrood. That is poverty defined as after housing costs, people are left with a household income that is below 60% of the national median? Can the fifth annual increase in the number of people in Scotland who are living this way be viewed as anything other than a problem?

The Socialist Party blames capitalism.

'What do YOU mean by poverty, then?' asked Easton.
'What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for
themselves all the benefits of civilization; the necessaries, comforts,
pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures,
music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good
and pleasant food.'
'If a man is only able to provide himself and his family with the bare
necessaries of existence, that man's family is living in poverty. Since
he cannot enjoy the advantages of civilization he might just as well be
a savage: better, in fact, for a savage knows nothing of what he is
 What we call civilization--the accumulation of knowledge
which has come down to us from our forefathers--is the fruit of
thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of
the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist
today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all.
Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is
clever or full, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no
matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other
respects, in one thing at least he is their equal--he is one of the
heirs of all the ages that have gone before.'
'Why is it,' continued Owen, 'that we are not only deprived of our
inheritance--we are not only deprived of nearly all the benefits of
civilization, but we and our children and also often unable to obtain
even the bare necessaries of existence?'
'All these things,' Owen proceeded, 'are produced by those who work. We
do our full share of the work, therefore we should have a full share of
the things that are made by work.'
'As things are now,' went on Owen, 'instead of enjoying the advantages
of civilization we are really worse off than slaves, for if we were
slaves our owners in their own interest would see to it that we always
had food and--'
'Oh, I don't see that,' roughly interrupted old Linden, who had been
listening with evident anger and impatience. 'You can speak for
yourself, but I can tell yer I don't put MYSELF down as a slave.'
'Nor me neither,' said Crass sturdily. 'Let them call their selves
slaves as wants to.'
At this moment a footstep was heard in the passage leading to the
kitchen. Old Misery! or perhaps the bloke himself! Crass hurriedly
pulled out his watch.
'Jesus Christ!' he gasped. 'It's four minutes past one!'
Linden frantically seized hold of a pair of steps and began wandering
about the room with them.
Robert Tressell, Ragged Trousered Philanthropist
So all workers are poor on Owen's first definition of poverty. But how many workers in Britain are poor on his second definition of poverty as lacking or only just getting the "bare necessaries of existence" (what might be better called "destitution")? Owen is giving two different definitions of poverty here. One, that someone is poor if they don't have access to "all the benefits of civilisation" and, two, that someone is poor when they can only access the"bare necessaries of existence".
The ambiguity arises with someone who has access to more than the "bare necessaries" but not to "all" the benefits of civilisation but only to some of them, e.g. from Owen's list to books, music, holidays.  Which is the situation of most workers today and always has been the position of some. This no doubt is what is behind the claim that most workes are not poor.
The Party used to get round this by drawing a distinction between "destitution" (access only to the socially-determined mimumum necessaries) and "poverty" (exclusion from ownership and control of means of production). This definition of "poverty" moves away from access to means of consumption to access to means of production, even if it goes against the popular usage of the term.
On Owen's second definition, most workers are not poor (only about 10-15% in Britain are). On Owen's first definition all workers are (as are many small business owners). On the definition the Party has used, all workers are too (but no small owners).
Agreed that what constitutes "the bare necessaries of existence" is socially-determined and in Britain will be higher now that it was over a hundred years ago in Tressell's time but I don't think we could get away with saying that a worker living in a centrally-heated house with two or three rooms, hot and cold running water, freezer, television, computer, mobile phone, three meals a day, etc is only getting the "bare necessaries of existence". Such a worker is only "poor" in the sense of being excluded from ownership of means of production and therefore forced by economic necessity to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary in order to live. Also, of course, in some parts of the world, there are people not getting enough to stay alive properly. Few people in Britain are in that position.

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