The Dawn: Sep 12, 2014

PUNJAB NOTES: Poverty: dignity and indignity

Mushtaq Soofi 

Poverty is something relative. One’s poverty is measured in relation to things possessed by others that have material value. If all have the same or similar things, however small in number, no-one is deemed poor in the socio-cultural sense.

Poverty becomes conspicuous in a society where some have too little while others have too much in terms of material possessions. Having too little or too much, when established as a politico-economic basis of defining the social relations, is the moment when possession expresses itself as undeniable power and lack of it reflects powerlessness.

Since power controls and directs the society, it inevitably comes to be equated with ‘dignity’ and the powerless, controlled and directed, automatically emerge as a symbol of ‘indignity’ because of their perceived intrinsic inability, which is in reality historically conditioned, to manage their affairs independently.

Economic poverty has been and still is the plague that human society hasn’t been able to get rid of despite the huge scientific and technological transformations that have increased the production of goods and services. But the real question is not that of production if we look at the social evolution.

Human society has always produced enough of what was essential in each phase of its unending journey. That is what has sustained it and that’s why it has constantly grown and developed. The real issue has always been and still is that of appropriation of production and its distribution.

Interestingly, all the institutions, economic, political, religious and social, extol the virtues of production but are extremely scared of addressing the issues of appropriation and distribution which egregiously display the root cause of poverty: inequitable sharing.

Ernest Mandel quotes a priest of medieval Europe who addressing a gathering of aristocrats had the courage to declare: ‘you are not thieves but what you eat is the fruit of theft’.

The fruit of theft is the staple diet that has nourished all the parasites bestowing them with political and social fat which makes the lean in their eyes lacking in dignity.

Feeling the unbearable weight of such a fat Lord Jesus warned; ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God’.

Why did prophets and philosophers, visionaries and revolutionaries, poets and artists throughout ages espouse the notion of dignity of poverty? To put it simply, persons with consciousness and conscience know that in a stratified society the upper crust takes away the best of what working people produce through the so-called legalized mechanism enforced by the institutions that safeguard its wide ranging illegitimate interests.

The wise by upholding the dignity of poverty identify themselves with the people who invariably happen to be poor because of the exploitative politico-economic structure. Such an attitude also has a spiritual dimension; people, the real makers of human world, are the receptacle of divinity.

Till recent times, before the massive intrusion of crass consumer culture, poverty was not considered to be a source of such an indignity. A poor teacher was respected for his knowledge and an artisan for his skills.

A wise poor could head the jury set up to settle the disputes between individuals/groups having higher economic status than his. A low-ranking worker like ‘Mirasi/Bhatt’ (family bard/keeper of tribe’s genealogy) could be assigned the delicate task of finding suitable matches for the sons and the daughters of elitist families.

And our greatest saints and intellectuals either lived poor or lived among the poor. Baba Farid, Baba Guru Nanak, Madho Lal Hussain and Bulleh Shah owned nothing and possessed nothing. They lived with what Saint Francis begged the Lord to grant him, ‘the treasure of sublime poverty’.

Saint Francis subverted the meaning of ‘treasure’ and what it stood for. So has done the global capital with the word ‘poverty’.

It has divested poverty of its layered suggestiveness; its association with some of greatest minds the world ever produced and an utter negation of majority of people forced to stay deprived of the benefits of their production that creates riches.

Poverty, the corporate world touts the view, is a result of individual inability, a personal failure rather than an outcome of an unjust politico-economic structure, muddling the fact that things material and immaterial that bring prosperity elsewhere are produced by the poor.

Poverty being a sign of personal failure implies the intrinsic deficiency of the poor. Hence it is a stigma. The only way for the poor to remove the stigma, it is suggested, is to be able to buy more of their own produce, tangible and intangible, appropriated by the corporations.

On the other hand the economic policies are designed to keep the poor in perpetual cycle of poverty, rendering them unable to buy what is considered riches.

In the globalised world now things are the measure of man, not the other way round. The corporate notion of poverty is in fact a poor notion that measures man solely in terms of tangible possessions, deliberating depriving the dispossessed of their sense of dignity, for what is dignity if not creative and productive faculty, found abundantly among the poor. —

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