Someone says, “I support the poor”, the other replies, “…when I come back home I’ll try to remind you again (through links) how I always did [support the poor].”
Childish Facebook conversations aside, the question of the poverty and oppression and how it drives our moral decisions in societies overwhelmingly dominated by class differences, is an important one to investigate. These are two accomplished people, intelligent, cultured, and certainly well-intentioned, but in their attempt to claim a moral posture, they fail to notice their paradoxical statements. How can it be that someone who is part and parcel of the paradigms of power and production that first produced poverty and oppression (and then their many reincarnations) claim to support the impoverished and the oppressed. The simple answer to that question is a categorical, “No, they (we) can not.”
(Do note that this not an attempt at a serious exploration of the subject. I am less than qualified, and less than eager to foray into such territory. These are only a collection of subjective observations, personal opinions and reasoning, and should be read as such.)
Class-based societies are as old as civilization. A natural by-product of specialization in production, the fluctuating prosperity it brings, and the paradigms of power and production that they entail. Religions and ideologies are the intellectual expression of these paradigms, and thus they are the long-term guarantor of their survival. All modern societies are class-based, to varying degrees and forms. This is a matter of fact of the world we live in. Another matter of fact is that poverty and oppression are two powers that feed into each other. Oppression reinforces poverty, and poverty reinforces oppression, so when we speak of one, we are speaking of the other.
Human civilization as it is, encourages and is based on the excesses of power and production, or “wealth”. A society that encourages wealth, is one that has to oppress with other face of wealth, poverty. We are born into a dichotomy that has evolved since the beginning of time. We do not choose which side we’re born into, and from our infant years we are raised to be a part of this dichotomy, to accept it, and consequently to reinforce the dynamics implied by it.
The class struggle is the most important of said dynamics. In fact Marx goes to say that it is the very driving force of social evolution and of history itself, “The history of all hitherto existing human society is the history of class struggles,” he says. This struggle, so far, has been internal to that same dichotomy. It shifts classes, and rearranges them, but always within the strict boundaries of the dominant paradigms of its day. Attempts to break these boundaries, and externalize the struggle in order to create new paradigms date as far back as time as well and Marxism is but one intellectual approach to the subject.
Since its articulation as a political and economic ideology in the 19th century, it has expanded to explore other dimensions of the subject. Situationalism, and existentialism are probably the most prominent social theories that are related (not entirely, and to different degrees) to Marxism. I shall not expand on that further as it is of marginal importance to our specific question, except to remind the reader that attempts to break the dichotomy we live in, while still unsuccessful, have a prominent place in both the material and intellectual realm.
The moral dilemmas arising from such an enforced, inhumane and unnatural struggle are quite severe. Especially considering that these are matters of fact to many of us, for we do not choose to which parents we are born. We violently deny them, we inhibit the thought, and we come up with different ways to reach temporary cease-fires, so to speak. Charity, empowerment and aid, modern words for a modern age, are nothing but temporary cease-fires. But they reproduce the same conditions that feed into that dichotomy. They reproduce the same classes, in different shapes. They dare not even attempt to touch the paradigms of power themselves, in fact they reinforce them. But they also serve to diffuse the pressure building up inside such a closed ecosystem. Something I believe, Guy Debord referred to as the “Spectacle”.
It should come as no surprise then, that all religions, and ideologies are products and guarantors of the survival of that dichotomy. Within their absolutism, they reinforce the absolutism of the “Spectacle”. They speak of the oppressed, their alienation and suffering in absolute terms and consequently they dilute the class-struggle into a struggle between classes.
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”
It follows that the only way to really help the oppressed, and the impoverished is to fight against this dichotomy. In a sense, to join the oppressed and the impoverished, because that is the only place where such a fight really happens. Only the proletariate can break this cycle, because it is the one class which exists independently from the paradigms it is trying to replace. The fight against this dichotomy comes from the bottom, and it entails the destruction of the bourgeois as a class and of all the conditions that preclude its existence.
Some will point out examples where evolutionary ideas reached high levels of social equality and suggest these examples as valid models to replicate and build upon (e.g. northern Europe). But they need only be reminded of the hefty price the rest of the world had to pay for that “evolution”. Thus, a revolutionary, rather than an evolutionary context is both necessary (to have the destructive power needed to evaporate the dominant powers of history and culture) and implied in the end-result.
So, where does that leave us with regards to our main question? Where does that leave me?
Like every true revolution, one is either with or against, there are no neutral grunds. It is not easy to admit to oneself to being on the wrong side of history. Nor is it easy to change it. But it is a choice one makes, and to make an informed decision means to accept the consequences that come with it.
Chances are, excluding some unforeseen twists of fate, I will die on the wrong side of history too. And thus I have to admit to myself that I am not prepared, personally, to abandon my place, my (petty) luxury, and the system that allows me such luxury, in order to take an active part in that struggle. At the same time, I also choose not to delude myself as to where I stand, and that is as much a conscious choice as the first one. Which means to be fully aware, at all times, that my own luxury (my internet, hot shower, subway, etc.) is the direct consequence of someone else’s oppression.
Having said that, I am also not prepared to align myself with self-delusional and self-gratifying movements, ideas and attitudes that only reinforce this dichotomy. I am not prepared to play an active role in the reinforcement of these conditions. I am not prepared to be a part of this modern reincarnation of France’s “mission civilisatrice”, regardless of its intentions.
This is the compromise I find myself in. Passive, painful and, eventually, self-destructive as it may be. My only consolation is the knowledge that when, and if, the march of progress, of history and of the proletariate, reaches my doorstep, I will happily walk outside and place my own head in a guillotine.