On Poverty Shaming: Capitalism’s Favourite Sleight of Hand.

Photo Source: The Conversation, 2017.

The greatest deception in history is not the mythological Trojan Horse, Hannibal’s double envelopment at Cannae, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, or those sneaky WMDs somewhere in the general direction of Iraq. No, no I believe humanity’s most impressive deception is still ongoing and has been since capitalism’s inception. The marvelous magic trick I speak of is how the establishment convinced you that the poor are the problem. It’s not the system, you see? The system is working fine and people are struggling because they don’t try hard enough. That man passed out in the gutter just needs a shower and a solid resume. The single mother with 3 jobs just needs to get off her ass and get 4 jobs. The heroin addict needs to stop doing heroin and start going to Yale. See? It’s all gravy. Seriously though, how the heck did we start thinking like this? How did ignoring systemic problems and blaming suffering peoples become the norm? Those in power have mastered this not-so-subtle manipulation for hundreds of years and I think it’s about time we acknowledge our folly and attempt to make amends. Let us stop slapping the change cup out of working class hands and instead cast our blame on the real enemy.

Photo Source: The Mindful Word, 2014.

Why should you give a shit? You ain’t homeless and you’ve got enough financial security to be sitting there reading this so why spend your time here? Simply put, we’re all ONE bad mistake from being homeless or just losing everything. Capitalism is not forgiving and was never designed to have safety nets. You’re one good high away. You’re one bad relationship away. You’re one risky investment away. Unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, we all are dangling on the precipice with a shiny boot stomping on our fingers. Your empathy for those suffering shouldn’t be based purely on lived experience anyway, but rather it should come from the heart and the acknowledgement that it could be you tomorrow. Wouldn’t you want to meet compassionate people in your time of need instead of venomous derision or indifference? You should care because the system couldn’t care any less about our friends below the poverty line.

Beyond solidarity, I have personal reasons for discussing this topic. I have experienced or witnessed my family and friends at various stages of the working poor. My mother collected welfare to support us after leaving her abusive partner. My father was punished by the State and thrown in prison for drug possession. I have friends who have ended up on the street as teenagers and many as adults through addiction, family issues, or the lack of affordable housing. Finally, I now work several days a week at one of the busiest homeless shelters in my city and see the cost of our system firsthand. Welfare, drugs, homelessness, and job insecurity are symptoms of a broken system and should not be seen as shameful, but everything here is seen that way by modern critics of poverty. To them, my mother should be ashamed for leeching off the system, my father shouldn’t have done drugs in the first place, my friends made the choice to end up on the street, and every client I serve did this to themselves through bad decisions. Poverty shaming, whether it’s toward individuals or families, is counterproductive to revolution and we should offer our hands instead of pointing fingers.

“Poverty and Wealth” by William Powell Firth (1888)

How did we start blaming struggling peoples for society’s problems instead of targeting the real pillars of injustice? The simple answer is the maintenance of capitalism demands that people “get in line” and abide by the rules. It also requires scapegoats who clearly don’t “toe the line” whom people can pin their blame on for clear failures of the system itself. Those below the poverty line are not abiding by these rules because they can’t contribute to the coffers in a way that’s satisfactory to the State. They are always going to be seen as a burden because it’s easier (and better financially) than actually helping them. For example, the person with 3 jobs who still can’t pay for their bills will be told to get a 4th job, but then condemned for being a workaholic. The drug user who is injecting with a clean needle in a safe injection site will be seen as a parasite for using the site, but won’t be commended for being safe and potentially lessening medical costs for HIV or Hep C treatments. The student who accumulated 50 grand in debt for a piece of paper (one that he needs to get the State-approved job) will be shamed for having debt because it’s a burden on the system. They CANNOT win! It will always be one thing or another that the politicians, pundits, celebrities and their toadies condemn you for. I mean they don’t have these issues at the top so it must not be a big problem then. Stop whining and clock in for your next 18 hour day, but don’t you dare claim medical expenses when you pass out from exhaustion. It’s like you ungrateful people don’t care what it’s doing to the company’s bottom line! In all seriousness, fuck capitalism’s mind games. Just come right out and say that we don’t matter if we’re not making 6 figures or above or are willing to work for practically free. The truth’s at least easier to digest than all of the lofty promises that never come to fruition.

Jamie Oliver and his 6 million pound mansion bought a few months after around 1000 of his employees lost their jobs at his restaurants, but fuck them right? Photo Source: Metro UK, 2019.

I mentioned celebrities because my favourite out-of-touch celebrity moment came from Jamie Oliver way back in 2013. In 2013, Jamie Oliver went on the Radio Times to promote his new television program “Money Saving Meals” and took this as an opportunity to shame working class families. Oliver, worth 240 million pounds as of 2019, said that he “cannot understand modern-day poverty in Britain” as people “eat chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers” while watching a big screen TV. Oliver was also saying that people should switch to local supermarkets instead of chains and that modern-day poor people “choose cheap fast food while spending their money elsewhere”. Let’s start with the TV rant. The argument of “poor people shouldn’t have luxuries because they’re poor and should be working 24/7 at not being poor” is a common one from the wealthy and their suck-ups. You don’t know how they got that TV, Oliver. Maybe it was a gift, maybe they saved money for one goddamn luxury in this world, but mostly it’s none of your fucking business. If they want to spend quality time together as a family in front of the TV, it’s none of your concern as a celebrity chef with a brand new mansion. As for supermarkets, capitalism forces local ones to compete just to stay afloat in the job market so their prices will often be remarkably higher than chain stores in order to make a tiny profit. It’s not always easy to switch when you’re counting pennies for every necessary purchase, but Jamie “I’m worth 240 million pounds” Oliver doesn’t need to worry about that issue. Jamie Oliver is far from the only celebrity who likes to take shots at those struggling, but his 2013 interview was a prime example of this disgusting mentality. As a nutritional advocate, I’m sure he won’t mind being first on the block when we inevitably eat the rich. We’ll be sure to pair him with a nice risotto and side salad to get some green on that plate.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/aug/27/jamie-oliver-chips-cheese-modern-day-poverty

https://diaryofareformedbootlicker.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/04ea486f32fc60261a15d13952462ab5.jpg?w=444

Celebrities are one thing. It’s easy for them to judge others while they are far away from the actual ravages of capitalism. However, I was inspired to write this post largely based on my interactions and observations of working class critics. I speak of our friends and neighbours that only see what’s right in front of them and won’t bother looking at the big picture in regards to social issues. Poor people are there because they chose to be there. There’s no concern as to why someone is on the street or working several jobs to make ends meet because it doesn’t affect them. When it does affect them superficially like a passed out individual blocking a door or an overworked food service employee getting their order wrong they’ll vent their frustration at the immediate cause instead of the systemic. These people are more likely to demand more police than more shelter beds. Their ideal world is threatened by the visual representations of inequality. These people live in constant denial of their own precarious lives and pray their willful obedience will be rewarded with a few extra inches of rope.

In my city, there have been several attack pieces on the City Council for their refusal to increase the police budget and hire more constables. I’m definitely no fan of the Council as their tourism and real estate priorities neglect real areas of concern in this city, but increasing police presence helps no one but the rich and the property owners. The demand for more policing is because of the increasing presence of homeless folks and crime in the downtown core, which to them is a detriment to both local enjoyment and tourism. Keep in mind that these complaints are often followed with accusations of one of our Councillors being a communist and more boomers complaining about bike lanes. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t demand safety in their towns, but more police definitely isn’t a safe option especially when ours are notorious for their treatment of homeless individuals. They once again attack at the sights in front of them instead of targeting the systemic problems that lead to homelessness. The majority of the working class critics aren’t out there demanding more shelter beds, more safe injection sites, or more mental health facilities. These folks instead appeal to the soldiers of the State to strike down the downtrodden because it’s the quickest way to sweep problems under the rug. A human being is probably being kicked out of a public park as we speak because they’re seen as offensive to the public’s eyes. It breaks my heart to even think about, but to the shallow critics among us it’s to be expected in a fair and just system.

Anti-homeless spikes in London. Photo Source: The Guardian, 2014.

Where does all of this anti-poor thinking lead us when the people/companies get tired of just pointing fingers? State violence begins and the people’s blinders get put on. Take for instance the use of hostile architecture to “prevent crime” in places like London where spikes, bolts, and slopes are used to keep people from sleeping or sitting. Homeless camps are met with the same hostility as we saw in East Vancouver 2017 when firefighters and police confiscated heaters and stoves leaving residents with no way to keep warm or heat food. This, of course, was under the guise of “public safety” and “fire hazards” so our dear working class critics were silent on the abuse. High pitch noise makers are now placed outside of some businesses in order to keep people from loitering, but primarily target the homeless. It’s not just businesses and the cops that abuse their place in the system, but cruel people use anti-poor bias to their advantage as well. In 2019 alone, there was the man in California who lit the boxes a homeless man was sleeping under on fire (Sept 2019), the Las Vegas man who sexually assaulted and beat a homeless woman (July 2019), Winnipeg’s Gabriel Coates was found dead in June 2019 due to second degree murder, 4 homeless men were bludgeoned to death in Manhattan (October 2019), and these are just 4 of many stories from just last year. People think they can get away with such brutality because their targets live in the margins of society. Serial killers, like Robert Pickton for example, used this public apathy to target sex workers because the general public and useless cops would barely notice/care about their absence. Your silence is a boon to the sick fucks out there who prey on the most vulnerable folks in our cities. Be an ally to the poor and downtrodden so that these monsters fear the backlash for their actions and have to think twice before abusing their power.

Officer kicking a homeless man outside of a Regina detox center in 2012. Photo Source: Filming Cops. 2016.

I now appeal to you, my friends. We live in an increasingly hostile world towards those under and approaching the poverty line and it’s very easy for us to get caught up in the anti-poor rhetoric. It doesn’t matter whether you are criticizing the drug user next door who lost custody of their child or you’re the goddamn Democratic Party labeling entire groups of people as poor, uneducated lowlifes, it’s all the same crap and this misplaced blame does nothing but divide us. Find the root causes of inequality and focus your anger on the people and institutions that exploit us for labour and profit and condemn our friends to lives of neglect and sacrifice. Target the people who protest low-income housing and harm reduction services. Boycott the companies that discriminate against homeless patrons. Stand up against abuses from cops and city officials and force them to acknowledge an innocent person’s right to live. I want to leave you with a quote from Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread “In our civilized societies we are rich. Why then are the many poor? Why this painful drudgery for the masses? Why, even to the best paid workman, this uncertainty for the morrow, in the midst of all the wealth inherited from the past, and in spite of the powerful means of production, which could ensure comfort to all, in return for a few hours of daily toil?” Kropotkin knew who the real villains were even in 1892 and it certainly wasn’t the beggars on the street or the workers toiling in the sun, so one wonders how we came to disregard working class solidarity in favour of shame. I ask for you to stand with each forgotten comrade who suffers in the cold shadow of capitalism. I believe the knowledge that even one person gives a damn about you can be the deciding factor between life and death for every one of us. True revolutionary movements do not begin with hatred, but rather it’s compassion that compels us to help friends we haven’t met.

Thanks for reading and I hope to see you all again. Solidarity, my friends.

X.S.

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