Begging in a welfare state – just neoliberal logic

If anyone in the 1970s had said that we were going to have beggars in the Swedish streets 40 years into the future, we would have presumed that some catastrophe, like a third World War, had to have taken place in between. But there are beggars here today, and the disaster that happened wasn’t a war but neoliberalism and globalization. And it’s not a few people shaking paper cups; they are deployed outside every supermarket and – particularly – at the doorstep of every liquor store (where the Swedish conscience already is sensitized).

It’s said that most of them are from Romania, and as EU citizens they are fully entitled to be here and try to make their living. The problem is that begging is so remote from Swedish social habits that there is no law saying anything about it. But there is an ongoing discussion on whether or not to ban begging.

We must go back to the 19th century to find visible begging in Sweden. Then it disappeared, but in the harshest years of the 1920s, poor people tried to get by through selling shoelaces and matchboxes in the streets. That was the closest we got to begging in that century. Until 1965 there was a law against vagrancy that could have been used for prosecution of beggars, but it was obsolete long before that year.

I think begging in most Swedish minds is a sign of a dysfunctional society. Poor people should be helped in more civilized manners. In the minds of neoliberals on the other hand, begging may be an example of private initiative, of people showing their will to take care of their own problems and not become a burden to society. On top of that, beggars serve as a warning to lazy people what can happen if they don’t accept the depressing and dirty jobs they barely are qualified for.

Neoliberalism didn’t just create the positive view on begging, it created the beggars themselves. Romania never was a rich country, but people were not left entirely by themselves in the old days, and they had no beggars. It was a poor but inclusive society. Then, like the other countries in eastern Europe, Romania was smashed to a pulp by the robber capitalism western powers introduce them to. The blessings of the free market shoveled most of eastern Europe back to the third world from which it came 70 years prior. And they all have a bumpy road back to some kind of normal standard.

The neoliberal “philosophy”, viewing the beggar as a responsible individualist, is of course self-serving for the wealthy, but is contrary to human nature. With Marx’ profound words (my translation): “A human is a zoon politicon (a political animal), which only in a society can isolate itself.” In the long run (provided the human species survives) socializing will defeat narcissism, firstly because it’s in accord with our deepest traits, secondly because it’s rational, thus follows from pure logic.

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