Category Archives: Poverty

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.

2015 – the year of human beings, or business as usual?

Looking forward  to what this new year will bring one may wonder if there indeed will occur some unexpected changes for the better in world affairs. For five hundred years we, the Europeans and our off-shoots, have held large parts of the world in a violent grip, mainly for the purpose of enriching and empowering ourselves.

We started by continuously slaughter each other in Europe, thus making war our favorite hobby. With development of modern weapons we got an upper hand globally, and made war a science. From that point on we started to afflict the world with unspeakable horror in order to enlarge and secure our imperialistic conquests.

As late as in my first years in school, some 60 years ago, imperialism was described as a benevolent enterprise, almost a sacrifice made by the white man to help and lift the bewildered herds. The fact that we blessed the poor savages with our civilization by enslaving and slaughtering them was not really recognized. Nor did we hear that our missionary work, much lauded by our teachers, was just a matter of exchanging one superstition for another.

We have in many ways continued to use blinkers to shade off the unpleasant consequences of our efforts to dominate the world. The prime concern has always been to keep the poor majority of people down (if necessary with mass killings). We used small elites in the conquered regions to ensure that wealth and recourses from around the world ultimately landed in the hands of our rich elite.

Our rampage naturally fostered resistance and uprisings. Up came “communism”, a repressive system perfect as a pretext for continued military actions against egalitarian movements wherever they appeared. We left millions of corpses on battlefields all over the world, and hundreds of millions more as a consequence of an economic system that deprived people of elementary living conditions. And we ended up praising ourselves as some kind of saints, affording the world “freedom, democracy and human rights”.

Blatantly racist colonialism’s prime time ended in the 1960s, leaving room for more indirect, but no less effective, means of domination. In just recent years these methods too have met successful resistance here and there, perhaps most significantly in South America. With the convenient pretext “Soviet Communism” gone there were further hopes for our violent tendencies to calm down, but such niceties doesn’t fit our epigenetic habits.

“Communism” had been “the single question”, the all encompassing phenomenon we had to aim all our military capacity against. But that turned out to have been a lie for 40 years. As soon as the Berlin wall fell, we (US supported by EU) started to create capitalist Russia as the new suitable target, first by seceding large parts from the former Soviet territory, then by expanding NATO into Russia’s borders and installing offensive missile bases in Eastern Europe.

Finally we reached Ukraine, and the probably much anticipated Russian reaction took place. Our warmongers, for all their different reasons, got the fodder they had longed for.

And that’s where we are today. Let’s see if reason, sensibility and consideration can play a part this coming year 2015.

The economic life as a marbles game

When I was a kid every boy played marbles. Later my children did too, in their case with some girls also participating. It was an interesting schooling for the life to come.

The older guys had the most marbles to begin with, and at the end of the day the younger ones, less affluent, usually had lost the few marbles they had started out with. The older ones were also the strongest, so the outcome of any controversy about rules and other conflicts was given beforehand.

The reward for the small guys was the privilege to get to play with the big guys in the first place. And the fairness of it all lay in the fact that the younger ones one day became the older ones, thus able to retaliate for past inequities, bringing home large bags of marbles.

This game is a parable for life, except that in reality those who are poor from the start seldom get the chance to ever come on top, regardless of age. The well-offs in the world have the upper hand all the way, and the richer countries can indefinitely dominate the poorer and dictate terms.

This inequity plays out in trade rules. “Free trade” is a core concept seemingly promising the poor nations shelter under the umbrella of the rich world, which undertakes to open its borders to share its wealth. But just as in the marbles game, where the rules are the same for all, the real outcome is decided by wealth and strength.

The economic “sciences” provide convenient theories to prove that free trade brings prosperity to all. In the real world it’s an instrument serving above all the already rich nations. The most powerful are served the most. It’s no difference from the situation within nations: the rich have the most bargaining power to acquire even more wealth.

The mechanisms by which businesses in rich countries can use “free trade” to enhance their predominance are often equally simple and horrendous. One basic step is to overflow developing countries with cheap, heavily subsidized agricultural products. Thus imperialistic agribusiness effectively wipes out domestic farmers, and forces them to enroll the army of unemployed, serving foreign-owned industries with labor forced to work for pennies.

Absence of tariffs gives businesses in the industrialized world the opportunity to establish workshops in poor countries and profit handsomely on minimal wages. One result of this can easily be found in the numerous rust belts in the rich world, where material destruction leads to destitute societies where people lose hope.

Modern imperialism also uses free trade agreements to avoid all kinds of regulatory constraints, such as environmental regulations, laws ensuring workers security and other kinds of “unnecessary” obstacles to the ever growing profits. Other absurd clauses give corporations the right to sue countries that enforce laws which restrict possibilities to make profit.

The Nation provides a comprehensive and revealing text on the consequences for Central America of the free trade agreement DR-CAFTA. Recommended reading!