Apologies to Marocharim, but the poor generally turn to the compassionate not out of some great appreciation for “christian values” but out of a mercenary realization that the compassionate are easier targets for puppy dog eyes and open sores.
– “The Poor Vote”
March 16, Smoke.ph
My motto in whatever passes for “social analysis” is simple: when confronted with a problem, fuck things up. It’s not that overwrought explanations are more accurate or more impressive; it’s just that there’s no such thing as a simple social problem. Like poverty, for example. Last time, I wrote about the middle class, which was kinda interesting enough to make me stop translating Linkin Park lyrics for one day. So to make me stop making lyrics translations, the mind-fuck is sorta necessary.
Rom makes a very interesting point in her entry yesterday regarding the differences between rural and urban poverty. The generalization may be a bit hasty, but not completely wrong either; if anything, personal responsibility may have a lot to do with financial security. Bleeding-heart that I am, I think that her statement on the “mercenary realization” becomes a mind-fuck.
So instead of making my heart bleed, let me make my nose bleed.
There’s always an interplay between agents and structures, and values make up a great part of things we value. How we create those values – and how we are created by those values – has a lot to do with the context by which those values take place (the magic word: “context”). I think that in the dichotomy of rural and urban poverty, there are two things that should be kept in mind:
- “Rural areas” in general are defined by “production.”
- “Urban areas” in general are defined by “consumption.”
Hmmm… this is interesting. OK, this is quite long.
For all intents and purposes, broad categories can make things simple; not that they summarize, but they’re just convenient. I’m not saying that only rural areas produce, and only urban areas consume. Everything in this world is pretty much production and consumption: food, utilities, information, population, romance, and so on and so forth. How this equates to resources and political choices, however, may be something interesting… if not a blinding flash of the obvious.
If you live in a rural area, you’re pretty much oriented towards producing resources. The poorest of the poor in a rural area need not starve; there are plots of land by which one can produce food, and that the spirit of community is pretty much the glue that binds that place together. This stems from the assumption that class stratifications are still on the kind of plateau where you all produce (farming and fishing, for example). In Ilocos, for example, there’s this practice called “padigo,” where you get to share viands and meals with people who have none, with the implicit assumption that in times where you’re in dire need, the person who received the food will reciprocate. It revolves not only around self-reliance, as Rom points out, but also reciprocity. It’s not necessarily altruism or compassion, but that’s the way things are done.
If you live in an urban area, you’re pretty much oriented towards consuming resources. The poorest of the poor in an urban area have no other choice but to starve; you can’t plant anything on concrete, and self-interest is what makes the urban centers go round. This stems from the assumption that class stratifications are striated enough to accomodate things like promotions in the corporation or the factory, and you’re pretty much left to your own devices in a society defined by supermarkets and shopping centers. There’s a lot of self-reliance in the urban centers – if not that urban centers are almost wholly defined by self-reliance. However, many of the poorest of the poor in urban areas are those who come from rural areas. The values clash, and it takes a while for the realities of an alienated and differentiated culture of urban life to set in.
Reading This Is Optional
Let me turn the jargonating name-dropping theory-invoking machine on and gather, draw out, and fuck up whatever memory of social anthropology that I have in my head. I’m not claiming a monopoly of knowledge, but I am claiming a monopoly on the stream of my thoughts. These are nothing more than bastardizations and oversimplifications of theories, of course.
Ferdinand Toennies when he made a distinction between “Gemeinschaft” (community) and “Gesellschaft” (society). Consider:
- In Gemeinschaft, you have a very simple system of division of labor, social institutions, and an emphasis on familial and familiar relationships. Gemeinschaften has little need for external social control mechanisms (i.e., the national government); not that they don’t need it, but that the relationships are strong enough for the way of living to go on the way it has always been (read: the emphasis on tradition).
- In Gesellschaft, you have a very complicated and striated system of division of labor, social institutions, and an emphasis on self-interest and success. Unity and social control in Gesellschaften is defined by external forces, and a very complicated system of division of labor (i.e., government and corporations); what makes these systems necessary is to strengthen the relationships, or even enforce them, for the way of living to go on as it should be (read: the emphasis on progress).
Let’s make this even more complicated than it should be. Emile Durkheim (and here we go, I now highly recommend poking people at Facebook) makes a distinction between two forms of social solidarity. Again, these are bastardizations and oversimplifications, but consider:
- Mechanical solidarity (rural areas) are in great part defined by a very strong collective conscience. A society defined by mechanical solidarity relies largely on familial and territorial relationships, collective authority, and oriented towards the interests of the group.
- Organic solidarity (urban areas) are in great part defined by a very strong individual orientation. A society defined by organic solidarity relies largely on individual initiative, human interests, consensus, and oriented towards the idea that individuals make up the sum of the parts of society.
And… Let’s Proceed
Categories work where categories matter; there’s no such thing as a society defined exclusively by either Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft, or is characterized by mechanical and organic solidarity. All too often, societies and communities are mixtures of ideal-types like these. Yet the existence and prevalence of poverty should always take place in the norms and structures of things brought out and assimilated into the “soup” of rural and urban life. Like values, for example: many of the poorest of the poor in urban areas come from rural areas, bringing with them some values like sharing and reciprocity into urban areas.
In “pakikipagsapalaran” – that exodus where people risk their survival in the name of fortune – values are carried along with the voyage. The poorest of the poor are often the survivors of this day-to-day exodus, people who carried values and norms and traditions with them along with their suitcases and stuff. (Well, technically, every single person in the city has an immigrant story.) In the city, a whole new different set of values come into play; values brought in are drowned out and subverted and changed by values that have developed in the urban areas. Without people to rely on, when left to your own devices, with a limited education, you’re pretty much damned to be poor with a small window of opportunity to succeed. The ever-so-often shunned, annoying beggar who tugs at your sleeve is, in more ways than one, just another victim of a conflict between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, mechanical and organic solidarity, the urban and the rural.
This is where I have to very respectfully disagree with people who think of poverty in terms of Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs;” people define and achieve their needs, all right, but so do structures outside of them. Remember that agents interplay with agents, agents interplay with structures, structures interplay with structures, structures interplay with agents. Our fortunes – whether it’s economic or even romantic – are things we define; at the same time, they are defined by systems and contexts larger than us.
An Indelible Line Left Drawn
That is why I have to very respectfully disagree with people who say that poverty is strictly a personal situation: the argument that your fortunes rest exclusively in your own hands is laudable and agreeable, but it does not take into consideration that a lot of our fortunes are also defined by things larger than us. I’m not saying that the poor are blameless and should be elevated to sainthood – it is nothing short of a sin to sniff rugby if your kids don’t have food – but that poverty is as much a fault (if not more) of the System as it is of individuals. Rom’s opinion and evaluation of the situation, while correct and agreeable, does not consider the most important thing about poverty which many of us choose to ignore: context.
At the end of the day, this mind-fuck should show us that the poor turn to the compassionate not necessarily because of mercenary realizations, not because of a great appreciation of “Christian values,” but because of an appreciation of values. The reason why people beg – and the reason why people give or choose not to give – are all part and parcel of that interesting fruit salad of values that come from somewhere, that somewhere being context. We can all talk about “personal contexts” all we want, but it’s important to remember that even these personal contexts take place in a larger context. And those larger contexts take place in even larger contexts.
While academics, development experts, economists, politicians and even mind-fuckers struggle to find a solution to poverty, I think we need to turn back to the statement above: an appreciation of values. That perhaps, even in this differentiated and jaded, perhaps even jaundiced world, there’s still a lot of room for us to go back to things like community and solidarity. While we need not give up the comforts of living or give up our own personal goals, we can reorient our values not only for our own good, but for the good of everyone who, to many degrees, influence and affect our lives as social beings.
A return to community… is that even possible? Well, that’s another story, I have a fever.