The planet we live on has been arbitrarily divided into some two hundred nation states. In all of these states, the very richest and the poorest, there are people who die from the effects of poverty and, conversely, there are those who are immensely rich.
In the UK there is some disagreement about the number of people who die prematurely because they are poor, though the figure of an average of some four thousand per annum for hypothermia is generally accepted. For example, the death certificate may say ‘pneumonia’ in the case of an elderly person who in fact dies of hypothermia because their income does not allow them a sufficiency of food and heat to keep them alive. Again, there are thousands denied the necessary medication to keep them alive while life-long poverty itself has an incalculable effect on human longevity.
The singer, Elvis Presley, sang:
“If Living was a thing that money could buy,
Then the rich would live and the poor would die.”
In actual fact, the rich do live on average longer and, certainly, better lives and in millions of cases every year throughout the entire world of capitalism, the poor do die, not because the food, medicine or shelter they need is not available but because they are poor; because they do not represent a market that promises profits for capitalism.
Same economic regime
Admittedly, the numbers who die of poverty diseases in most of the developed countries are minuscule by comparison with the tens of thousands who die every single day in those very ‘poor’ countries that are normally referred to as ‘undeveloped‘ or ‘developing’. Still, someone dying from the effects of poverty or medical neglect in this country or, say, the USA, is a victim of the same economic regime that causes that horrible phenomenon that the media refer to as the ‘Third World’.
In a grotesque way, it is comforting to think of the ‘Third World’ as a number of far-away geographic locations. It gives people in the developed world a sense of misplaced gratitude to think that, however bad things might be where they are, they are worse in other places. As we have noted, the numbers vary dramatically between the ‘poor’ nations and the ‘rich’ ones but the basic problem, the reality of riches and poverty, demonstrates that ‘Third World’ syndrome is a general economic consequence of capitalism rather than specific parts of the earth.
According to one United Nations Human Development Report, four men between them own more wealth than forty-seven of the poorest nations on earth. The same report claims that a mere four percent of the aggregated wealth of three of these men could provide food, clean water, medication and basic education for all those currently denied these necessities.
The problem, then, seems to be a simple one: there are a number of greedy bastards holding the very lives of millions of people in their hands. The UN Report mentions only four of these but there are hundreds of billionaires – people who have ownership of wealth in excess of one thousand million dollars – in the world.
So a chastising lecture on charity to these ‘greedy’ people and a whip round with plastic buckets, and the problem of world hunger could be resolved in a flash. That is what the myriad competing charities imply when they seek alms except that most of their donations come from the poor. At another level, that is what reformist political parties traditionally aimed to do by taxation and the argument seems justified when we consider what could be done with a mere four percent of the wealth of three of the billionaires. There are thousands of fabulously rich people who, however extravagantly they live and whether or not they engage in any useful activity, are likely to continue to get richer for the rest of their lives.
But the problem does not reside with greedy bastards nor can it be resolved either by charitable donations or by the action of reforming governments. The problem is caused by the economic system which gives rise to the rich, the millionaires and billionaires, and as a consequence, also gives rise to those who endure mere want or deadly, killing poverty.
Charity is a popular, and we have to say, a cynical pastime for the rich. Lady Layabout’s charity ball is an important item on the social calendar, like croquet on the lawn. Sometimes it may take the form of a fashion show where the well-heeled can see the sort of clothes only they can afford. The residual funds from these expensively organised, posh affairs may be donated to the deserving poor where it will no doubt offer momentary, ephemeral relief to some facet of poverty. Nowadays the charity industry – itself a big employer of labour – has proliferated and diversified but so, too, have the problems.
Not so dumb
Of course it is easy to think of a person with billions or even millions of pounds, euros or dollars as a greedy bastard. That person lives on the same planet as the rest of us; he or she knows about world hunger, about the extremes of lifestyles between themselves and the overwhelming majority around them. They can’t be so dumb as to believe they could have earned their fabulous wealth by doing what the rest of us have to do, selling our mental or physical labour power for a wage or salary, and they know that however idly and extravagantly they live, their wealth is likely to continue increasing.
But they do not face a moral dilemma, nor should they. In a way, indeed, they are like the millions of poor people who dream about winning the lottery, except that in the case of the rich capitalists they have their own moral apologia and the power through their wealth to enforce that apologia on the rest of society.
Investment with a view to profit and capital accumulation is the powerhouse of capitalist society; without investment, production and distribution would stall, workers would have no jobs. This is the reality of capitalism from which springs the justifications that capitalists advance for their system.
Acceptance of those justifications is general and almost unchallenged throughout capitalist society. Media, churches, politicians, et al sing the praises of the ‘job creators’ ; nobody but the socialist questions motive or points out that capital invests in job creation purely for the purpose of generating profit through the exploitation of workers and that capital disinvests and relocates if it can find a place where it can intensify that exploitation. That is the nub of the question, not whether or not the millionaires and billionaires are moved by the miseries they create to give sums large or small to charity or whether they are forced by taxation to effect some amelioration of those miseries.
Riches and poverty are two sides of the same relationship and can only be ended when that relationship is ended; when society takes over the ownership and control of the means of wealth production and distribution and institutes a system of social organisation in which production and distribution are democratically administered in the interests of the needs of society as a whole.
As far as blaming ‘greedy bastards’ is concerned we workers should remember that capitalists are not in a position to effect real change even if they wanted to – which, of course, they don’t. Only the majority, the working class, can do that.