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  • 10.21.15

You Are The Biggest Enemy In The Fight Against Poverty

Ask yourself honestly: Do you feel better about yourself knowing there are people worse off than you?

You Are The Biggest Enemy In The Fight Against Poverty
[Illustrations: kasezo via Shutterstock]

When Pope Francis addressed Congress on his recent visit, he offered something not unlike a Sunday homily, one that covered everything from religious freedom to immigration to environmentalism.

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The most moving remarks, however, were those that expressed the pontiff’s simple yet deeply profound concern for the problems of the world’s poor—problems, he believes, are the problems of the world.

“I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty,” he said from the congressional rostrum, serving for the first time in history as papal pulpit. “They too need to be given hope.”

The Holy Father is correct. They need our thoughts. They need hope, too.

However, if Pope Francis—and other world leaders for that matter—want to design an actionable solution to global poverty, they all must be willing to ask the hard questions, and the right questions. The pontiff seems to recognize that effective solutions will require structural change, both political and economic, but he must also openly acknowledge that the poverty problem has its roots in fundamental human nature.

To that end Pope Francis, and all who are compelled to combat economic injustice, would be well advised to model the problem in a way that allows us to apprehend the true, underlying reasons for what the pope has called the “disparities that condemn the world to hunger.”

Let us first accept the fact that every social problem is part of a chain of other, equally complex problems, many of them unseen or at least not clearly discernible. The role that a problem—poverty in this case—plays in the larger, global concatenation is what we at GreenHouse call its “parthood,” one of the attributes of our heuristic process for innovation, refined in consultation as Innovators in Residence at the University of Southern California, School of Social Work.

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A quick and easy way to discern parthood (pronounced PART-hood) is to view a social challenge from the outside in. Altering the point of view reveals different—sometimes radically different—insights and assumptions, and leads to new ways to consider the problem’s relation to the greater whole. Naturally, this affords an opportunity to interrogate the problem in a fundamentally different manner. For example, one may begin to pose questions about the consequences of the problem in the world at large, or, more tellingly, the consequences of a potential solution on actors who are connected through parthood, but not always related to or seen with the players at the center of the conversation—in this case, the poor.

Ask, for example, what influential group in a broader, crushingly competitive, capitalist construct would not be happy if economic parity were finally achieved, and poverty eradicated? One possible, if unpleasant, answer: the bourgeoisie. The haves, if you prefer.

Why? Possibly because life among the inherently competitive can be a zero-sum game—something economists, activists, and theologians routinely neglect to consider. In the economic systems that we have designed and created in our image, winners can’t win, certainly they can’t feel like winners, unless someone else loses.

Incendiary theorists of Liberation Theology label as “sinful” these economic systems and structures, and blame them as the causes of poverty. But these structures are not immoral or sinful—the people who design and maintain them are. We as individuals are driven by a primordial desire to get a leg up on someone else, especially in a capitalist system, where counting money and material goods is the easiest and most accepted way to keep score.

Capitalism doesn’t make us that way—our imperfect natures do. As such, injustice, corruption, and jealously will always find a way, no matter the ideology, no matter the ism.

Through the lens of parthood, we begin to discern the true nature and dimension of the problem; we also begin to see the futility of taking the fight over financial disparity to free-market capitalists and lawmakers on purely moral or ethical grounds. As every economist, Marxist or otherwise knows, there are no moral or ethical laws in a free market, there are only economic laws, and they are inviolable to those in charge: the bosses of a free-market world. As Dominic Kelly of The Guardian writes, “among hardline neo-liberals, no one is allowed to question the sanctity of the market, not even the pontiff himself.”

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We might one day supersede these intolerable systems assailed by the pope, the ones that lead to the inhumanity of unbridled capitalism. But we won’t achieve any form of equality unless we supersede human nature—a part of the problem, perhaps the biggest part, routinely left off the table in debates and discussions on social issues, and the church’s—and state’s—role in resolving them.

This has more than a few implications. For one, it tells us that we are tangling with a much different adversary in the war on poverty—ourselves. More specifically, it is this darker, more alluring side of human nature that makes us, as a species, greedy, proud and selfish by default. And that consciously or unconsciously entices us to exalt ourselves, and delight in all that what we have—a delight predicated on the condition that so many others have not. If you’ve ever flown first class, you may have (involuntarily) enjoyed a refreshing burst of schadenfreude, watching all those other luckless passengers schlep their way down the aisle toward that lukewarm Hell known also known as “coach.”

The thrill of entitlement, the rush of privilege—such human exhilarations are part of what causes us to design the structures that allow the rich to get richer and the poor poorer. They’re an effective way to maintain the status quo, too—and not only for capitalists. Stalin routinely reminded his lieutenants that the caviar they ate and the champagne they drank behind closed doors at the Kremlin were all the sweeter when they reflected on the fact that 50 million starving peasants could never eat or drink such things.

If we were to end poverty, if we could finally abolish the idea of the poor as a class, and poverty as a social ill, if we could at long last vaporize the master-slave construct, we would be taking all the fun, the most fun, out of being numbered among The Haves: affording things others can’t.

This is why some version of the poor will always be with us, unless we conquer our meaner selves.

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As the late Marshall Berman points out in his excellent introduction to Penguin Classics’ deluxe Edition of The Communist Manifesto, Marx’s idealized version of communism wasn’t necessarily a negation of capitalism—it was, in fact, an apotheosis of sorts. But, in Marx’s dream, instead of a small, privileged class enjoying all the material perks, one day everyone on the planet benefits from the wonders of capitalism; wonders that awed and impressed Marx himself. Indeed, the opening pages of the Manifesto are nothing if not a love song to the achievements of the bourgeoisie.

Clearly, we have the means to transcend this pernicious strain of capitalism that has drawn the pontiff’s ire, certainly the talent; but do we have the character?‎ Maybe. But, so far, about the closest model we have for what such a world might look like is the swimming pool scene from Caddyshack.

Through this pontificate’s unmitigated concern for the destitute of the world, we will be reminded time and again that the plight of the poor is, itself, emblematic of the poverty of Christ, and the driver of the church’s broader mission—which will include not only the financially impoverished but the spiritually impoverished as well, one would hope.

But it is the plight of humanity as a whole, and the inherent flaws of human nature, that must be on the table as we endeavor to design for economic parity the world over, with a rather challenging norm: An innate sense of our own, indispensable uniqueness that compels so many of us to cling ferociously to a feeling that we’re a little more equal, a little more special than everyone else.

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