On this Saturday morning I was planning to sit in this nice coffee place in Mariatorget, my favourite neighbourhood in Stockholm, and concentrate on reading my book in front of a good coffee. Yet something on my way here awoke in me the need and desire to write on a subject that since many weeks has been in my mind and in my heart: poverty.
It was actually my arrival to Stockholm that more and more pushed me to write about this subject. Having arrived from Holland, where I lived with the feeling that poverty was not part of human reality, I was again confronted with its existence since the very first moment in Stockholm.
It might seem weird to say, but here I felt I was back to reality. In a way it was reassuring because I felt I was living in a place where poverty is not hidden, poor folks are in front of people’s eyes in the hope not to be totally forgotten. Thus in my way to the coffee place I met, like every day, people begging in the metro station. This morning additionally to the woman I am now used to see in that same place there was also a homeless person sleeping on the corner of the stairs. I looked at him, as he was asleep, and my gaze moved to the woman who was seating on a small bench next to him. I smiled shyly and looked down, continuing my way.
Poverty embarrasses me. When I see poor and disenfranchised people I always feel this discomfort that like a magnet pushes my gaze to the floor. As if this way the issue of recognition could be avoided. To see and to be seen is of great importance in human life. ‘Being seen’ gives a sense of ‘I exist’ and this acknowledgement of existence boost a feeling of being a subject of worth and rights. Therefore, intentionally avoiding gaze is a clear political statement of non-existence: ‘you don’t exist in my gaze, not in my mind, not in my heart and ultimately not even institutionally’. Poverty is exactly this, not to exist; or either to exist as an object of projection of frustration and anger, as the scapegoat of society problems. Indeed many people, myself included, may feel anger in proximity of a beggar, or other disenfranchised folks. Once a friend asked me why he had felt anger when a homeless guy asked him to use his mobile phone. While I think that the object of the request (to use the mobile) is of no importance, as it would well be money, or food or what else, I think it is worthwhile to analyse the hidden symbolism of it and the feelings it awoke in my friend (and that I believe are common to many people’s experience).
What does this request means symbolically? In my understanding this is a request to be seen and therefore to be recognised as a human being. On the other hand it is a claim for the human rights that are inherent to every human being and that ultimately is the Government’s role to provide for. But this does not discharge civil society from all responsibility for poverty and especially for taking action to put an end to it.
Every time a beggar asks for money he or she is actually making a more symbolic request that is the request to exist and to be more than the identity layer of ‘poor and disenfranchised’. This person is saying ‘I am a human like you, look at me!’. And every time she or he confronts the rest of society with the evidence of an unfair society where we are all interconnected and therefore ultimately we are all responsible for each other. We are confronted with the crack in the system, poor are there as a live proof that capitalistic ideals are not achievable to everyone, they are the victims of a system that is purposefully designed for everyone not to fit in. We are confronted with the imperfection that distract us from our ‘perfect’ lives, poverty bring this discomfort that we don’t have time or interest to deal with, because we also have plenty of bills to pay and responsibilities to fulfil.
But at least we work…! Isn’t it what many of us think? We work and that is why we are not there, that is why we are not part of the poor and disenfranchised in society. Work dignifies, that is what we were taught though media, family and books, we were taught that poor people are lazy and they don’t work because they don’t want, not because they can’t. This type of socialisation process (behind many other situations and groups in society) is based on the creation of stereotypes and prejudices that fill in people’s imaginary and that are the roots for attitudes and behaviours such as discrimination, racism, exclusion, and so on. Bell hooks on her book ‘belonging: a culture of place’ describes stereotypes in an illuminating way:
“Stereotypes, however inaccurate, are one form of representation. Like fictions, they are created to serve as substitutions, standing for what is real. They are there not to tell it like it is but to invite and to encourage pretense. They are a fantasy, a projection onto the Other that makes them less threatening. Stereotypes abound when there is distance. They are an invention, a pretense that one knows when the steps that would make real knowing possible cannot be taken or are not allowed.” (p.96)
What I believe is relevant for the subject we are analysing and discussing here is the fact that stereotypes fill in the gap of the lack of knowledge about the real reasons behind poverty and about the dynamics that create and maintain poverty cycles where generations of people are trapped. We lack knowledge and empathy about what it means and feels to be poor. While we believe to be very informed we are actually ignorant about all these aspects. Either because we really don’t want to know (as it would create discomfort) or because we are trapped in the net of misinformation and models of thinking that make us to believe that poor are poor because they want and eventually deserve it (comfort zone). In this last case we feel even relieved from any sense of guilty or perceived responsibility.
But going back to the ‘why’ poor are and will be poor (and why more and more of middle-class folks will join the so called poor class) I think it is important to realise some facts. For instance, the number of real job placements available right now is lower than the number of people who could potentially work. Dignity through work? Tell me exactly how and for how many. And whilst the capitalist-patriarchal society keeps saying that success is at the hand for those who are really good and do real efforts, what is actually true is that this axiom creates a very good ground to blame people for their failures and to justify the fact that not all of us will make it. But in a world made of structures there is a limit to individual responsibility.
At the same time the capitalist-patriarchal system is based on competition and exploitation values and in this framework it needs to create and maintain oppressed classes and people to be able to survive. It is the case to say that the survival of the system is feed by the death, real or symbolic, of human beings that live at the bottom of the chain (like the African people who are dying from Ebola while the western countries sit and observe, until it will not affect them too, as is actually already happening).
And let’s not forget the rich and powerful to which we are all invisible. In this sense the lack of voice and recognition is what connect us all, people from all social classes and ethnicities. The rich and powerful are at the top enjoying themselves because we continue to believe that poor are poor because they want and because they don’t work. And while we blame them for their situation we work insanely not to be there (in their place, with them) ever (who ever talks about top-down social mobility?!). Because if that would ever happen we would certainly have to review our theories on poverty or either live on perpetual guilt and self-blame. And with our work and consumerism we contribute to enrich those already rich, forgetting they are exploiting middle-class too. They don’t see us, we don’t see them. And therefore they are still there, benefiting from our ignorance and our constantly blaming the lower part of the chain, never the top.
In the context of what we have been discussing it is essential to reflect about ‘where are we as subjects of action that can actually change the situation’. And honestly answer to this question: ‘does we see ourselves as subjects of action? Or are we so disengaged from our personal and community power that we don’t even believe that we can actually change anything?’.