Are Poor People Too Nice?

David Graeber has an interesting piece in the Guardian which wonders why, in the face of the damage done by financial and political elites in the last decade, working class people did not rise up in protests around the world.


As he notes, the rich certainly would have done so if the opposite had happened:

“What I can’t understand is, why aren’t people rioting in the streets?” I hear this, now and then, from people of wealthy and powerful backgrounds. There is a kind of incredulity. “After all,” the subtext seems to read, “we scream bloody murder when anyone so much as threatens our tax shelters; if someone were to go after my access to food or shelter, I’d sure as hell be burning banks and storming parliament. What’s wrong with these people?”

It’s a good question. One would think a government that has inflicted such suffering on those with the least resources to resist, without even turning the economy around, would have been at risk of political suicide. Instead, the basic logic of austerity has been accepted by almost everyone. Why? Why do politicians promising continued suffering win any working-class acquiescence, let alone support, at all?

The answer to the last question seems to be that the elites have done a great job in branding social solidarity as an antiquated idea:

There was a time when caring for one’s community could mean fighting for the working class itself. Back in those days we used to talk about “social progress”. Today we are seeing the effects of a relentless war against the very idea of working-class politics or working-class community. That has left most working people with little way to express that care except to direct it towards some manufactured abstraction: “our grandchildren”; “the nation”; whether through jingoist patriotism or appeals to collective sacrifice.

As a result everything is thrown into reverse. Generations of political manipulation have finally turned that sense of solidarity into a scourge. Our caring has been weaponised against us.

I have not read enough on this topic to know whether Graber’s analysis is right or not but, from an economics perspective, I find it his question fascinating. Every day the rich organize and invest to protect and increase their share of wealth, and this is perfectly normal and correct. What amazes me is why other classes fail to do so as well. Yes, there are groups that represent specific sectors of the middle class — unions and other organizations such as the AARP, for example —  but in the U.S. especiallly the lower-middle and working classes rarely organize themselves to take on the same logical and reasonable challenge of protecting what they have or even increasing it. If it’s good for the rich, then it’s good for the poor as well. Is it the psychology of the poor in the 21st Century (since it was not always that way in the past)? Is it that they have given up in the face of the increasing technical complexity of modern life? Whatever the answer is, the battle has become very easy for the elites to win, which is why we see increasing inequality in rich societies.

So the result of the phonomenon Graber notes is easy to understand but not the cause. If people act rationally most of the time, then why do those with the most to lose (from a relative wealth perspective) seem the calmest about losing it? It’s an important question because in another time in history, noblesse oblige might have kicked in within the elites. Today, it’s the opposite: the less the poor have, the more they are seen as “takers” and thus less-deserving of help. This the vicious spiral of the working class today, and, if Graber is right, they need to start speaking on their own behalf because depending on others to speak for them is apparently no longer a valid strategy.

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Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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