Reader’s Forum – Lou Hinman on POVERTY, BY AMERICA

“. . . the Kantians too were not indifferent to virtuous activity; they worked for the poor and did make an effort to improve the world, but always with a sense of futility.”

– Robert Solomon, In the Spirit of Hegel

“Shame is a revolution in itself.”

– Karl Marx, 1833

In Poverty, By America, Matthew Desmond does a great service to all American patriots of good will – the real patriots. He shows us, in unsparing detail, how poverty has not merely persisted in the wealthiest country in the world, but how it has continuously been produced by our political institutions, the policies pursued in our name by our elected representatives, and the ignorance and/or passivity of the not-poor. Matthew Desmond makes us ashamed.

I won’t try to excerpt, paraphrase, or summarize a book that’s already clearly written and no longer than it needs to be – please read it.  Instead, I’d like to say a few words about futility.

Mr. Desmond speaks to us largely as individuals, consumers, and comfortable members of the not-poor.  As such, he calls on us to be poverty abolitionists – to refuse to benefit from the super exploitation of the poor.  For example, he calls on those of us who have retirement portfolios, or other financial assets, to disinvest from companies that lobby against affordable housing, and those that oppose (legally or illegally) the unionization of their own employees. He calls on us to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I support this, and pretty much all of the demands Mr. Desmond makes on the comfortable not-poor. 

And, with all due respect to Mr. Desmond, as a senior citizen and life-long activist, I have a few observations to make.  

The BDS movement (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) has had significant impact on the international movement against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. This is not because of the damage (surely marginal, at best) it’s done to the financial interests of the state of Israel, but because the BDS campaign, its target, and the oppression of the Palestinians are all highly visible, and forces Israel to confront the issue openly.

Divestment from private corporations by individual stock holders does not share these characteristics, and Mr. Desmond himself notes that the richest 10% of Americans own 80% of the total value of all stocks (page 59).  It seems well established in the United States that corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize corporate profits. It follows that the economic pressure that divestment can put on bad corporate actors is, under present social and political conditions, again, marginal. These conditions may change, and I think they are changing, but possibly the ability of the non-poor to call corporations to account will be as much an effect as a cause of a broader social movement to abolish poverty.

My bigger concern is that Mr. Desmond, in his determination to cast a wide net – to hold all not-poor Americans responsible for poverty in America – has paradoxically understated the problem of poverty.  He has shown clearly that America has the resources – the wealth – to eliminate poverty and near-poverty, but suggests that this can be done without disturbing the social and political order – without afflicting the comfortable – too much.

I believe this is a mistake. Getting rid of poverty demands a new political culture.  

By emphasizing primarily what we can do without disrupting things too much, we risk turning our separate individual efforts into mere virtue-signaling. But more importantly, we miss the opportunity to call poor and not-poor Americans to a joint national project. I feel quite certain that we can’t abolish poverty without empowering the poor. But here’s the kicker: We can’t empower the poor without also empowering the not-poor.

If poverty were simply (as William Buckley liked to say) “undesirable” but not “wrong,” then the not-poor could just advocate for the poor and hope for the best. But the poor and the not-poor now share the same underlying condition: our government no longer represents us – neither the poor nor the not-poor.  So this is the problem we have to solve – the empowerment of the poor, the not-poor and, importantly, even a good many of the very-not-poor.

How to achieve this goal is an open question, and we should revisit it every day. I believe that the first step is to break the power that has been usurped by the two-party monopoly (the political establishment, composed in equal parts of the Democratic and Republican party organizations) and that’s why I am a founding activist in Independent Voting. But breaking the power of the duopoly will not be enough to create a new political culture – everything depends on how we do it.

Is a new political culture a “revolution”? Am I “going down a Marxist path,” as the “senior analyst,” the smug ideologue at the Kennedy School asked Mr. Desmond (page 43)? I don’t have to answer that question, and neither do any of us poverty abolitionists. (Oh, and by the way, I don’t know what path I’m on anyway!) 

To conclude, my fellow poverty abolitionists (poor, not-poor, and very-not-poor) Matthew Desmond has done his work well – he has shamed us. The ball is in our court now!

Lou Hinman has been a political activist for most of his adult life. He is an Associate of the East Side Institute, works closely with Independent Voting, and is an avid supporter of Open Primaries.  He divides his time between New York City and the Catskills.

July 25th at 3pm ET

Join our host, Cathy Stewart, for a Virtual Discussion with author Matthew Desmond


Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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