Saturday, May 28, 2011

Misunderstanding Poverty

With all the recent focus on poverty, I found myself revisiting a quotation from Karl Marx that caught my attention back in 2008:

The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

This comes from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy;  and, when I last cited it, I was taken by the extent to which the second sentence could be taken as an anticipation of George Herbert Mead’s concept of "social behaviorism."

However, my fixation the second sentence distracted me from the first, which basically states that the nature of that “social being” that “determines” consciousness is, itself, determined strictly by the “mode of production of material life.”  This emphasis of on the influence of material production became the basis for a school of thought called “historical materialism;”  and Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” was written as an attack on that school of thought.  Indeed, there is a good chance that Benjamin intended his title to be a parody of Marx’ Theses on Feuerbach.

The problem with the materialism perspective is that it does not allow for those excluded from any role in that “production of material life.”  However, that exclusion lies at the heart of poverty.  It is why the poor are condemned to become social outcasts.  As we see from our current unemployment statistics, the assumption that the poor can end their plight simply by getting jobs is unrealistic, particularly when the very concept of “work” is ready to join the ranks of other concepts suffering from loss of meaning.  Is it any wonder that those planning our “recovery” do not understand poverty?

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