dimanche 18 janvier 2009

The philosophy of poverty

When you are down to your last fiver and dole/pay day is not for another week, are you relatively or absolutely poor?

Doubtless, it all depends. The absolutists argue that there can be no poverty in the west, since it is the people in places like Bangladesh, the Ivory Coast and Iraq etc. who are really poor.
The relativists dispute this by saying that it is only within a society that concepts like 'poor' make any sense. If one is a hrad-headed Marxist materialist with a conviction that truth and other metaphysical concepts are objective and independent of our epistemic schema, then one is put in a bit of a bind about this.

The philosopher and revolutionary ought to give his/her last fiver away to a beggar or the party of course, but also thinks that to side with anything 'relativist' somehow compromises adherence to the anti-relativism in epistemological realism (a realism certainly not to be confused with the misuse of the term in politics). Marx was, of course, a relativist on the poverty issue famously arguing that a man can build a house and feel rich but if a prince builds a castle next door, he will soon feel, and in a way 'be' different afterwards.

Then there is the point that the absolutists in the poverty debate are from the political right. In a way, it helps their argument, that we here are not poor so long as there are desperately poor people elsewhere in the world, if the system they support actually makes people there poorer. Then, as living conditions in the West stagnate or deteriorate for 'the masses', they can never describe themselves as poor (and therefore dangerously morally correct in their political demands) since the distance between them and the poor in the 'Third World' is increasing all the time as the capitalist machine grinds people into the floor, but just at different rates.

In the end, only the absolutely dead are absolutely poor. And before that point is anywhere near reached, the people rise up and riot all the same - see Greece and swathes of Eastern Europe as we speak.