Prophecy and Injustice

Poverty - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/5

by Luigino Bruni 

Published in Avvenire on October 27, 2013

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Poverty is an essential dimension of the human condition, it is one of those "first words" in everyone's life. A major fault of our civilization is to consider it a problem that is typical only of some social groups or peoples, the ones that time and again become the "contractors" of poverty. And so we would like to immunize ourselves more and more against the poor, expelling them like scapegoats to stay outside the boundaries of our civil society. We do not know poverty anymore and we do not recognize it, because we have forgotten that we are born into absolute poverty, and that will end his life in no less absolute poverty.

But if we look at it more carefully, we could realize that our whole existence is a tension between wanting to accumulate wealth to bridge this radical anthropological poverty, and the awareness that grows with the years as we realise that the accumulation of goods and money is only a partial answer, and altogether inadequate to the need to reduce the real vulnerability and fragility from which we come, to defeat death. This awareness is at its highest when (and if) we think about how we finish our existence, naked as we arrived upon entering, when riches and wealth will pass away, and only the rest of ourselves - if any - will remain here.

This is the intuition behind the choice of those who decide to decrease the role of money and goods in their lives because they realise that the decrease effectuated on some goods enables the growth of other goods generated by that new, different type of poverty, which is a poverty by choice. This is the ethical and spiritual journey of Jesus Christ ("Though he was rich...he became poor that ye by his poverty might be rich"), which was later adopted by Francis, Gandhi, Simone Weil and many other giants of humanity and spirituality. By their poverty, which they chose themselves, they have enriched and continue to enrich life on earth, especially that of millions and millions of poor people who have not chosen, but only suffer their poverty.

These great lovers of liberating and prophetic poverty are joined by many other men and women of yesterday and today (and tomorrow). A lot of them are found among the poets, nuns, missionaries, responsible citizens, even among journalists, businessmen and politicians.

Without choosing to become poor of power, wealth or ourselves, we cannot fight long and exhausting battles for justice that may lead us to dedicate our entire lives, or even to die for those ideals. Only these of the poor can give their lives for others because they do not consider it a possession to be jealous of. Whoever is not able to give their lives for their ideals thinks mighty little of those ideals and their own lives, too.

Iranian economist Rajiid Rahnema offers an insight to the complex semantics of poverty when on one of the pages of his great work he distinguishes the different forms of poverty: "The choice by my mother and my grandfather who was a Sufi like the great poor of Persian mysticism; that of certain poor people of the neighbourhood where I spent the first twelve years of my life; that of women and men in a globalizing world of modernization, with an income that is insufficient to enter the race of needs created by society; the one connected to the unbearable hardships suffered by a multitude of human beings reduced to cases of humiliating misery; and lastly, the one represented by the moral misery of the classes with property and some social environments in which I came across in the course of my professional career."

And this is where a crucial discourse opens up on the different types of poverty which has been silenced too much. The bad type of poverty (such as the last four mentioned by Rahnema), the type that should be urgently eradicated from the planet, is first of all an absence of "capital"that stands in the way of the generation of "flows" (including the work and a proper income for it) that would allow us to carry out activities that are essential for living a dignified and maybe even beautiful life. If we look at the many and growing forms of unwanted and suffered poverty in which people find themselves trapped (they are still too many in the world, and still too many women, too many children and great many girls), we realize, or we should realize that situations of poverty, insecurity, vulnerability, fragility, failure and exclusion are the result of lack of capital. However, it is not the lack of financial but rather, relational capital (broken families and communities), health, technological, environmental, infrastructure, social, political, and even more educational, moral, motivational and spiritual capital; a hunger for philia, agape.

In order to understand then what kind of poverty a person identified as poor (because they have less than a dollar or two a day) is experiencing the first step should be to look to their capitals, and to see if and how they become flows. The intervention, then, should take place at that level. And this way we could find out - if we look careful enough - that living on two dollars a day in a village with drinking water, which is free of malaria, with a good basic education is a type of poverty that is very different from that of the person who lives on two (or even 5) dollars per day but does not possess those other capitals, or owns less of them. As Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has been teaching us for decades now, poverty (the bad type of it) means not be in the - social and political - positionto be able to develop one's potentials which thus remain stranded in the very low funds (capital) not allowing for the journey of life to be long enough or not to be too rough and painful. Therefore poverty, every type of poverty, is much more, and something quite different than the absence of money and income. This is what we can see in some dramatic cases when we lose our job and we do not find another because we are not in possession of the "capital" that would be fundamental (not just high education, but also to have learned a craft over the years).

The capital of persons and that of peoples, and so wealth and poverty, are always intertwined with each other. Some capital, wealth and poverty are more crucial to human flourishing, but, except for extreme cases (even if they are highly relevant), no one is poor to the point of not even having some form of wealth. Perhaps it is this intertwining that makes the world a less unjust place than it appears at first sight. At the same time one should be careful not to fall into the "rhetoric of happy poverty" which can often be found in those who praise the needs of others while looking at them from the comfort of luxurious villas, or pass by in armored cars on the outskirts of the cities of the southern hemisphere taking part in the so called - and sometimes quite dubious - "social tourism". Before we can talk of the nice type of poverty we must look into the eyes of the ugly types of it, and possibly get a taste of it, too. But the awareness of the ever-present risk of falling into the bourgeois rhetoric of praise of beautiful poverty (that of others, never known or touched), should not go so far as to delete an even deeper truth: every process leading out of the traps of poverty and need always starts by recognizingthe dimensions of wealth and beauty present in the "poor" that you would like to help. Because when you do not start from the recognition of this heritage which is often buried but real, the development and "empowerment" processes of the "poor" are ineffective if not harmful, because there is no respect for others and their wealth and so there is no experience of the reciprocity of wealth and poverty either.

There are many types of poverty of the "rich" that could be cured by the riches of the "poor" if only they knew, met or touched each other. And if we do not start to get to know and recognize poverty, all forms of poverty, we cannot go back to generating good economy, which always rises from the hunger for life and future of the poor.

 

Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial 

 

Translated by Eszter Kató

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