Once considered a thing of the past, or the product of less developed countries, people begging on the streets of advanced capitalist countries has become a permanent feature of everyday life in the 21st century. Despite unprecedented levels of wealth for some privileged sectors of the capitalist mode of production in Europe and the West, extreme poverty is also being systematically manufactured throughout the world. Science, technology and labour skills have been developed to such a pinnacle of achievement that used differently it would be possible to ensure that practically every human being had sufficient to enjoy a reasonably high standard of existence. It is even possible that this could be done without rapidly and permanently degrading the ecological balance of the planet. But after over 100 years of domination by the capitalist mode of production, almost the opposite has been achieved. Poverty, war and ecological destruction exist practically everywhere. Yet very few seriously ask why?
Not for the first time, the abstract symptoms of poverty – Want, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor and Idleness are again the increasing lot of human beings on every continent and within every nation state across the globe. Poverty and begging, the most obvious symptom of system failure, have returned as a permanent feature of modern life and are now set to increase even further. And large scale poverty and begging, themselves the result of capitalist-inspired social and technological changes in the ‘means’ of production and distribution, reinforce the downward spiral of the economic system and everything built upon it. The advanced nature of automation and computer technologies within the capitalistic realms of production and distribution has ensured that more and more can be produced and speedily distributed around the globe. At the same time these methods ensure that there is a decreasing number of people who can purchase and consume the increased levels of production. The economic disconnection between production and consumption introduced and accelerated by capitalism grows ever larger. So too does the social and emotional disconnect (alienation) between people under this particular mode of production.
These two aspects poverty and begging amid unprecedented levels of wealth accumulation, represent fundamental flaws in the socio-economic base of the capitalist mode of production. They are flaws, which over time, cause economic, financial, social and political crises. Moreover, they are symptoms which have not just developed during the neo-liberal phase of capitalist expansion. They are built into the founding practices of capital formation. Moreover, they are also structural contradictions which have, in the past, had various reforms applied to them during or after the periodic crises. New generations of working people are now experiencing the fact that the capitalist mode of production is again firmly in the grip of a cyclical crisis and that the symptoms of crisis are multiplying in one broad area after another. In the interconnected realms of economic, financial, social, political and ecological affairs, the cracks in the current system of production and consumption are again widening. More and more people and environments are becoming victims of a system propelling itself downward in a spiral of self-destruction.
These new generations of victims, particularly the youth, have not been given a critical understanding of how the capitalist system functions, which is not surprising. Education and information sources are predominantly tailored to fit the interests and desires of the capitalist and pro-capitalist elites. These elites have no motivation to expose fundamental faults in a system from which they currently benefit. Nor has our younger generation been given even a potted (critical) history of a serious attempt during the 20th century to address capitalisms fundamental flaws. Yet, as the crisis deepens, they will undoubtedly be presented with sophisticated propositions by the pro-capitalist elite to persuade them to support yet another puerile attempt to avoid the inevitable conclusion. The conclusion being that for the bulk of humanity the capitalist mode of production has long been unfit for purpose. In the next section I will draw attention to one of the 20th centuries most important Western-based attempts to create a version of capitalism which sought to circumvent the fundamental flaws within it.
Want, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor and Idleness.
The symptoms of economic destitution experienced by masses of people during the early part of the 20th century were encapsulated in the five abstractions which make up the sub-title of this section. Large scale, unemployment and low pay left masses of people in Want of sufficient food and clothing. Thousands lived in housing Squalor (damp, overcrowded and dirty dwellings) and Disease and Idleness followed in the wake of these primary symptoms. Ignorance was identified as a lack of education among millions of the ‘lower’ classes. This handful of abstract symptoms became the labels applied by a partially enlightened group of pro-capitalist elites to the those experienced by the working classes during that earlier crisis. Overcoming these five ‘evils’, as the Beveridge Report called them, became the task of both the left and right wing sections of the governing class of the British state in 1945.
The practical steps taken to ameliorate these symptoms were the basis of what became known in the UK as the Welfare State. Want and Idleness were to be eliminated by a political commitment to full employment and monetary payments for those short periods between jobs. Squalor was to be overcome by an affordable Housing Programme, Ignorance banished by Primary and Secondary education for all and Disease eradicated by a comprehensive Health Service. The institutional measures to eliminate these five symptoms were to be funded from two sources. Most of them were to be funded by a compulsory insurance contribution taken out of the wages of those in employment and a complimentary contribution made from the profits of the firms employing them. The rest of the welfare system, initially the health service, was to be funded from general taxation. In other words welfare was to be paid for by deductions from the total surplus-values created by all forms of productive labour.
It should be immediately obvious, that at the very least, the whole basis of these measures initiated after the Second World War, was dependent upon high levels of employment in successful industrial firms and commercial businesses. If insurance contributions were to come from wages and profits, workers would have to produce enough value at work to ensure their own wages and salaries as well as their employers profits. It would be a proportion of this surplus-value (value surplus to immediate consumption needs) which would fund the welfare system. If over time many successful firms, reduced their workforce through technical innovations, or if many businesses moved abroad or simply failed and a high number of workers became unemployed, an insurance based system would become unsustainable. Even tax funded welfare measures would suffer from any large-scale reductions in taxation levels or insufficient ‘in-work’ income tax deductions. In short, if millions became long-term unemployed – as they did – they would not be able to put value into the fund but would need to take value out in order to survive.
Furthermore, it is a convenient mistake in this regard to simply focus on the number of people employed in order to judge the viability of an economic system, as many of the modern political elite do. If wages and employer tax contributions are reduced sufficiently then it is possible to have high levels of employment but low levels of consumption and reduced contributions to the insurance fund. It is obvious that an economic system based upon monetary transactions needs sufficient purchasing power to sustain that consumption. Both these symptoms – unemployment and consistently low pay – lead to socio-economic problems, such as a welfare funding crisis, on the one hand and economic recession on the other. Variants of these two symptoms became noticeable in Europe and North America during the late 20th and early 21st centuries and are still evident today. Tax exempt, minimum or below minimum wage labour – cleaning, stacking shelves, flipping burgers etc. – leaves little left over to purchase things other than a minimum of food, clothing and shelter. Increasing numbers of low-paid jobs are a part of the recipe for economic stagnation, debt accumulation and economic recessions.
Nevertheless, a mixture of elite ignorance of capitalist economics and naive optimism – on all sides – ensured that the post-Second World War welfare state system was gradually put in place in the UK. Many imagined, and large numbers hoped that welfare provision, under the domination of capital, was a sustainable proposition! The British elite were not alone in exhibiting a new-found platonic spirit of providing welfare to alleviate the situation of the working classes nor were they alone in promoting similar measures. Other advanced capitalist countries had their own variants of this ‘new deal’ relationship with their respective working classes. Nevertheless, the elites in Britain, Europe, and North America were among the leaders of this new concern for their working classes after the Second World War. So a variety of forms of welfare capitalism (the essence of the so-called UK spirit of 45) were introduced in the western hemisphere.
It needs to be recognised that two facts, both created by the world war, gave an element of superficial credibility to the naive economic understanding exhibited by the respective governing elites who were behind the welfare state reforms. First, due to the fact that over six million workers had been killed fighting in the Second World War, there were severe post-war labour shortages. Second, large-scale damage and deterioration had been inflicted upon housing, roads, railways, bridges, industrial and commercial premises. For a short post-war period, therefore, high levels of employment were not only possible but necessary in all the countries directly involved in the 1938-45 war. All the European countries and those in North America, had lost huge numbers of able-bodied workers in the fighting and in Europe area bombing had obliterated practically everything that could be reached by aerial or ground based bombardment. These ‘facts on the ground’, requiring extensive repair, allowed and required a short period of intense production which together with the welfare reforms, conveniently provided a temporary political illusion that rampant capitalism had at last been tamed and changed for the better.
The creation of the very welfare services for everyone also created jobs in the public sector which for a time absorbed many workers not willing or not able to obtain jobs in industry or commerce. But within a decade or less the old problems were to re-emerge. In fact the promises and ideals of welfare for everyone were never fully met even during the early decades of the 1950’s and 60’s. Born in 1941, I know; I lived through them! Despite valiant and often desperate attempts by organised workers and their trade unions in the decades after the war, the fleeting ‘spirit of 45’ gave way to the harsh reality of capitalist economics. The post-war international competition, between individual capitalist concerns and capitalist countries which had caused the mass unemployment before the war, reignited with a vengeance. In Britain, as with other countries, in the 1960s, when profits were squeezed by foreign competitors, the employers (and successive governments) put the squeeze on their workers wages and salaries. A downward spiral of wages and conditions began again for white and blue collar working people in the UK, which apart from the occasional blip continues to haunt the lives of our young, not so young and old alike.
Begging 21st century style.
So Want, Squalor and Idleness have crept back in many 21st century western communities, only Ignorance and Disease via education and health services were kept at bay for a temporary period. However, even there education increasingly resembled meaningless industrial ‘training‘ and new industrially inspired ‘diseases’ have entered the individual and communal bodies of our citizens. However, in keeping with other ‘advances’ made by the capitalist mode of production, there have been advances in the form and scale of begging in the modern era. Begging is no longer an isolated individual endeavour practiced at the margins of towns, villages and cities, as it was in the middle ages. Nor is it extant in the neighbourly borrowing a cup of sugar, a bag of flour or small sack of coal in the immediate post war years. Begging is now centre stage and has become something of an industry. The sturdy beggars who once roamed rural England stealing, wood, chickens and sheep have been replaced by the street savvy beggars of modernity equipped with Big Issue magazines and the almost obligatory dog with a sad countenance to soften the hearts of passers by.
But make no mistake, this is still begging, and in the case of Big Issue sellers it is now on an almost industrial, or rather commercial, scale. It is begging encouraged to go mainstream and disguise itself as a ‘pay as you go’ public service. And this is not the only modern means of disguising begging for although the 1930’s soup kitchens have gone, food banks have replaced them. True, one needn’t stand cap or bag in hand on a street corner, if you are in food poverty, but you have to effectively line up for your chance of a selection of available goods donated to a food bank. Charity shops have also gone mainstream where the separation of the receiver from the giver is now largely disguised as recycled commodity shopping. We give our money to a charity and the needy in effect beg from the charity. All this is accomplished without the unfortunate victims being paraded in public and with the added bonus of us charity givers and buyers of ‘pre-loved’ commodities imagining that somehow we are helping save the planet by recycling the cast off, books, ornaments and clothing.
The other more sophisticated form of modern begging is camouflaged as official welfare provision and public handouts to those considered to be in sufficient need. Disguised as entitlements, this form of being given what you cannot obtain by other means, is nevertheless a form of less visible begging. In this case it is called ‘applying’ for welfare payments from a state bureaucracy, who obtain their funds from tax – payers and selectively dole it out to those the governing elite classify as deserving. By filling in forms and personal interviews the poor and unfortunate are in effect having to beg for what is officially described as a welfare entitlement. Perhaps the most hidden and shameful symptom of poverty (and a mute form of begging) in the U K and Europe in general, is with regard to children arriving at school, hungry, unwashed and with disturbed sleep patterns. Teachers, themselves the victims of education cuts, are being ‘moved’ to provide breakfast clubs and supply writing materials to increasing numbers of school children.
I suggest an elite who show no embarrassment at this state of affairs, yet continues to pump vast amounts of money into weapons of warfare and systematically uses them to interfere in country after country, deserves to be replaced. Furthermore, an economic system which not only allows this but encourages it also deserves to be replaced. All of the above modern forms of begging, begging and more begging are the products of an economic system in which its elites refuse to ensure that everyone who wants to work has a well – paid steady occupation. Instead, in the name of economic efficiency and market forces, they try to put the blame on the victims. But, although visible and less invisible begging is set to rise further, not all the victims of capitalist inspired poverty go begging.
Begging; the visible peak of increasing dystopia.
By treating economics as a separate and distinct aspect of social and political life, the dominant dualistic mode of thinking can arrive at some startling and self-defeating conclusions. In the name of efficiency and cost cutting, industry, commerce and public services have introduced methods that replace the amount of human labour needed and in various ways celebrate this as a productivity ‘gain’. More done by fewer people translates into more profits and less costs so this represents an important gain in the narrow neo-liberal economic world view. Begging in its various forms is viewed in this dualistic frame of reference as an unfortunate but necessary by-product of the drive for efficiency. However, in the real world, economics is intimately connected to the social and political realms of society and not all the displaced poor people sit on street corners with a pet and a bowl or an armful of magazines to sell. Many, turn to the black economy sectors of drugs and crime and it is here, that the so-called economic gains are translated into economic losses. Poverty stimulates both begging and it’s twin sister, crime.
The economic losses due to economic efficiency gains elsewhere, are of two kinds, direct economic and indirect economic. As the section of the disaffected poor, who refuse (or cease) to dutifully accept their begging and seek alternatives, increases, so do the economic costs to society. It can cost many thousands of dollars or pounds to attempt to rehabilitate someone addicted to drugs. Even more to incarcerate someone convicted of a crime. Society, finds itself building and funding prisons and drug-dependency drop ins instead of new workshops or sharing out the jobs and the value created by working. These are the direct economic costs of cost cutting in industrial and commercial enterprises and other public services. Then there are the losses due to infrastructure deterioration that accompanies large-scale unemployment, sink hole estates and abandoned buildings, roads, sewers, bridges which will cost further labour to rebuild or pull down.
The fact that so many healthy and intelligent people have been reduced to begging in one form or another, in order to survive is a visible condemnation of the current capitalist mode of production. That fact, along with the systems propensity for elite directed assertive and even aggressive acquisition of raw materials and markets (wars and proxy wars), should invite a calling to account of the entire system. If in addition the effects of all this frenetic production upon the climate and ecological well being are added to the equation then it might be expected that a serious questioning of the entire mode of production would be taking place among those with the time and opportunity to think things through. Sadly this is not the case. Indeed, the intellectual, political and economic elites of the 21st century can only imagine solutions which countenance more of the same.
The concept of trickle – down economics, in which wealth accumulation by the relative few is supposed to descend the economic and social pyramid to the lower ranks, has been repeatedly exposed as nothing more than a self-serving rationale. The equally facile idea that capitalist inspired science and technology can solve all the problems it has itself created, is nowhere demonstrated in practice. It is only to be expected that those who gain most from the present system will invent new projects for capitalist investments, such as ever faster forms of travel, sight seeing trips into space or even mining for rare minerals on Mars, yet such visionary (sic) entrepreneurs are not the most dangerous. This is because most of these short-sighted, inter-galactic fantasies are never going to happen.
In contrast, the latest earth bound invigoration of capital by an expansion of global trade has been initiated by the political elite in China, via its project for a new industrialised silk road. The project, already in its early stages, is to create rail, road and sea links stretching across Asia, Europe and Africa to both stimulate and circulate production and consumption along it and through it. The intellectual and political elite in China, having abandoned any previous pretence at being anti – capitalist, are looking to surf-ride on an Asian tsunami of capital investment. For inspiration these myopic oligarchs have looked back to Marco Polo for inspiration, rather than Captain Kirk’s version of to boldly go enterprise, yet both visions only offer less than tantalising versions of more of the same. And as if to publicly advertise their economic incompetence, wider than Brexit, many European elites are eagerly signing up to be part of this new express way to climate and social disaster.
More, production, more consumption, more waste, more ecological destruction, more inequality, more poverty, more begging, more emotional destitution and more authoritarianism. The latter to prevent the majority from eventually taking part in a revolutionary transformation of the existing mode of production, into something more economically sustainable and egalitarian. More capitalism is the general vision offered by all political movements of the current generational spectrum. This is so whether of left, right, centre, so-called populist or alternative ‘green’ persuasions. None can see beyond a version of capitalism, modified, this way or that, according to their own ill-conceived understandings. None have the guts or intellect to become seriously radical critics of the capitalist mode of production and to rise above their current intellectual limitations and prejudices. It is now up to a new generation of activists to take on this task if humanity is to avoid a number of future catastrophes we face – ecological, economic or social – if ‘more of the same’ is the best we can do. Yellow Jacket, Extinction Rebellion and School protests, aimed at triggering reforms by the political class, whilst necessary to focus attention on a limited number of the symptoms, are woefully insufficient to hold the entire system to account or to eliminate the causes.
Roy Ratcliffe (April 2019)