The Poor Are Always With Us

A stopped clock, they say, is right twice a day. It pains me to admit it, but on one subject the Left is spectacularly wrong, and some rather unpleasant right-wing types are correct, in this sole respect and so probably by accident. For, in the second half of the twentieth century, in Western countries, poverty was not entirely about oppression by the ruling class, although I would defend to the death the proposition that this is a very major factor. If one actually meets the poor or even lives among them, as opposed to sitting in the British Museum to read other people’s books, one thing will rapidly become very clear: a large number of the poor are quite astonishingly stupid. By this I do not mean ignorant, though of course they are that too, perhaps from no fault of their own; I mean stupid in the sense of being unable to foresee even the most immediate consequences of their own actions, or expecting different consequences to flow from the same behaviour. If one wants to call that latter expectation insane rather than stupid, or talk about poor parenting rather than about congenital brain function, it is no matter; we may still speak of cognitive failure allied with poor impulse control. It is not coincidental that most winners of the Darwin Awards are poor people.

Now, which is cause and which is effect? Well, it is both – poverty makes you stupid, and stupid people remain poor. We may start with foetal alcohol syndrome, and note that the human brain requires certain kinds of stimuli to develop properly, stimuli that poor people cannot afford, probably do not even know about, and would not provide if they did. This is because stupid people make a virtue out of their ignorance and so dismiss all knowledge as “pretentious” and so forth. In addition, the lumpenproletarian is generally a heavy smoker and a heavy drinker, and spends a very considerable proportion of his – and other people’s – earnings on these pleasures, so that he gets the double whammy of direct brain damage and income shortfall. There is probably a feedback loop here, in that the stupider he starts out, the sooner he makes himself even stupider with various neurotoxins. Such a person is most unlikely to escape poverty by his own efforts, and the unpleasant right-winger is quite correct to observe that there is no point giving him money, as he will only drink it, gamble it or otherwise waste it.

Some empirical proof of this politically incorrect belief is available in the form of the Methodist movement. Now, Methodism today is a middle-class church, but it did not start that way – it was preached to the underclass, and those who hearkened, were converted and took the abstinence pledge tended in consequence to upward social mobility. How not? They no longer drank, which both made them better workers and more rational actors, and gave them savings to invest in their own businesses, as they were encouraged to do by the religion. We see a similar trajectory among immigrants, whose temperance and frugality soon lifts them above the addled layabouts that otherwise populate the poor neighbourhoods where they initially live. Then, of course, their children go to university and become a different kind of addled layabout, but that is another story.

We might, therefore, say that poverty in the West has been due 50% to capitalism and 50% to stupidity, the second being further subdivided into tobacco addiction, alcoholism, gambling and a general delusion that intelligence and education represents some sort of class betrayal. The last item, of course, was not always so; time was when factory workers joined libraries and studied political economy.

To come full circle, we now need to ask ourselves whether the underclass has been quite without external assistance in its devotion to smoking, drinking, gambling and poor impulse control. A hundred years ago we knew enough to suspect that brewers and distillers were not concerned solely to sell their goods, but were actually part of a conspiracy to keep the workers sodden and stupid. This perspective was weakened when the Left movements forgot their puritanical discipline and started promoting private pleasure as a tool of social change. It was destroyed altogether by post-modern veneration of one’s “culture”, defined in terms of whatever people do, which is quickly extended to all their worst habits. Suggesting that they divest themselves of these habits thus becomes insult and oppression. Being addicted, stone stupid and incompetent became “authentic” underclass culture and thereby beyond criticism of the kind so successfully deployed by the Wesleys actually to cure poverty – one worker at a time.

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