Thursday, 16 October 2014

What if...? #Inequality & poverty of imagination

What if inequality wasn't inevitable? In a book that has been hailed as 'forensic', 'angry', and 'a brilliant analysis of the nature of inequality in the UK' , Danny Dorling sets out five 'myths', widely-believed and oft-perpetuated in so much of our collective imagination, that enable inequality to persist in our society, because they convince us of the 'TINA' principle, that 'there is no alternative':
  1. that 'elitism is efficient' - even though it turns 1/7 of all children into 'dropouts'
  2. that 'exclusion is necessary' - even though it leaves 1/6 of all people trapped in the grip of debt
  3. that 'prejudice is natural', a 'social Darwinism' that sees incentives as good for some (the rich) and punishments necessary for others (the poor) - even though it leaves 1/5 of all adults in what Dorling calls 'indentured labour' - doing everything they can, but paid barely enough to 'get by'
  4. that 'greed is good', the cult of celebrity and consumption - even though 1/4 of all households don't even have access to a car
  5. that 'despair is inevitable', that competition and insecurity are unavoidable - even though it leaves 1/3 of all families dealing with anxiety-related illnesses
(Daniel Dorling, Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists, Bristol: Policy Press, 2011)
The myths go deep within us: as a society, and as individuals. Alistair McIntosh, a member of the Scottish Poverty Truth Commission, puts it like this:
"It is crucial that we understand the roots of what poverty is. First, it is structural, being systemic to the distribution of power, resources and educational opportunities in society. Second, it is a form of violence that comes from a deficit of empathy between those who have much and those who have little. Third, it is intergenerational, with its life-crippling seeds getting passed on in early childhood. And fourth, it is sustained by blindness to the full humanity of one another, showing it to be a pathology of the rich and not just a deficit of the poor."
What both Dorling and McIntosh highlight is that poverty and inequality are not just the result of 'faulty technologies', workings of our society or economy that need tinkering with to improve things for those at 'the bottom of the heap'. No, they are ultimately rooted in 'a deficit of empathy', a 'blindness to the full humanity' of others - and that this 'poverty of imagination' (especially among the rich) manifests itself as violence against the poor.

Anthropologist and activist David Graeber picks up on these themes. Violence is the resort of the stupid, he argues - and the securities of wealth make people incredibly stupid:
"violence, particularly structural violence, where all the power is on one side, creates ignorance. If you have the power to hit people over the head whenever you want, you don't have to trouble yourself too much figuring out what they think is going on, and therefore, generally speaking, you don't. ... Why is it that the folks on the bottom (the victims of structural violence) are always imagining what it must be like for the folks on top (the beneficiaries of structural violence), but it almost never occurs to the folks on top to wonder what it might be like to be on the bottom... [T]he downtrodden actually care about their oppressors, at least, far more than their oppressors care about them..."
(David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004, pp.72-73)
And in his concluding observation, Graeber highlights the glimmer of hope in it all. The rich may be suffering from a pathological empathy deficit, a blindness to the humanity of others, a poverty of imagination when it comes to people 'not like us' - but among the downtrodden, the 'excluded', and those who live with the daily reality of poverty, empathy is less thin on the ground, imagination abounds. The Poverty Truth Commission in Scotland, with which Alastair McIntosh has been involved, is one brilliant example of making a space within which that empathy, that imagination, can be nurtured. This is about anything but mincing our words: it is, as Meg Wheatley puts it, about learning 'to talk with those we have named "enemy"':
"Fear of each other also keeps us apart. Most of us have lists of people we fear. We can't imagine talking with them, and if we did, we know it would only create more anger. We can't imagine what we would learn from them, or what might become possible if we spoke to those we most fear. ... I believe we can change the world if we start listening to each other again..." 
(Margaret Wheatley, Turning to one another: simple conversations to restore hope to the future, San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler, 2009, pp.7-8)
The way McIntosh describes it evokes echoes, very intentionally I think, of South Africa's 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission':
"To walk this path we must allow ourselves to be challenged by Truth - the truth of where we and our world stand, the truth of where we know we are called to go, and the many truths of how to bridge that gap. Truth is an active power for change. Reconciliation is what brings us back together again in our common humanity. Both spring from the sharing of community. Truth and reconciliation are about seeking that which gives life. Life as love made manifest."
But what if the rich and powerful aren't interested in truth and reconciliation? What if they can't be bothered to listen? Well, at the very least, the rest of us don't need to wait for them to change their hearts and minds. But we do need to turn our attention, our imaginations, in a different direction. Here's Dorling again:
"We see our history, our future, our nightmares and our dreams first in our fickle imaginations. That is where we first make our present. How we come to live is not predetermined. Geographically all it takes is a little imagination, a little 'wishful thinking', to see that a collection of movements will achieve the change we wish to see in the world; these are movements that need only exist in our imaginations in order to work, to have faith. These are movements to 'make our own world from below [where we] are the people we have been waiting for'. ... Everything it takes to defeat injustice lies in the mind. So what matters most is how we think." (Dorling, p.320)
So let's stop waiting for new ideas to tackle inequality to descend from 'above', from our so-called 'political leaders', whose imaginations are stunted and sight impaired by the hard walls of their wealth and insecure security. Let's crack on with making a new, more equal, more justice world without them. Because, as Andre Gorz put it, 'the exit from capitalism has already begun'. The end is already here, and in the midst of the death throes of the beast, new forms of common life, of sharing and reciprocity, of imagination, of mutual respect and equal dignity, are springing up all around us. Have a look for them, and you'll see them. And when you do see them, join in. Because it's much more fun than endlessly rehearsing the five myths of inequality. Another world is possible, and it's already here. We just need to get stuck in...

[This blog was written, in some haste, for #BlogAction Day #BAD2014]