In this age of binary adversity it’s almost impossible to engage in nuanced argument. You’re either with us or against us is the mantra of Twitter, Loonie Lefty! cries the right, nazi scum! holler the left. I tend to console myself with the words of Bertrand Russell who said The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. Others may think that I sit atop a cowardly liberal fence, or that I simply can’t make up my mind but I will die on this hill: the world is too complex for any one ideology to explain it, solve it or even be consistently true.
One such ideological battle ground is the capitalism/socialism, rich/poor divide. I don’t propose for a moment to weigh in with anything other than instinct based on my small amounts of learning though, as I’m not an economist. Frankly, there’s never much agreement between economists either so the rest of us have no chance. Yet everyday, the debate rages between people that have no more training in the subject than they do in topiary and you don’t see them confidently wading in to the fickle world of carefully trimmed bushes.
There’s an important question that both capitalism and socialism have tried to answer, and that is the question of what to do the great bodies of people who, for whatever reason, have less than others. Answers have ranged between make that demographic disappear by equalling out the wealth to fuck ’em, it’s their fault for not working hard enough. The trouble with the latter answer, even if you’re a stone-cold Victorian mill owner or a fancy French la-di-dah lord, and leaving aside the clear fact that poverty is inherited in exactly the same way as wealth, is that the poor don’t much care for being poor and the turning wheel of revolution just a-keeps on spinning. This is also correlated strongly with unfortunate uprisings, violence, crime, drug-use, the odd lopped-off head and Love Island. All, I think we can agree, problematic in their own way.
So there has to be an agreement somewhere along the line that poverty is bad and we should probably knock it on the head. Earnest and emotional people will tell us repeatedly that the wealth gap is rising and this appears to be true. The richest 1% (those worth over $1 million) own 45% of the world’s wealth according to inequality.org . However its also true that millions and millions of people have been lifted out of poverty over the last 100 years and this trend is continuing. So have we solved it? Not a bit of it.
If we can agree that poverty is bad then we may take it for granted that it’s opposite is good. Converting one to the other can be our primary goal once we work out one tiny detail: what the opposite of poverty actually is. I have four suggestions and, if you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen that I put these to a vote. If you don’t follow me on Twitter… (hint, hint). So here they are – I’ll tell you the outcome of the vote at the end.
The Opposite of Poverty is Richness
This seems like a reasonably intuitive answer as poverty appears to be characterised by being poor. The opposite of having no money is surely having lots of money. There’s a problem though: we dont have a definition of what lots of money is or where the dividing line might appear. The average salary in the UK (2015) was £27,600 – is this the line? Do you feel rich if you earn £28,000? Some people might but how long would it take for them to become accustomed to it and start wanting more? The threshold where it’s said that people don’t feel they need to earn anymore to be happier is around £80,000. This is the sort of yearly income that most people will never get close to but there are still a large number of people who get to that point and double down. They keep going, earning more and more, taking on newer and bigger jobs in a way that, to an outside observer, seems that they don’t feel they earn enough yet. Just looking at the poverty in the UK, there are very few people, thanks to the welfare state, that cant eat every day but isn’t it their right to expect a better standard of living? Can’t they expect nights out, a few nice clothes, rich and varied forms of entertainment? Do they have a right to spend public money on cigarettes? Alcohol? Illegal drugs? These are things that can never be satisfied so a line can never be drawn. Richness is uncategorisable when it comes to pure money, so I don’t think it’s a useful opposite.
The Opposite of Poverty is Justice
It just isn’t fair; some people have little and some people have lots. If it’s the fairness that truly defines poverty then the opposite is justice. There are clear historical reasons why certain groups find themselves over represented amongst the poor. This isn’t always about having no money of course – think of the lotto winners that still exhibit the cultural behaviour of the council estate – they just do it more. Bigger cars, blingier bling, gold teeth, much of it from black gang culture in America – a severely over-represented group in the poverty category. Yet think of the money that’s spent on drugs and guns and the trappings of the much sought after credibility. It’s too easy to say that they are bad people doing bad things. They’re people who have suffered and have responded to that suffering. Rich people commit different crimes, it doesn’t make them better or worse. Sociology can’t explain all deviant behaviour but it certainly points us in the right direction. If you take a traumatised sub-strata of society, you will get a traumatised individual with a messed up value system. If we can change the environment – not simply by providing more money but by providing meaning and parity of opportunity – then we can change the behaviour. The hard part is getting people to see the value in change, after spending generations as the butt-end of a sick social joke. If there was justice there wouldn’t be poverty – maybe that could be its opposite.
The Opposite of Poverty is Privilege
It might stand to reason that the opposite of being without is being very much with, and we call that privilege. When someone has more money, better opportunities, more access, better associates, they are clearly in an advantageous position, so can a well-meaning society fashion a method of bringing everyone up to that level? Well sadly no. Ex British Prime Minister David Cameron once said that he wanted everyone to be privileged. If we assume he actually meant it, he made a fundamental error in that privilege has to be compared to something. In the same way that 50% of doctors are below average (scary!) and the way that multiculturalism requires other people to be monocultural (who decides?), you can’t make everyone above everyone else. So although a laudable opposite in some ways, it can’t be anything other than a conceptual one and not something to strive for.
The Opposite of Poverty is Wellness
It’s clear that poverty and health are correlated. The poor fill our hospitals thanks to bad diet, illegal drugs, smoking, alcohol and violence. Self-harm is a consistent fact of life – not usually because people want to actually kill themselves but because they need to know the world will listen. These seemingly self-inflicted ills are treated with scorn by the well-to-do, as though all they deserve is a tut and an eye-roll. Why should taxes pay for someone who has hurt themselves with alcohol? Same can be said for your skiing accident, buster. Of course, what we don’t often recognise is that someone from a council estate can now expect to live twice as long as a member of the royal family 150 years ago. Is that not welcome progress? Surely quality of life has improved by an inordinate amount in that time too, even if the comparators i.e. what the rich can expect to own and experience have grown with it? Wellness is more than health though, more than quality of life. It’s about expectation, resilience, clarity; it’s about mental space, good air and varied food. Can people be well and poor? Presumably, but it’s financially and culturally harder. Maybe if we can solve wellness, we can severely reduce the impact of poverty. I don’t know if this is an opposite but it’s a bloody good start.
The Opposite of Poverty a Journey, not a Conclusion
As you may have surmised from the opening, Poverty is too complex to be solved by a simple opposite. What is true is that for the most part, in the developed world, we have evolved beyond the previous manifestations of slavery, feudalism, famine, plague, high child mortality rates and casual cruelty. It’s also true that new forms of all of these things come knocking at the door every time there’s a cultural revolution, whether it be agrarian, industrial or digital. How else would you describe creating psychological dependency on phone technology and then forcing people to work long hours at menial labour to pay for time to surf the web and buy more things, thus feeding the companies that created the addiction in the first place but a new form of slavery? Just because it’s now in our brains, it doesn’t make it less real than whips and ships, it’s just the punishment is now less physical, less noticeable and more universally applied. If we want a fair world in which poverty is snapping at our heels and not controlling so many lives, it’s the recognition of the new forms and the journey away from them that count. The Opposite of Poverty is change because poverty can only come from stagnation.
Agree? Disagree? Care to call me a fascist or a loonie lefty? Let me know in the comments x