The Poorhouse

Over the last two hundred years, the poorhouse took in—I almost wrote cared for—the destitute and indigent folks, nobly trading work for food and shelter, but also featuring such choice perks as physical punishment.

In the United States, poorhouses were often associated with prison farms—you get the picture. Elsewhere, the lot of the poor was little better—and in much of the world, far worse—it still is.

It was this asymmetry between poor and rich, labor and capital, that fermented the ideas of Carl Marx and Friedrich Engels and ultimately led to over a century of social experiments with communism.

I read The Communist Manifesto around the same time I read Animal Farm and I could not reconcile my knowledge of evolutionary biology and primate behavior with a system where humans could not elevate themselves gainfully according to their capacity—inevitably, some animals would be more equal than others.

Communism would never be the solution to the woes of poor people if by increasing poverty in general those folks became marginally less poor. In practice, both hard-right and hard-left systems led to the same societal outcomes: the formation of small elites, different gradations of large communities of poor people, and general social malaise.

Wildcat capitalism and the control of the poor through low wages, lack of education, and physical violence—the mainstay of the Iberian peninsula in the times of Franco and Salazar—is (and was) always going to end badly.

Let us take another case. In the winter of 1847, in consequence of bad harvest, the most indispensable means of subsistence – grains, meat, butter, cheese, etc. – rose greatly in price. Let us suppose that the workers still received the same sum of money for their labour-power as before. Did not their wages fall? To be sure. For the same money they received in exchange less bread, meat, etc. Their wages fell, not because the value of silver was less, but because the value of the means of subsistence had increased.

These words, written by Uncle Carl almost two hundred years ago, ring a disturbing echo in the summer of 2022. The world is very different now but the consequences of price rises in energy and food—a double whammy for the latter due to both energy costs and scarcity—are similar.

Many of the families now struggling are heavily in debt—there’s a mortgage to pay and a orgy of assorted liabilities: energy bills, cell phones, vehicle installments, pre-booked holidays, credit card arrears…

I was going to play you the Ry Cooder version of this classic, but by the time I dried the tears from my eyes it had to be this one.

And the outcomes are fairly predictable.

Russia sells less gas in Europe and a lot more in China and India, which in a high energy cost market gives it ample ammunition, if you excuse the pun, to prosecute its ‘special operation.’

Grain has been weaponized—many African nations had long-standing relationships with the USSR—including all the Portuguese ex-colonies. The Soviets always projected themselves as a bastion of resistance against Western imperialism and Russia is now more than happy to sell grain to Egypt and other African nations in exchange for support for its actions in the Ukraine.

This is particularly easy because Russia is selling grain it doesn’t own. The story has been breaking in Western media in recent weeks—it tells a simple and eminently believable narrative, whereby wheat and other products stored in cities like Melitopol are being trucked to Crimea and then shipped through Istanbul to Turkish or North African ports in the Eastern Mediterranean.

It’s a real-life espionage thriller, with bulk carriers turning off their transponders in the middle of the Black Sea and satellite images showing Russian vessels docking in Syria.

Satellite images from Maxar allegedly show the Russian ship Matros Kozynich transporting stolen Ukrainian grain to Syria.

The Turks say they’re investigating Western claims, all the while stalling the admission of Sweden and Finland into NATO, and the politicians in Washington, Brussels, and London are busy figuring out the best way to respond, while all the time things at home unravel.

Britain kicked off the inevitable industrial action but strikes and protests are mushrooming in the West. People who live paycheck to paycheck and carry a mountain of debt are suddenly caught in a tipping point where they are simply unable to get by—it’s no longer a question of doing without everyday indulgences, it’s the inability to afford essential goods.

With inflation nudging ten percent in the US, EU, and Britain, politicians are listening to the voters and beginning to turn a deaf ear to Zelensky—this, of course (excuse the atrocious pun) is just grist to the vladimill.

Framing the Western drama is the terrible inequity between haves and have-nots, a surefire recipe for demagogues. And while the citizens of the EU break under ten percent inflation, Turkey registered 73.5% in the last year.

The global consequences of this relatively small war are already breathtaking and will continue to worsen.

Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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