Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Talking Poverty, Feeling Peculiar

I came face to face tonight with the fact that I'm, well, a little peculiar.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, nor even one that is a particularly new awareness, but a thing it is, and a thing deserving of some reflection.

See, I went to a forum on poverty -- I'll talk more about the details in a minute. At least on a certain level, pretty much everyone in the room wanted the same thing. We were all people who understand that poverty exists, that with poverty comes a great deal of suffering and pain and downstream consequences of various sorts, and that we have a social responsibility to end poverty. This sort of coming together with people of like mind to deal with a common concern should have been uplifting, empowering, or at the very least encouraging. Yet I left in a bleak and cynical state of mind, ranting to a friend as we made our way home.

There were three components to the evening.

The first was a talk by Marvyn Novick, someone I had never heard of but who is an academic and apparently a prominent long-time contributor to progressive social policy in Canada. He recently published a report under the auspices of Campaign 2000, a Canadian NGO devoted to ending child poverty, called "Summoned to Stewardship: Make Poverty Reduction a Collective Legacy." I have only skimmed the report and am responding just to the talk.

Though he did not use this language, his basic point was that Keynesian economics and social democratic social policy that is politically fairly traditional but technically innovative, applied at the level of the state and the level of the community, is the key to ending child poverty.

There were a number of components to his argument, some of which were useful and some of which were less so.

He presented the frame for his speech in left nationalist terms by emphasizing the upstanding social values that we as Canadians have demonstrated in the past. This is something that is guaranteed to irritate me, so it was not a good start. Though it does not necessarily invalidate whatever else he has to say, I dislike this approach intensely because it plays into a tendency common across most of the political spectrum which invests the notion of Canada with a certain smugness and inherent superiority, usually with reference to the United States. While we should not deny social gains in northern North America, this constant reinforcement of left nationalist sentiment often serves to prevent Canadians from taking a truly critical look at the Canadian state -- its colonial and genocidal origins, which continue to shape people's lives today, and its role in other forms of oppression, for example. If we use the evidence of what "Canada" has actually done and allowed within its territory, then Canada's collective values include things like white supremacy, colonization, and misogyny. Any politics beginning from a place that does not state these things outright is going to run into trouble.

Then he went on to talk about history a little bit, in particular the social democratic gains in the three decades following World War II. I did not agree at all with the understanding of history that he presented. In particular, he connected those accomplishments not to acts but to values (things like generosity, sacrifice, and patriotism) and called on us today to follow that example, while failing to mention anything about the resurgent labour movement and capitalist fear of revolution in the late thirties and forties, and the generalized uprisings of students, women, indigenous peoples, and at least in places rank-and-file workers in the '60s and '70s, that were so central to whatever victories that were won in those eras. There was also what seemed to me to be an excessively rosy understanding of how successful the social democratic gains had been in actually dealing with poverty and suffering (which isn't to deny that they had real impacts, just to be realistic about how far they extended) and an even less accurate representation of the supposed unacceptability of everyday racism and homophobia in public discourse in Canada today -- as the person sitting next to me muttered, he only needs to spend ten minutes in any schoolyard to see that everyday homophobia continues to be rampant.

Also troubling was the fact that there was no analysis presented of why poverty exists. I'm not saying he had to have presented the same analysis as I would, but if you don't talk about where it comes from, how can you expect to choose actions that will get rid of it?

However, there was useful stuff too. For example, he responded in general terms to some of the key ideologies that people use to avoid dealing with poverty. He cited (in a lay sort of way) research on social determinants of health and their connection to relative poverty and other forms of social exclusion as well as absolute poverty, to blow away the sorts of denial of the very existence of poverty in Canada that you get from right-wing nutjobs like the Fraser Institute. He identified, albeit in terms that were weaker than I would like and in a way that named the particular targeting of women and youth but did not mention the targeting of racialized people, the ways in which blaming people in poverty is used to deflect attention from real solutions. He hastily dispatched the silly notion that a rising tide raises all boats. He also made some points that I think were not without value but that were overly simplistic about the potential for coexistence between a strong economy and a robust welfare state.

The goal of this campaign, which is being conducted at a provincial level and locally in many cities, is to encourage governments to set targets for reducing child and family poverty -- no one made clear why this rather artificial segment of poverty was chosen, but I presume it was because it's an easier sell politically than poverty in general -- and to create action plans for doing it. Novick's report contains a series of actions that the state needs to take, and the second stage of the evening involved a local social planner talking about a report that they have done proposing local initiatives to fit into the plan. In the final segment of the evening, we broke into small groups to discuss ways that different sectors of the community could contribute to making the community-level plan a reality. This was a nice idea, and some people in the group that I participated in, which was focused on the "community sector", made some excellent points from their own experiences of living in poverty, but the time for dialogue was nowhere near enough to really discuss things effectively or to get beyond narrow specifics tightly tied to individual experience.

As I said, both the state-level and local actions basically amount to a return to Keynesian economics and politically traditional, if somewhat technically innovative, social democracy (minus the emphasis on empowering organized labour). At least judging from the talk, the most immediate policy goals seemed to be targeted towards people who are living in poverty despite being employed, and I have serious concerns about not prioritizing increases in social assistance rates and serious reforms to remove at least the most punitive features of the system instituted by the Harris Tories. Even beyond that, if I was coming up with a series of goals, I suspect mine would be different. But to be honest, I'm not sure how much I care about that. Provided the shortcomings with respect to social assistance were addressed, I would be able to live with these goals, which sympathetic experts say could have a significant impact on poverty. But only if I had any faith at all that they might actually happen.

For me, that was the crux of the matter. The goal here is to reduce poverty, right? I have my own ideas of how the world works and what goals we should have and all of that, but I really don't like politics that are too sectarian and that fail to keep in touch with immediate, practical impacts even as they strive to address root causes, so if there was a significant move towards imperfect goals that I had faith would still have a significant impact on people's lives, then I could get on board. It might be critical support -- I think support of anything, any time should be critical -- but it would be support. But in order to convince me of that, there has to be some attention paid to mechanisms of change, to the political realities that might permit or prevent implementation. If, as it appeared from last night, the proposed mechanism of action is having a set of solid, well-supported arguments that we can use, and having groups of people come together in contexts centred around public education, dialogue that is fairly narrowly focused, and standard liberal-democratic lobbying of politicians, then there needs to be some evidence advanced that this might be successful. The implicit argument that this is just how change happens in our society is not good enough -- there are lots of ways that change happens or fails to happen, so why will this approach work in this instance?

This is particularly important to answer here and now. As I have articulated in other posts on this site over the last couple of years, it is my understanding that the gains in the decades after World War II had to do with a particular conjunction of the state of the world and the state of social movements. The world has changed and movements are very weak in North America right now, and it is my expectation that substantive, positive reforms will not be gained today using the same approaches that might have worked in 1970 or 1980. Even as limited and problematic (and based on theft and plunder in various respects) as that space was, it has now closed. So even if your goals are social democratic, it seems to me that your approaches to social change have to be radically rethought.

Perhaps the most intriguing piece of almost-evidence presented by Novick was the British example, where apparently a set of targets and timelines for poverty reduction coupled to concrete strategies has had a significant impact on levels of poverty in that country in the last five years or so. Unfortunately, this was not accompanied by any examination of what was done, how it was done, or why it happened. What were the political circumstances? What do anti-poverty activists in the U.K. have to say about these reforms? Did New Labour have space to make modest reforms that does not exist in Canada because of the legacy of the harsh transformations of the state by Margaret Thatcher in the '80s and left unreversed in many important ways by the Blair government? Does it have to do with the general revulsion for Blair's foreign policy and feeling an electoral need to buy off some segments of Labour's traditional base with a few crumbs for poor people? Was it coupled to other mechanisms of social control and workforce discipline that simply concentrated the burden on particular groups or shifted economic hardship to other types of hardship? I have no idea, but I know that lots of folks in the U.K. who are resolutely committed to fighting poverty have very little positive to say about Tony Blair's time as Prime Minister, and if his actions are the one piece of solid evidence that effective, sustainable reform in this direction can happen without reinvigorated social movements, then we need to really understand what was going on.

Though I am open to hearing other perspectives, I remain unconvinced that even modest social democratic goals -- goals which themselves should be examined critically and carefully -- will be attainable in North America in the forseeable future without the sorts of movement and community-based uprisings that convinced elites to grant concessions in the mid 20th century.

And that was a big part of what took the wind out of my sails last night -- the firm belief that even if you accept their goals as the standard for success and even if there is significant success in creating the sorts of actions they wish to use to convince the state to make change, I see very little chance that the state will actually do what is desired in the absence of other factors. Lots of other areas of difference I feel very matter-of-fact about, but this one felt key, and it was not a pleasant feeling. Along with a feeling of disconnection from others in the room -- including a few I know a little and like, and lots more that I'm sure I would given the opportunity -- there was this weird dissonance between the relative certainty I felt about my assessment of the approach being proposed and the sometimes overwhelming uncertainty I feel most of the time about the more general question of "what is to be done". I'm definitely not "blueprint guy", and I think we all need to muddle through and figure out as we go.

It was more than that, though. It wasn't just knowing that a thorough discussion of the related issues would reveal huge differences within the room underneath the apparent consensus, including revealing my own understanding as being a statistically uncommon one. It was the sense that I would speak a very different language from most of the other people present, that my conceptual universe would be significantly different, and that this would make communication difficult on a level far beyond just outlining areas of similarity and difference. And that recognition is a very dangerous thing, because it is a short step from there to seeing one's self as "special" or "better" or "having all the answers", or a short step in another direction to resigning one's self to irrelevance. Both of those are unpleasant things to feel pulled towards, and both are highly politically objectionable.

In a lot of ways, this is nothing new and the practical ways to respond amount to common political truisms about relationship building, respect, active self-criticism, balancing forthright presentation of your own analysis with lots of honest and active listening, and all sorts of other stuff about the everyday practice of a connected, non-sectarian, but radical politics. But I still find it easy to forget that though many of the broad values that I bring to my politics are widely shared, a lot of my understandings of the world are quite specific and uncommon even amongst people who share those values at a big-picture level. Like I said, this isn't necessarily bad, and I definitely try to spend more time exploring my uncertainty than I do occupying pockets of certainty about what has happened, what is happening, and what we must make happen, and only through acting and reflecting and talking together will we find a path towards transforming the world. But it is easy to forget how broad the differences in framework that separate even those who seem to share the same values can be, and it can be a disconcerting thing to be suddenly confronted with.


the red toque said...

scott! great analysis. i hear ya, especially as i contemplate becoming involved in some of the agency-sponsored anti-poverty initiatives here in hamilton.

Scott said...

Hey RT...sorry it took a few days to et back to you, I was out of town. Anyway, glad you liked the analysis...and I'd be eager to hear more about your reflections on those initiatives in has been awhile since I've gotten the scoop on them...