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What is “poverty”? Well, if you look at the contemporary West you’ll be told it’s something like to earn less than £15,635 per year. That’s a statistical fiction, if you like—you decide that the lowest band in a statistical table constitutes “poor”. And yet that’s nothing like a child that starves to death in Africa or an Indian slum—or even a real old Victorian rookery.

So it’s all relative? Well, you could say poverty is when you’re at the starvation level—in which case, there’s no poverty in the West (just relative poverty); and yet people still care about relative issues, relatively…

Actually, it is possible to arrive at an objective definition of poverty. The Yanomami, a completely primitive people in Brazil and Venezuela, have minimal contact with the outside world (did until recently)—for them a machete is a total novelty (their usual tools being more like a stone axe).

Yet the Yanomami have one luxury in their huts—tobacco, chewing tobacco. What’s the Yanomami word for “poverty”? “A man without chewing tobacco”—as an act of sympathy, the Yanomami will share their tobacco (even if pre-chewed) with a man with no tobacco.

This reveals what “poverty” really is for man: it is when you do not possess a commonly held luxury good. The Yanomami have only one luxury, tobacco—to be without it is “poverty”. It’s not about shelter, food, or clothes—it’s about an inessential good that is staple (because it’s pretty dull being a primitive man—so it helps to have tobacco to pass the time).

This example helps us illuminate poverty in the West. Basically, the Bible is right “the poor are always with us”—industrial society creates more and more luxury items that become staples, from computers to mobile phones, and so poverty is always on the increase. Indeed, there have never been so many poor people as there are today—industrial society has made it so.

This may seem counterintuitive, but this is what man actually means by “poor”—it’s not about whether you literally have food and a roof over your head (perhaps it should be—perhaps you should no longer be “poor” when you earn £26,539; but it just isn’t so—if almost everyone has a Tesla and you don’t, even though no one really *needs* a Tesla, then you’re poor; or you are until the price falls and you can afford one).

It means that facile conservative propaganda along the lines “you’ve never had it so good” is untrue—because the people who make this propaganda don’t understand what “poverty” is for man in the objective sense. It’s not “fewer children than ever live on the bread line”—it’s about luxury goods; and hence socialists, Christians, and assorted leftists will always have a point to make as regards poverty—even if people aren’t falling back down to the subsistence level, as Marx incorrectly predicted.


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