Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I've had at least three conversations lately about begging. I found myself more or less in agreement with one of the people I was discussing this with (less so with the other two), who argued that, while she has respect for begging, one cannot possibly cure the problems of a society by giving money. This is true, and I agree. But perhaps we need to rethink the position of begging in societies. In his book, Shadow Work, Ivan Illich speaks of "a right to beggary that for a thousand years was never challenged" (103). Begging, in other words was a legitimate part of European society for most of its history. What's more, if you look at other cultures today, many have a completely different view of begging than the dominant European one. My parents have been Buddhist for over forty years now (much longer than I have been alive), and for about 10 years of my life, they had a Buddhist teacher who came directly from Tibet, spoke no English and always taught with a translator, and who was completely un-Western in most of his mannerisms. One of the teachings he would constantly reiterate was the need to give to beggars, regardless of what one thought they would do with the money. There was a mandate to give because begging itself was not seen as illegitimate, a subjective "lack," or some kind of result of a deficiency in the beggar. I visited Tibet, myself, when I was 18 and the begging there was completely different than what we see here. It never involves an individual; it always involves groups, and once you give to one person, you are asked by more and more people until you either refuse to give more or have no more to give. There are a number of things to bear in mind here when thinking about begging in so-called "underdeveloped" or "developing" nations: 1) it acts as a kind of global redistribution on a negligible scale: in Tibet, we gave things that the Tibetan beggars didn't have access to; eyedrops were particularly popular, because of the dust in Tibet and the lack of availability of eyedrops at reasonable prices; 2) the existence of a dual economy makes what for me seems like a drop in the bucket actually have some value elsewhere; as tourists, we generally know this, but don't understand it; it does not mean that begging releases beggars from poverty (and a genealogy of the uses of the word "poverty" might be interesting in itself), but that the dollar can buy imported commodities, whereas the local currency usually cannot at any reasonable price (unless the "local" currency is the Yen or the Euro). Now, unlike in Tibet, in the U.S., it is always individuals, and their begging generally relies on "selling themselves." In other words, they try to appeal to emotions, or they try to entertain, or occasionally, they try to intimidate (I've seen this twice in my life). In other words, in a society of producing monads, even begging is a monadological phenomenon.

These are the preliminaries. To better understand begging, we need to stop viewing it as an isolated phenomenon: the (lazy) beggar asking for my (hard-earned) money. This should be patently obvious to most leftists and even to most liberals. Poverty is an outcropping of society and not some effect of laziness. What I think is less obvious is that begging is quite simply an activity that aims to redistribute social wealth in a very direct manner. Begging, like investment, takes wealth from one portion in which it might be swelling or overflowing, and deposits it in a portion where there is a (relative) lack. It is probably not the most effective form of wealth distribution, partly because in liberal societies we are so thoroughly trained to view property rights as unassailable and to view beggars as sub-human, but partly because, structurally, begging is a very "inefficient" way of extracting surplus from those who have it.

The comparison of begging and investment is not an accident. Both of these ask people to hand over surplus. In one, we are giving such a small share of our surplus, in general, that the thought of it going to, say, alcohol rather than food (although anyone who thinks about this should realize that, if I give someone five dollars on the street, and s/he spends the bulk of it on alcohol, he nevertheless has to eat; and he will probably spend something on food, unless s/he gets it from another source) should not particularly distress me. On the other hand, with investment, the idea is to get back more than what is invested - gambling. In this latter case, the figure who is being compared with the beggar, the investor, gets a share; this share is legally his once you have gone through with contracting, and as long as he "plays by the rules" he gets this share. He has begged you to trust him with your wealth; you have done so; he gets something out of it; you may ultimately not. We know how it's played. But what is important is that both begging and investment rely on social surplus; they are means by which individuals and groups secure for themselves a share of the social surplus. In one case (investment), the promise is held out that more surplus will come back the way it came; in the other case (begging), no such promise is made.

An anecdote: The similarity between begging and other forms of wealth redistribution really hit home for me recently. Last summer, I had a job of sorts, for Grassroots, Incorporated. I got paid minimum wage (and I didn't get paid for every hour I was working) plus commission (which adds up to nearly zero no matter how much money you make, because commission comes by beating the office average for the week; if you make seven hundred one day and one hundred the next, and the office average is 300, you make 25% of the 100 dollar over the office average, or twenty-five dollars for those two days; sounds good, but if that remains your average for the week, you get a grand total of twenty-five extra dollars for the week). I went door-to-door from about 4 PM to 9 PM asking people to donate money to the Democratic National Committee. I would stand on their doorsteps, asking them from the bottom of my wallet (which was pretty sparse just then) to help fund the war against John McCain. I met some interesting people, some nasty people, some hostile people, and a lot of people who couldn't afford (and others who "couldn't afford") to give me money. I memorized a script and repeated it over and over again until my mind went numb, my personality evaporated, and I was nothing but a smile and a minute-long prefabricated request for money. I began to speak in an obnoxious lilting tone and feel as though I didn't have a self. I quite the job after two weeks, which were the two most emotionally exhausting weeks of my life. More recently, I ran into a beggar while I was in a bit of a hurry. He began talking about his kids, and how he lost his job, and I realized while he was talking that everything he was saying had been rehearsed. Instead of making me hostile to the man, it made me realize just how similar my job knocking on doors was to his job standing on the street corner. I gave him more money than I probably otherwise would have. A beggar is someone who can get five dollars out of you; a fundraiser is someone who can get five thousand.

Of course, the rise of the welfare state has allowed us to forget that in many societies there is no solid line between "beggars" and "workers." In Ecuador, for instance, children beg as a supplementary income for the rest of the family. In other words, the original postulate, i.e., that "we aren't going to fix society by giving money away," is absolutely true, but with this caveat: we should begin to look at begging as a trade; it is thus not about fixing society, at all. If we want to fix society we need to look elsewhere, at larger forces and institutions around us. Begging is simply a means by which one group gains some of the surplus that large civil societies almost inevitably produce. It is not about work and laziness; after all, in a highly capitalized society such as ours, begging has, as I have shown through the comparison to my work at Grassroots, all the appearances, including many of the drawbacks, of a "job." It is about the ways in which social surplus gets redistributed, whether it be to a two dollar 40 Oz bottle of malt liquor, a four dollar hamburger, a ten dollar martini or a two hundred dollar iPod.


traxus4420 said...

great post, i had this conversation recently too (doesn't everyone), and am pleased to say i came down pretty much on the same side you did, though in a much less thorough manner.

traxus4420 said...

wanting the spare change you hand to the beggar to be about 'fixing society,' or the idea that he or she owes you some sort of emotional satisfaction like, say, buying a sandwich instead of a 40, is an investor's attitude to begging, and is basically the logic nonprofits rely on and reproduce.

Alex Greenberg said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm thinking about maybe doing some serious research on this over the summer and turning it into a conference paper.

Nathan said...

Hi Alex. Good points here. Maybe this is forthcoming, but I’m surprised you didn’t include any discussion of jinetero culture in Cuba. Granted, it’s a harder case to abstract from due to the complexity of the political situation, but it’s worth considering as a circumstance in which beggers (of a sort) are the only real entrepreneurs in the society.

Also, I work on a website which is intended to promote nonprofit transparency and encourage an investment approach to philanthropy. Obviously, the return on that investment is in x amount of social good rather than x amount of dollars so the analogy becomes a bit fuzzy. I would be interested to discuss this further. Send me an email when you get a chance.

Alex Greenberg said...

Hey Nathan,

I'm glad to see you're reading my blog. Jineteros didn't even come to mind, but that's a very good point. What's the website you're working on?

Umair said...

Very interesting! This issue has so many sides. For instance, in Pakistan, beggary is almost incidental to subaltern classes. They are professional beggars, often controlled by mafias. "Slumdog Millionaire" has that great scene where kids are blinded to make them more convincingly miserable. In India/Pakistan traditionally beggars were ascetics & were received as holders of esoteric secrets. They would go from town to town chanting poetry and singing, though this type has all but vanished. What has remained consistent is that beggars have always been pariahs from the center (cultural, racial, religious, even gender in the form of hijras or South Asia's famous transsexuals); of course being a pariah doesn't necessarily mean you are maligned.