Poverty is the Crime

The Governments Ministry of Social Development recently published its Report “New Zealand Living Standards 2004” revealed increased rates of poverty among solo parent families on benefits, especially Maori and Pacific Island families. A number of responses have all fixed upon poverty as the result of the wrong policy rather than the wrong social system. This is like reinventing the wheel and putting your finger in the spokes. Poverty and crime are endemic under capitalism because it requires a surplus population driven by starvation wages to keep wages down. Those who cannot live by wages alone steal the bread. Poverty does not cause crime. Poverty is the real crime. Here’s a communist view of capitalist crime.

The link between poverty and crime has been obvious for hundreds of years. When Engels wrote his famous book on "The Conditions of the Working Class in England" in 1845, he made it clear poverty was not caused by low wages, but by capitalists exploiting the labour-power of the workers.

Since then, however, the labour movement has been dominated by reformists who thought that poverty could be eliminated by taxing the bosses’ profits to boost wages. Uncle Joe Savage the first Labour PM in NZ called this "Christian Socialism".

This is still the prevailing view. It means that workers are treated as voters who elect governments to raise taxes on employers and so eliminate poverty and crime. It is a view shared by Labourites, Stalinists and most of the union bureaucracy who are paid to make workers more productive for the bosses.

The NDU wages war on crime

“There is a direct link between a Ministry of Development standard of living report and a treasury report showing the increasing cost of crime, says the National Distribution Union. National Secretary Laila Harre says that reducing poverty through a decent standard of living for beneficiaries and low-paid workers is one of the most important forms of crime prevention. “Poverty and under-employment are root causes of crime,” says Ms Harre. “The higher the standard of living and the more people feel they have a stake in society, the less crime they commit. Companies, who marginalise workers through low wages, casualisation, or unequal treatment because of age, contribute to the problem and everyone pays.”

Her alternative is to make companies pay more and at the same time save the taxpayer the cost of jailing criminals. This sounds OK but really it is an appeal to the bosses couched in neo-liberal language of the benefits of tax cuts. Pay workers more and get a tax cut. “Rather than seeing the cost per prisoner increasing beyond $58,604 a year, we should be seeing a significant increase in the annual earnings of minimum wage workers up from $21,320 and $10,660 for beneficiaries.”

No doubt this would be a good thing if it could work. But after over 100 years of experience of capitalism the results are in: the gap between rich and poor is growing world wide. A hundred Sir Bob Geldofs surfing the ozone naming and shaming the corporations and the ‘West’ will not change that.

Geldof names and shames NZ

Geldof flew in recently for a concert and a gig for ‘Make Poverty History’. As we have said before, MPH is a fraud perpetrated on the poor by middle class do-gooders who think that recycling some of their record royalties or taking a tour through Africa like Brad Pitt can make history. But it doesn’t make history is just makes the news and profits for the advertisers.

The poverty gap exists not because of any lack of effort to redistribute incomes, but despite it. The evidence that reforms can reverse this fact is almost non-existent. Imperialism is a giant machine that sucks out the wealth of the impoverished semi-colonial world, leaving a bit for the local bosses to get fat on, and squeezing the living standards of the masses to the point of starvation. (See article on the Bolivian landless). The poor can only get an increased share in exceptional circumstances where imperialism does not own or control the wealth and dictate prices and terms. Hugo Chavez can pay for reforms because the imperialists are hooked on Venezuelan oil which they do not directly own or control.

One fact stands out though. Reforms do not come from celebrities’ guilt-tripping around trying to make us ‘own’ a poor or dying child. While a few children may be saved, the rest continue to die at a growing rate because the world’s resources are pocketed by the bosses as accumulated profits and this behaviour is mimicked by the grasping middle classes.

Reforms are won only by massive organised pressure from below that break out of the controls imposed on the working class. The bosses will open their pockets if they fear losing their wallets. But mostly they keep their pockets crammed and workers lose their lives.

The Alliance blames poverty on Labour

Alliance co-leader Len Richards in a recent press release stated:

“The Alliance Party says that a living standards report showing that 8% of New Zealanders are suffering severe hardship is a brutal reminder of the reality of life for the poor in New Zealand. The incidence of hardship in beneficiary families has increased by almost 50% between 2000 and 2004.The report shows a decline in the real income of beneficiary families with children had contributed to a rise to 8 per cent in the number of people experiencing severe hardship in 2004. That compared with 5 per cent in 2000.”

Richards goes on to blame the Labour Party as ‘scandalous’ for not living up to its ideals:

“…this is a result of the mean-minded social welfare policies of a Labour Government that targets help towards the 'deserving' working poor. He says that on the 90th birthday of the Labour Party, it is disturbing that the Labour Government is trying to play down the figures. What would the founders of the Labour Party say if they were alive today? They would not recognize these complacent careerists. It is a scandal that Labour leaves so many of them suffering on the margins of society.”

Richards recognises that both Labour and National follow policies that drive down benefits and wages for the profits of the rich:

"Those on benefits are left to suffer hardship as a goad to force them into some form of paid employment. These people are forced to accept paid work at any wage offered, which tends to keep down the wage rates of those in work. Labour and National are competing to see who can build the most jails for the next generation of young people who have already been written off by the "political puppets of the rich".

But instead of drawing the conclusion that reformist policies have failed to get rid of poverty, the Alliance concludes that it is the Labour Party’s betrayal that is the problem.

The solution is to elect an Alliance government that will

“raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, ensure genuine full employment with public works, raise benefit levels, embark on a massive upgrade of state housing stock, and ensure access to all in a free public health and education system. The first $10 000 of income would be taxfree, with a rise in income tax for the wealthy, and GST would be abolished, starting with food.”

It’s true that both Labour and National are running policies that force people to work or face poverty. But these are the conditions imposed by international capitalism on a weak, dependent semi-colonial economy like NZ’s. No government, including an Alliance government, can significantly change these conditions while continuing to rule on behalf of the bosses.

Only working class organisations such as those of beneficiaries, homeless, landless and unemployed linked up to the labor movement can do anything positive about the ‘conditions of the poor’. Maori land rights movements are one such development. Another self-help measure is the ‘clustering’ together of the poor to pool their incomes so that they can at least survive. However, this self-help measure is now being vigorously attacked by the rightwing as undermining economic self-reliance and the values of family life.

‘Clustering’: a self-help answer to poverty

Clustering came to light as a side issue of the Kahui killings (see article). There were eight adults and a larger number of children living on benefits in one house. Sharing the rent and expenses is a way of surviving economic hardship when families cannot survive on income tested benefits. But because of the confined space it creats problems of overcrowding and conflicts among those living there. Clearly this form of ‘clustering’ is a measure of desperation and not a solution to poverty.

But rather than seeing it as a survival mechanism, the political right has labelled clustering ‘dysfunctional’ because it does not conform to the traditional patriarchal family. The Maxim Institute says that this ‘dysfunction’ undermines self-reliance because it deters adults from having to go to work. It creates moral problems too as overcrowding does not allow ‘normal’ parental authority over children to develop. At worst it creates an environment where child abuse can lead to deaths.

As if to prove themselves more right than the right, new, new right Blairite, John Tamahere, and the ‘Nation’s Kaumatua’ Peter Sharples publicly intervene to force those in ‘dysfunctional’ families to become ‘normal’. This means a return to the wider whanau where self-annointed patriachal chiefs will dictate family life. Tamahere will take charge of the budgets and privatise welfare into Maori Trusts, while Sharples will take charge of the whanaus’ moral guidance.

But the answer is not to condemn clustering. It’s a rational collective response to terrible conditions to share resources and to meet needs. The extreme negative side of clustering is the jail where people live in a totally controlled institution. But there is a positive side. Clustering should be extended out of isolated state houses and broken down communities on the model of land rights movements, such as that of Parihaka which took in political and economic refugees from all over the country and created a model self-sufficient, cooperative community, labelled by the racist settlers as “communistic”. The history of these movements could become a positive model for building working class communes today.

What to do? Communes everywhere!

The NDU wants companies to pay better wages. But this will only happen if workers get organised to win their demands. Individuals workers cannot persuade bosses to pay them more to keep them out of jail. And striking as a militant labour movement is a sure way to go to jail. The bosses are always prepared to pay for this kind of ‘clustering’. Against the bosses’ clusters, workers need to recreate their own communities where they can solve their problems collectively. To get the resources to do this they must fight for workers control of the means of production.

The first step is to organise collectively on the job to defend jobs, wages and conditions. If workers gang up on the job to get what they need, this will prove that capitalists must cut jobs, wages and conditions to raise their profits, and that as an organised labour force they have a common class interest to fight for workers control of production and to overthrow capitalism.

Organisations that claim to represent workers like the NDU and the Alliance will only be able to embark on the road of collective struggle if they stop appealing to workers and bosses as individual taxpayers and voters, and start organising fighting, democratic unions grounded in working class communities that pool their resources so they can take control of their lives.

From Class Struggle 67 June/July 2006

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