There’s a remarkable essay by Eugene Genovese called, “The Question,” in which he indicts his former comrades from his Communist past for refusing to confront what he calls “the monotonous recurrence of despotism and wanton cruelty” in the wake of revolution after revolution. With the insight, and perhaps some of the ruthlessness, of an apostate, he devastates the dullness with which the international Socialist movement was over and over again caught in denial about the very natural practical consequences of a philosophy of power and subjection, in the name of the greater good. The piece is remarkable in its power and in its historical argument, but there’s another issue he confronts very directly, which is really relevant to everyone who holds a controversial belief. Consider this passage:

No, I am not about to cringe before
rightwingers who supported numerous imperi-
alist slaughters or social democrats whose
responsible and moderate governments aided
and abetted them. Yes, I do remember the
glorious record of the bourgeoisie in the slave
trade and the plantation colonies and the mass
murders in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I
do recall that the Holocaust was not our doing.
I still burn at the indifference with which
virtually the whole American public received
the reports of a quarter million Indonesian
workers and peasants butchered in the 1960s,
not in a civil war but in their beds. And I know
the rest. No, I would not stand still for The
Question from those people and would proba-
bly tell them what I have always told my
classes, “Your side has had its mass murderers,
and we have had ours.”


What I want to point out here is the nature of the defense; he (as a representative Leftist) will not hear criticism of the very massacres he is attempting to indict, because the opposing speaker has an association to the bloody game of politics as well. Now in the context of the article, this is part of a slightly complex rhetorical strategy (think of Wendy McElroy starting her speech by proving she’s the biggest Feminist in the building, so that her argument will be allowed to enter hostile ears) but consider the familiar position he’s repeating, and what it means for ideas, not for groups. Of course there’s the hostility between people on the Right and Left, that’s obvious; what’s less obvious is the fact that the mere existence of the Left and Right prevent certain thoughts from ever being thought. Genovese’s Leftist prevents himself from entertaining the notion that Marxist thought is the seed of  bloodshed and failure, because Genovese’s Leftist knows there is a Rightist out there who would say exactly that, and he is a very bad guy. Inner critical thought about one’s own belief is abandoned as a liability in the face of controversy. It is an almost impossible discipline that Eugene Genovese is attempting to inspire in his comrades, and I’d admire any who could manage it.

Yet there is much to be gained from this discipline, not least that one is free from the shackles of “forbidden” thought; to be allowed to self-criticize and self-correct, that is, to improve at all, as a sane man does with all his works, even where there is a shrieking, hideous voice (we never forget the voice of our most obnoxious opponents) with which we may, momentarily agree. This property of controversy deprives us, when we let it, of the essential human power to correct our course, or even to ask ourselves whether we like our course; we let our opponent dictate our position when we do what we always do, and shout right back. It is a testament to the graveness of this intellectual error that it is quite obviously the mechanism by which both the Left and Right repeat their massacres, and never think of repenting. As long as there is a Left to criticize preemptive aggression, the Right is immune to self-doubt with regards to what their own experience should have revealed to them to be a highly dubious policy. And as long as there is a Right that invokes Reagan’s name, the Leftist’s blindspot with regard to taxation and confiscation will be entirely blind; taxes are sanctified by hatred of “tax cuts for the rich.”

Thus hardened into their courses by mutual hostility, the Left and Right bring us less satisfactory bodies of thought than they would have been able to, had the core of each simply been capable of the same kind of critical reflection about policy and principle, as everyone uses to criticize his past choice in consumer products. Where this controversial paralysis dominates, the political debate is frankly stunted and useless, as two worldviews that have never been subject to the slightest testing (for the proponents would never admit that a test had been failed) are smashed against each other with noise and hatred. Being deprived of the self-correcting processes of human thought, such a controversy is, in a very real way, a war between two gangs of unthinking brutes. The debate over any hotly-contested political cause is humanity’s best effort to contend the way that apes do.

So, taking this sunny view of political controversy, let’s ask ourselves, and our overlords, the following questions: What is poverty? On what basis do we move the standard of poverty, until it at present stands higher than the whole of humanity in 1600?

There’s a reality that goes under the name of poverty in the United States today. It consists of definite insecurity of housing, of being subject to sudden displacement at the drop of a hat. And also of the inescapable necessity of submitting to the reasonable or unreasonable demands of a very small number of competing consumers of labor (far fewer than there should be) or of accepting and embracing government aid, conditioned on government oversight and practical ownership. It has greater insecurity than definite serfdom, and often greater servility and insult. It necessitates the breaking of pride, one way or another, in order to meet the demands of the stomach. The relatively soft poverty of America has been bought at a high human price, as prostitution is more lucrative than begging. Properly answering the above questions would allow us, perhaps, to comprehend why the shovelling in of money has not filled in the hole in the lives of the poor.

But of course you’re not even allowed to ask this; you’re just trivializing poverty and are heartless and unaware of the plight of the poor, your privilege is monstrous and you should be punished for even daring to question the heroism of want that is poverty in modern America. In fact it’s critical that you be prevented from asking these, because once the question is out, and a historical context present, the game is up when it comes to physical deprivation. Dear Liberal, please tell your own grandfather how inadequate the billions spent on fighting poverty are today, when the average recipient of these funds has refrigeration, an automobile, cell phones, flush toilets, antibiotics, air conditioning, hot water, a self-lighting stove, a bed of his own, and an absolutely unshakable supply of 2500 calories per day (if he can eat that much), regardless of the weather. Even the most grinding poverty in America amounts to a vacation compared to the real pressure of hunger that exists in other times and other places. The homeless man in a modern city is surrounded by thousands of other human beings, many of whom can spare a dollar, and likewise by dozens of commercial institutions that will give him a sandwich for a dollar. Take away those two realities (the other citizens capable of offering charity, and the mass-production system that can make a meal for pennies) and you have something like the true meaning of human poverty, as it has been since the beginning. That is, you have a situation where your two options are to scrape life from the hard ground, or, if you can’t, to die. Our own grandparents, if approached during the Depression, would snort at being shown the physical conditions of modern American poverty, and having it called by that name. “Well, I’ll trade that poverty for this, any day.” And many a man alive now (in a distant land) would have the same reaction, hearing of the social benefits lavished by the Left in the modern world, upon the poor of the West. At least from his stomach’s viewpoint…

This is the reality that is impossible for the Left to hear, in the paralysis of thought that is modern politics; such words produce a reaction in the blood pressure of the listener, and apparently no other effect. Sober comparison of American poverty in the twenty-first century to bourgeois life in the twentieth (or nineteenth!) cannot be allowed to undermine the belief that modern American poverty is physically desperate and requires a check as remedy, while the gentility of those past centuries required no such rescue. And so the answer that the Left should furnish, goes unsaid (perhaps unthought), as the Leftist lets the Rightist dictate his position. He defends the use of bare income as the test of poverty, even though he must engage in the most desperate self-delusion to pretend that the life of a low-income family in America today is materially anything less than one of abundance, by any real historical standard. He must deny and blind himself to the relative triviality of the physical wants his programs are intended to satisfy, compared to those that have chased man through the centuries. Those he is rescuing have more to fear from obesity than from hunger; no wonder he goes red in the face when confronted. And yet, because he is engaged in shouting at me about the severity of physical plight of the worst case he could find, he is not improving his position, he is not getting to the root of the real misery in which so many souls are mired, in the very classes he aims to help. The man’s controversial position prevents him from understanding the plight of those he wishes to aid, and his lack of understanding prevents his aid from succeeding.

And of course the Leftist’s very reaction is what justifies the opposing error. Because the defender of big welfare programs has so thoroughly swallowed the bait, and is so thoroughly committed to the absurd position that the material plight (the insistence on “income” as the variable) of the poor is so severe as to justify all kinds of depredations, neither he nor his cause need to be taken seriously. The “advocates” for the poor are insisting that they are too deep in physical deprivation, and showing us samples of humanity that are physically better off than many dead kings. If poverty consists of settling for only thirty-two cable channels (as the Leftist definitely indicates with his income graphs), then the Rightist feels quite free to forget all about poverty. He delegates his concern for the poor to the other guy, the other guy comes back saying they’re desperately deprived, that they get bad cell reception and their air conditioners are noisy and inefficient. The Leftist thus becomes the vehicle by which the Right wing produces its own blindspot, and abandons even natural curiosity about what’s really going on in that murky land of EBT and permanent unemployment.

Neither the Left, nor the Right, comprehends the misery that fills what is called “the lower class,” because both have accepted the erroneous test of income. Not that the test is useless; it is quite useful for comprehending the problem that faces the man in real starvation conditions, or for the above comparisons between the poor in one country and another (once differences in prices are taken into account). The test of income or consumption statistics is extremely useful for identifying real, physical want, and for predicting things like caloric intake and standard of living, and it is plainly evident that this test provides none of what the Leftist depends upon it to provide. The abundance of consumer goods consumed by the American poor has increased and increased, without the fundamental problems of poverty being solved. A man who had engaged in the Leftist project for fifty years, without having his problem-solving instinct hamstrung by controversial paralysis, would look directly at this result and say, “This appears to be a case in which a symptom has been treated, rather than the disease. The persistence of all of poverty’s other qualities in the face of a radical increase in real income shows that income is a consequence of some other factor, which our methods have left unaddressed. We should change course.” Only he cannot say this, because he will  hear similar words coming out of his mouth to those he has heard from someone he has judged to be a greedy Individualist, who wants to unburden himself of the poor by starving them. The simplest technical analysis of the success of his own policies is beyond his reach.

I indeed do have some ideas of what might be the fundamental cause of the definite and real trap, of generation after generation of unemployment, insecurity, alcoholism, crime, despair, addiction, hatred, resentment, and hopelessness that plagues the poorer members of our society, regardless of their relative position among all the world’s poor. The poor in my homeland are among the first to be endangered by excessive caloric intake, or too-great an availability of the luxuries of liquor, meat, and sugar. Yet there is a definite deprivation, one that renders the demand for the poor to be satisfied with their abundance of Chinese consumer goods and hamburgers, entirely hollow and contemptible. There is a reason why a lottery ticket in one’s wallet is a borderline necessity for many, and it is not unrelated to the revulsion we all feel to the idea of tomorrow being guaranteed to be identical to today, for the rest of our lives. The future is an element of the present. But I leave it to you to discover how misery coexists with what any ancient would call physical abundance, should you manage to shake off the controversial paralysis that prevents so many from solving this simple puzzle, and prevents the monumental efforts that have been thrown into increasing “income” from increasing happiness.




Tom Woods on Eugene Genovese’s “The Question,” (audio):
The full article (.pdf): Wendy McElroy speaks at Brown University: