Marxist naivety in Poverty Narratives

Diagnoses of poverty by the left are implicitly Marxist and have a kernel of Christian truth buried deep within them.

When we look at a desperately poor place in the world today we see structures that are hurting the people and this is true. We also implicitly imagine that in the not-so-distant past the parents of these oppressed people had been living freely, happily, flourishing, to put a Marxist spin on it, not being alienated from the fruit of their production. But if we pause and ask “please identify for me when this idyllic past was?” without too much thinking we’ll quickly see that it didn’t exist.

Why sure things might have been better, probably in some ways that we are paying attention to specifically directed by the specific ways they are worse today, but does this implicit narrative really hold up well? It isn’t far from the Monty Python sketch of “what did the Romans ever do for us!”

Let’s run this script back in the case of the Haitians in the Dominican Republic.

These people are regularly highlighted as an oppressed people. As is often the case those being subjugated by the poor are in an even worse lot than those being subjugated by the wealthy (contrary to Marxist suspicions of poverty leading to nobility of character) because there are simply fewer scraps to fall from the table. The slave of a slave is probably worse off than the slave of a wealthy person for a few reasons I don’t want to chase down right now.

Anyway, we might imagine “well things were better for those Haitians back when they lived in Haiti, had their own little farm, were legal in their country and didn’t have to work for oppressive capitalists in the DR (even though may Haitians work for the rather socialist state sugar cane corporation).

We might pause here and ask “well then how did they get to Haiti?”

This is a common immigration dynamic where the immigrant comes to a wealthier country to look for a better life only to find that their dreams haven’t worked out the way they wanted. So while the the Haitian who gets to American earns more money you will hear they wistfully remembering what they miss from back home. Immigrants of many kinds do this including the Dutch. I saw this all the time among Haitians in the DR and Dominicans in New York.

The reason they left Haiti was because they imagined there was more opportunity in the DR knowing full well there would also be hardships, so the left Haiti and struggle to stay in the DR, even illegally, braving random and mass repatriations, losing their property, jeopardizing their family getting split up, etc. Why do all of this? Because somewhere in their minds they have done the cost/benefit analysis that it is better for them for some reason as an individual to tough it out in the DR.

OK, so then we turn the story back a notch and say “well that is because of oppressive structures in Haiti” and that is certainly true. There ARE oppressive structures in Haiti.

Then we usually make the move to Haitian revolt against the European colonialists. They DID overthrow their colonial and slave overlords and when they looked for aid to the US the white/European/Colonial Americans gave them the cold shoulder and sided with their racial kind. So haha, RACISM! To which I agree. Yes, American racism, among other things kept the US from siding with the glorious revolution in Haiti.

I agree that if the US had helped the black former slaves Haiti could have done better and maybe the story of the nation wouldn’t be so sad, but I think we should probably add some of the other reasons why the Americans didn’t want to.

It wasn’t purely race, it was also slavery. Would you imagine slave owners like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington would really want to encourage a slave revolt on a Caribbean Island while how many African slaves were in bondage in the US?

So racism and African slavery and capitalism and European cultural affinity. So all of those bad things, not just one. That’s my point here. you can find racism in all of them, but it isn’t simply racism.

Let’s also imagine that if there were large, flourishing, wealthy, powerful African states (remember the Europeans at this point were NOT able to penetrate far into Africa because their lack of immunity to African illnesses would keep them out for a few generations yet) wouldn’t the Haitians have naturally looked to ally themselves with those states rather than looking to the US? And if we’re still pushing back the clock why DID the Europeans successfully colonize the Americas and not a successful African tribal group (“nations” hadn’t developed yet in Africa) instead of Europeans? Read Guns, Germs and Steel for some ideas of perhaps why.

And if the Americans (who were at that point far from powerful as was displayed in the War of 1812) had offered Haiti assistance and solidarity as revolutionaries against European tyranny (notice again the implicit selection of a single isolated factor) would that have truly made a systemic difference for the ancestors of the individuals who I met in the DR who came there for a better life? Hard to say. The history of Haiti hasn’t simply been poor treatment by Europeans. Papa Doc and Baby Doc were very black and plenty ruthless against their own people.

Now we might say it could have been better and the Americans shouldn’t have been so racist or capitalistic to turn their backs on the Haitians and I agree. We can say that they shouldn’t have been a good many things that we disagree with. They missed the mark! To put it in religious terms they were sinners, as groups and as individuals. We might say that if Thomas Jefferson had been a better person the world might have been better. YES. If George Washington had been a better person the world might have been better. YES. But now notice how we’ve changed from systems to individuals. The corruption of systems AND individuals both contribute to systemic missing the mark, not only in terms of racism but in terms of ever other “ism” you want to point to. It’s both-and.

My point here is also that we always implicitly turn back to a golden age, and idealized time usually before we have much high-resolution information and say “ah ha, the ancestors of the Haitians lived happily in Africa, in peace each under their own tree, with their own little garden to feed their family!”

Now let’s pause here and ask if that was the stable state before we know the story.

We should be looking at 2 things. One is the commonality of mythical vision of a pre-historical Eden and a corruption story, AND the lack of historical evidence for such a story.

This was a vision of the Americas too before the Europeans came over. The more we learn about pre-Columbian American the more complicated the picture gets. Yes, they didn’t have the Eurasian diseases that wiped them out, partly because they didn’t have the domesticated animals which would have contaminated them in the first place, and because their ancestors wiped out most of the large ice-age mammals early on. While certain some tribes experienced golden ages the overall context was very human both in terms of ongoing struggle and death (thorns and thistles from Genesis 3) and warfare not only between tribal and ethnic groups (racism wasn’t invented by Europeans) but brother against brother (Genesis 4 Cain and Abel).

These peoples of course brought these ways likely over the Bering Sea land bridge.

I other words we are knocking on the door of the Christian narrative.

By accident? Probably not. These stories from Genesis have long penetrated our imaginations and it is no surprise they found their way into Marxism.

What else found its way into our imaginations is the image of everyone with their own little plot of ground to feed themselves. Sounds a lot like the Mosaic law and the year of Jubilee and the plot for each family doesn’t it all beneath (for theists of course) a God who will hold the surrounding nations back and keep the wild beasts at bay and keep the soil fertile and the animals producing herds and the wives producing sons and daughters (read Deuteronomy). Isn’t that the imagined vision in Haiti or Africa or America or any of the places we see as being oppressed by Europeans? And what about the oppressed of Europe that Marx first identified? Europe had their poor people too and they came to America why?

So the left says “structures that miss the mark (sin) are to blame!” to which I say YES. Implicit in this critique is plenty of Christianity but plenty of other stuff too. What is implicit in the solution? That’s what we should really be examining isn’t it.

Now the right wades in and says “but what about the sin in the individual?!” and they are right too. Systems and individuals work together and we see a constant struggle between those two elements too just like we see between rival ethnic groups and rival sexes and rival anything.

In the great Communist experiment why did “the system” fail? People who want to try again blame Stalin or Lenin. OK, fine. But isn’t the key to your system that they system will always win out over individual greed which fuels Capitalism? That system surely didn’t do that.

Look at the American system of government. Isn’t that system too one that attempts to limit the power of the individual for the sake of the group? Checks and balances right? It fails too.

The Right rightly points out that it is up to individuals and that failure is do to individual failure. YES. That too!

Individuals AND Systems are in an ongoing war. Do we find THAT in the Bible too? YES. Families and kings and states and empires. It’s all there. Read the Book of Revelation.

The solution in the Bible is also individual and communal. It is individual conversion and group work in the Church.

The Left gets some things right and wrong. The right gets some things right and wrong. Individual failure leads to church failure and church failure leads to individual mal-formation and misery. YES.

 

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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