Andy Blunden. September 2005

Is Poverty a Linguistic Construct?

I find Rob Watts’ The Poverty of Poverty in Arena 78 offensive because of the moral equivalence drawn between right-wing think-tanks like the CIS and social service organisations like the Brotherhood of St Laurence, St Vincent de Paul, etc.: ‘such players have a clear interest in promoting ‘poverty research’ as part of their advocacy for more research (and research funding) and an increase in the scale of social policy spending ... After all, the welfare organisations are in the business of charity.’ Such irremediable attacks on those who Arena readers would count as allies is particularly noteworthy given that the only substantive point made in Watts’ article is the call to apply care and science in framing political debates.

All the more galling is that in making this allegation, Watts takes his weapons directly from the CIS armoury. One of the difficulties faced by those advocate for socially disadvantage groups is that the right-wing direct their polemics not against the affected groups themselves, but against their advocates: “the social policy establishment,” “the welfare lobby,” “academics” and so on, privileged groups of the society motivated by greed, exploiting both genuinely disadvantaged groups and hard-working businessmen.

Watts lost sight of his genuine target (na´ve conceptions of the poverty line, and the irreversible negative framing of the concept of poverty), and ended up joining the right-wing chorus.

Along with most of those working in this area I share Watts’ concern that the concept of a ‘poverty line’, whether relative or absolute, measured by monetary income, is a particularly unhelpful concept. But Watts has nothing whatsoever to say about such approaches to social disadvantage as Amartya Sen’s conceptions of capacity and “critical voice” or Pierre Bourdieu’s less well-known but sophisticated approach.

But so enamoured is Watts with the US Democrats’ new spin guru, George Lakoff, that he goes so far as to claim that there is no place for empirical research into social disadvantage. Perhaps Watts means that “everyone knows” about inequality, and that the real barrier to doing something about it is winning the political battle. (I find it ironic nevertheless that the CIS promotes the same model of welfare policy that Lakoff’s Democrat Party pioneered in the US).

If Watts was able to demonstrate some depth in his understanding of social inequality, if he was able to give us some confidence that all that is required to ensure that “no child will live in poverty” is a change of government, then this would be alright. However, it seems that Watts is as much a prisoner of na´ve conceptions of the nature of social inequality as anyone else. Having poured scorn on the idea of ‘real’ or ‘objective’ ‘poverty’ which could be studied by empirical research, (Watts’ inverted commas), Watts goes on to counterpose these evidently wrong conceptions to ... ‘the reality of poverty’, ‘economic inequality’ and ‘income inequality’. What a disappointment. Concepts like “social disadvantage” with a multiplicity of contributing factors (Vinson), “social capital” (for all its faults), “cultural capital (Bourdieu), capacity or critical voice (Sen) by means of which those trying to deal with social disadvantage are trying to find a way forward — Watt knows nothing of such discussions.

All we need (according to Watts) is to initiate discussions about what “ideas like a ‘fair go’ and what economic justice might look like to Australians now,” and “Getting new kinds of taxation policies into place. ... serious long-term social investment and setting targets for income redistribution ...’

The idea that a redistributive taxation policy could fix poverty and inequality (first advocated by Marquis de Condorcet in the 18th century) is hard to hang on to after the experience of a century of the welfare state. The argument about the position of absolute and relative poverty lines is indeed less than useless, but Bob Hawke will probably be the last social democrat to promise to eliminate poverty, and that will not be because of problems of measurement, and it will not be because of problems of getting a Labor government elected (great as both problems are).

The problem of enduring poverty is in fact not separate from the problem of government. Gaining support for progressive programs capable of eliminating deprivation and poverty is the same problem as the nature of those programs themselves. The idea that progressive people like Watts and his guru Lakoff can win the spin-war and get a “smart” government elected which can then move income from the rich to the poor is actually a reactionary program which expresses the kind of commitment to social inequality which is the problem not the solution.

Writers as diverse as Babeuf, Marx, Jane Jacobs, Bourdieu, Sen, Robert Putnam and Vinson have proved that well-being cannot be ‘distributed’ by tax or incomes policy any more than it can be measured by income; well-being can only be acquired through distribution of agency (‘critical voice’, subjectivity etc., etc.); the roots of agency lie in social relations, culture, education, organisation, etc., etc., the same factors which have to be addressed to defeat the neo-liberal hegemony over political and economic life.

Political semiology may have a wider role to play than Rob Watts allows, but it’s not just words.