Poor? Be ashamed. Be very ashamed: Poverty. A point of departure…


The ability to go about without shame – the words of Adam Smith, father of free market economics, capitalist, and author of Inquiry into to the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). For Smith, the idea of being able to go about without shame was exemplified by the wearing of a linen shirt and leather shoes. Within the free market economic system of monetary exchange, the [cap]ability to wear a linen shirt and leather shoes is determined by access to money. By extrapolation, shame is engendered by the absence of money, as the [cap]ability to go about without shame in a capitalist system, that is the [cap]ability to exchange money for a linen shirt and leather shoes, is proportionate to the individuals [cap]ability to accumulate money. 

In a capitalist system, the [cap]ability to engage in waged labour, is the only legitimate means by which workers can guarantee access to money; thereby the absence of waged labour can be said to supersede the absence of money as the source of shame. The idea that poor people should feel shame in of the absence of waged labour and thereby a diminished capacity for the accumulation of money, is reproduced by capital – through its control and ownership of the means of (mass) communication – the media; possible only because of the transformational power of money, which, enclosed by capital, holds not only economic, but also social and relational value. Money becomes the marker of individual worth – enclosing within it: the power to transmogrify the blameless into the blameworthy – the victim into the offender. That the means of production (that is the ownership of the resources needed to produce a thing) and so too the power to (engage in waged) labour is itself enclosed by capital is conveniently ignored. In the global north, the worker who has been excluded from the means of his or her own [re]production becomes dependent on the state; capitals understanding of dependence on the state being an illegitimate claim on unearned shares of capital assets – represented in the media as a consequence of personal failings and superseding the absence of waged labour as the primary source of shame. Perhaps this is the real ‘Tragedy of the Commons¹ .

But in this state of advanced global capitalism, best served by the availability of cheap labour, the absence of money is no longer defined by the absence of waged labour. Like anything else labour is a commodity, and in todays globalised world, the [cap]ability of the worker to sell his or her labour is determined by the price of (comparably skilled) labour elsewhere in the world, regardless of any cost of living differentials. In the U.K. context, and indeed the rest of the global north, this has translated into a steady decline in the monetary exchange value of labour, that is also increasingly divorced from the monetary exchange value of basic commodities such as food and shelter. What this means in practical terms, is that the working poor now represent more than half of all those living in poverty in the U.K.   

How can this be socially sustainable? Well of course most would argue it is not. Others, like Professor of Political Economy Massimo De Angelis, would argue that we have already reached a point of no return: an ‘epochal moment…requiring a realignment of class relations and new systems of governance..’ 



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