Correcting the Poor: The Civilizing Impulses of Homo Corporatus and Private Charities*

This is the next post in my series on Neoliberalism and Charity. Part 1 is posted here and at New Economic Perspectives.


Should anyone—the state or any other source–have an obligation to interfere with you in order bring your best, flourishing, self about?

Certainly, this is the debate that philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin and libertarians such as Robert Nozick have engaged in heartily, with a view to socialist frameworks that redistribute resources in order to produce certain kinds of outcomes. Should the state impose certain ideals and goals upon you, and why? There are certainly examples of very good certain state-imposed expectations such as seatbelts or prohibitions against drunk driving, as well as terrible examples, such as state-imposed prohibitions on certain kinds of drugs.

In a neoliberal era, the corollary to above question is whether non-state organizations should have the ability to interfere with you in order to bring about your best, flourishing, self?

This question emerges in the wake of the heralded contrition of Sam Polk, as expressed in a New York Times opinion piece, where he offered a self-congratulatory description of his decision to give up being a Wall Street trader and “money addict,” and instead to form a charity that awards “grocery scholarships” to “poor moms.”

Polk’s charity, Groceryships, on its face appears to be a thoughtful idea.  Indeed, the basic Groceryship is a “scholarship for groceries.”

 Soon a simple one emerged: what if we bought groceries for a family for six months. I imagined a single mom, working overtime to try to put food on her table, and falling short. We wanted to give that mom some breathing room, and her kid some healthy food in the process.

The language of Groceryships is certainly neutral, but tells a story that reveals a number of assumptions about poor folks. In his tale about how Groceryships started, Polk gives a narrative about how he and his physician wife learned about eating better. And how they might be healthier if they ate better (apparently, this was previously unknown to them).  So they got to work, switching to whole foods, eliminating processed and fatty foods. Though they suffered “withdrawal” from their addiction to unhealthy foods, they were able to kick their habit. (addiction seems to be the lens by which Polk understands many phenomena).

We started buying tons of vegetables and whole grains, and cut down on fatty meats, sugar, and processed foods. It was hard. Very hard. Kirsten and I both experienced what we can only describe as withdrawal symptoms—nightmares, panicky feelings, irritability.

After a few weeks those symptoms faded. We found we enjoyed eating healthy and especially how good we felt. We no longer had to battle ourselves about whether to eat another Cheetos, or felt shame about eating too much cake. That everyday battle-stress just faded away. We ate at mealtimes, snacked when hungry, and felt great. After three months, Kirsten got her cholesterol levels tested. They’d been cut in half. She went off Lipitor.

Polk and his spouse were so impressed with the results that they wanted to share their newfound knowledge and to give back to society at the same time.

A few months later, we watched A Place At The Table (sic), a documentary focused on the staggering numbers of Americans, especially children, facing food insecurity. Each day 50 million people in this country (including one in four children) go hungry.

Growing up, my parents struggled, living paycheck to paycheck. But it never got so bad that food wasn’t on the table. Kirsten and I were horrified that so many people—kids!—were hungry. We were especially horrified that many of these kids lived down the street from us. Los Angeles is a segregated city. It’s easy to forget that just a few miles away people were starving.

I guess the truth is that we had known that; we’d just never taken ownership of our responsibility to do something about it. That day, we decided to help.

Polk recognizes the correlation between poverty and hunger, but he frames this correlation in the language of “choice” and options:

Hunger in America looks strange; there is a definite correlation between food insecurity and obesity. You’d think that people who can’t afford food would be rail thin, but it’s often the opposite. People that struggle to make ends meet tend to opt for the cheapest calories, processed/fast food. They often live in Food Deserts, areas where nutritious produce is simply not available. (Emphasis mine)

Perhaps the implied causation was inadvertent. Perhaps Polk recognizes that such “opting” is the result of being short of cash. In which case, the solution would be to distribute sufficient money to buy healthier food. And certainly, that seems to have been the initial idea, but Polk frames the solution in these terms:

…we realized that mom could also use some nutrition education and group support. We remembered how difficult quitting sugar and processed/fast food was for us, and we realized that a structure of support would be helpful, necessary.

It suggests helpfully, liberally, perhaps due to no fault of their own, that poor moms don’t know much about nutrition.  So, families who receive a “Groceryship” will be supported not only financially, but medically, educationally, and emotionally. Support typically means resources are available to help one advance towards a goal, but not mandated. By contrast, mandatory resources are not forms of support, but a form of discipline: if you must avail yourself of a resource, then you are not supported, rather you are compelled.

Groceryship awards are not merely the distribution of groceries with the “option” of attending nutrition classes; rather the classes are required. “Poor moms” who apply for the meritorious award must swear their allegiance and commitment to attending nutrition classes, “weekly meetings” and to do weekly homework. It’s as if they were young, naïve, subservient children.

Indeed, Polk acknowledges that his program is different from “but can be used in conjunction with SNAP (food stamps) which provides financial to support to struggling families (link not in original),

 but doesn’t insist the money be spent on healthful foods, or teach families how to prepare and shop for those healthy foods.” (emphasis mine)

In that simple sentence, Polk reveals more of his (limited) worldview: the state “does not insist that the money be spent on healthful foods.”

Had Polk searched, he would have found that, if anything, food stamps severely constrain the purchase of healthy foods. According to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, the maximum monthly budget for a family of 4 (i.e. those who have no other income) on food stamps is $632.

That boils down to $5.64 per person per day. Whole Foods, expensive as it is, accepts food stamps; there are multiple sites where families have accepted the “Thrifty Whole Foods” challenge to shop for whole foods on a food stamp budget. I’ll let them tell their stories—many of which have various helpful hints about how to shop and cook on a limited budget.

In short: it is possible to cook healthy foods on a severely restricted budget. But healthy foods require adequate kitchen facilities to process and cook them.  Poor families, who can presumably afford housing that is cheap (cheap because landlords don’t make repairs to provide decent stoves, rat- and cockroach-proof storage, adequate refrigerators needed to store fresh foods), often do not have those facilities, therefore tenants are forced to choose processed, sealable, storable foods.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, time (or more its scarcity) becomes a severe constraint if a “poor mom” is also working or doesn’t have access to child-care so that she can schlep to her Whole Foods easily/quickly, and also process said healthy foods. The issue of access to transportation that allows her to get to her Whole Foods will also, chances are, constrain her free cooking time further.  But all of these constraints raise another urgent issue: namely the assumption that someone who is both cash- and time-poor is expected to cook whole foods after long, difficult, days. How many working professionals are expected to cook full, healthy meals after a full day of work?

Aside from the sheer difficulty of spending money on “healthful foods,” there is also the issue of why any state should impose a certain standard on those who are dependent upon public monies for survival, when it does not impose the same expectations on the rest of its citizens.  It calls to mind Isaiah Berlin’s discussion of positive liberty.

For Berlin, positive liberty–defined as the ability to “be my own master,”[1] is least harmful when I am able to decide how to live my own life, to make my own decisions, rather than to have to depend upon external forces. As a counterpart to negative liberty, namely that where I would be protected from being harmed by others and the state, positive liberty allows me to find a way to flourish, to decide how I want to live.  In this idea, Berlin marks an idea that re-emerges a decade later in Hannah Arendt. Arendt criticizes the “Social,” that dimension of society that is subsumed by the economy, where one’s acts are instrumental—where one works in order to make a living.[2]

For Arendt, this idea undermines our very humanness. It coerces us into thinking only about life, about living, rather than acting, understood as great words and great deeds. The economy, with its inducement to consume, to work in order to live and consume—was anathema to Arendt. Arendt was critical of the notion that one’s goals must have utility. Being healthy is exemplifies this idea: Health has become naturalized as an end in itself, but in fact is about usefulness: to be less of a drain on society, to be aesthetically pleasing, to appear successful.

To be fair, Arendt’s is precisely not a socialist ideal, where one’s needs are met through a communal society, where one hunts, fishes, reads, in the model of a balanced life. Nevertheless, Arendt’s fear comports with Berlin’s, who skeptically asks:

“What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”

To find a way to flourish without being forced to live out another’s expectations for you—this was both Arendt’s and Berlin’s concern. This question was a challenge to the authoritarian state whose creeping influence, in their experiences, had been detrimental, to say the least.

But the creeping state is not the issue at stake with regard to Sam Polk and Groceryships. Rather, the issue of state-imposed expectations has been derailed with the forceful emphasis on civil society as the arena by which to solve various social and economic problems.

Civil society, a term that G.W.F. Hegel used to indicate that arena where the public and private meet, has a distinctly different sense today. Whereas Hegel circumscribed civil society as that where the individual and the state can interact through intermediate organizations such as guilds, or unions, today’s civil society is that arena where the state has dialed back its obligations in order to allow private organizations and individuals to pick up the slack.

Polk’s charity, like that of many others (such as Teach for America, charter schools, Kiva) that have sprung up in the last several decades, reflects the success of a paradigm that has emerged over the last 3 decades. This paradigm endorses private, faith-based, or “non-profit” charities as the foundation of civil society (defined as a non-government sector). These organizations, endorsed by every U.S. President since Ronald Reagan, have facilitated the evacuation of a public safety net—an evacuation that goes hand in hand with the deregulation of the banking industry, and the steady erosion of unions, public pensions, and labor protections.

Certainly, it is unreasonable to expect that the state can or will address all levels of public need. But private non-governmental charities have fewer Congressional or procedural inhibitions  what they may demand of the constituents that they claim to want to help, such as the ability to impose certain behavioral features.

Groceryships imposes many strings for the mere flaw of being poor.  According to the rules of applying for a Groceryship, being poor apparently means one chooses to eat unhealthily. Being poor apparently means that one is “addicted” to fast foods and sugar (this isn’t such a far-fetched idea for Polk, who frames his past actions in finance as the result of an “an addiction” to wealth).

Thus, to be eligible for a Groceryship, poor moms can’t have excessively large families (“no more than 3 children”), and be only moderately poor. And they “must” need/want/be eager/be motivated/be ready to adopt a healthy lifestyle, to want to be healthy, to be open to new ideas. See here.

Groceryships’ expectations fit into the neoliberal paradigm that I discussed in another piece, namely that poor people, more so than the non-poor, have an obligation to be moral, aesthetically reasonable, healthy, happy, and eager about it.

The most vulnerable—or as I say elsewhere, those who are perceived to be unruly—are seen as scary, dangerous, frightful because they are seen as “failures” due to their personal characters rather than through their circumstances: Why are they poor? Why don’t they eat better? Why are they fat? Why are they rude? Why are they noisy and loud?

If the poor just worked harder, smoked less, didn’t do drugs, shunned McDonald’s and cooked more, then they too could be as aesthetically pleasing—and perhaps as successful and happy as Sam Polk and his spouse.  This is one of the pernicious implications of a neoliberal economic model: the poor are expected to fulfill the aesthetic and moral expectations of the upper-class of what it means to live “a good life,” to flourish. And they are subject to those who are precisely in a position to be able to dictate the life goals for those who are more vulnerable.

Being poor means that if one wants to have one’s poverty relieved slightly or temporarily (remember, the Groceryship is for 6 months, after which one still remains poor), one is at the mercy of the ex-money addict Sam Polk and his neoliberal buddies, who are cheered for “helping the poor.”

Let’s remember that Polk’s money-addiction days were part of a milieu—a group of traders/financiers/bankers who were engaging in a set of practices that were both induced and condoned by state power and general pre-financial crisis societal approval. That is to say, his role in JP Morgan Chase, or other financial corporations who contributed heavily to the banking crisis (including mortgage foreclosures on the working class and minority populations) was seen as a positive contribution, until around 2008/9. Moreover, the state—both Congress and the Executive Branch–continues to condone it through (pro-banking) legislation that allowed CEOs to receive large bonuses in spite of their roles, or through supposedly punitive legislation that slapped banks lightly on their wrists, and paid out less than $2000 per person to those who lost their homes over a three year period. Moreover, this settlement changed nothing in the relationship between the borrower and loan servicing company.

By framing Polk’s actions within an individualizing framework (be it therapeutic or moral conscience), and without locating them in a larger political/cultural structure, this frame precisely engenders the kind of glorification that is showered upon Polk, by Jacqueline Novogratz and many others such as Rachel Cook, Jessica Jackley…and the Nobel Peace Prize winning innovator of microfinance himself, Mohammed Yunus, who are engaged in similar, if not identical, shifts.

What Polk et al. appear to be doing here is making a move from a “corporate free market” to a “non-profit free market,” which in no way challenges the idea that poverty and wealth are exclusively about individual choices. Rather, Polk’s (and Novogratz and Yunus) shifts still emphasize the ideology and primacy of the “free market,” coupled with a rhetorical emphasis on hard work, along with individual moral, personal, social accountability for darker or non-American population.  In Yunus’ case, micro-lending is tested in Bangladesh; for Novogratz, it’s taken to East Africa, India, Pakistan and Ghana, and for Polk, it’s applied to black and Latino populations of Southern California.

But there is another aspect of this that is also troublesome: the self-satisfaction experienced by these “free market successes” who reclaim their moral sensibilities through the act of walking away after making millions in profits and then turning to “help the poor” on their terms. They are cheered for their charity work (in an individualist frame) without being asked about their participation in a financially corrupt, morally bankrupt “free market” system that allowed these individuals to “flourish” at the expense of millions of individuals who are unable to access the free market system because they don’t have the connections or “moral luck” to have been born in the right place at the right time.  As economist Dean Baker clarifies in his book, The Conservative Nanny State, there is nothing “free” about the free market: it is rigged to benefit those who already have at the expense of those who don’t.

As well: this kind of neoliberal framework ensures that the ruling class will shape the poor, by forcing them to behave, reshape themselves through these seemingly neutral, or generous, charities in Sam Polk et al.’s own ill-informed visions of what it means to be a successful citizen.

This, then, is an expression of Michel Foucault’s biopolitics: those who are induced to cultivate themselves in the image of the ruling class are those who are the most vulnerable—subject to the whims and dictates of the wealthy and the powerful.  This is the success of the neoliberal paradigm: it renders to Homo Corporatus (or Homo Wall Streetus) the freedom and flexibility to shape the actions and character of the most vulnerable to those who have the money, the power, and the favor of the state; simultaneous Homo Corporatus’ contributions, the results of plunder and the corporate nanny state—are read as an individual/private acts of generosity to help those who are most needy, those were rendered needy through institutional/governmental/financial practices.

[1] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 131. In Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford U Press: 1969.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, ch. 6. University of Chicago Press, 1958.

*Updated version. Thanks to Robin James, Janine Jones, and Robert Prasch for their helpful comments.


Consumer Activism and the Biopolitics of Consumption

In my research, I’ve been exploring neoliberalism and the biopolitics of charity. How do we understand consumption and activism in a society whose social/public safety nets are increasingly eroded?

I’m going to try to post a series of pieces on neoliberal practices.  This is the first. And there’s a fun snarky video at the end.


Last month, I wrote an article about former financier Sam Polk, whose move from Wall Street to Groceryships has been celebrated as an example of the 1% awakening to a moral conscience.  Groceryships is a charity that gives “grocery scholarships” to “poor moms” in order, ostensibly, to alleviate their meager budgets for healthy foods. But the scholarships come with many strings attached: to swear an allegiance to want to be healthy; commitments to attend weekly nutrition classes, do homework, take cooking classes. More on Groceryships in my next piece.

In my original article, I suggested that this kind of charity was an instance of a colonizing mission akin to religious charities who deliver sermons along with meals to the poor. And…needless to say, I challenged the legitimacy of this mission.

Polk’s shift from being a trader to the director of this charity (and the existence of such a charity) represents but one datapoint in an increasingly hegemonic neoliberal society. He characterizes his past existence as about addiction: he was addicted to making lots of money, as he understands it. As Chris Maisano has discussed in an aptly named article, “Chicken Soup for the Neoliberal Soul,” this kind of self-assessment is but part of a dominant therapeutic culture in which certain socially disapproved actions (e.g., excessive drinking/extramarital sex/public prayer/corporate plunder/civilian violence) are attributed to personal flaws. Therapeutic discourse individualizes the action and isolates it from larger, societal phenomena that are indicative of a certain worldview. It also locates anti-social practices in personality attributes that must be corrected and improved by the individual, presumably in ways that are easily visible to others.

This model underlies a range of consumer-activist campaigns: from spending a year producing zero trash, or without spending or shopping or driving or using toilet paper or electricity, or “voting with your fork.” The idea is that one’s politics is best enacted through what one consumes (or doesn’t).

Although the details of each of these various campaigns differ, there are some details that they have in common: each project centers on the individual as the locus of responsibility, thereby depoliticizing the issue at hand, and reducing it to an “individual” choice: to make garbage or recycle; to spend or not; to have a carbon footprint or not; to consume only healthy foods or not.

Such campaigns don’t take into account the context of the issue about which they drumbeat: whether it be waste management (such as where landfills are located, or the health impact of these landfills on surrounding populations), or trash production (involving the notable absence of regulations requiring companies to produce goods in recyclable containers).  The precise point of such consumer-activism is that larger social structures that induce ill impacts on a larger society can be ignored in favor of the “every individual can make a difference” model.  True: if 350 million individuals discarded their cell-phones, or decided to live off the grid, or stopped spending or producing trash simultaneously, we would certainly notice the impact right away. But this hope ignores several important things:

1. It is easier and morally satisfying to shame individuals about their individual behavior, even though it is not as effective as changing the choices they face.

2. It is possible to achieve changes in collective social behavior: by regulating certain practices and penalizing individuals who violate the law.

3. Passing legislation that compels companies to stop polluting, producing trash, (or encouraging them) to grow healthier crops, distribute whole foods widely, find alternative energy sources, etc., may be much more effective in reducing the overall destructive impact—though much more difficult—than changing collective behavior.

4. Consumer-activism reinforces the myth of choice and the neo-classical emphasis on free-markets by focusing on the individual as the locus of change rather than considering the role of social structures (such as the practices of corporations that benefit from the myth of free markets and individual choice).

In other words, the standard corporate response to individual-consumer activism can safely remain: Buy our products if you like them. Or don’t. It won’t really affect our profits or force us to change our practices if individuals act alone. Because hey, the state doesn’t really care, and it is the only force that can compel us to change or lose money. And they (Congress/Senate/President) won’t compel us to change, because we are among their major contributors.

Consumer-activism is but an expression of neoliberal society. There are multiple aspects to neoliberalism, but for my purposes here, a neoliberal society is one in which state support of citizens is evacuated in favor of the privatization of individual well-being. So if you want to be healthy, spend more money and eat better and join a gym, or (“less expensively”) buy sneakers/”cheap” workout accoutrements. If you want a better environment: recycle more, produce less trash. If you want to be less stressed: work less, get off the grid, go for nature walks in the woods across the street.

This model ignores the class dimension of “choice”: one doesn’t just decide to eat better, work less, use less electricity, spend “less,” in a vacuum. In fact there is an invisible context for each “individual” decision, which because it is invisible becomes depoliticized. That context requires an indefinite supply of time or money, preferably both:

1. Money and time are trade-offs. One often spends money in order to save time. One may eat out to save the time of making and packing lunch. On the other hand, it is much easier to eat better—especially in US society (where street and fast foods are often greasy, fried, and/or made of low-quality ingredients)—if one has the time to cook whole grains and unprocessed foods at home.

2. Money buys access to better resources/ingredients: organic, chemical-free, exotic unseasonal foods that are often grown across the country and shipped to one’s local health food/Whole Foods Market-like store.

3. Time is a scarce resource for the professional-class, working-poor, and the indigent. For different reasons. Some of them have to do with “labor-markets,” in which our job hours are not regulated by the state, or by other factors such as job-precarity (I may lose my job if I don’t work the longer hours my employer quietly/implicitly demands).

4. Those with limited access to money must make up for it with time:  For the indigent and working-poor, time poverty is further exacerbated by bureaucratic demands and long waits at social service organizations (public health clinics, etc.), long distances from and public transportation to areas where higher-quality/lower-cost goods can be found; time-poverty is also exacerbated by limited access to affordable child-care (when it cannot be outsourced to a private nanny or day—care center) among other constraints.

By contrast, those with money but limited time can buy their way out of politically, socially, economically exploitative situations. Likewise, those with money, to differing degrees, can buy their way out of limited choices, such as:

-Low-quality food (and thus move to more-expensive foods)
-Low-quality or resource-constrained health care (public medical clinics)
-Child-care constraints

Those with time (and a lot of money, or some money but other abundant resources, such as large plots of land, clean water, decent housing, and robust social networks) can “choose” to grow their own food, can preserves, eat organically, etc.

While this group may contain poor folks, these are often those who have been able to “downsize,” from a wealthier life. These (I’ll call them “Downsizers”) should not be confused with those who are forced to live frugally because of forced unemployment, limited employment, disability, or other imposed financial constraints (“Forcibly Poor”).

The “Forcibly Poor” do not necessarily have time in the way that “Downsizers” do, since they can’t trade in their time for money (They can’t just pick up a paying job or liquidate some of their stocks in order to access money). The corollary to this is that those who are forced, but do not “choose” to live frugally, are also treated with less dignity.

I suspect this is because those forced to live in poverty are seen as hapless, incompetent, and unable or unwilling to “choose” to have money. Therefore, they are treated as lesser rational beings, like young children, who must be instructed, guided, disciplined and ushered along.

This assumption, too, is part of the ideology of free-market liberalism: Those who are wealthy or actually choose to live frugally, are more rational than those who are poor. And those who are poor just don’t know how to live a good life. Their poverty is presumed to be an expression of their lack of desire to live a good life. This logic follows straight from John Locke’s 2nd Treatise of Government: God has given the world to all men (sic) in common. Since the earth is accessible to all, then property (wealth) can be acquired by all who choose to labor.

How else, then, to explain poverty, except by lack of rationality? The poor must be irrational (insane/idiotic/criminal/indigenous), because otherwise they could have used their God-given intelligence to labor and acquire a sufficient share of God-given resources.

If these assumptions make sense, then it seems that several things follow:

1. Consumer Activism is a certain way of comporting oneself in the world so as to appear politically conscious, without necessarily being effective.

2. Charity organizations that distribute various goods/services to the Forcibly Poor with various strings that require behavior modification, are enacting a certain mode of Consumer Activism and imposing it on the Involuntarily Poor. But instead, without the accompanying discussion of the evacuation of public safety nets, or the reasons behind the lack of money and time, such models of Charity become normalized and celebrated as the primary means to “help the (forcibly) poor.”

3. Imposing Consumer Activism on the Forcibly Poor, as Sam Polk does with Groceryships, looks a lot like colonizing/civilizing the poor. More on that in my next post.


*An earlier version of this article discussed the “Forcibly Poor.” In this version, that term has been changed to the “Involuntarily Poor.”

**The phrase “Involuntarily Poor” has been returned to its original “Forcibly Poor.” It’s more accurate.