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.

 

Advertisements

Sam Polk and his civilizing mission

A shorter, cleaner, version of this article was published over at Salon.com on Jan. 23, 2014. Here’s the messier, longer, less clean version:

Part I (yes, a few more parts to come):

In the Sunday New York Times, former trader Sam Polk has a weepy confessional candid opinion piece, “For the Love of Money,” about his addiction to money, and how he’s overcome it (but not before pocketing the millions, mind you). It doesn’t really stand out, whether as contribution to the genre of former plunderers financiers, or a redemption narrative. But it is helpful in understanding the “pipeline” from the “free market” to the neoliberal (bio)politics of charity.

You see, Sam Polk locates his “addiction” within the context of his addictive personality, to cocaine, to alcohol, and finally, to money. He points out that he was the child of a Willie Loman-like father, who always wanted to be rich, always dreaming the big dream, but who never got there. I suppose, inpart, his piece is supposed to locate his desires as part of a quest to fulfill his father’s dreams. But even in this, he doesn’t stand out. After all, many children grow up to be adults who strive to fulfill their parents’ hopes for success, however that turns out.

But the issue that really pisses me off troubles me is his proseletyzing zeal (like the kind that envelops ex-smokers and new vegans or philosophy students who’ve just discovered Foucault) with which he points out that having all that money really isn’t that great, and that it’s better put to use in distributing among the less fortunate.

Conspicuously absent in Sam Polk’s heart-warming confession is any description of the role he played in a financial sector that led to one of the most destructive economic decimations since 1929, and to a widespread societal poverty or misery. Apparently, his only sin was gluttony.

And voila: back to a moral accounting. After all, this is a Judeo-Christian framework, isn’t it?.

What better way to atone for one’s sins than to confess and pursue redemption by distributing alms to the poor. And coincidentally, it dovetails with the ongoing neoliberal mode of addressing widespread social crises: increase pressure on “civil society” to remedy hunger, poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, access to reproductive rights social problems through private charity.

As we know, these are social problems created through the decimation of federal budgets, because its much more urgent to feed the chickenhawks by funding the War on Terror through its respective bureaucracies: the NSA, DHS, ICE, the DoD, etc., etc. And they’re created by the same corporations who are now bereft of the voracious, graciously hedge funded presence of Sam Polk.

But then again, maybe redemption has an upside. Here’s what Sam Polk has decided to do in his saintly afterlife: he has created a charity that “gives” six months of groceries to needy families (those who make less than $40,000 annually). You might think, kudos to Polk! Wow, what a guy!

But as we know, nothing in life (that actually matters) is ever free. In a very beautifully worded story, Polk and his beloved physician spouse, watch a show about eating more healthily. Spouse bursts into tears at the new idea (New? Really?) that eating more whole foods and grains will make her healthier. And sure enough, after a few weeks of better eating, the Polk clan feel better, lose weight, get off Lipitor, lower their cholestorol, etc.

So they decide to share their newly discovered insights to (drumroll, please)–say it with me:  Help. The. Needy. Watch out, Bill and Malinda!

And how will they do so? By using their So. Cal networks to pressure Gov. Jerry Brown to commit more money for poor families to be able to buy better food? By hounding the California State legislature to expand welfare budgets? By using his former Wall Street influence to pressure their Senators DiFi and Barbara Boxer to start winding down the War on Terror so as to make local foods more affordable? To re-allocate defense spending in favor of transportation subsidies?

Um, in case you haven’t guessed already, no.

Instead, the Polk family (and there are many of them listed on the website; check it out) will “award” grocery scholarships to those who REALLY want it (I kid you not).  Yes, the allusion is certainly to “merit”—because not every single poor family is worthy of eating well, simply by being alive—instead they must commit to taking weekly nutrition classes, meetings, counselors, tests, etc.

Much like a Christian charity, where the needy must accept a healthy lecture on their sins along with their dinner, the Polks have created a cult of granola, in which the needy will be helped only if they realize that it is in their own best interest to eat better.

Apparently, that is what is missing for poor people: knowledge and know-how about nutrition, at least according to Sam Polk and Doctor Spouse. Not money, time, or the social space and dignity to arrange their own lives on their own terms, but “rewards” with strings attached.  That’s because—remember–the poor don’t have beliefs; they only have compulsions and misguided beliefs and ideas. True moral uplift means the poor must be cultivated in the image of Southern Californians and other bourgie liberals who focus on the body as the site of virtue. You are what you eat. So fat, dark people (let’s face it, that’s who Polk and friends are targeting—look at the website!) must be cultivated to seek self-improvement. Morality, yet again, is individual. To hell with pressuring the state to reallocate funds for a well-funded social infrastructure enabling people to decide how to live a healthy life (say, expansive healthcare, subsidized public transportation, no-strings attached food subsidies. Just a thought).

Groceryships reveals Sam Polk to be the former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (surely you haven’t forgotten his failed ban on large sodas). Just add photogenic dimples, long sunbleached hair and a tan.

“What’s wrong with helping poor people eat better?” you ask “Even you eat kale and legumes on a regular basis. Are you such a classist hypocrite that you want to deny poor people that chance, too?”

It is true. I am more into granola and yoga these days than in my youth. But it is a decision that I made after years of a diet weighted toward animal proteins and fermented grape and barley. And my partner has mostly disdain for it and doesn’t join me. And doesn’t have to. Because each of us can afford to make the decisions we like without having to account for it to anyone else (except to my mother, who was a strict religious vegetarian tee-totaler her entire life. No eggs, no meat, no booze, no cigs—licit or otherwise. But she died after succumbing to diabetes, breast cancer twice (20 years apart), kidney failure, high blood pressure and cholesterol, all before she hit 70. She lived a fairly healthy life. But there are no guarantees. And she, like me, offered no explanations or accountability to anyone.

And that is the point. The ability to live a dignified life should not be dependent upon the whims of others—or on one’s personal (lack of) wealth. And if one or many do not have sufficient money—perhaps because they lost their already meager homes, wealth, and livelihood in the course of the recent financial machinations and ensuing crash (with hedge fund traders, among others, at the helm), then they should certainly not have to be at the mercy of private monies funneled by the formerly predatory do-gooders who are seeking a new colonizing mission (to help the poor learn how to eat healthily!)–to redeem their immoral souls.

The perhaps not-worst aspect of this is the sheer condescension of the former parasites. They preach nutritional moral uplift for the poor (not because they don’t have time and energy and money, because they don’t know better, apparently). But wouldn’t subpoenas to testify about legalities of their previous business dealings be a better way to save their own souls? Now there’s real redemption.