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Attributes of Compassion

Back To The Workhouse: One Human Heart

Workhouse in Leeds, UK

Many, I believe, there are
Who live a life of virtuous decency,
Men who can hear the Decalogue and feel
No self-reproach; who of the moral law
Established in the land where they abide
Are strict observers; and not negligent
In acts of love to those with whom they dwell,
Their kindred, and the children of their blood.
Praise be to such, and to their slumbers peace!
--But of the poor man ask, the abject poor;
Go, and demand of him, if there be here
In this cold abstinence from evil deeds,
And these inevitable charities,
Wherewith to satisfy the human soul?
No--man is dear to man; the poorest poor
Long for some moments in a weary life
When they can know and feel that they have been,
Themselves, the fathers and the dealers-out
Of some small blessings; have been kind to such
As needed kindness, for this single cause,
That we have all of us one human heart."

In his poem 'The Old Cumberland Beggar" William Wordsworth offers a somewhat romanticised perspective of poverty and old age in the industrial age. He appeals for this freedom in nature against the confines of the workhouse

"May never HOUSE, misnamed of INDUSTRY,
Make him a captive!--for that pent-up din,
Those life-consuming sounds that clog the air,
Be his the natural silence of old age!"

With his 'one human heart' Wordsworth draws our attention to empathy which has no religious morality. Being able to place oneself in the shoes of another because we will all surely grow old or sick, beyond our ability to labour.    

The ideology behind the workhouse was to stigmatize and humiliate those who fell into poverty. They were to be punished for this transgression. In the New Poor Law of 1834, the Bastardly Clause was the most controversial, with its intention to deter unmarried women from having illegitimate children.

Britain introduced pensions and invalidity benefits much later but for those of working age, the concept of the work camp could be found in the ealier part of the 20th century. In 1928 an idea is put forward by the Minstry of Labour. It may be found in a historical perspective from the University of Stirling.

" I think I ought to warn you that we have under consideration here a proposal todeal with the class of men to whom our existing training schemes do not apply. I refer to those, especially among the younger men, who, through prolonged unemployment, have become so ‘soft’ and temporarily demoralised that itwould not be practicable to introduce more than a very small number of them into one of our ordinary training centres without danger to the morale of thecentre on which the effect of training depends. Nor could they be sent to a labouring job in London or elsewhere. It is essential to the success of thetransference policy, which already has many difficulties to contend with at thereceiving end, that only the best material available shall be sent forward forany given job. It is obvious, therefore, that the class of whom I am speaking cannot be considered by our local officers for transfer until they are hardened"

The Transitional Instruction Centre is born in 1929 and as the Stirling article observes, the introduction of work camps typically associated with the Nazi and Communists of the early 20th century 

It was last year in 2012 at the Queen's Jubilee celebration when we learned that unemployed people were obliged to serve as stewards as if tied to some feudal landlord  Back to the Workhouse an article in the Guardian revealed how a 'social enterprise' put one young woman to work for no reward.  

Blogger 'Scriptonite' reveals how the economic crisis in Greece has led not the punishment of the transgressor, but a policy reminiscent of the New Poor Law,  with its judgemental morality focussed on punishing the poor and marginalised. Some may see this as fascism, but unpaid labour is as old as 'civilisation'

"Eight hours' daily labour is enough for any human being, and under proper arrangements sufficient to afford an ample supply of food, raiment and shelter, or the necessaries and comforts of life, and for the remainder of his time, every person is entitled to education, recreation and sleep".  - Robert Owen

Owen, an industrialist pioneered the concept of business which served the interests of employees and the local community   

Others like the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of impoverished weavers took the intiative to do things 'bottom up' for mutual benefit 

To the typical industrial capitalist, the idle rich being overthown by an idle poor was always a threat and that carried over into the age of neoliberal economics and the fractional reserve banking system of the last 40 years. In 2004 the Labour Party was warned of the "need to be prepared for the risk of increased national and global poverty as we enter an information economy sufficiently sophisticated by its nature as to exclude and/or displace an increasing number of workers around the world ":

"The opportunity for poverty relief was identified not only as a moral imperative, but also as an increasingly pressing strategic imperative. People left to suffer and languish in poverty get one message very clearly: they are not important and do not matter. They are in effect told that they are disposable, expendable. Being left to suffer and die is, for the victim, little different than being done away with by more direct means. Poverty, especially where its harsher forms exist, puts people in self-defence mode, at which point the boundaries of civilization are crossed and we are back to the law of the jungle: kill or be killed. While the vast majority of people in poverty suffer quietly and with little protest, it is not safe to assume that everyone will react the same way. When in defence of family and friends, it is completely predictable that it should be only a matter of time until uprisings become sufficient to imperil an entire nation or region of the world. People with nothing have nothing to lose. Poverty was therefore deemed not only a moral catastrophe but also a time bomb waiting to explode."

In 2011, widespread rioting on the streets of Britain, the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street were proof of all that was warned of.

In 1971 changes to the US Federal Reserve had marked the beginning of a new age of wealth accumulation allowing money to be written into existence, and it was soon evident that this process allowed for the accumulation of wealth by a minority, to the detriment of an increasing number who were of little interest. US President Bill Clinton was warned in 1996  It's the Economic Paradigm, Stupid!  

It would be 5 years later in September 2001 that the reality of inflicting poverty on others was brought home to the US government.  Two years later in an introduction to an economic development proposal for an impoverished Muslim community, we'd pointed out.

"By leaving people in poverty, at risk of their lives due to lack of basic living essentials, we have stepped across the boundary of civilization. We have conceded that these people do not matter, are not important. Allowing them to starve to death, freeze to death, die from deprivation, or simply shooting them, is in the end exactly the same thing. Inflicting or allowing poverty on a group of people or an entire country is a formula for disaster.

These points were made to the President of the United States near the end of 1996. They were heard, appreciated and acted upon, but unfortunately, were not able to be addressed fully and quickly due primarily to political inertia. By way of September 11, 2001 attacks on the US out of Afghanistan – on which the US and the former Soviet Union both inflicted havoc, destruction, and certainly poverty – I rest my case. The tragedy was proof of all I warned about, but, was no more tragedy than that left behind to a people in an far corner of the world whom we thought did not matter and whom we thought were less important than ourselves.

We were wrong."

Source: People-Centered Economic Development:


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