Scapegoating the Poor

Let’s start blaming the plutocrats, not their victims
May 1, 2010

There’s an old African proverb that is becoming uncomfortably apt to apply to human behaviour in Canada: “As the waterhole gets smaller, the animals get meaner.”

In other words, as the food, water, and other basic resources dwindle, so does the willingness to share. The sense of community and cooperation is replaced by an ugly survival-of-the-fittest mentality.

A big difference, however, exists between what happens at a shrinking waterhole in Africa and what happens in Canada when jobs disappear, incomes fall or stagnate, and government services are cut back. The African waterhole gets smaller because there’s a drought; it’s a natural and unavoidable disaster. In Canadian society, however, the necessities of life for the weakest among us are being deliberately reduced or withheld.

Our welfare “waterhole” is being systematically siphoned away, its contents transferred from the pockets of the poor into the bank accounts and stock portfolios of the rich.

There is no shortage of money in Canada. Our GDP — the country’s entire financial output — has doubled since the 1970s. Corporate executives and major investors still wallow in wealth, much of it coming from taxpayer-funded government bailouts. The big banks still post record profits. Our billionaires may have lost a few million in the financial meltdown, may even have to delay buying their next yacht or private jet, but they know their fortunes are secure and will continue to grow.

A barbaric maldistribution of income that leaves millions of their fellow citizens destitute doesn’t bother them in the least. As long as the income needed to help the neediest is diverted to them instead, they will make sure their political lackeys block any proposed reforms.

In the past, picking on the weak and poor was not something that could be done with impunity. Prior to the onset of corporate globalization and neoliberalism, most people — even many of the rich themselves — would be shocked by today’s obscenely inequitable distribution of income and the widespread misery it inflicts. Today, however, as food is snatched out of the mouths of hungry kids, many people shrug it off as an unavoidable (if regrettable) part of the capitalist system.

As for the commercial media, instead of exposing and deploring the plight of the hundreds of thousands mired in poverty, they either ignore them or maliciously search for and denounce the few people on welfare who are abusing the system. Although they are clearly the exceptions, they are depicted as typical “welfare bums,” too lazy to work and content to live parasitically off the hard work of others.

It’s regrettably easy to stir up this kind of antipathy against the underprivileged, or even against neighbours or co-workers who seem to be faring better in our jungle law economic system. Instead of calling for a fair income for everyone, the tendency for many is to keep striving to outdo their fellow citizens. It’s one of the baser instincts fostered by a system that puts individual competitiveness above communal cooperation.

The human animals, it seems, also tend to get meaner as their economic waterhole gets smaller. They don’t blame the bloated plutocrats who are greedily sucking up the largest share of the country’s fluid assets. They turn their wrath instead on those who are competing with them more effectively, or even against the poor and disadvantaged who are resented for taking the welfare crumbs (or minimum wages) they allegedly don’t deserve.

*     *     *

It’s eerily reminiscent of a laboratory experiment I was reading about last year in which sadistic scientists provoked naturally peaceful mice to fight among themselves. This was done with an extended colony of mice that coexisted in harmony as long as they had enough to eat and drink. Gradually the scientists reduced their supply of food and water. They wanted to find out at what reduced level of sustenance the mice could be induced to “compete” for their dwindling rations.

Eventually, of course, growing hunger turned the biggest and strongest mice against the weaker ones. At first they simply nipped at them and drove them from the food and water containers. Then, as the food was drastically curtailed, the attacks became fiercer. The weakest mice eventually died, either from their wounds or starvation. A cooperative community of mice was deliberately converted into a war zone.

Like these lab mice, we Canadians have also been subjected to a contrived reduction of our collective means of livelihood. We’ve been forced to make do with fewer jobs, lower incomes, declining services.

Being somewhat more intelligent than mice, and not nearly as powerless, we don’t have to react as they did. We can direct our anger against our corporate and political tormentors instead of lashing out at our less fortunate  fellow citizens.

When we scapegoat the poor, the jobless, and the homeless among us, we are letting the corporate lab technicians trigger our most brutal and sub-human instincts. It’s the worst possible reaction to Canada’s growing unemployment and needlessly high poverty rates. Yes, our economic and social waterhole is getting smaller — but it is being deliberately and callously made smaller.

So far, too many of us have reacted selfishly. It’s time we regained the caring and sharing virtues we prided ourselves on in the past. It’s time to stop getting meaner and start getting kinder — and smarter.


(Ed Finn is the CCPA’s Senior Editor.)