Pitzer Spotlights

2003-2004 Spotlight Archives

Poverty is a Shared Responsibility: A Talk by Professor Majid Rahnema

Majid Rahnema“We say we want to help the poor, but we still maintain a system that creates the poor.” With that statement, Professor Majid Rahnema cut straight to the heart of the issue of poverty at a talk Nov. 19 at Pitzer College.

Professor Rahnema, the former Minister of Culture and Science for Iran and a nominee for Secretary General of the United Nations in 1972, has been a frequent visiting professor at Pitzer and has taught at other distinguished universities in the U.S. and France.

“I am happy to continue the conversation from about 12 years ago when I was first invited to Pitzer to talk about poverty,” Rahnema said.

Poverty defies easy answers, he said.

“Answers are obstacles to understanding and knowledge. You must constantly refine your questions. When you have answers you resist disturbing questions,” he said.

Rahnema began his talk to the large crowd gathered in the McConnell Living Room by wrestling with definitions of poverty.

“Poverty is a difficult subject to describe,” he said. “It is a word that does not correspond to the meanings that people give it. When we talk about poverty, what are we talking about? If I were to ask each of you gathered here, no two answers would be the same. That is because poverty covers about everything under the sun.”

Rahnema used quotes from anthropologists and philosophers to illustrate the difficulty of defining poverty. Thinkers through the ages have seen poverty as: “an invention of civilization,” “the normal condition of human beings in civilization,” and the highest or noblest form of riches. Others see it as the scourge and shame of civilization.

In early societies, poverty was unknown, Rahnema said. Time was not sold as it is in industrial society; it was enjoyed in singing and dancing after the basic acts of subsistence were completed. Poor, as an adjective, was used to describe qualities of soil and other objects. It was not until later, with the hoarding of wealth in monarchical societies, that poverty began to take on a negative connotation, he said.

Poverty, Rahnema said, expresses two things: a mode of life dealing with outside conditions and particular perceptions of those outside conditions.

“Those conditions and the way people react to them are very closely related,” he said.
“When a person belongs to the noble poor, that person has a unique quality that still allows him to face adversity with dignity. It is not until the relationship between the inner temple of his life and outside necessity is destroyed that he becomes miserable, destitute or indigent,” he said.

“Absolute poverty, on the other hand, is marked by certain conditions below which you cannot live,” he said, though he added, “I am not comfortable with this constant. It is confusing and misleading. Historically, millions of humans living in conditions intolerable to us developed qualities to get by in those conditions.”

“The only absolute poverty is with God,” he said. “God is the only one to have created something out of nothing.”

Rahnema criticized modern societies for “tending to destroy and corrupt the noble poor and push them into misery and destitution.”

Before the creation and rise of the market economy there were two forms of poverty, Rahnema said.

“Voluntary poverty existed in every culture. Any accumulation of things was seen as a burden to integrity and a threat to the freedom. These poor remained independent of outside conditions in their attempts to reach God.”

In traditional, pre-industrial societies, the “I” was often subsumed in the “We” as people had to exist in and through relationships with one another, he explained. This second form was marked by simplicity and frugality.

“But all of this comes to an epistemological break with the market economy,” he said.
Solutions to poverty do not come easily, Rahnema argued.

“Reports on poverty in the modern world miss the nuances of the language of the poor. They speak one way to one another about their condition and another to researchers. The formulas that economists use as solutions to poverty are irrelevant to the poor and what poverty means. Thus their answers are never adequate. How is it possible to think that more money would change the roots of the situation?”

“I know I cannot say I have the solutions,” Rahnema said. “You cannot expect that of an old person like me,” he added, as chuckles spread around the room. “Only politicians say that to get elected. If you wait for solutions from me you miss the point. Solutions and answers should come from the poor.”

“Quit pumping money into the problem as if the economy is the answer. It is the problem,” he said. “The economy destroys their way of coping and producing. If you are serious about poverty you have to go to its roots and ask about the causes. One of the main causes is the creation of scarcity. Stopping the production of scarcity is key.”

Rahnema concluded his talk with several points regarding consumption and changes in society to combat poverty. Among these points was his assertion that solutions to poverty cannot come from the outside.

“We must adopt a nurturing indigenous model. External models kill the way people develop themselves,” he said.

“Think of termites and the way they all act together chewing their way through a house until it all comes crashing down. Now consider if they were given electrical machines to do their chewing for them. They would become reliant on this technology and once it failed they would have lost their ability to do what they previously could do naturally. In effect, it would destroy them,” he said. “Development is often a kind of violence imposed on others’ way of life.”

“We have to be attentive to our responsibility and way of consuming to try to change our own society. Consider this hypothesis: Our economy is a corrupted model and a failed model for others,” he said.