Beggars

The numbers of beggars – usually Roma – in the Stockholm streets don’t seem to have diminished since Kajsa and I wrote our LRB Blog piece about them exactly a year ago: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2015/02/11/bernard-porter/on-stockholms-streets/. These are – I think – quite apart from the huge number of Middle Eastern refugees that Sweden has taken in, but housed in transition centres and camps in the countryside. Apparently the latter are now bursting the bounds of the facilities provided for them, provoking a rethink of Sweden’s ultra-generous asylum policy. That is understandable, and still leaves Sweden way above mean-minded Britain – let alone the eastern European nations – in the refugee morality scale. Obviously this is a problem that needs to be tackled Europe- or even world-wide, and would be if the EU lived up to its best ideals, of being more than merely a ‘common market’. (See below, 16 Feb.)

Many of these problems – excluding the many caused by wars and Islamic fanaticism – have their roots in the growing inequalities of the present day, remarked on by nearly everyone and highlighted by those on the Left; which in their turn are clearly (it seems to me) a function of unrestrained capitalism. I was struck by this report in today’s Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/feb/18/san-francisco-technology-entrepreneur-bemoans-citys-homeless-riff-raff; a prosperous technology entrepreneur in San Francisco complaining that he has to pass by beggars – ‘riff-raff’ – on his way to work. Yes, he admits, rising house prices and gentrification are one cause of this, throwing the poor out of their homes; but still, ‘wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city.’ They ‘shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle and despair of homeless people.’ Poor rich diddums. After all – and this is the clincher – ‘the reality is we live in a free market society.’ Ah, yes. Not a human society, but a market one. That is ‘the reality’. It’s natural. I’m reminded of Dickens’s description of ‘Coketown’ in Hard Times (1852): human and social life determined, every hour of the day, by the iron discipline of the machine.

The other aspect of this report is what it tells us about the mindset of some of the rich in these circumstances, persuaded by their belief in the ‘naturalness’ of capitalism and its resultant inequality, to regard poverty as (a) inescapable, and (b) somehow the poor’s own fault. Owen Jones’s book Chavs is good on this, the demonization of the poor, to the extent even, of blaming them for the economic ills of society generally. Hence it’s the poor – not the bankers – who are supposed to bear the cost (‘austerity’) of the latest financial crash. I suppose that’s understandable, if you’re brought up to believe in the habitual fecklessness of the working classes.

How that bears on Stockholm’s ‘Roma problem’ I’m not sure. Obviously they’re not begging in the streets because of Swedish inequality. They were poor and discriminated against before they came. Maybe we can blame capitalism if we regard it as a global phenomenon. But there are, of course, many other villains of the piece. Race prejudice for a start; followed by religious prejudice, evil dictators, and war. More equality, however, both domestically and between nations, might help.

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