It’s Time to Heed King’s Call for the Abolition of Poverty

As long as what’s called “Western civilization” has existed, people have been punished for being poor. This isn’t something the Western world invented, but it’s been a consistent characteristic of it. In Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. … The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.” Through this call to abolish poverty, King put forth an indictment of Western civilization and of capitalistic society.

The abolition of poverty contains the radical admission that the unacceptable doesn’t deserve repair or reform. It’s an honest approach to problems that can be so big and intimidating that they may tempt us to deny what’s plainly true. King was pointing out the mistaken perception that racial capitalism is civilized or advanced. Those who benefit most according to the logic of everyday terror say that we must accept the violence of capitalistic accumulation and the ruthlessness of money. They would have us believe this is as good as it can get. It’s not.

From furloughed workers to the unemployed and others facing dire circumstances, we live in a time that has made crowdfunding a regular go-to for people who are struggling to meet their basic needs. The lack of a universal safety net has forced people to try to create their own. The fundamental basis of solutions that many on the left are arguing for — such as socialism — can be explained with this crowdfunding trend. We are saying that it’s completely absurd to work and pay taxes, yet still not have health care, functioning schools and all the needed resources for our communities that tax revenues are supposed to pay for. Our rights should not be made into luxuries, and we should not have to crowdfund for necessities that should be paid for with the wealth our labor generates.

A society that has the nerve to call itself “free” should never operate according to a model of fraudulent scarcity, as the United States is doing. The growing austerity practices that oppress us while wages remain virtually stagnant will not be debated or wished away. This exploitative system does not combat poverty, it develops it. Poverty is not a simply a byproduct of racial capitalism; it’s a fuel that keeps it going. A rejection of poverty must include an outright rejection of this system that creates and encourages it.

Knowing that suffering is wrong should be enough of an argument to condemn a system that prioritizes the wealth of a select few at the expense of countless others. What cannot be accepted is this everyday reality that veils itself as something sustainable. As King wrote:

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

Dr. King suggested many strategies for combatting poverty. Among King’s solutions was an annual income for everyone or “universal basic income.” However, it’s worth noting that King’s proposals came in the context of his time. Who knows what King would have advocated if he saw how much worse things have gotten, and how wealth disparities have grown? Currently, a version of the basic income idea has been enthusiastically revived among the wealthy philanthropic class. This fact alone should encourage our skepticism. Our liberation will not be handed to us by the elite. The work of abolishing poverty means abolishing astronomical wealth too. Wasteful spending on things like the nearly $1 trillion military budget and the money lost not taxing wealthy corporations is enough to drastically alter the impoverished conditions many suffer across the nation.

As we work to confront extreme wealth disparities, we also must focus on building the communities we deserve. We should challenge those around us to think about how we’re already practicing anti-capitalism. For instance, a closer look at why people feel the need to give to others asking for help through crowdfunding platforms may reveal principles more suited to a better world. Anti-capitalist principles associated with anarchism, socialism and other important politics that may be unknown to many people going about their daily lives are already being practiced (but not necessarily in name of ideology, or identified by jargonistic terms).

There’s organizing work happening that can always be expanded in making the significance clear to people pushing back in whatever ways they can. To some extent, what we need to achieve could be explained to people through this logic of crowdfunding. We need to build our own institutions where we amass what resources, skills and contributions we have together in order for everyone to have what they need. This sort of solidarity around the fair exchange of what we have to offer based in solidarity is mutual aid.

Disaster response, in this time of climate crisis, is another place where we regularly see practices of mutual aid playing out. After disaster strikes, people regularly mobilize and organize their communities to survive amid government neglect and state negligence. People share food, housing and other resources until things return to some sort of normalcy. Building programs that disregard the boundaries around us and respond to the consistent crises of racial capitalism is a central tenet of what’s called “intercommunalism.” This was the practice of the Black Panthers, a programmed response to the violence we know is coming.

Rather than await the next storm, starvation or stranding, we can be preparing so we don’t have to suddenly crowdfund when it arrives. We need to be creating our own institutions that are tasked with fighting the problems capitalism inflicts. Reactionary practices do not offer stability — participants simply enter back into the precarious position of awaiting the next disaster — but the intention behind many of them can help us re-examine our values and push our own institutional practices toward liberation.

The abolition of poverty will not simply happen overnight. We have to bring it about in our everyday lives. It’s not going to be given to us by liberal politicians or charitable billionaires who are part of the problem themselves. We’ll have to work where we can and how we can without dismissing our own circumstances in the name of purity. Abolishing oppressive forces means circumventing and undermining them to create our own realities. The abolition of poverty starts with honesty and ends with what we truly deserve.