10 December 2007

Begging to Differ

A few days ago, on the radio, the RJ remarked on the “nuisance of beggars” at street corners and red lights and asked for listeners to phone-in with entertaining ideas to “tackle the problem”. The RJ’s own suggestion was to apply some sort of check (visa was her word) on immigrants into the city. (Because, of course, beggars = immigrants. Also reminiscent of certain international immigration policies.) Other phone-in suggestions pointed towards torture, imprisonment and various other forms of state intervention – all disguised in entertaining ways. Of course.

Curious, I posed the RJ’s question to several other people – people I considered more sensitised than the morons on the radio show. While most among this group seemed to sympathise with beggars in general, they seemed quite opposed to the notion of begging itself. Several followed the policy of buying everything and anything that a kid at a traffic light may sell them, but refused to part with any money if it was plain begging. Because the effort to sell something, however useless, seemed to be an effort and willingness to do some kind of work. Whereas to beg was a downright refusal of the same.

Going by the above, the opposition to beggars is not completely equivalent to the sort of contempt a privileged class may reserve for the non-privileged (though it comes dangerously close.) A major part of the opposition seemed reserved for the nature of the act rather than its agent.

So then, what is so wrong with begging? Perhaps it is the fact that it poses a threat to the concept of work itself. A unidirectional flow of money without a corresponding flow of a good or service (in the opposite direction) is radical for the reason that it challenges the capitalist idea of work which grounds itself on the notion of exchange. The same logic applies to theft, burglary, etc since they question the capitalist separation of ‘your’ money from ‘mine’. It is also not surprising then that the above is a legal crime – legality being the medium of suppression used by the state machinery.

But the threat lies not in the act in itself, by itself. One beggar or thief isn’t going to shake the entire system. But one beggar or thief does present an alternative. Something that goes to show that the current system is not the only possibility, that several other means of exchange are also possible. And therein lies the threat.

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