THE WAY IT WAS: Poverty alleviation or elimination —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Presently nothing sells unless first it is converted into a commodity. Hasn't man himself been transformed into a commodity or getting dangerously close to it?

Rarely do we think well of a person who has let us, or someone, down. In reality the feeling may have more to do with our high expectations rather than any innate inadequacy or malevolence on the part of the other. Should one not have compassion for the limitations of others?

Some individuals may not have the strength while others may find loyalty beyond their means. I don’t believe men are inherently bad or evil. Marlowe, and Shakespeare after him, believed to the contrary. They thought that evil existed in its own right and motivated individuals to action. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides before them also believed in this.

With Marx we enter a world where individual conduct is determined by class interest and judged by its social effects. A person may harbour good motives but if he misappropriates the labour of others he is an exploiter and therefore bad. Accordingly, those who are exploited and made to sweat for the rich are essentially good. In Marxian society the criterion of goodness is determined by a person’s loyalty to the working class. I believe once when Khrushchev informally bumped into Zhou En-Lai, at a peace conference in Geneva, he took a dig at Zhou by saying that while he himself was the son of a Russian coalminer, Zhou was the son of a Chinese mandarin. Zhou En-Lai did not deny the charge but added that there was at least one thing common between them, “You are a traitor to your class and I am a traitor to mine.”

Sigmund Freud introduced psychoanalysis to fathom the mind and understand human conduct. He maintained that man was inherently a predator and his actions were largely determined by subterranean motivations, outside conscious awareness. He asserted that man’s ‘instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests’. He was of the view that human nature could not be changed. In the spiritual sense, does he not absolve the individual from being responsible for his deeds?

The Greeks and the Elizabethans ultimately held the individual morally responsible for whatever he did. Freud explained away individual responsibility. He viewed human conduct as a product of pathological causes. In the classical worldview, gods and witches often interfered with events. But since individual choice was never wrested from man he was held accountable for his actions and made to suffer for them.

In the past man was primarily concerned with his individual redemption and worked for divine retribution through suffering. Sometime the high and mighty were made to go through trials without faults of their own choosing. They were put to test because the gods willed it so. Jacob goes blind crying for the loss of his beloved son Joseph. Oedipus gouges out his eyes on discovering that he was bound in wedlock with his mother. Ironically he begins to perceive more clearly than when he had eyes and could see. Moved by his suffering the gods elevate him to become their equal. Oedipus becomes a god but tragically ceases to be human. In a sense it was an unfair, cruel and irrational world.

With Marx the preoccupation with individual redemption is replaced by the need for humans to evolve and better themselves, which is inseparably linked with the struggle of the oppressed against all forms of oppression. Marx, unlike Freud, held that man was wholly good but the institution of private property had corrupted his nature.

In the contemporary world how far can man be held accountable for his actions? I think it was the well-known existentialist novelist Albert Camus who observed that for an individual in the modern world, it was a question of presuming to exercise choice where the choice didn’t exist. Increasingly it is becoming difficult for man to determine his actions when the forces of market economy are taking over his life.

Most modern artists and writers who once upheld high social ideals are today content to work within the prevailing system. The collectors, the readers, the viewers, determine what an artist should paint, an author write and the cinema produce. And yet shouldn’t humans be accountable for whatever they do? Nothing sells today unless it is first converted into a commodity. Hasn’t man himself been transformed into a commodity or getting dangerously close to it?

The day after Askari Mian Irani, a well-known Lahore artist, unexpectedly passed away, I received a telephone call from a friend in Karachi. He wanted to know on behalf of an anxious collector, how Askari’s paintings would be valued now that he was dead. It seems that nothing has intrinsic value. A society that does not cherish art for its intrinsic goodness and provides space for it limits its own horizon.

Getting back to Freud, is it pertinent to ask whether a person should be forgiven for drowning babies, because as an infant his mother would not change his nappies? It is not easy to answer such questions. How does one resist the irresistible urge for theft, or the irrepressible urge to rape or kill? In the past people were hung for stealing bread. Theft was considered a heinous crime. If a person with psychological disorder can be set free for manslaughter, why are not the misdemeanours of those afflicted with poverty and hunger treated with similar consideration? Is cutting of hands for petty theft right? Should not slaves and the wretched of the earth have the right to rob and revolt? Why should some people sleep in soft warm beds and others freeze on a footpath?

The answer is: the poor are naturally endowed to suffer the adversities of life, including cold, heat and hunger. The common Kikar and wild Beri trees can thrive anywhere, whereas the roses have to be carefully nursed and nurtured. Or so the rich believe. The rich are smooth and soft whereas the poor are rough and hard. The rich have abundant comforts that make them vulnerable; the poor have generations of poverty, which makes them tough. How unfair for the rich?

I sometimes wonder why those who were once kindly disposed to the poor now talk of poverty? Poverty as a virtue of the Prophets was an elevated state of self-denial, which envisaged aesthetic simplicity and cherished virtue in restraint, whereas poverty as a social phenomenon means diarrhoea, ignorance, vice, lice, starvation and human degradation. Isn’t it awful that this should be so when humans look across the cosmic frontiers, towards new worlds in the distant galaxies, while most of humanity lives in abject poverty? Poverty is not something that needs alleviation; it needs elimination. Should we work for personal redemption or try to evolve ourselves into better humans? That is the real question. What we do in response to the answer will presumably determine what we are, or can be.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist