Where All Those “Beggars and Bums” Come From

During a recent and ongoing stay in Chicago, one thing that I’ve been noticing is an especially large number of people begging on the streets of the downtown (what is called “the Loop”).  There’s always a lot of panhandling in the city but this summer it seems especially intense and ubiquitous. Desperately poor people are all over the place it looks like.

Many such people are sitting next to signs saying things like one I saw yesterday at State and Madison: “Broke, Sick, Homeless, and Alone: Please Help However you Can.”  

I had a guy follow me all the way up to the cash register at a Dunkin Donuts and ask for the change… he got it. 

There’s even more folks who just look lost and defeated; they’re not begging or holding signs.  They’re just staring and sitting on street corners and the sides of buildings and the like.

Some of them look mentally ill and physically decrepit.  But many don’t. 

When I end up giving a quarter or dollar to those who don’t appear to be just gone mentally, I not uncommonly end up talking about what’s going on and the answer is generally “I want to work but nobody will hire me.”  Often there’s a felony record involved.

Walking out of the donut shop, I heard a nice middle-aged white lady express her disgust and dismay at all the “bums and beggars” on the street. “Where do they come from?” she said, adding that she didn’t understand “why the city lets them roam about.  Surely there must be somewhere to put them,” she said. .  

Well…I actually started to say this…where they come from is capitalism (institutional classism) and also (most, though hardly all, of them are black ) to a significant degree from institutional racism. ZNet readers don’t need to be lectured on the standard combination of forces (e.g. deindustrialization, corporate globalization, and gentrification) and policies (e.g NAFTA, welfare elimination, public housing dismantlement, racially disparate mass incarceration and felony marking, labor market discrimination, mental health-de-funding numerous zoning measures and  plethora of other parts of the urban racist corporate neoliberal agenda…you could write a whole book about it if you were crazy enough to)  that come together to produce a large class of marginal people without money, shelter and hope – folks who hold no profit value to the dominant business class and “market democracy” either as employees (producers of capitalist surplus value) or as buyers/renters (of condos, stoves, cutting edge refrigerators, granite counter tops, eco-cidal SUVs etc.).  These people are socially produced and are a direct reflection of the oppressive hierarchical class-race-gender-empire system that reigns at home and abroad.

But let me be elaborate a bit more about what I mean when I say it’s about capitalism (and most things are often very much about capitalism — well state corporation capitalism – in the U.S.). 

I have a further theory about why the “bums and beggars” are left out on the streets.  It is not especially original and it is directly influenced by Marx’s theory of the “reserve army of the unemployed.” 

I think they’re out on public display to scare the Hell out of us more “regular” working and middle class folks.  I think they are out there to suggest a constant and ubiquitous cautionary tale to the dizzy and exhausted working and consuming mass:

“Remember proletarians: this is how the rest of you could end up if you don’t play by the rules! This is the fate that awaits you unless you keep plugging away at your 60-70-80 hour a week desk job ye sorry wage and salary slaves. Do not forget, you are only one bad job review – one snotty comment to your sadistic boss or one signed union card or one departure from dominant workplace/ideological doctrine – away from the precipice of disaster.  You are only two or three paychecks away from losing your home, your vehicle, your plasma tv, and your family.  You are only one (purely) personal financial failure (self-caused of course) away from the flophouse. You could be a bum too so you better watch what you do and say and think and feel. Obey your masters, salary/wage slaves. Let’s not hear any crap out of you about how the top 1 percent owns half the nation’s wealth and how the system generates and profits from sexism and/or racism and/or imperialism and how the people are losing their rights and the rest of that crap.  Do you want to be one of these desperate outcasts? If not, keep your mouth shut, watch your sit-coms, take your pills, collect your paychecks, buy a lot of stuff and play along. There but for the grace of your socieconomic overlords go you! ”  We have our own form of economic sanctions in the imperial homeland.

No, I can’t prove any intentionality at the elite level in regard to this in Chicago or anywhere else. It’s not likely that I ever could.  Nobody in power who actually consciously thinks this way (if such people exist) is  going to be stupid enough to articulate it in a way that people like me can  pick up and broadcast.  Just like nobody high in the corporate communications cartel would be caught dead admitting that dominant U.S. media content is deliberately calibrated to encourage mass idiocy in accord with the economic elite’s ambition to take the last risks out of democracy. Or like how nobody in the Pentagon would ever admit that innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilian casualties of U.S. bomb and missile attacks are viewed pretty much on par with small ants that get killed when you bounce a basketball on a sidewalk. 

Still, you don’t have to be rocket scientist to make some elementary connections. This is the harsh social reality of how having “beggars and bums” on the street works out in capitalist America.  It has a functional utility for the wealthy few.  The bums get swept away when profit imperatives call for it: big downtown celebrations; major party political conventions; visiting dignitaries (including Olympic site search committees); etc. But in the normal course of daily life, the desperate surplus people help keep the working majority in check.

I am convinced that some rich and powerful people know and like this at some level (maybe even half-consciously) and that this is part of why such people don’t use their influence to adequately feed and clothe the city’s downtown homeless and destitute – something that could be easily achieved at the fraction of the cost of a bomber or fighter jet made by global Chicago’s proud "defense" firm The Boeing Corporation.  

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