A relatively recent article in the LA Review of Books reviews two books, one on the idea of “responsibility,” the other on the use of the word “privilege.” It’s a good article, but what particularly stood out to me about it was the section on Mounk’s book, which discusses the now-prevalent and dominant rhetoric of responsibility in the United States. Here’s a representative quote:
“The problem, Mounk argues, is that we have been getting responsibility all wrong. Lurking behind the current use of the term is a pervasive distaste for the allegedly undeserving poor.”
Although people will invariably look for ways to go beyond the current rhetoric and way of thinking, I think it’s also worth going back, specifically going back and reading some of Shaw’s plays. Major Barbara has its own pantheon of undeserving poor getting handouts from the Salvation Army, but Mr. Doolittle in Pygmalion has the best speeches on the subject. His way of thinking — not just his way of thinking, but that he and Snobby Price in Major Barbara would get such a sympathetic treatment from their author — seems fairly alien today. Here’s part of a scene where he asks Pickering and Higgens for some money in exchange for Eliza:
“DOOLITTLE: … What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that hes up agen middle class morality all the time. If theres anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: “Youre undeserving; so you cant have it.” But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I dont need less than a deserving man: I need more. I dont eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I’m playing straight with you. I aint pretending to be deserving. I’m undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it: and thats the truth. Will you take advantage of a man’s nature to do him out of the price of his own daughter what hes brought up and fed and clothed by the sweat of his brow until she growed big enough to be interesting to you gentlemen? Is five pounds unreasonable? I put it to you; and I leave it to you.”
Now, Doolittle is talking about a slightly different sense of “deserving,” here — the idea of “responsibility” has become more strictly governed by the capitalist logic of ‘work-in for goods-out’ in the intervening century. That’s happened to most moral understandings. Still, I appreciate how novel Shaw’s perspective seems today: having sympathy for people who are poor, shiftless, responsible for both, and intend to do nothing about it.