Poverty and means of communication.

Volunteers’ meeting, April 1965 (continuation) (the original French version is found in Écrits et paroles aux Volontaires, I, 1960-1967, pp. 322-328)

Their situation of poverty closes all means of communication to the poor

Why do the poor remain so little known? Their poverty makes people undesirable, and that, in turn, reinforces their isolation. The man who is not a good worker is even more excluded from the working world than he was in the past. He can in no way take part in the work mystique, always more specialized from now on. His hands have been initiated neither into the rhythm nor into the ritual of the working class. He has no access to any communication. His group is isolated, he himself is isolated within his group, within his family, and, without being able to live what he believes in; he becomes a stranger to himself.

If the poor formed a dynamic group, could a class perhaps emerge out of this isolation? For this to happen, the group would have to create a culture that could renew and nourish the society that surrounds it. If not, it can only wither, becoming more and more marginalized and left out of all communication.

As for me, I’d like to come back once again to the question of understanding how it happens that what we have just said is not better known. How can we explain that, in spite of all the efforts, in spite of a throng of people of good will devoted to the poor, we keep on going from one failure to another? We are going to add something to what we were saying yesterday about the difficulty in communicating felt by all concerned. This lack of communication reinforces the impossibility for the poor to become integrated into society for another reason. We are, in fact, living in a society of well-being where, whoever has money, whoever has power, strength or merely comfort and security, withdraws into his realm of well-being where he sets up impassable boundaries to the poor. Their poverty makes them undesirable and cuts them off from many means of communication, lots of reaching out to and relationships with the surrounding world.

Let’s take an example from the world of work. Someone who is not a good worker today is much lonelier and more unsuccessful than formerly. In the workplace, there is much less need for (unskilled) laborers and now there exists a class of workers who know, who are, if you like, the high priests of working-class technology, who have learned the movements that glorify matter by the way in which they transform it. There is a kind of new dignity within the world of workers that causes someone who is not initiated into the mystery to be considered as an outsider and even as a failure. From now on, this person is far from the world of workers, whereas formerly, in spite of everything, he or she was a neighbor, an unlucky comrade, a flunky perhaps, but who was part of the scenery. Today, because they hold nothing of this wonderful technique in their hands, they are from a different world, people of the past, who are going to be accused of being ignorant or even lazy.

Already eight years ago, I began to feel an urge to set up a workshop here for men and especially for young people. I was unable to finish it, for lack of money, for lack of drive on my part probably, but mainly perhaps because of these men who seemed to be tied up inside a world of failures, well aware of being failures with respect to the working-class world and, for that reason, deeply humiliated. I stopped suddenly; I put everything on hold, because what we were going to do was insufficient, and would only have emphasized their humiliation. We needed other resources as well as other collaborators.

Only today are we completing the construction of this workshop-club, but, during all those years, I have not stopped thinking, and also writing, about the hands of those workers. About the hands of poor people who have no possibility of developing their intelligence, who will not earn high school diplomas, who will not go to institutions of higher learning, nor even to vocational training courses. I have not stopped telling myself: “If we could at least turn these hands into the hands of workers, intelligent hands in and of themselves, achieving this without however having to rely on school or on centers for vocational training. May these hands at least, before they enter the workplace, already be ahead of other hands! Turn these hands into hands that have already been initiated into the secret, that know the movements, that already know the work ethic, the symphony of matter being transformed to glorify God and to provide men with well-being.” I told myself that would be brilliant if we did this with the young people from the emergency housing shelter. Then we would have done a tremendous job.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to achieve what I wanted to. I lacked money, but mainly I lacked someone at my side who would understand that and who would tell himself that it was worth the effort: “I’m standing by you to make that happen.” Meanwhile, and this is something very painful to me, meanwhile all the hands of these youth that I looked at every day have grown older and have come to the workplace as hands that are already awkward, as hands that have not been taught intelligence, and that have not been developed. These hands will not be able to take on the noble tasks, the great tasks which are the tasks of the working class. Take on those tasks which are much more marvelous – forgive me, my intellectual friends – than many tasks our brains accomplish. Because these working-class tasks bring about, directly and in plain sight, God’s creation.

As for me, I understand full well the work mystique of the working-class world to which Marxism has given back, not its honor, but its rightful place. But we must realize that, if you are not a good worker, if your hands have not been initiated into the secret, into the rhythm, and, thereby, into the rituals of the working class, you are slow, ungainly people, heavy people who have no future in the working-class world. Every access path is closed to you, every door shut. There’s no room for you either in trade unions or in political parties; there’s no room for you alongside your comrades, your pals at work; at best you are only other people’s flunky.

I have often said to the parents here, and I also said it to the young people: “What do you expect? Your children aren’t going to school; what will you do with them later? Being the slaves of bosses, the slaves of workers, the slaves of priests, that’s what your children have to look forward to.” This is a basic reality. Because resources are lacking, the world closes in on itself everywhere; you become a stranger to the world, and communication no longer works. The world of the rich lives within its social state; it shuts itself up inside its state, and, if they still think about the poor, it is because their pastor or their priest is constantly reminding them about them. Perhaps the poor still hold some interest for the revolutionary bent of their mind. Perhaps they think about the poor merely because they have an aching heart, because they are afraid to die and they think; Well now, before I come before our eternal Father, I’d better send Father Joseph some money to buy my ticket to paradise…”

Genuine communication no longer takes place, even with those who are a little better off. These people have been able to climb a little higher, and they are afraid of that poor person who reminds them of what they could have been. Even they, and perhaps especially they, stay at a distance. This is how a poor person becomes a really isolated human being – isolated from all communities and isolated inside himself, isolated from himself, from what he would like to believe in, from what he would like to be, and from what he is fundamentally This is one of the things that most impressed us: the isolation of the poor, not merely in the midst of these kinds of islands that the emergency housing camp of Noisy and the shantytown of La Campa represent, but the isolation of each person with respect to others in the heart of these groups, the isolation of each person inside families, the inner isolation of each person, human beings becoming strangers to themselves.

Of course the family remains, but what kind of family? The man and the woman are isolated from each other; the father is isolated from the children; the children are isolated from the parents. They are all isolated, even in the heart of the group and of the family, because each of them is lacking resources which make it possible to communicate, to give to others and, in turn, to receive. So a poor person is going to shut himself inside his isolation; he’s going to get organized inside himself. And the group as well is going to get organized, going to create a kind of world that brings together all these isolations. Here’s where the mystery of poverty lies that challenges all our knowledge. The poor do not create a culture. I really don’t think so, but these people get organized within a world which, in its way, is first of all going to nourish them, but also make them feel secure. The group is going to enable all concerned to survive from day to day, without a future, in some uncertainty about upcoming resources, but also in uncertainty about other people, in uncertainty about the attitude other people are going to adopt with respect to them.

I am saying that the group will make them feel secure, but, in fact, it’s much more serious. Because everything that will be brought to the poor will help to reinforce their way of living and thinking as isolated people. They, in turn, are going to cut off all the access paths, and, as for people approaching them, the resources they’re bringing will be dangerous for the poor. They will use them to become ever better organized inside their state. They will become organized in dependency, in begging, in non work, in a way of thinking and living which is not that of their environment, and, above all, not that of society. Perhaps there will still be exchanges of people and of resources, but nothing will hold together because the poor will have come undone themselves. Even if they still say what others are saying, it is merely a repetition. They become mouthpieces — not thoughtful and active prompters, but echoes, background noises, heard but never understood.

If the poor formed a group that was dynamic and important enough, out of this isolation, this way of investing all the remaining resources into a certain life style, could a class perhaps emerge? Why is there a working class, and what did it want? It also took some resources, while all the time refusing to participate in the culture of the world providing it with these resources. It refused to participate in that world, to accept its norms. Its ambition was to sweep those norms away so as to impose its own way of thinking. Here perhaps lies the full-blown tragedy of the working class. A volunteer such as Huguette (1), who has experienced this problem of the working class in her family, will be able to talk to us about it. Because the poor worker as well was kept in isolation. Nevertheless, he was important in society and he was able to acquire some resources. Based on this, the working class world has not necessarily left its isolation behind. Rather, it turned it into a bastion from which it wanted to impose its vision of the world. In the spirit of Marxism, it wanted to create a society in its image and under its domination. It wants to have nothing to do with bourgeois society. It doesn’t know it, and it repudiates it. It doesn’t want to know it, because it thinks that, if it knew it, this could be dangerous for it. Marxism taught the working-class world to say no to everything that is bourgeois, to be afraid of letting itself be won over by the bourgeois world. In this way, it has locked itself into an isolation that has something in common with that of today’s poor, but which is dynamic. It’s both a constructive and destructive isolation, because the working class can become a driving force. It has shown that it could be an active, creative driving force. Some say that all of that is a matter of strength and power. It goes much deeper. The question is to know whether, in and of itself, the working class will be able to create a culture capable of renewing and nourishing a society. Were that not possible, the group would again become small, shabby, aloof, marginalized. It would shrivel up. That’s the situation of the families of Noisy-le-Grand.

The lack of communication turns the poor into isolated people. Another time, we’ll see that someone who’s not poor will also be an isolated person with respect to the poor. This person as well is going to withdraw as if onto an island, thereby cutting off all possibility of communicating in the future. So there will be two strangers who are unaware of each other and whose reconciliation has to be rediscovered and completely rebuilt.

This is what we must manage to clarify in the introduction to the notebook about which I spoke to you yesterday. I only gave you some of its main points. Our text is not yet well defined, and we need your questions, your observations and examples to delve into it.


(1) Huguette Redegeld [author’s note on p. 302 in the original French version].Her name then was Huguette Bossot. She came to Noisy when she was 19. Secretary by profession, she earns the first prize in typing and stenography for all French-speaking countries. In the emergency housing shelter, she is, first of all, going to shoulder responsibilities for the secretariat, but, having grown up in a family not always safe from poverty, she immediately demonstrates a sense for the families’ interests that the other volunteers find it much more difficult to acquire.In 1966, she takes over from Mary Rabagliati in New York where she is going not only to shoulder responsibility for ATD Fourth World’s action in the Lower East Side but also work for a while in the United Nations’ Secretariat. From then on, she takes an interest in fulfilling this dream of Father Joseph that the poorest should “climb the steps of the French presidential residence, the UN and the Vatican.” With Father Joseph and Alwine de Vos, she commits herself to obtaining consultative status with ECOSOC (the Economic and Social Council of the UN), UNESCO, then with European governmental bodies. She becomes trained not merely in public relations, but also in diplomacy, taking on responsibility for the Movement’s relations with the European Community, then with UNESCO, and the UN in New York, where she sets up a permanent representation , genuine embassy of the poorest inside the UN. In 1976, she marries Ton Redegeld, jurist and Dutch volunteer. Today, she is vice-president of the International Movement ATD Fourth World; her almost innate sense of the cause of families in extreme poverty made her their best ambassador.

[draft copy revised and translated by Maxine and Gene Broemmelsiek and Charles F. Sleeth 02/22/07]

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