the predicament of the poor after their self-preservation has been assured is that their lives are without consequence, and that they remain excluded from the light of the public realm where excellence can shine; they stand in darkness wherever they go.
As John Adams saw it: ‚The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed … He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market. he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen … To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable. If Crusoe on his island had the library of Alexandria, and a certainty that he should never again see the face of man, would he ever open a volume?‚
I have quoted these words at some length because the feeling of injustice they express, the conviction that darkness rather than want is the curse of poverty, is extremely rare in the literature of the modern age, although one may suspect that Marx’s effort to rewrite history in terms of class struggle was partially at least inspired by the desire to rehabilitate posthumously those to whose injured lives history had added the insult of oblivion. Obviously, it was the absence of misery which enabled John Adams to discover the political predicament of the poor, but his insight into the crippling consequences of obscurity, in contrast to the more obvious ruin which want brought to human life, could hardly be shared by the poor themselves; and since it remained a privileged knowledge it had hardly any influence upon the history of revolutions or the evolutionary tradition.
When, in America and elsewhere, the poor became wealthy, they did not become men of leisure whose actions were prompted by a desire to excel, but succumbed to the boredom of vacant time, and while they too developed. a taste for ‚consideration and congratulation‘, they were content to get these ‚goods‘ as cheaply as possible, that is, they eliminated the passion for distinction and excellence that can exert itself only in the broad daylight of the public. The end of government remained for them self-preservation, and John Adams‘ conviction that ‚it is a principal end of government to regulate [the passion for distinction]‘ has not even become a matter of controversy, it is simply forgotten. Instead of entering the market-place, where excellence can shine, they preferred, as it were, to throw open their private houses in ‚conspicuous consumption‘, to display their wealth and to show what, by its very nature, is not fit to be seen by all.
Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Penguin Books 1963/1990), 69f.
… the institution of slavery carries an obscurity even blacker than the obscurity of poverty; the slave, not the poor man, was ‚wholly overlooked‘.