On panhandling as a “real job”: an exercise in intellectual self-defense

[Good and revised 4.27.08.]

It is odd that one could be committed to capitalist “free exchange” and oppose panhandling (on the same grounds, at that). A co-worker of mine got me to thinking about this. She expressed the idea that panhandlers, of which there are many in Memphis, should just “get a job” instead.

A “job” must, I thought, mean more than simply generating an income—as panhandlers are already doing this. It must be a “real job,” somehow. This can’t just mean working for another person, a boss, as there are self-employed people who everyone agrees have “real jobs.” Perhaps they are supposed to generate their income performing “productive” or noble work instead. But there are plenty of “real jobs” that are neither: A financial speculator produces nothing in terms of commodities or services; and production of, say, rubber novelty turds or whoopee cushions seems hardly noble or edifying for consumers, or “society.” Must real jobs be taxing or unpleasant? Panhandling requires standing still in the elements for hours and is probably humiliating. It sure seems like “work.” Indeed, people are paid to do this sort of thing all the time, only with ads on the signs they hold. Conversely, nobody thinks a person has ceased to “really work” when she gets paid to do something she really loves, and would even do for free; indeed, finding this is often said to be one of the great goals of life.

On a consistent definition of “job”—one that covers all of the ones we want to call “real”—panhandling probably qualifies as one. In the end, nobody really defines a real job as something productive in hard material terms, or ennobling of consumers or of broader society, or taxing and difficult; a job is simply anything1 that one is paid by another to do. There might be silly jobs, or work that nobody should have ever paid someone to do, but this makes them no less “real.”

Be a productive member of society and crank these out

Soliciting charity for a living might seem fundamentally different because it seems like getting paid something for nothing. But consider: Giving charity clearly satisfies a want in the giver. This is true by definition: In the barest psychological terms, every action, giving charity no less, is motivated by some element of desire; if the payer did not want to pay, he wouldn’t. If we define a service as something someone does which satisfies a want for which another person pays—it follows that the panhandler provides a service indeed. Just because neither the panhandler nor the charitable giver thinks they are engaged in a product exchange hardly changes the facts of the case, any more than if I think I am a woman I thereby cease to be a man.2 (And this “service” is arguably as edifying as many other “legitimate” ones—giving to charity makes people feel good, and, frankly, reminds them of how relatively well off they are.)

In broader terms, unemployment is necessary for the health of a capitalist economy. 100% full employment all the time means no “room” for growth—for who would staff the new factories and storefronts? And how would capitalists, as they constantly remind us, remain profitable without periodic cuts in labor costs (i.e., layoffs, relocations)? So long as unemployment is necessary, panhandling (and all other “illegitimate” ways of making a living) will be as close to necessary as makes no difference. And something necessary to the maintenance of the capitalist system can hardly be criticized as breaking the rules of the same game.

Finally: From another angle: If I brokered charity contributions for impoverished third parties, and took a salary from these contributions, this would qualify as a “real job.” How then, if I broker the contributions for myself directly, and keep it all, is it essentially different?

* * *

I write all this as an exploration of ideological thinking—not the most important example, but a telling one. The whole “blame the panhandlers” angle is one of those rationalizations that people who are materially invested in a “bad” deal (capitalist production relations) must tell themselves—and must tell others, like my co-worker, they can influence—to legitimize the deal’s outcome. As a rationalization, the story stands up poorly to scrutiny; on the most obvious level, it is irrational. It won’t gel with other things the subject believes, and these things can be used to show a contradiction. And ripping the masks off this shit has to be part of critiquing the system.


1 Perhaps, anything legal one is paid to do.

2 Nor am I saying that the charity is reducible to a product exchange, or that “getting something” is the only motivation, or a poor or self-defeating one, for the giving. I’m only saying that whatever ever else the exchange may be, it is this also.


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