Let’s Beat Up The Poor

Giving is good, is it not? Intrinsically, but also utilitarianly, good as good for. It is good for the recipients, who get something they value or need (often in conditions of desperation) which they would otherwise not have. But it is also good for the givers, along a whole spectrum of potential benefits, from a moral return on the investment (in the form of feeling, er, good about yourself, an example of the ethically better sort of person) to an even grander salvationist return, as points are added up to determine whether you earn a pass through the Pearly Gates. Not everyone, however, thinks that giving is good, at least not to those in urgent need of assistance. I see that the Bullingdon Club is back in the news. The Oxford Student recently ran a story about a student who was admitted to the club only after an initiation ceremony which allegedly included burning a £50 note in front of a tramp. The publication of the story generated a lot of huffing and puffing about its reliability and its source (a third party). More generally, toff-bashing seems to have lost its allure. It is felt to be in political bad taste, an expression of the ‘politics of envy’; what matters is not where you come from, but where you are going, etc. The press took a very relaxed attitude to the remarkable statement of the current Top Toff, former Bullingdon Club member, the Prime Minister (Eton and Brasenose) in which he declared that he wanted everyone to have the same education he did. Thus runs a version of toff-egalitarianism, a silver spoon in everyone’s mouth. What a decent chap!

However burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person might be said to have something going for it, as a robustly contemptuous rejection of the mealy-mouthed and self-congratulatory nonsense spouted by the comfortably privileged on the political make. After all, we don’t hear much these days of something called the Big Society. The talk now is of cutting welfare benefits and of strivers versus shirkers. That’s more like it! Drag those shirkers out of bed! Eliminate benefits! Very possibly eliminate the poor themselves, or at the very least give the homeless and the beggars a damn good thrashing as an example to all disinclined to strive (very possibly for the reason that there is nothing readily imaginable to strive for, like a job for instance).

I find myself encouraged in these boldly and bracingly heterodox views by the coincidence of re-reading the verse and prose poetry of the 19c French poet, Charles Baudelaire at the time of stumbling on the tale in The Oxford Student, and wondering how all this might look when passed through the prism of Baudelaire’s narrative prose poem, ‘Let’s Beat Up The Poor’. The text begins with the poet telling us of a fortnight spent in his room intensively reading the works of the ‘entrepreneurs of public happiness’, to the point of inducing a near catatonic state of vertigo and imbecility. Yet from deep within his stupor there is born the ‘germ of an idea’ which, on leaving his room for a brisk walk to a local cabaret, he suddenly finds himself both clarifying and putting to the test. Accosted by a street beggar, instead of handing over a coin as prescribed by the philosophy of charitable works, he hurls himself at the beggar, punches him in the eye, kicks him in the back, bangs his head against a wall, and, seeing tree branch lying on the ground, finishes the job by beating him ‘with the obstinate energy of a cook tenderizing a steak’. This startling turn of events is however but an hors d’oeuvre before the principal peripeteia of the narrative. A bloody heap, the ‘decrepit’ beggar stirs, drags himself to his feet, and impels himself into a counter-attack, punching his assailant in both eyes, breaking four teeth (Baudelaire is nothing if not fussily precise), and beating the living daylights out of him with the same branch. The roles of ‘giver’ and ‘receiver’ are thus at once reversed and equalized.

In many ways, the poem is deeply resistant to interpretation, and is meant to be. The surface of demonic hysteria and sadomasochism is a pokerfaced mask, concealing a range of provocative ironies. Against the background of the spectacular collapse of ideologies of well-meaning benevolence in the insurrections of 1848, Baudelaire’s poem probes all the weak points of the philanthropic: the egoism in altruism (‘I am such a nice person’); the bad faith of charitable giving as alibi, letting oneself off the hook of finding real solutions to inequality; the malicious thought that a relation of equality established through the exchange of violence is far preferable to the humiliating servitude of supplicant beggardom, the smile, the deference, the politeness, without which the needy rarely accede to the status of the deserving.

I would therefore like to invite David Cameron or George Osborne to propose Charles Baudelaire for posthumous honorary membership of the Bullingdon Club. His great poem would of course be read out as part of the ceremony of induction, and hailed as a fine way of converting shirkers into strivers. We can then look forward to the moment when the tramp, faced with the burning 50 quid note, grabs hold of it and sets light to a Bullingdon Boy’s tails.

Christopher Prendergast is a life fellow at King's College, Cambridge and on the editorial team of King's review. He contributes regularly for the London Review of Books and New Left Review.