The People of the Abyss

The People of the Abyss (1903) is n account of the life conditions of the poor in the East End of London collected during his first hand experience staying in workhouses and sleeping in the street as part of his personal exploration of the under-world. He carried out his experiment at a time of affluence, in 1902, but during which 500,000 people were estimated to live in the described conditions: “The starvation and lack of shelter encountered constituted a chronic condition of misery, which is never wiped out, even in periods of great prosperity”, he asserted. In January 1903, there was no space left in the workhouses and the means were exhausted.

casual ward

He visits Johnny Upright’s home in order to have a place where he could receive his mail and, work on his notes, and get a cold treatment as he does so in his shabby clothes, until he speaks to Mrs. Upright. He then starts looking for a room, and learns that even the largest families in this stratum of society took just a room and even took lodgers in. He´s offered a room with two other lodgers and exchanges impressions with a lower class youth: “From the moment of his birth , all the forces of his environment had tended to harden him, and he viewed his wretched, inevitable future with a callousness and unconcern I could not shake”, and learn about the aged poor, a 71% of the population of London, through a newspaper article, how they age alone and die of self-neglect, 450,000 a day. “The Abyss seems to exude a stupefying atmosphere of torpor, which wraps about them and deadens them (…) the full belly and the evening pipe is all they demand, or dream of demanding, from existence”. The environmental conditions they live submerged in are poisonous, as pollution forms solid deposits on every surface.

Jack London decides to see things for himself and not merely to be informed by other people´s theoretical work on the subject of poverty, such as Engels’ or Jacob Riis’s, so that he could see the human factor: “how they live, why are they living, what for”. He finds that there was a slum at a five minute walk from any point in London, but the cabbies refused to drive to the East End, which was a neverending slum packed with a “crowd of shabby white people” belonging to a new different race of “short, beer-sodden, wretched” individuals. He stops by an old-clothes shop and the shop owner thought he was a high-class American criminal. He arrays himself in the shabby clothes and sews one gold sovereign in the armpit just in case he encounters difficulties. He then experiences the different in status effected by his clothes and notices that “all servility – towards him- vanished from the demeanour” and he was called ‘mate’ instead of ‘sir’ or ‘guv`nor’, escaping “the pestilence of tipping and encountered mean on a basis of equality (…) I had to be more lively in avoiding vehicles. Life had cheapened in direct ratio to my clothes”. Lower classes “talked as natural men should without the least idea of getting anything out of me”. The fear of the mob vanished completely as London became –in appearance- one of them.

East End 1903

He gets immersed in the life of the poor and dejected population of the East End were men in one room working for 15 hours a day encaged in a tiny room, with their teeth worn down by the friction of the metallic brads used in their trade –shoe-making -. He witnesses the life of those dying of consumption, those who can only afford to have rotten meat once a week, and who can only wait patiently for death; cramped rooms full of undernourished infants. And he lives with those who can not even afford lodging and try to sleep in the Spitalfields Garden, a surface with patches of grass here and there and a sharp-spiked iron fencing to deter them from entering its enclosed space. Others, in search of a roof, sleep in the benches within Christ´s Church; people covered in rags and filth, open sores and bruises, women who would sell themselves for a loaf of bread. He experiences life in the casual ward and the workhouses. “The Abyss is a huge man-killing machine”.

 

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Down and out in Paris and London, by George Orwell.

Your clothes get dirty and you can’t afford having them washed. You run out of soap and razor-blades. You start avoiding prosperous friends in the street. You discover hunger. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge wasteful piles. You start thinking: in a day or two I’ll be starving”; this is Orwell’s description of the process of slipping into poverty. Down and Out in Paris and London” starts in a Paris slum where Orwell lived in 1929, in a lousy hotel in the rue du Coq d’Or among the yells of Mme. Monce, loud prostitutes and children in the street. It’s a narrow street crammed with derelict buildings packed with immigrants of every conceivable nationality, most of them eastern Europeans.

This fantastic book describes the writer’s personal experiences among the inhabitants of an often ignored social stratum, the underworld present in every society and every nation in the globe. “People in this sort of background had given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty freed them from ordinary standards of behaviour he states. Our protagonist, Orwell himself, spent a year and a half in the Coq d’Or until he ran out of money and started his descent to deprivation where boredom is also a fellow traveller, as there’s nothing to do and being underfed, nothing interests you”– he says. However, according to him there’s also a feeling of relief, “as your worst fear is just in front of you and you discover that you can stand it.”

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After leaving the Coq d’Or, and going to a pawnshop where he had to accept whatever they gave him, finding a job became imperative. He went to see a Russian friend, Boris, an unemployed waiter who thought that being English was a great asset in the pursue of a job as a waiter. However, as Boris was lame and Orwell didn’t have any experience, took weeks before they could find a job. In the meantime, while now and then Boris collapsed in bed weeping desperately as money oozed away, Orwell tried fishing in the Seine river so that they could eat, but found that fish had become cunning after the seige of Paris. Appealing to the solidarity of his fellow country men, Boris suggested that they could get in touch with a Russian secret society in Paris; apparently they were looking for articles on English politics, which could make things easier for Orwell too. So, they went to the secret hideaway, where the Russian revolutionaries demanded 20 Francs from them as an entrance fee. The revolutionaries asked Orwell about British politics and seemed satisfied. However, when Boris and Orwell went to the hideaway again, the Russian revolutionaries had vanished into thin air with the entrance fee money.

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They start looking for jobs and they find two possibilities; there was work in the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, but not until some time had passed, so in the meantime they had to start working at the Hotel X. Orwell describe the caste system in there: the manager was at the top of the pyramid, followed by the maître d’hotel, then the head cook, the chef du personnel, the cooks, the waiters, the laundresses and sewing women, the apprentice waiters, the plongeurs (dishwashers) and the chambermaids. Orwell worked as a plongeur, the lower job a man could do, and he describes it as follows:

not enough sleep, continuous toil, one felt neurastenic and with fatigue; there were discarded scrapes of meat on the floor, rats and filth – even so, his workmates stated that they had known worse dirtier places-. “A plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world, no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art.” Among the responsibilities of a plongeur, is washing up, keeping the kitchen clean, preparing the vegetables, making tea, coffee and sandwiches, doing the simple cooking and runnning errands. It also implied tacitally no free day and no fixed working hours, although it was an average of 15 hours per day. They pay was just enough to keep the worker alive, the only holiday was the sack, a plongeur didn’t have time to marry. At that moment there were “men with university degrees scrubbing dishes in Paris for 10-15 hours a day, trapped in a routine that made thought impossible.”

After 5-6 weeks of working in the Hotel X, Boris disappeared, as the Auberge was about to open. Orwell left the Hotel X, but as they arrived they saw that it would take weeks for the Auberge to be ready. They employed them in the necessary works without pay. As soon as Orwell left, he went to the Auberge clean, shaved and in a new suit to feel the “curious sensation of being a customer where you have been a slave’s slave.”

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He contacted a British connection -he hadn’t lost touch with the other world completely- so that he could get a job and then he got ready to leave France. But he travelled to England only to learn that his employers had gone abroad and that the prospect of a job had vanished; again, he exchanged his clothes for older ones and money. “Clothes are powerful things”, he claims as he noticed the change in people’s attitude toward him once he changes his suit for shabby clothes. Then, he starts experiencing and describing an even lower stratum of society populated by tramps. Firstly, he looked for the cheapest place to sleep, a battered looking house (know as a kip) in East London, which was full of oriental immigrants. There, he slept with several men in the same room. As he ran out of money -even more-, he changed his lodgings, as he only had a half penny left, and decided to go Romton, one of the London spikes (casual wards). There he met Paddy, an Irish man who had been a tramp for the last 15 years, who explained how the spikes worked. After queuing for a while at the entrance, a lady with a crucifix welcomed them inside, and gave them tea while she talked about religious subjects, and once the tea time was over, the lady insisted on their kneeling down and pray as part of the deal. “Ah, you don’t get much for nothing. They can’t even give you a twopenny cup of tea without you go down on your knees for it”, says Paddy.

casual ward

Once in the spike, the authorities only allowed each tramp to keep eightpence and they had to hand any sum to them at the entrance, but most tramps would rather smuggle their own money by tying it in a piece of cloth so that it didn’t chink. Once registered in the office, an officer who treated them like cattle lead them inside. They were searched before bathing and there were 50 stark-naked men packed in a room 20 feet square, with only two bathtubs and two slimy roller towels for all. They bathed in used water. There were no beds, they slept on the floor. After midnight, a man began making homosexual attempts upon Orwell, after which it was impossible to go back to sleep. At 8 in the morning they were out. The meal tickets they had been given lead them to a coffee shop where they were reluctantly served tea and four slices of bread. Paddy wanted to go to the Edbury spike and he explained that the Edbury spike was similar to Romton but tobacco was confiscated at the entrance. Under the Vagrancy Act, tramps can be prosecuted for smoking in the spike.

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After Edbury, they went to a Salvation Army shelter, of semi-military discipline, and then they went looking for a friend of Paddy’s, Bozo. Bozo was a screever (pavement artist). He made his drawings on the pavement with artist’s chalks. He mainly painted cartoons, but had to avoid pro-socialist content due to the police and avoided religious charities, as he said it stuck in his throat to sing hymns for buns. He considered himself in a class above ordinary beggars, but the enemy of society all the same. In Bozo’s lodging house Orwell meets blacks, whites and Indians from all kinds of backgrounds, including a former doctor. Bozo explained to Orwell the different types of tramps that populated the streets: Organ-grinders and acrobats, who were considered as artists more than beggars and screevers who were somewhere in between, as they were only sometimes considered as artists. He introduced Orwell to a real artist who had studied art in Paris and copied Old Masters on the pavement. “It’s shabby sort of blokes you get most off and foreigners. The English are mean”. Sometimes he talked like an art critic about the colours in nature. I go out at night and watch for meteors. The stars are a free show. It don’t cost anything to use your eyes”. “If you got an education, it don’t matter to you if you’re on the road for the rest of your life. If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself ‘I’m a free man in here – and he tapped his forehead – and you’re all right”. Bozo had managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty. Bozo represents an optimistic outlook quite different to the common assumptions on life on the road and poverty, an exceptional character and a remarkable man. As long as he could read, think and watch for meteors, he considered himself free in his own mind.

“Down and out in Paris and London” is an often humorous yet realistic narration which invites to reflection about class issues and reveals the lives of the inhabitants of the lower strata of society, full of ignored poverty-stricken people, rich with stories and experiences utterly alien to the official average citizen.

The life before us.

“The life before us” is a very special book, not only due to its content, but also to the story surrounding it. It was thanks to it that, for the first time in French history, an author could circumvent the rules to win the Goncourt Price twice, as it can only be awarded once in a lifetime. “The life before us”, by Émile Ajar, won the same year it was written, in 1975. What the jury ignored was that the psedonym Émile Ajar didn’t belong to its impersonator, Paul Pavlowitch. The truth was only revealed in the suicide note left by Roman Kacew, better known as Romain Gary, who had already been awarded with the Goncourt price in 1956, and who was the man behind Ajar. Later on, he would explain the process of the creation of Émile Ajar in “Vié et mort d’Émile Ajar” -”Life and death of Émile Ajar”- (1981), which was published posthumously. Kacew/Gary/Ajar committed suicide on December 2nd 1980, at 66, by shooting himself. He left a note in which he stated specifically that his death had nothing to do with that of his ex-wife Jean Seberg the previous year, and that Émile Ajar was himself.

romain gary

Writing under pseudonym was a habit for Romain Gary, and he did so under the names Shatan Bogat, Fosco Sinibaldi, besides Ajar and Gary itself. As Ajar, he wrote four works which became well known, and he ironically entitled the third one “Pseudo”. Paradoxically, Gary was accused of imitating Ajar’s style: “I’m a pseudo-pseudo!” he would later laugh.

“The life before us” introduces us to Momo, a child who lives in a run-down urban neighbourhood, Belleville Boulevard -Edith Piaf’s birthplace-. There is a high concentration of immigrants in it: North-African Muslims, black Africans from every nationality, Eastern-Europeans… They know and respect each other and lead their daily lives as anyone would. Momo lives with Madame Rosa, a retired prostitute of Polish Jew origins and who lived the WWII and was imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Germans. She takes long-term care of the sons of other prostitutes who are unable to tend to their children properly due to their jobs, and first met Momo when he was three.

Among others, we meet Madame Lola, a transgender prostitute and former boxing champion in Senegal, whom Momo is very fond of, as she’s very kind and motherly. Mr. Driss is a café owner, in whose café several important scenes of the novel take place. There, Momo regularly meets old Hamil, a street carpet vendor, for his lessons about Muslim culture and the Q’ran, as it is Madame Rosa’s wish for the kids to maintain a link with their respective cultures. This is attained through the means available: Momo is in charge of taking 3-year old Banania (Turé) to Bisson Street, where most black Africans live.

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At the time, Momo is around ten, although doubts are raised about that and Madame Rosa, with whom he feels a very strong link, is in her late sixties, but very ill. Madame Rosa is quite a character; she keeps a portrait of Hitler under her bed, so that when she’s feeling down, she can remind herself of what she has been put through and cheer herself up just for having survived all that. Her famous sex-appeal has bidden farewell long ago and she has several ailments, some of which she tries to conceal, as they may hinder her life and that of her kids, including Momo. She keeps secrets, but Momo knows, and suffers. We will walk downstairs with Madame Rosa and Momo, and into Madame Rosa’s basement, where she retires when woken up by nightmares. The place is crammed with memories, Jewish paraphernalia and secrets; it is there where we will witness the most dramatic moments in Momo’s life.

In 1977, Moshe Mizrahi brought the novel to the big screen -Madame Rosa-, featuring Simone Signoret as Madame Rosa.

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The interbellum years II: the crisis.

Hoover came into power 1929. A critical year. He believed that technology and expertise would lead USA to a permanent state of prosperity. Industrial production had increased by 30% during the last ten years, but the characteristic prosperity of the 20s was an illusion and ended in financial disaster. In 1929 the unemployment rate rocketed and 60% of families fell below the poverty line. Several factors contributed to this long crisis:

  • structural weakness of the banking system.

  • Inability of borrowers to repay loans, which lead to a epidemics of bank failures.

  • Unequal distribution of wealth and income (23-29 the income of the wealthiest 1% increased dramatically). Concentration of resources in hands of the wealthy, who didn’t need to spend their money. As a consequence assembly line production, which was aimed for a very different niche, remained stored and the stock surplus lowered prices, which was in turn translated into unemployment and financial failure for the companies. No unemployment insurance: the relief burden fell on state and municipal governments and private charities. Crisis hit during a shift from traditional industries to newer (steel and textiles to processed food, auto-mobiles and tobacco, heavily dependent on the stock market).

  • Farm prices depressed since the end of WWI, when European agriculture revived.

  • Rural consumers stopped buying farm implements and defaulted on their debts putting pressure on the banking system.

  • Protectionist measures: residential construction rose in 1924 and 27 and plummeted in 1929. One of the reasons was the restrictions to immigration. Republican tariff policies damaged foreign trade.

  • Economists and bankers introduced measures founded in past experiences no longer relevant.

  • The Federal Reserve, in order to curb stock market speculation slowed down the growth of the money supply then allowed it to fall after the crash, producing a liquidity crisis. Reduced amount of money available to consumers to spend.

  • USA, UK and most countries in Europe and Latin America insisted on clinging to the Gold Standard after WWI: each currency had a fixed value in relation to gold. It made their economies slow down.

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The Stock Market Crash took place in October 1929. As a result, Hoover was blamed and the new way of life was named after him by his opponents: shanty towns built by the homeless was called Hoovervilles. There were hundreds of Hoovervilles across the country during the 1930s and hundreds of thousands of people lived in these slums. Newspapers were called “Hoover blankets”, and empty pockets inside out were “Hoover flags”.

hooverville

Homelessness was present before the Great Depression, and hobos and tramps were common sights before 1929; most large cities built municipal lodging houses for them, but the depression exponentially increased the demand. The homeless clustered in shanty towns close to free soup kitchens. These settlements were often formed on empty land and consisted of tents and shacks. The authorities did not officially recognize these “Hoovervilles” and occasionally removed the occupants for trespassing on private properties, but they were frequently tolerated or ignored out of necessity.

According to Hoover recovery was just round the corner. But the reality was that families lived on soup and beans only, without meat and fresh vegetables for months. Family providers were in question and they walked long distances looking for a job while their families had to stood in line for hours waiting for a relief check. The crops rotted in the fields, as prices were too low to make harvesting worthwhile. The blacks were the first to lose their jobs and Mexican Americans were deported. Those who were poor before the crisis subsisted better because they were used to subsisting in poverty, but middle class was hit hard. Many professionals and white collars refused to ask for charity and those who fell behind on mortgage payments lost their homes. As health care declined, people stopped going to the doctor, because they could not pay assistance. Banks approached collapse and customers rushed in to withdraw their deposits causing bank failure.

The interbellum years I: from prosperity to poverty.

Right after the WWI, the USA lived a period of prosperity without precedents and became the richest country on Earth. National per capita annual income increased by 30%. The manufacturing process in factories was greatly modernised, increasing production per worker/hour by 75%. A new culture of consumer goods emerge superseding the old rural values. Migration from rural areas to cities in search of new opportunities grow, and people are eager to buy the new goods advertised by the media. Advertising, electrodomestics, cars and purchase on credit by installments buying plans offer exciting possibilities. The is what Fitzgerald called “the Jazz Age”. Birth of mass entertainment and blooming of many magazines and publications. Writers like Dorothy Parker wrote short stories in these publications.

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Many American authors went to exile, as living in Europe was cheaper, but also in search for values and beliefs (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Pound). This generation of writers was baptised by Gertrude Stein as the lost generation and their main trait is their disillusionment and disenchantment after the war. In “This side of paradise” (1920) Fitzgerald describes a young generation at a dead end: “fully dedicated to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shake.” This generation of writers had faced the horror of war, had witnessed massive death and destruction and they lost all faith in institutions, history and the human being. Abstract ideals such as progress and liberty were no longer to be trusted. They felt a vacuum after the war, and the new optimistic idealism was totally meaningless and decadent to them. The superficial materialism of postwar society with its modern commodities, consumerism, conformity and contentment was no substitute for values like altruism, solidarity and heroism. They felt nostalgia.

johnny got his gun

“Johnny got his gun”

When the WWI finished, Woodrow Wilson was in office. During his two terms, several important changes were introduced in society through legislation, and none of them were ‘spur of the moment’ laws, but the consequence of a long time of previous brewing:

  • The Eighteenth Amendment was approved in 1919, a controversial law, the Prohibition introduced restraints in civil liberties, it had been in the background since the times of the Puritans and encouraged by the Methodist Church and the Temperance Movement, who made it gain momentum. The Prohibition was officially working until 1934, when it was officially repealed. The crime rates increased, as the upper class was willing to break the law to have access to alcohol (Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt”, 1922) and organised crime bloomed, enriching those who dominated the illicit business, such as Al Capone. Speakeasies, bootleggers and bathtub gin were born and will always remain as symbols of those times (as seen in The Great Gatsby”, 1925).

  • The Nineteenth Amendment (women suffrage) was approved, after a long period of struggle by the Suffragist Movement. Victorian values regarding sex and relationships was rapidly fading and women enjoyed more freedom in this respect (as described by Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker).

  • The Emergency Tariff Act and the Emergency Quota Act, signed in 1921 by Warren G. Harding, established protectionist measures aimed at hindering the introduction of European imports and also set migration quotas related to race and origins, restricting the entrance to certain ethnic groups (it’s consequences are mentioned throughout “Manhattan Transfer”, by John Dos Passos). This severely restricted the immigration of Africans and outright banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians. The purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”.

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When Harding dies from a heart attack in 1923, Calvin Coolidge took up the torch and ratifies the measures taken by the latter. Due to a decreasing number of Nordic immigrants, writer Madison Grant warned that the Anglo-Saxon stock was about to be overwhelmed by lesser breeds (mainly South and East Europeans, Asians and Africans) with inferior genes, and Harding revises Harding’s Immigration Act, polishes it and ratifies it as the National Origins Quota Act in 1924, establishing a quota of 2% of each national group. The quota subsisted until the 60s. Hostility towards immigrants increased and paved the way for a KKK renaissance in rural USA which would eventually spread to cities, across all social classes.

The outcasts and the New Poor People Law in literature.

“Oliver Twist” was published in 1838, in the midst of what came to be known as the Time of Troubles: the severe economic and social difficulties attendant on industrialization during the 1830s and the 1840s, after a brief period of prosperity between 1832-36. A crash in 1837 and a series of bad harvests produced unemployment, desperate poverty and riots. People lived in

crowded slums packed with unsanitary housing,and children toiled in unimaginable brutal conditions.

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In the political background, the Poor Law Amendment Act, AKA New Poor Law, was passed in 1834 by the Whig government. Its aim was the reformation of the country’s poverty relief system. The PLAA curbed the cost of poor relief in England and Wales and created workhouses, replacing the existing legislation based on the Poor Law of 1601.
The New Poor Law was based on the theories developed by Malthus and Bentham; according to Malthus, the population increases faster than resources, and according to Bentham, people tend to accommodate to what is pleasant and would tend to claim relief rather than working.
All these facts are reflected in the novel by Dickens, whenever he addresses to one of the institutions devised for the poor, such as the workhouse where Oliver’s mother dies or the institutions where Oliver asks for “some more”. They try to deter poor people from staying in them for too long by providing them with poor helpings of unedible food and making them toil hard.
This facts are also reflected in the methods devised in “People of the Abyss” by Jack London, written in 1903,where the outcasts are forced to toil and to pray if they want to benefit from a scarce helping of skilly.
We can also find the same deterring methods within “the spike” in “Down and out in Paris and London”, by George Orwell.
The PLAA was only repealed in 1948 (1948!!!)

Diamonds in the dirt

There has been much talk here in Spain about the levels of poverty we are reaching. I am talking about the average citizen, or course, because as you must know, corruption in Spain stays mainly in the plain (and everywhere else) and euros in Spain stay mainly outside the country (they have a preferrence for Switzerland). Ana Botella, the former president Aznar’s wife (what a surprise, Cornelius Nepote) and mayor of Madrid (please do not miss her speech last year for the Olympics 2020, utterly ridiculous) decided to impose a fine which amounts to 1038 American Dollars (750 euros) on those who search in the rubbish. I think she has decided to take this measure to avoid a certain image which could affect investors’ decisions upon spending money in a ruined country. She wants us to look sleek and politically correct although it is only the political class who is taking the money. Oh, well… The Monarchy is taking the money too, I forgot, my apologies to the crown for forgetting their part in it. Both stink with corruption, stained with moral rubbish in which they feed. How dare they complain that the average citizen looks for food in the trash cans? Does it paint a poor image?

"La brecha", by González de la Cuesta.

“La brecha”, by González de la Cuesta.

The fact is that every time I go shopping or do some errand lately, I see up to three different people in three different spots looking for things among the rubbish. Usually, they carry a neat little shopping trolley, one of those made of cloth with two little wheels that we see at supermarkets and they proceed to their searching. Is there anything wrong with this? Job opportunities are scarce, and there is a lot of still edible stuff in the cans next to supermarkets. Why haven’t they regulated on throwing away edible stuff when there are so many people in need?

This is the society of programmed obsolescence, our dear consumer-based society in which we are valued for the amount of stuff that we consume and we are expected to support society by keeping on buying and discarding material things. This means that the rubbish cans are packed with usable stuff and this is no recent issue. I have picked up interesting things from rubbish cans myself. Part of my clothes come from discards of others and they are as nice as they could be. And I’ve always liked the idea of buying second-hand clothes: less waste for the planet, less influence by the companies that play with a certain image of women, less concern about hundreds dying in a clothes factory in Bangladesh which collapses…

I guess this is considered marginal and belonging to the lumpen-proletariat, but it does have a dignity in it. More than politicians and aristocrats can say in this country.