"If the poor didn't exist, we would have to invent them," Pogue said, spooning kneaded balls of raw spinach into his mouth.
Pogue was Anson's superior though the term no longer existed in the workplaces of the Community. Pogue was the Coordinator and Anson was the Organizer which amounted to the same thing.
In its drive for income equality, the Community had set the same base pay for everyone with added bonuses determined by a review of workplace peers and countersigned by the Coordinator. Organizers quickly learned to assign their Coordinator a bonus three times his base pay. If they didn't, the Coordinator would refuse to sign off on their far smaller bonuses.
"Fortunately we don't have to invent them," Anson said, glancing around. The Communion was an upscale restaurant serving only raw food, but it was easy to spot the dolees at their tables, taking in one of their mandatory two healthy meals a month.
Pogue chuckled. "Don't we? In the old days, poverty was an accident or a choice. There are no accidents or choices anymore. A rate of income distribution is set for each district. There have to be so many people of every class in each of the districts and all the countries of the Community equally distributed across race and sex."
Anson looked over at a dolee uneasily tasting a skewer of honeyed ants. "It's not as if someone decided that fellow over there should be poor."
"Perhaps, perhaps not. We know how to manipulate the economic situation in each district to achieve the proper distribution. And if everyone goes along, there isn't a problem," Pogue said. "Sometimes though we get these persistent fellows trying to climb out of their lot in life."
Pogue pointed to the dolee. "Suppose he were to go chasing job opportunities outside his assigned district, what would happen."
"It's not technically illegal," Anson said.
"The Community doesn't make things illegal. It makes them unpleasant. Messages get sent. Inspectors show up to look over his children, hassle him for minor tax reporting matters and give him other things to do with his time. If he persists, we turn to sterner measures to maintain equality."
Anson raised his glass of wheatgrain juice. "To the poor."
Coordinator and Organizer clinked glasses while the dolee chewed his ants in disgust.
"Do you know why we need the poor?" Pogue asked.
Anson knew, but he also knew that Pogue needed to enact this ritual monthly to maintain his self-assurance. The Coordinators were becoming uneasy of late. They felt the wind shifting, but did not understand why.
"Empathy," Pogue said, smacking his lips. "We talk about ending poverty, but it is the poor who teach us to be better people."
"And we repay them by keeping them poor," Anson said.
"It seems cruel, but those who suffer, the poor and the oppressed, the sick and the overlooked, inspire us with sensitivity," Pogue said. "Consider this, what made the Socialists and liberals of the past?"
"Spare time," Anson suggested cynically. "They were associated with a leisure class, disposable income, excess education."
Pogue shook his head. "Sensitivity. A baby cries and his parents comfort him. The cry is suffering. The time comes when the parents no longer comfort him as quickly because he is expected to be on his own. From this he draws conclusions about the cruel nature of the world. He becomes sensitized to his own pain and to the outrage that the pain is being ignored. And he generalizes that outrage to the unfeeling outside world at large."
"So they were a society of crybabies."
"Cynicism must be in fashion this month," Pogue said disapprovingly. "Their sensitivity was not in their tears, but in their resentment. Their pain became self-pity and they thought of themselves as better people for it. Their politics articulated that resentment as sensitivity."
"Not everyone can be a victim," Anson said.
"That is why we need the oppressed," Pogue said. "They serve as a reminder of that which we must be sensitive to. The purpose of the revolutionary politics of equality on which the Community is built are not to end poverty or oppression, but to perpetuate them on equal terms for a higher purpose."
"We must create the poor to pity the poor," Anson said, looking down at his unappetizing plate filled with red seeds of an unknown provenance.
Pogue slammed a meaty hand down on the table. "No! Pity is weak and sentimental. We must create the poor so that we will be outraged by their plight and by those who do not care about their plight as we do. Only in this way will the revolution permanently perpetuate itself. One day the Community will be overthrown by a more revolutionary system and it will be overthrown by an even more revolutionary system. Each cycle of outrage will rise to a peak as expectations go unmet."
"We have no hope but failure," Anson said.
"Exactly. We must fail and go on failing. The agony of the suffering must be there so that we will point a finger at an uncaring world and demand better. It might be in the power of the government to end poverty, but if everyone were truly equal, they would become insensitive."
"Equality can only exist as an ideal," Anson said, repeating Communal dogma.
"We are doomed to a reality of inequality," Pogue said. "We have not come to fix the world, but to shame the world. Equality is our ideal, inequality is how we remind everyone of their moral unfitness to their accomplishments and abilities. It is how we teach them to be sensitive. Sensitivity defines our politics. The Community does not intend to end suffering, but to make everyone sensitive to suffering."
"Suffering is life," Anson said, as the dolee, hungry and unsatisfied, rose from the table. "But are we truly sensitive to that man's suffering?"
"Obviously not," Pogue said. "No man can know what someone else is going through. And who is to say that beggar deserves our sympathy. We project our pain onto others and become sensitive to it. Each man is an island. Our self-pity can become pity, but it is only an illusion. It is only ourselves that we pity. It is for our own sake that we become sensitive so that we can denounce the insensitive."
"Then the Community is an illusion," Anson said.
"A moral illusion," Pogue answered, finishing the last of the spinach balls. "The most sensitive of us teach others how to trick their self-pity into empathy. And we must have blank vessels on which to project our self-pity and our outrage at a world that is insensate to our pain."
"The poor must always be with us," Anson said, rising from the table.
"Otherwise our sensitivity would be nothing more than selfishness," Pogue agreed, and ordered another bowl.
(A previous except from The Price of Progress appeared as Election Day)