Monday, 30 June 2014

The peasants are revolting.

"What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the push of a button?... What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment. 

I look up and find Cinna's eyes trained on mine. "How despicable we must seem to you" he says."
- The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Dystopia is my favourite genre of book, having begun my love affair with it whilst reading George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' and Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" as an A level English Literature student. The latter remains my all-time favourite book to this day. I recently read "The Hunger Games" trilogy and was struck by what an interesting analogy it makes for modern politics - not so much the whole annual fight to the death, but in the narrative about the enormous and self-perpetuating divide between the wealthy privileged elite who reside in "the Capitol"  and the poverty-stricken "Districts" that surround it. In a post-revolution society where the state emerged victorious over the rebelling masses, the President of "Panem" expends an enormous amount of money and effort to maintain a discourse that keeps the poor in their place and reminds them that, not only are they eternally subservient to the state, but that they should be grateful for their meagre and miserable existence.

That same narrative is insidiously working its way through contemporary UK politics, via the construct of the "benefits scrounger", whom the right-wing would have you believe is hungrily devouring government resources, refusing to work and forever seeking ways to cheat and manipulate the welfare system. 

It would be laughable if it wasn't so pervasive.

While the government are eager for us to believe that benefits claimants look like the cartoon below, the truth is that, according to two recent studies, and the government's own expenditure data, a fraction of benefits are paid to the unemployed while the majority tops up the incomes of working families who face poverty in spite of having at least one full time earner per household.

This widespread rhetoric serves but one purpose. It gives the voting public a scapegoat at which to direct their umbrage and creates a smokescreen for the far more damaging tax avoidance and mishandling of finances by the wealthiest. 

From "The Socialist Paper", May 2013
Even taking the more conservative (pardon the pun) HMRC estimate of £30billion unpaid tax, when this is compared to the figures of benefits fraud and overpayment (£2.6billion combined), the latter is absolutely dwarfed. 

Why is this not reflected in the commentary offered up by mainstream politics? Four out of five of the main parties repeat this same narrative of "cracking down" on welfare, urging benefits claimants "back into work", making austerity cuts because they are vital for economic recovery. I'm trying so, so hard not to swear here, but it is plain to see that it's all bulltwang. Whose interests are served by this? Why the wealthy minority, of course. If you tell a big enough lie and tell it often enough, you can get away with it. Orwell called it Doublethink, and in this case that lie enables the self-serving, pocket-lining toffs to continue voting for parties whose policies have caused the biggest decline in living standards since the Victorian age.

Since getting more actively involved with politics, I've had the opportunity to talk to politicians from all around the political sphere. What has absolutely fascinated and horrified me in equal measure, is how earnestly the right wing believe their own discourse about the undeserving poor. Their outlook is what I call a Top-Down perspective; that is, that they approach social issues from a higher socio-economic position of wealth and status and see that as the benchmark to which all lower status people should aspire. If you're poor, you simply work harder to amass more wealth and get yourself out of that situation. And if you continue to be poor, it's only because you're not trying hard enough,  for which you only have yourself to blame. Dependence on the state for handouts to support you is unacceptable, and they really, really believe that this breeds a calculated and deliberate ethos of choosing to rely on benefits rather than earning your own keep. 

It's an outlook which is so far removed from the human element of life in the UK, you could be forgiven for thinking that these people live on the moon.

What this perspective also fails to accommodate, is that for capitalism to work, there needs to be a workforce supporting the bottom of the pyramid. As a wise friend recently put it:

"It doesn't wash to say that everyone has the opportunity to "better" himself, to pull himself up by his bootstraps and become successful and affluent. That cannot work. Capitalism REQUIRES a menial and manual working class to man production. If we all bettered ourselves, the owners of the factories and businesses would be f***ed."

That makes perfect sense, yes?

We need doctors to look after our health; without people willing to put the time and effort into training as doctors, disease would be rife and the life expectancy and quality of life for all would suffer.

We also need bin men and street sweepers; without them willing to venture out daily in all weather conditions, carting away the bags of dirty, smelly rubbish from all our households, disease would be rife, and the life expectancy and quality of life for all would suffer.

According to the National Careers Service website, the starting salary for a Refuse Collector is £15,000pa, rising to £19,000pa for drivers. Let's just put that into perspective with findings from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation:

There it is, plain and simple. A refuse collector with two children could not earn enough to afford the minimum acceptable standard of living - not a comfortable standard, just the minimum. This is the sort of person who would then need to claim the likes of housing benefit and tax credits to top up their wages in order to meet the cost of living. THIS is the sort of person the government simultaneously harms with cuts to welfare and denigrates with the "benefit scrounger" rhetoric.

Let's look at a handful of other examples:

Even as a single person, someone earning the bottom end of any of those salary ranges could not afford the minimum standard of living, which the JRF say would require earnings of £16,300 a year.

This is not an issue of laziness. This is not simply solved by humiliating low-paid workers, calling them workshy and telling them to get better jobs. We NEED people in these jobs, and we should ensure that those workers are able to afford not a "minimum" standard of living, but a good one.

Austerity cuts are not working. The government's attack on the poor is morally abhorrent and will achieve nothing to improve the UK economy.

I haven't even touched upon unemployment and the despicable sanctions placed on benefits by the Job Centre. That requires a post of its very own, as does the topic of immigration, disability, and the role of the mainstream media in perpetuating myths regarding all of these areas.

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