John Richardson critiques the root of the Tory ideology and drive to bring Britain back to the Victorian era.
“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life........nothing else will ever be of any service to them.....Stick to Facts, Sir!”
These are the opening sentences of the Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Hard Times’ - a novel depicting the savagery and squalor of the Victorian town ‘Coketown’. He condemned the treatment of the ‘poor’ in not only their economic situation, but also in the prevailing social attitudes towards ‘the poor’. This social category –the poor’ and their ‘home’ - ‘poverty’ (after all, that’s where they live!), are still the subject of much argument and discussion as to ‘who they actually are and what they actually do!
The attitude of the wealthy towards the poor in Victorian Britain is summed up in a verse from the Hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful :
‘The Rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate’
This in a nutshell is the current Governments ideology and policy towards ‘the poor’ – it is inevitable that inequalities exist –it is the way that ‘things are’, in fact ordained by God –it is the perfect combination of social and political values alongside theological justification. Indeed what Weber called ‘ the Protestant Work ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. . David Cameron and the current government, supported by the Establishment’ (Owen Jones) is the embodiment of this mix.
Not only do they wish to ‘set the clock back to the 1850’s in economic terms but also in social and political terms. Mr Cameron is Downton Abbey personified –not only part of the social and economic elite, but also grandstanding as the Lord of all he surveys.
In Cameron’s Britain, it is the ‘right and the duty’ of the Elite to rule. It is a divine right, as far as the Queen is concerned (she is also head of the Church of England!) everyone and everything placed in a divine and ‘natural’ order. It is right that those who are at the top in society should, indeed, must, rule. They are privately socialised, privately educated, privately indoctrinated with the idea that they are born to rule.
Given David Cameron and his Eton/Harrow cabinet friends and public school educated colleagues there appears to be an emerging ‘world view’, not all that distinct from John Majors favourite image of ‘warm beer’, the village green and the sound of leather upon willow’. Everything is set out as if Britain is a village –
The Lord and Lady of the Manor own, direct and control the economy;
the Police are the local bobby tasked with defending the status quo;
the NHS are the local doctor available to those who can afford him/her but not to those who cannot;
the local employers are the business community who work alongside the Lord of the manor to make sure that profits
and wealth are retained for themselves;
the education system is the, local school where local boys and girls learn to take their allotted place in the scheme of
the systems of law and punishment are the local judges and magistrates, made up from the families and friends of the Lord of the Manor to deal with the’ ne’er do wells’ who make up the rest of the population.
Of course, the Army and the Security Services are the same – tasked with keeping out ‘Johnny Foreigner’ who
comes in all shades, shapes, sizes and disguises – everything from The European Union to Jihadists and all stations
And then there the rest - the workers, the labourers, employees, mothers, fathers, etc all who depend upon the Lord of the Manor and Business for grace, favours and any chance of earning a decent income. They are viewed with suspicion, needing to be regulated by regulations that control our work, our homes and our lives in order that they accept that this is the way it is!! If this seems far fetched look at the latest attempts to undermine employment rights, housing rights, benefits, indeed human rights in the attempt to ‘turn back the clock’. They are treated as ‘problems to the system’ and if they would only behave and do what was required then life would so much easier.
But the greatest suspicion falls not on the worker, or those trying to make a living, but on the ‘poor’!’
All is not too as rosy as it seems in the Cameron camp as they also believe that with this ‘divine right to rule’ there comes a responsibility, a ‘noblesse oblige’ a duty of service to the ‘poor’. So, however difficult it might be, however onerous, however wearisome, however tiresome the ‘poor’ might be, it is nevertheless ‘our duty to care’ for them.
But as we know ‘the poor’ in this ideological framework is a mixed category – not only does Cameron ‘see’ the poor but he distinguishes between them - the ‘deserving poor’ and, more importantly, ‘the undeserving poor’.
In order to find out who they are, Cameron et al have to come up ways of measuring, ways of counting and ways of categorisation. ‘We have to separate out those who need our help and those who won’t help themselves’.
So how do they do this? Researcher after researcher, policymaker after policymaker, first identifies defining characteristics, counts them, then creates a social category -‘ the underclass’, ‘the claimant’ , ‘ the feckless’, the socially excluded’, ‘the immigrant’ -anything which distinguishes ‘them’ from ‘us’.
To support their assertions, social scientists and policy makers come up with numbers, characteristics, indices which are presented as ‘facts’. Counting the poor is a ‘factual’ exercise to determine how many and, the most important ‘fact ‘of all –how much this category is costing the ‘rest of us? The latest ‘fact’ is from David Cameron’s policy initiative –Helping Troubled Families:
“Half a million problem families are costing taxpayers more than £30billion a year, according to a major study which reveals for the first time the true extent of the rise of Britain’s underclass.
Hundreds of thousands of households are causing a serious drain on public resources with ‘off the barometer’ dysfunctional behaviour.”
It is not only that they are a problem to themselves but more importantly they are a ‘problem for us’. Worst of all, their situation is, heaven forbid, costing us money!! Money, that great leveller, money that could be better spent on ourselves on our own families, on houses, on holidays, on fine wines, rich food, beautiful clothes- money that could be put to better use than ‘wasting it on the poor’ !!
For Cameron there is also a question of ‘blame’ - whose fault is it? Of course he argues that it is their own fault - blame them for the choices they make and rationalise it -as Zoe Williams cogently argues: and challenges us :
“Underlying all this is the insistence that poor people are poor because they are worse at life. They may not be able to help it, they may be so inadequate that you cannot technically blame them for their lack of self-control.
Nevertheless, there it is: the root of all their troubles is their inability to discipline themselves..... Politically, it is wonderful. It makes the feckless instantly identifiable and simultaneously proves how feckless they are. I understand completely why the right loves it; what I do not understand is why there is no push back from the left.” (The Guardian 18/8/14)
So what must be the response of The People’s Assembly? Our first response must be to challenge all the assumptions and facts which masquerade as ‘truth’ in the discussions of social policy and problems. Being poor is not a moral judgement or failure –it is not because ‘God has placed us in this position’ -it is not our fault!!
The underlying reality of many social categories discussed here is that people are in poverty – they are not a ‘problem if they have the material wherewithal to buy their way out of trouble. For example to identify a child as suffering from ADHD or dyslexia is not in itself a ‘problem’ It is exacerbated if the family cannot buy appropriate education or treatment –if they are poor!
And yet there is something more profound behind the idea that the poor can be counted and categorised and thereby ‘treated’ It is to assume that all human activity can be subject to scientific analysis – that there is a ‘norm’ against which all behaviour can be measured. But who constructs ‘the norm’?
Of course we construct it in our own image, after all aren’t we perfect –aren’t we normal? But who is the ‘we’? There is much discussion about equal pay for women so that men and women can be equal, so the norm is male –it is women who must reach the norm. In this debate, heterosexuality is ‘normal and everything else isn’t.
Yet ‘we’ know how complicated and complex sexuality can be, don’t we?
We also read about the work/life balance as if there is a ‘norm’ which involves complete control of all aspects of our lives –if we only organised or managed ourselves better we could work 11 hours per day, do the shopping, go to the gym or for a run, have quality time with the family and still be up for any new challenge that comes along! We ‘know that this is impossible, but in the need to move the discussion on, we must make some choices and accept some things as ‘facts’- but these are not facts –they are a human construction and if we ‘accept the factual evidence we lose the argument. We are all subject to ‘oppressive’ forces and here we might begin to see the root of the ‘problem’.
Dickens talked about the subjugation and subjection of the ‘poor’ –subjugated to lives of misery and subjected to study after study and economic experiment, masquerading as ‘fact’. They are ‘problems to be solved’, ‘illnesses to be diagnosed and treated’ either physically or mentally, ‘categories to be managed’. In Western Society we are all subject to these same ‘facts’ -If some people are poor and some are rich what must we do?–as Zoe Williams suggests
This is just the start of a battle that will intensify approaching the election. Whose fault is poverty? Is it the consequence of human uselessness, or is it the result of a useless system? Pointing out the holes in the data is not enough; we have to be clear about the systemic causes of poverty: low wages, insecure jobs, deliberately insecure benefits, high rents, impossible energy costs. Everything else is window dressing.
I want to suggest that the discussion can start with what it means to be a ‘human being’ –we are not just a collection of needs or wants – not subject to Maslow’s hierarchy which was devised as a management tool, not to be the pattern of our lives. We are not to be categorised and labelled as a collection of ‘problems’ but are equal in value and status. Our response to the question of alleviating poverty must be another series of questions – Are these families my family also? are these children my children also? Am I my brother/sister’s keeper? If so, we must go to any lengths to create a healthy, safe and secure environment for us all.
The Establishment is still living in the 19th Century – the same collection of wealthy individuals and families that owned everything then is on track to own everything again despite years and years of attempts at redistribution. We cannot go back to those times – Dickens’ Hard Times!.