Disgusting does not describe the latest offering from Channel 5 – On Benefits And Proud – which aired for the first time this week.
In the show various benefit claimants – code for the undeserving poor – are tracked down by deserving taxpayers with the object of illustrating how these benefit junkies are ripping us all off – ‘us’ being those for whom poverty is just another word in the dictionary.
The sheer savagery of deriving entertainment from the plight of the poor – many of whom, yes, are uneducated, unrefined, and suffering one or more of the plethora of social maladies which flow from poverty – is compounded by recent figures released by The Trussell Trust,Britain’s largest operator of foodbanks, that the number of foodbanks has trebled and that over 350,000 people have had to rely on food handouts since April. It is further compounded by the most recent Sunday Times Rich List, revealing that the collective wealth of the 1000 richest people in Britain reached a record level of £450 billion, up £35.4 billion from 2012, in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s and with poverty at an all time high.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, energy companies announcing a price hike just in time for winter is quite literally a death sentence for many poor pensioners, for whom survival will now no longer be possible.
The only conclusion to be drawn from all this is that the objective of society is now the eradication of the poor rather than poverty, beginning with the demonisation and dehumanisation of those daring to claim the pittance in benefits which the government and its supporters has deemed an act of theft against hard pressed taxpayers and those in work.
It is class war by any other name, made worse by the undeniable truth of the success of the Right in pitting members of the same class against one another – i.e. low wage workers against unemployed workers, the able bodied against the disabled, non immigrant against immigrant, and so on.
Karl Marx stated in his Communist Manifesto that the class struggle is ‘sometimes open sometimes hidden’. A trip to the local Jobcentre or Magistrates/Sheriff Court on any given day is where you will find it wide open and in full sway.
In the former, the poor are bullied, harassed, hounded, while in the latter they are punished for crimes in the main connected inextricably to their poverty. Indeed and increasingly it has become harder to differentiate between a Jobcentre and a courtroom, such has been the level of attacks on benefit claimants, wherein the relationship between your average Jobseekers Adviser and claimant resembles that between a parole officer and convicted criminal.
The fact that the vast majority of those working in Jobcentres are union members provides conclusive proof that class consciousness is at an all time low in twenty first century Britain.
The human despair that is afflicting more and more people up and down the country – men, woman, and children – as a result of the Government’s addiction to austerity hasn’t been this prevalent since Charles Dickens was documenting it in his classic works at the end of the nineteenth century. Over a hundred years on we have come full circle with the normalisation of extreme poverty and extreme wealth sitting side by side, with human worth measured by both.
The status quo cannot hold. Something has to give. Indeed, the surprise is that it hasn’t given already in the form of riots and a social explosion. These unrelenting attacks on the most economically vulnerable people in society are redolent of children trapping a bumble bee in a jar and shaking it up and down to watch the bee in distress. It really is this savage, inviting a savage response on the part of its victims.
The rich, the smug middle classes, working people who’ve bought into the lie that their problems are the fault of those below them in the income scale rather than those above them, are playing with fire. People will not go quietly to their own destruction. All it takes is a spark for the present despair and its paralysing effect to turn to rage and an eruption the like of which this country has never seen.
With no mainstream political party standing four square on the side of the poor, such as the Labour Party once did, members of the political class who exist in a bubble of moral superiority from which they like to pontificate about fairness, hardworking families, shirkers and strivers, should take note that this is not a game.
None other than he ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle understood this. When he opined that “Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime” he could have been describing British society in 2013.
We already know what crime looks like. It is published in the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List year after year. It comes in the shape of the Bedroom Tax, food banks, zero hour contracts, the sanctioning, withdrawal, and cutting of Jobseekers Allowance, Disability Benefits, and Housing Benefit.
Yes, we already know what crime looks like.
We have yet to see revolution.
Periodically, I am invited on the Call Kaye radio phone in show on BBC Scotland to give my views on various issues. Presented by Kaye Adams, it’s on every weekday morning and covers stories particularly relevant to Scotland, though invariably UK wide in this regard.
Earlier this week I received a call from one of the producers. They were planning an item in response to a new campaign initiated by the Scottish Government clamping down on the illicit trade in counterfeit goods. Looking for guests to speak to the issue, he asked me for my thoughts – whether I thought it was right or wrong for people to knowingly buy counterfeit goods – clothes, perfume, mens and womens accessories, etc – this on the basis that according to the police and the government people who do so are essentially funding criminal gangs that also deal in drugs, people trafficking, and are involved in more serious criminal activities.
I detected surprise when I told him that the issue came down to well off middle class people pointing the finger at poor working class people and telling them how bad they are. As for the argument about propping up organised crime, which deals in human misery, I told him there was no moral difference between that and buying an item from a high street retailer produced by workers kept in conditions of near slavery throughout the Global South.
Further, if we don’t want people buying counterfeit goods we need to make sure they have enough money to buy the real stuff. Why should poor people be locked out of society and its norms? In the West we have been conditioned to believe that we are what we buy, signifying our value and status.
Poverty doesn’t just have a material impact on those who suffer it, it has a psychological impact, crushing the spirit. Counterfeit designer goods allow those without to enjoy the feeling of belonging, to being part of the mainstream, which is vital to a person’s sense of self esteem, however false.
In the end, the producers decided not to have me on the show to discuss this particular item.
But what struck me about this exchange was the extent to which it revealed a widening disconnect between the haves and have nots, on the level of morals as well as income, exacerbated by the recession and the current government’s policy of making the poor pay for an economic mess effectively created by the greed of the rich.
The values of the rich are dominant everywhere you look. They literally scream at us every minute of every day, holding up individualism, materialism, consumerism, money, and success as the sine qua non of human happiness and worth . Neoliberalism, or untrammeled capitalism, sits at the foundation of these values, an economic system predicated on competition and with it the separation of society between winners and losers.
In the current climate the number of ‘losers’ in this ugly scenario are increasing at an alarming rate. Worse, given the aforementioned role of the Tory-led coalition government currently in power, the consequences of ‘failing’ are more grim than they have been for a generation.
The normalisation and acceptance of foodbanks up and down the country – a concomitant of the assault on wages, benefits, and incomes of the poor, both in work and out – is proof positive of the callous disregard for the well being and dignity of the victims of poverty in Britain in 2013.
The idea that the dominant values and morals of the rich and well off should or even could have any purchase among those whose lives have been reduced to a daily struggle to keep body and soul together merely adds insult to injury.
This is further illustrated by a recent story that appeared in the Mirror on the revelation that shoplifting is on the increase, particularly of basic food items such as meat and cheese.
Is anyone surprised? Moreover, it begs the question of whether people struggling to feed themselves and their children are morally justified in stealing food in order to do so.
I believe the answer to this question is unequivocally yes. Those who take the opposite view – both on the issue of purchasing counterfeit goods and shoplifting – will argue that neither is a victimless crime, as many seem to believe.
Perhaps, but neither is poverty. In fact, more than a crime poverty is an abomination, especially when it has become as widespread as it has in the UK – one of the richest economies in the world – in the 21st century.
The real criminals in society are not those who steal food from supermarkets in order to keep food on the table. The real criminals are those responsible for creating, championing, and maintaining the grotesque inequality, despair, and poverty which compels people to do so.
As the 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach wrote: ‘Where the material necessities of life are absent, then morality necessity is also absent’.
The vile Tory bedroom tax was already on the ropes and barely standing under the blows from campaigners, legal judgements, moral outrage and media assaults from papers like the Daily Record. Now a stunning knockout blow has landed in the shape of the United Nation’s Special rapporteur demand that the unfair tax be abolished.
Make no mistake the UN conclusion is a huge embarrassment to the Tories but actually shames the LibDems. The body charged with upholding human rights across the world has investigated the bedroom tax and condemned it as inconsistent with the basic right to housing. When it comes to war crimes we are lectured by Governments about the requirement to respect human rights. Well now we demand this Tory Government and its LibDem poodles respect the human rights judgement which condemns their despised bedroom tax.
The UN report highlights poor and disabled victims of the bedroom tax are trapped in poverty with nowhere to turn. Already on the breadline they can’t afford to pay bedroom tax but smaller homes to move into don’t exist either. Think about the situation in South Lanarkshire alone to highlight the reality of this callous policy. 5,300 poor and disabled people in South Lanarkshire are affected by the bedroom tax but only 40 smaller homes are available. And of those 40 only 13 are one bedroom homes. Non-payment of bedroom tax is not a choice it is unavoidable for those already on means tested housing benefit. We wouldn’t encourage a starving man to eat less so why would we expect poor people to spend less on food, fuel, clothing or anything else to pay the Tory bedroom tax?
The Labour Party must now commit to bedroom tax abolition and the SNP has to change the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 to outlaw bedroom tax evictions and lift the real fear of losing their homes from thousands of poor and disabled households.
The Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation organised a lobby of the LibDem’s UK Conference at the SECC on Saturday 14 September. We were there from 11am to embarrass this bunch of spineless cowards who prefer Ministerial portfolios to principled opposition to brutal policies like bedroom tax. There are now 323,684 homes across the UK valued in excess of £1 million. A very moderate Mansion Tax of £50 a week, £200 a month would raise well over £700 million a year for public services. It would be a fairer and more practical tax. That’s why on Saturday we were chanting loudly: AXE, AXE THE BEDROOM TAX…BRING IN A MANSION TAX!
Tommy Sheridan is the Chair of the Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation
Julia Jones, who will have to live on just £53 a week, faces losing the home and garden where she scattered her husband’s ashes
Dear Mr Cameron
I heard you in Prime Minister’s Questions say you would look at individual cases on the bedroom tax. I am 59 years old, David (my husband) and I have both worked since we were 15, paid taxes, did our bit. We have never been well off but we both did worthwhile jobs.
Five years ago David got melanoma. He had excruciating treatment and, although still not well, returned to work as he thought it was his duty. Four years ago he got bowel cancer; he had an irreversible colostomy. Six months later he returned to work. Two years ago he got brain cancer. Seven weeks later he died.
Throughout all this I was advised I could get care allowance, but I rejected this: he was my husband, it was my duty to care for him. We lived off the little savings we had until we could return to work. When he had the colostomy we were allocated this home as David could not climb stairs any more and I struggled. His ashes are buried in the garden under the rose bushes that friends gave me instead of wreaths.
Mr Cameron, my husband and I were the hard workers you claim to support, we never asked for anything.
I would give everything if this had not happened to us. Because we were on benefit and sick, you and your government said hateful words against us. Words that made acquaintances look at us with contempt.
The most powerful men in the country imply we are scum so we must be scum. You and your government call us scroungers, next door go to work while our bedroom curtains are still drawn.
My curtains were still drawn at 11am as the light made David scream with pain.
Do you not consider that I would give everything for my husband to be alive, me to not have incapacitating pain and we could both be the hard workers we once were? I live in small 1 1/2 bed bungalow that was built for older people. It is supported elderly living so I feel safe. It could not house a family as under 55s are not allowed.
You now want to take my home from me. The home that literally made my fingers bleed cleaning as it had been neglected for 20 years when we moved here. You want me to leave my husband’s ashes, my neighbours who take me shopping and give me some form of social life? I have no family, we could not have children.
I am living without heating at present so how can I pay what I do not have to stay in my home? Have you any idea how that affects my fibromyalgia?
I eat one meal a day and am in constant pain which is exacerbated by the cold. I may get Discretionary Housing Benefit. But we both know that is only for 13 weeks at a time and when the pot is empty, it is empty. I have considered moving but the only property available is far from shops and bus stops and costs £98 per month more than where I am at present. I would be living in isolation.
You say you are building more social housing, but it is too little too late for many of us. You may blame the Labour policies, but it was your government who introduced this law so I have to hold you responsible.
Mr Cameron, I do not believe you or your MPs are evil men at heart, I believe this is an ill-thought-out plan and you did not understand the consequence of your action.
I ask you to take a step back and look at this again.
THE ABOVE IS JUST PLAIN CRUEL…I AM ASHAMED TO BE BRITISH.
Yours, Julia Jones