Friday, 11 April 2014

Shame and poverty

I watched a depressing Panorama last night about the plight of Brent residents hit by the benefits cap, then read this morning this comment piece about the lovely Ian Duncan Smith's "reformed" replacement for the Disability Living Allowance. All of this is part of a pattern of course, and I have no intention of adding another pathetic complaint to the mountain that has built against the current government's benefit "reforms."

What I did want to pick up on is a strange but all-pervading reaction that I observed from most of those whose cases were followed in the Panorama programme. As they faced eviction and penury some were confrontational, some resigned, some vocal and truculent, others submissive. However most of all what they felt seemed to be shame. They were ashamed of being poor, ashamed of having to rely on the state, ashamed of the shitholes they lived in. Many of them were also as willing as the general population currently is to turn on and vilify "benefit claimants," as though that was not what they were. Many also seemed to have in their minds a definition of a "benefit claimant" who actually deserved to feel the shame they were themselves experiencing. One truculent man whose benefit was being cut trotted out the old myth about young single mothers having it easy; a young single mother, unsuccessful in her search for work to fit around her childcare responsibilities, blamed those without jobs.

Despite all being trapped in the steadily tightening web of the casually cruel benefits cap I would be very surprised if any of the subjects of this documentary would have voted for a political party whose policies included raising taxes and increasing benefits (should such a party even exist). We were reminded in various soundbites from leading politicians just how universal the political consensus is that benefits have to be cut.

So why is it that almost everyone in the UK (including the poor) believes that in times of austerity the amount of money going to the poor should be cut? How is it that we have developed to a point where poverty is of itself is deemed to be shameful? This used to be a country where "a working-class hero [was] something to be." No more, it seems.

Not so long ago it was the very rich who were typically portrayed as feckless, self-absorbed and decadent. Think of Bertie Wooster, or the Roman Emperors in the 70s productions of I Claudius or Caligula. At the same time there was a prevailing image of the fierce independence of the British working classes. Some of this was a legacy of the "spirit of the Blitz", when the poor of London's East End were portrayed as sticking two fingers up to Hitler's Luftwaffe. Some had an even longer germination, from the images of industrial workers powering the industrial revolution and the glories of the British Empire. The question of how closely these myths related to reality is neither here nor there: we had our archetypes of the miner, the shipworker or the railwayman, their faces blackened and their eyes steely with determination.

The 70s industrial troubles dented these images slightly, and began to introduce the conflicting trope of the "all out lads!" unionist warming his hands round a brazier. However the miners' strike, much as it might have divided Britain, had at its heart a powerful image of the indomitable poor fighting against the oppressive power of the state. From the Clash to Billy Elliot we were presented with images of the poor beaten down and dominated but retaining some dignity nonetheless.

However slowly our iconography has begun to change, and with it, apparently, our attitudes. Despite the prominence of made-to-measure figures of contempt from amongst the hyper-rich, like Fred (the Shred) Goodwin and Paul (meth and crack) Flowers we still seem to be moving towards a US-style veneration of the rich. Depending on our political affiliations (and level of personal wealth) we may feel anger towards them or envy, but we rarely seem to laugh at them any more. They may be figures of hatred, even of contempt, but rarely of fun. We seem to have accepted that, to get where they are, the hyper-rich may be grasping and of questionable morality but they must also be powerful, virile and brilliant. The fact that most of them are probably none of these things seems to have passed us by.

More sadly though, any last vestige of the concept of dignity in poverty seems to have disappeared. We have come to the point where poverty porn seems principally designed to generate not sympathy but contempt for the poor. The word "benefit," in itself an intrinsically positive word (from bene facere: to do good) now seems inextricably linked to the word "cheat."

Shame is a powerful force, but it really needs to find its appropriate target. It is the rich who should feel ashamed, every time they spend more on a meal out than the average family has to live on for a week. And we should feel ashamed at every story we hear of families evicted and the sick and disabled living in penury. The concept is bandied about a fair bit, but often directed by the current government at those in the public sector who, for all their failings are at least making some effort to address the needs of those less fortunate than themselves. Yes, mistakes by social workers, or poor hospital care by nurses are terrible things, but nowhere near as shameful as the simple fact that the 85 richest people in the world own as much as the poorest 3.5 billion or that in Britain today families in poverty can be forced to move 100 miles with no redress because their benefits have been capped.

No comments:

Post a Comment