The decision-makers will never know of the miseries of proletarian life.
“You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go…”
Once again my dinner was made to taste cold and hard by a televised news story that showed to me how the future will be made cold and hard by ideas that belong in the past. I couldn’t stop myself making a spitting gesture, when a story on BBC Look North (for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire) focused on a proposal made by Conservative MP for Rothwell and Elmet, Alec Shelbrooke. Alec Shelbrooke proposed that measures should be put in place to stop people on benefits spending their money on alcohol, cigarettes and Sky TV. On Look North he said (although I can’t find the recording so I can’t remember the exact structuring) that “benefits are there to prevent people from falling into squalor, to help people back into work, not for luxuries” suggesting the possibility of those dependent on benefits being made to purchase items with cards, so there is a system there to prevent them ‘indulging’ in luxuries.
I have no idea of the location of such a planet Shelbrooke much reside on in order for him to conclude that people on benefits in the year 2012 aren’t already living in (21st century style) squalor, and have lives filled with easy-found joys and ample opportunities so as they don’t need to be slightly intoxicated in order to be able to bear life. Obviously like the girl with the ‘loaded’ dad in Pulp’s Common People, he obviously “thinks it’s all just a laugh” (albeit, his sentence finishes by claiming the laugh is at the ‘hard working tax payer’s’ expense).
In a world saturated with farce and hypocrisy to the extent that a neoliberal ideologue can now pretend to have a socialist heart, Alec Shelbrooke had the audacity to refer back to the founder of the British welfare State, William Beveridge, and in the house of commons cited the ‘five evil giants of a plagued society’ ( disease, want, ignorance, squalor, and idleness), that Beveridge wished to eradicate with the welfare state, as if his party was actually a defender of it. Shelbrooke adds however, “But idleness remains prevalent today,” in the traditional conservative refusal to accept the reasons for poverty, and the health issues that plague this social position.
Perhaps we shouldn’t despise them for having such views, however. Perhaps their privileged social position (whether or not they have been born into it) simply doesn’t allow them to be able to understand “the slow, quiet hells in which most of the proletariat endure their working lives” (Mark Fisher, K-Punk, 09,01,2005). Also, I can’t imagine this bill would be pushed through, as I doubt very much that the government would wish to harm the profits of the big and powerful drinks and tobacco companies, and risk losing the support of their buddies who run these big companies, by putting in place measures that would bar those on benefits from spending their ‘generous’ hand outs on cigs, booze and SKY. It’s more the pomposity of such a proposal. The demand itself almost deserves a riotous reaction up and down the country.
But how can he not see that the “benefits [that] are there to prevent people from falling into squalor” cannot even manage this for the majority in 2012? Does he imagine that they are all joyfully riding bicycles up and down their local borough looking for work, in weather that is constantly sunny, ambivalent to the knowledge that their weekly allowance is down to the last pennies, perhaps finding time to potter around in a garden growing vegetables to sustain their ‘five a day’? Without meaning to generalise, and suggest that all people on benefits live unhealthily, does it not register that shame and misery will creep in at any point when one is dependent on pittance to get by in a society that is constantly thrusting images of luxury in peoples’ faces?. His audacity to quote Beveridge, indicates that there is obviously a blindness within government to any squalor that doesn’t match the aesthetics of the quintessential squalor of the Victorian slum streets. On the very same day, on the website of the same news channel (The BBC),a report reveals that in Rotherham, no more than 25 miles from Alec Shelbrooke’s constituency “people are stealing out of desperation”. According to Ch Supt Jason Harwin “What we are seeing is a small number of individuals – particularly young mums – who are committing crimes to feed their children”, “If you look at powdered milk or baby food it’s quite expensive”. Even if these individuals occasionally consume alcohol or smoke, they are hardly doing at “the expense of looking after their families” as Alec Shelbrooke claimed on Look North.
What makes it so vicious, despite the slim-chance of the proposal being pushed through, is that what lies behind it is a government’s continuous attempts at social engineering in its unquestioning obedience to a neoliberal agenda. Attempts that systematically ignore the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, to enforce a scenario in which if people wish to have any momentary release by way of narcotics, they must be prepared to do any kind of work, no matter how poorly paid, and submit themselves to the most humiliating X-Factor-style ‘job-seeking’ for work that decades ago one could simply ‘walk into’.
I know for a fact that the feeling of an inability to escape one’s predicament, and a complete lack of optimism for the future, past the next two days off work, saturates the population right up through those on low wages to those on wages that allow them to “just manage to get by”. I would speculate that the so-called ‘binge drinking culture’, where people spend a week’s wage on a weekly lobotomisation of themselves is the result of this. Having only lived off benefits for short and rare moments, I cannot begin to understand how large the desire must be to have at least some narcotic release from it all for those who can probably never even afford to leave the borough they languish in.
As much as they cause social evils, it would of course be a misnomer to suggest that all those with the power to make these decisions are inherently bad people; but their culture, as in their upbringing or the social position they have had the good fortune to find themselves in, makes it impossible for them to understand why the misery of inescapable poverty (refer to The Spirit Level to see how poor social mobility is in the UK) makes many seek intoxication and distractions. Bad or good, the decision makers punish the poor with the lack of freedom they grant them. The very fact that people in fortunate positions should be able to decide what distractions the poorest shouldn’t be allowed to ‘indulge’ in because of their tiny budget underlines their inescapable position: they are prisoners; in our society the more money you have the more freedom you have.
In Artist/Urban-Geographer Patrick Keiller’s 1992 documentary London he tried to explain the banality of the then-surprise Conservative victory in the 1992 general elections by saying that “the middle class [of Britain] had continued to vote conservative because in their miserable hearts they still believed that it was in their interest to do so”. The miserable heart of Britain continues to do its best to ruin any hope of the future being better for all.