Welfare is a Dirty Word: How People Turned Against the Welfare State

greetingsfromwelfareI live in an area of the UK which was one of the worst effected by the recession. In the North East, nearly 100,000 people are currently unemployed; many more are struggling to make ends meet on minimum wage.

So, whenever I’m feeling like life is an uphill struggle, I try to remind myself that I am still one of the luckiest people in the world. I’m lucky because I don’t have to worry about trying to cover the doctor’s bills if I need urgent medical attention. I’m lucky because I don’t have to lose sleep over the fact that I might starve to death if I lose my job. There are those who claim these things are a right, not a privilege, and I’m inclined to agree with them. But the fact is, in countries all over the world (such as India or even the USA), corporate greed makes these issues a serious problem for millions.

However, it seems conservative policies are now erasing every last scrap of state protection for the poor. Recent changes to the NHS include an increased role for private companies and Clinical Commissioning Groups. The move has led many to argue that the NHS is being transformed into little more than a brand name, which will commission a range of competing service providers to offer healthcare solely for profit. One can only speculate grimly on where the money will come from if the government is to remove some, or all, of its funding to this new ‘brand’; something which, granted recent cuts to public services, doesn’t seem entirely out of the question.

ripwelfarestateMeanwhile, tens of thousands of people have been pushed into work placement schemes which critics have denounced as ‘slave labour’.  Threatening to cut Job Seekers Allowance unless the unemployed work full-time for their benefits, the government has also allowed incredibly wealthy companies (such as Tesco) to save a huge amount of money by not paying wages.

I narrowly avoided one of these work placement schemes myself last year. Luckily, I was offered a job a few days before I was due to start. I received around £55 pounds JSA at the time, which would have put me on about £1.57 an hour working at Tesco. Despite already having plenty of retail experience and only being out of work for around 4 weeks, I was told that this was still mandatory.

dailymaily3But by far the most worrying threat to the future of welfare in this country is not the coalition’s selfish and undignified tactics: it’s the fact that working people actually agree with them. In response to the recession and frequent sensationalist news stories, welfare has become a dirty word to many. I meet workers of all types – from taxi drivers to office clerks – talking about those on benefits as if they are thieves of public resources. The average Daily Mail reader appears adamant that the solution to the economic crisis is to ‘stop them parasites stealing our wages’. Their argument is that benefits are (in fact very rarely) higher than wages, so we should lower all benefits; the fact that the government has allowed corporations to offer us pittance for wages never seems to factor into the equation.

Putting the issue of propaganda to one side, the main problem is that they are unaware of how horrible and uncertain life was for ordinary people in Britain before the NHS and the Welfare State. The original socialist visionaries who implemented them have long since passed away and the message they left behind was covered over with clippings of tits from an old page three.

raggedtrousered1I’ve been reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist by Robert Tressell, a novel written at the turn of the 20th Century. It follows a group of painter decorators who, when there is plenty of work, have just enough money to get by. However, as the depression sinks in and workers are forced into redundancy, we see first hand what happens when there is nothing in place to help.

I would recommend TRTP to anyone who believes the solution to the recession is to reduce welfare. It finely illustrates the squalor and poverty which will be unleashed on our countries hard-working citizens if a sudden change in circumstance leaves them without work.

Nowhere is this better captured than when the hero of the novel, Frank Owen, develops tuberculosis. Despite looking every day, Owen is out of work, starving and unable to afford any doctor’s bills. If he dies, he knows his wife and son will be forced into a miserable life in the workhouse. The most troubling part about this is that we almost agree with him when he contemplates killing his family before committing suicide. It seems reasonable that ‘if he could not give them happiness, he could at least put them out of further suffering’ (TRTP, p. 415).

Later, we find Owen desperately leafing through a second-hand book called Consumption: Its Causes and Its Cure. Although he doesn’t have enough money to buy it, he opens it up and notices many of the remedies are expensive foods and drinks. Capturing the bitter irony of the situation, Tressel explains how ‘as far as the majority of those who suffer from consumption are concerned, the good doctor might just as well have prescribed a trip to the moon’ (TRTP, p.431). We can see clearly what happens when medical care is privatised: the poor are left with no option but to die quietly.

raggedtrousered2And we can learn so much from this book because it isn’t some tall tale invented by a rich novelist; it is an honest account of what life was really like at the time. Tressel (real name Robert Noonan) was himself a skilled sign painter working in Hastings during the recession of the early 1900’s. When work ran out, he and his daughter lived hand to mouth and struggled to survive. In the end, Noonan died of tuberculosis in 1911 whilst trying to find work in Liverpool.

Noonan never lived to see the incredible effect that his book had on the UK. However, as it grew in popularity throughout the 20’s and 30’s, it was read by figures such as George Orwell and Jack Jones and became a major influence on the worker’s rights movement (TRTP p. Xxvi). And it was of course the trade unions demand for worker’s rights which brought about the Labour government of 1945 and, in effect, the Welfare State we know today.

ibeveri001p1Until you look at the problems which brought it into existence, it can be really hard to get your head around what welfare is all about. British people had just survived a Second World War; they had been living in fear of total annihilation. Now that peace was declared, they decided it was time to build a better society. They no longer wanted to live in a world where corporate greed and inequality was causing tens of thousands to die from want.

William Beveridge had outlined a plan which aimed to take a small portion of everyone’s wages to tackle what he called the “Giant Evils” in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. People wanted to be able to ensure that every citizen was treated with a degree of dignity and respect and Beveridge’s report offered a very practical method by which they could achieve this.

And let’s not forget a vote for Labour in 1945 wasn’t a vote for the sycophantic, private school moderates they are today. The party was made up of, and answered directly back to, trade unions. It was in Labour’s interests to be committed to Beveridge’s ideas because they were the voice of the poor. So they immediately went about creating our National Insurance policy and our NHS, thus vastly reducing the ‘Giant Evils’ Beveridge had identified.

byebyewelfareHowever, it seems as if now- in the 21st century, the pendulum has swung nearly all the way back. As well as destroying welfare, conservative policies are increasingly leaving the poor at the mercy of private companies interested only in profit. An illuminating example of this is the idea, supported by Academics in the London School of Economics, that the NHS needs some ‘healthy competition’ to increase its performance. Reformers seem to be consistently blind to the fact that we’ve been here before. This ‘healthy competition’ is one of the very ills the NHS was created to solve. For when companies compete with each other for profit, the customers and workers are always the ones who bear the punishment; cut corners and botched jobs become the norm, people’s lives are put at risk and the poor are faced with a life of turmoil and despair (something made very clear in TRTP).

Furthermore, the work placement schemes mentioned above (along with reductions in benefits like ‘the Bedroom Tax’) bare a frightening resemblance to the work house ethic Frank Owen is so afraid of. Both are based on a misguided belief: that poor people out of work are generally lazy and that by making relief as degrading and harsh as possible they will be forced back into work.

Both the workhouse owners of old and the coalition government blindly ignore the fact that the cause of unemployment is not laziness but inequality. People in need of benefits are not spongers but victims of a corporate system, one which exploits some and leaves the rest for dead. Most of the unemployed in this country are simply looking for work in the middle of a global recession. Yes, a small minority find it more profitable to claim benefits; however, the solution to this is to force companies into raising their wages in line with inflation, not to reduce the bare minimum the state calculates for you live on. Sadly, I fear this hypocritical defense of the rich and demonization of the poor will continue long after the coalition government.

To those working people who welcome these attacks on the most vulnerable in society, I hope you will enjoy your success. I also hope you never fall victim to the greedy, selfish policies that are bringing them about. Because you can certainly count on one thing from now on: when you need help the most, the government will no longer be there to provide it.

 

Sources

Robert Tressel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist (London: Penguin, 2004)

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Shaving with a Cut Throat Razor Blade

Over the past three months I’ve been learning to shave with a cut throat razor. When I tell people about this I’m faced with the same response every time (you might even be doing it right now). It’s as if I’ve just announced I’ve started cutting my hair with a machete, or trimming my nails with a flame thrower. Their eyes get much wider and they inhale air between their teeth, like they just stubbed their toe on a door frame. You must be mad. Apparently old-fashioned shaving is held in the same esteem as Russian roulette: practically suicide.

Maybe it’s because the name ‘cut throat razor’ immediately implies that the practice is going to end in tears. Maybe it would help if I said my razor is technically known as a shavette, because the fold out blade is replaceable. This, I think you’ll agree, has a much less threatening effect on the ears. After all, nothing with the ‘ette’ sound on the end has ever caused any harm to anyone- take pipette, toilette or cigarette for example. Harmless.

The fact is, despite sounding insanely dangerous, cut throat shaving is a growing trend in the UK. A rise in the demand for vintage concepts has resulted in more barbers offering traditional shaves as standard. This even got so far as to feature on the last series of the BBC’s Apprentice. But even people who’ve paid for a traditional shave have fixed me with a terrified stare when I tell them I’m doing it myself. It seems DIY-ing’s still not OK.

There is a skill in it, mind. You don’t just pick up a razor and start hacking away. I learned a lot of things fast, like holding the blade flat against your skin and not, as I first guessed, at a ninety degree angle.

I don’t think I ever really knew the lower half of my face until I took a razor to it; you have to learn the shape of it in intense detail, each bend and bump in your chin. And yes, I’m not denying I’ve cut myself while learning. Quite a lot if I’m honest. But the cuts you get are tiny, the same as the ones you get from a safety razor when you’re learning to use that. The same rules apply, don’t slide the blade sideways and you won’t get hurt.

No, the real cost of using a shavette is time. It takes triple the time to shave while you learn, you have to plan it out a little more (and you can’t do it when you’re drunk either). But the feeling of doing it right is infinitely more satisfying and, when its done properly, the result is ten times better as well. Also, 10 new razor blades cost about one or two pounds, so you save yourself about eight quid each time on replacement heads.

Surely, the reason the cut throat shave died out wasn’t danger or cost but convenience. It takes less time to learn how to use a Mach Three so people moved on. But in the same way fast food looked like a really good idea until someone realised it made you fat, maybe the razor will be appreciated by all one day for its subtler values. The truth is that when you take the time to teach yourself this skill it’s quite liberating. That, by far, is the best reason for doing it.

Abraham Lincoln Immigration Officer

As a fresh serving of cheesy-action Victoriana was dolloped into our cinemas, I thought I’d pop down to my local picture factory and take a gander at Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

Adapted from novel to script by Seth Grahame-Smith, the story begins with a childhood Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) seeing his mother brutally murdered by local vampire, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). Once grown up, Lincoln sets about trying to kill Barts and gets some crazy axe wielding lessons from the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper).

Sturgess also teaches Lincoln about a secret community of vampires living among the American people, led by the evil-but-cool ‘Adam’ (Rufus Sedwell). While trying to defeat this clandestine society, we’re guided through a series of gaping plot holes and implausible montages as Lincoln haphazardly falls into politics and also manages to abolish slavery in the process.

As if the confederate side didn’t seem bad enough already, we learn that plantation owner and suave king of the vampires, ‘Adam’, is secretly harvesting slaves for food! Yes, forget about Lincoln marrying the daughter of a plantation owner, or his mention in 1858 that whites are superior to blacks, the line between good and bad could only be more clear if all the confederates were twiddling fake moustaches. They’re shown to be nothing less than soulless monsters while Lincoln is painted as a bastion of equality, struggling to end the injustice of slave farming once and for all.

I was struck by what can only be described as a truly a fascinating interpretation of the whole ‘Lincoln myth’: the image of a man spurned on by a passion for racial harmony. The Lincoln that holds a place in America’s heart is, after all, a very different figure from the facts. As surviving letters of the time show, the presidents main priority during the civil war wasn’t really abolishing slavery. The ambiguity around some of his decisions (like refusing to allow black soldiers into the army in 1862) has caused a lot of historical debate. But he’s recast here as the ultimate axe wielding liberator, secretly destroying another evil without most people even knowing about it. Through filling in the gaps with make-believe, the whole plot is like a response to Lincoln’s inconsistency, an attempt to make him seem more moral than the standard ‘great emancipator’ myth ever did.

As well as this, the film really went to town with the idea that the civil war was the end of America’s involvement in colonialism. In the final scenes, everyone celebrates as the racists are killed and the slaves are freed. We’re left with the impression that America is one big step closer to becoming a utopia for all (human) races.

Lincoln tells us he heard the racist vampires emigrated to ‘South America or Asia‘ but they will never come back to America because the country now belongs to ‘free men’. And he’s right- the racist vampires did travel… and they exploited labour from Asia, South America and the Middle East as well. But what Mr. Lincoln forgets is that the blood money flowed, and continues to flow, right back to Washington.

Still, the fight scenes were fantastically entertaining. Full marks!

 

http://www.theroot.com/views/was-lincoln-racist

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Lincoln_and_slavery

Is Atheism even worse than Christianity?

I’ve always classed myself as a fairly ungodly heathen. Having Roman Catholicism rammed down my neck in school, I gained a profound suspicion from an early age. To me, the whole of Christianity seems to preach peace and freedom while forcibly denying anyone’s right to believe in anything other than a god who may, or may not, exist.

But at a party last weekend I made the mistake of mentioning to a rather large ruffian, in passing, that I was agnostic. As I sat at a table in the yard, casually smoking a cigarette, he stood up over my seat threateningly. He then built himself up into a fury about ‘sitting on the fence’ which I can only compare to an apocalyptic sermon.

I calmly asked him if he had any proof that there was no god? He replied that we had disproved creation theory. I agreed, referring him to my (above) dislike of Christianity. I support reason and evidence, but what part of any scientific research has ever proved to him that there is, indeed, no god?

Aside from implying that the bible is the only standing account of gods existence, his rather brash and violent argument boiled down to this: ‘I do not have proof that there is no god. However, I believe that science is working towards this. We probably won’t find proof in my lifetime, but I know that it will happen one day and that’s good enough for me.’

I just know. Where have I heard this kind of reasoning before?

I tried to make the man see my point of view. I have no idea how the elements that created the big bang came to be. Being someone who needs evidence before I believe in something, I accept that I can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a god. Many over the centuries have tried and failed so why waste my time? Instead, I choose to enjoy my life for what it is, contentedly accepting that I will probably never know for certain. For this reason, I think agnosticism is in fact more logical than atheism.

I cannot describe to you the rage this put the lad into. It was absurd! For the first time I felt a fraction of how it must feel to be persecuted for your religion. Had we not have met like this we may have been friends but I was now shunned, hated even, purely because my beliefs were different to his.

The whole affair reminded me of John Gray‘s Straw Dogs. At one point he discusses the idea that atheism could only ever be an extension of Christianity because the religion has a unique ethos: that there is no alternative. While other religions accept that there will always be conflicting opinions, Christians set themselves on a mission to convert the entire human race. Hence all the missionaries.

Richard Dawkins appreciates the teachings of Jesus

In this respect the meta-theory of atheism is exactly the same, with Richard Dawkins on the front line fervently denouncing all the infidels. And the more I think about it the more I feel atheism is as bad, if not worse, than Catholicism. O.k- over the centuries Catholics have taken many more billions of innocent lives. But in comparison they have a kind of blunt honesty about them. At least they admit that their religion is faith while they kill all the non-believers.

Many atheists I’ve encountered, on the other hand, hijack science as a kind of conversational ‘trump card’ to silence other opinions. They hide their faith under a guise of facts and figures whilst pretending to know the secrets of the universes creation. The funny part is, through believing in something without evidence, they are often the very thing they hate the most.

 

Sources

http://www.cynicologist.com/tag/atheist/

John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Granta Books, London: 2003)

 

“What is with all the Indian people in call centres?”, or, the traits of modern imperialism

In 1600 Britain gave birth to the first ever corporation. It was called the East India Company and it dealt in commodities such as cotton, silk, tea and opium. Often using armed forces, it obtained these from various parts of Asia and it sold them on to the West for a tidy profit. It was a story which became all too familiar as the century wore on.

Over the next 250 years the EIC became a monopoly over trade in India. In 1857 this status was officially confirmed when it was taken over by Queen Victoria, becoming part of the new British Raj which held full control over the country. In this form it pursued the same aims of exploiting Asian goods, only now it was done in the name of the crown as well.

Flash forward to the present day and we are faced with a tale which the well to do would like to forget. To anyone with a sense of social justice, the idea of a corporation (and then later an empire), oppressing a certain race while getting rich from their resources seems barbaric. Most prefer the image of a post-colonial world. The idea that everyone is equal in a modern democratic economy; the idea that hard work will always equal prosperity.

But despite wishful thinking the processes which characterised the work of companies such as the EIC remain fundamentally unchanged. We do not have to look far – take India 65 years after its independence. True, its economy has grown rapidly, making it a key player in the global market in its own right. However, this wealth remains in the hands of the very few and low wages coupled with foreign investment mean that, for the vast amount of the population, India is still exploited in the same way it always has been. Hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers are trying to survive on less than $2 a day producing cotton for export. Another, more modern example of this process in action is the outsourcing of work to India by major businesses, such as telecoms companies. In both cases, managing directors are not choosing Indians because they do a super good job. They’re choosing them because they’ve been forced to work for next to nothing through centuries of oppression.

It’s by no means the only place in the world where this continues to exist, but India serves as an illuminating example. We must ask ourselves what the difference is between our global capitalist economy and the British Empire of old. Yes, India is now an independent state, but who controls the lives of the millions of its workers who are paid pittance to produce goods for the West? The Indian Government‘s pretensions of independent nationalism are heavily contradicted by the fact that it is increasingly selling off its resources to foreign investors. With this in mind, what exactly is the difference between the work of the East India Company and the work of, say, IBM? In both instances it is ultimately the company which owns the workforce and decides their fate.

When you look at it from this angle, it seems almost laughable that the British Government pays $480 million per year to help with the overwhelming poverty which still exists in India. Perhaps a better way to tackle it would be to shut down the British and American owned companies who continue to exploit some of the worlds poorest people in the name of profit.

Panic! The new album from Caravan Palace (Wagram/Cafe de la Dance)

On a first listen, opening trackQueens‘ may leave you worried that Caravan Palace have somewhat lost their edge. Its discordant gypsy-jazz guitar and melancholy rhythm aren’t exactly pumping. In short, those looking for some toe-tapping dance music will be left disappointed.

But as we move on to ‘Maniac’, its clear that this was only a kind of dark prelude. A catchy synthesised melody with a bouncy rhythm now takes the foreground, bringing a strong Daft Punk feel along with it. The electro-swing legends are definitely back, and they’re bigger than ever!

Last August, guitarist Arnaud Vial expressed a desire to move on to 1940’s big band swing and, true to his word, they’ve traded in their gypsy violin for booming brass harmonies. The result is a sound which feels more refined and fascinatingly attention grabbing, despite sharing many genre similarities to the eponymous first album.

You can tell from the outset that this is going to be a complex experience; a kind of anachronistic journey through time and space on a penny farthing with a warp speed engine… Or something like that.

’12 juin 3049′ would sound like an American jazz standard if it wasn’t for the faint hint of a synthesised rhythm. On the other hand, ‘The dirty side of the street’ opens as if it’s a hard house track. Live instruments come in later, adding a whole other layer to what would, in itself, be a fantastic tune.

It’s what we’ve come to expect from CP, with instruments spliced up, mechanically altered and woven in and out of modern rhythms and synthesisers.

But Panic raises the bar to a whole other level. The subtle touches in tracks like ‘Rock it for me’ display a level of production skill that is undoubtedly genius. Live instrument sections are sped up, slowed down and cut up – producing a relentless attack of millisecond long studio experiments.

Perhaps the stronger vocal influence from Colotis Zoe, particularly her tenuous impersonations of an American voice, is a little hit or miss at times.

However, the big band horn sections and distorted recording techniques give the live instruments a sense of being ‘authentically dated’, if the term even applies to such an insane experiment; it’s clear by the haunting ending of ‘Sidney’ that without the electro, this swing could indeed pass for an original record cut in the American 40’s.

Caravan Palace have raised the bar for electro-swingers everywhere and this album is a serious contender as the best in its genre.

 

What is a Neo-Victorian and why do I care?

You might look at the Victorian age as being completely and utterly irrelevant; as a certain period of time which is over and so deserves to be ignored. After all, in our hi-tech and modern world, what the Dickens has the Victorian age got to do with anything anyway?

Yet turn on the TV and there is always an adaptation of a Victorian house drama, Downton Abbey being the big hit of the new millennium with 5.4 million viewers. Furthermore, at least once a year a film based on a Victorian book becomes a box office hit, Guy Ritchie‘s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows being the most recent example to date.

Countless books, reality TV shows, documentaries, board games and novelty puppets are being mass-produced as we speak which all reference the Victorian age. In fact, you might say our culture is obsessed by it. True or not, we’re clearly not going to stop talking about it any time soon.

But why? The reason is that the Victorians have become a way of assessing our own society. When we think ‘Victorian’ we think sexually repressed, we think imperialism and we think ridiculous hats. This is what it so fascinating to watch, because when we think of our own age in comparison we see relaxed morals, a liberal society and sharp, fashionable hats.

Or do we? Lets not forget that when we talk about the Victorian age we’re talking about a period of time which invented both pornography and the dildo, so perhaps not so sexually repressed after all.

Furthermore, our current government’s affairs in the Middle East, hidden under the guise of spreading a just and fair democracy to those places that have it not, are uncannily similar to Victorian excuses for imperialist strategies in Africa.

When we talk about how liberal our society is in comparison, lets not forget that if H. G Wells‘ time traveller journeyed to the present day he would probably go home disgusted and terrified by a mad dictatorship that wouldn’t let him smoke in a public house; a society which wouldn’t allow people to climb ladders at work without the correct health and safety qualifications.

Although you might say we have our reasons, so did the Victorians when they shunned talking about sex in public. It doesn’t make it any less oppressive when our government forces the population to stop doing something for the ‘right’ reasons.

Neo-Victorianism is argued to be a lot of different things by different people. To some it means pretending to be a Victorian and is affiliated with right-wing political beliefs.

But being a Neo-Victorian isn’t the same as being a Victorian enthusiast. It isn’t about ignoring all the technological developments we now have and living in the past.

Neo-Victorian is anything which analyses our relationship with the Victorian age (Heilmann & Llewellyn) and when we realise this it comes to mean a lot more than it first seems. It is about assessing how we view our own society and ourselves. This affects everything we know: our whole understanding of reality, of right and wrong, of forwards and backwards.

If history has taught us anything it’s that the way you think your world looks now will definitely not be the way your ancestors see it.

 

Sources: Ann Heilmann, Mark Llewellyn NeoVictorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillan: London, 2010)