Bleak for the many and not for the few.
I’ve never been a believer but I have, for all the cultural and social reasons you might imagine, often enjoyed Christmas. In the days of my youth it represented a celebration of my maternal Grandfather’s success and the way in which the white half of the family would congregate from far and wide to the mock-gothic pile that was Indio House in Devon (Now, like Grandpa’s fortune, long gone from my family’s care and enjoyed by others – but that’s another story).
But it is not the loss of fortune or property that makes this particular Christmas bleak; it is the confluence of a great many tragedies, one personal some national and the rest inter and intranational. The personal loss was the death of my friend Pete Kelsey (see previous post). His friends and family had hoped that this was the year Pete’s health might improve and we looked forward to see him busy again fronting a band and writing songs. A greater national tragedy is, though, the way he died and the implications for the way in which the most vulnerable in our society have been abandoned by successive governments; most notably the current shambolic crowd of toffs that is the Conservative-Liberal-Democrat coalition but also by previous Labour administrations which, inconsistently I admit, blew hot and cold on welfare policy – especially housing and workers rights – while furiously courting The City and the power of capital.
Of course, by international standards, our welfare system is still fundamentally excellent even if under attack. The time I’ve spent with the other half of my family in Bangkok, since I first met them in 2002, brought to life many preconceptions that turned out to be correct and was a revelation in many respects. The streets of that great and vibrant city are, particularly in the poorer areas that tourists seldom roam, partially inhabited by an underclass with diseases most British citizens would not even recognize. Many of the beggars have injuries so severe that one wonders how it’s possible they are still alive. But though the contrast between the two countries is stark, the problems are the same and their severity is a matter of degree rather than of quality.
The qualitative aspects are simple. Consumer Capitalism has inevitably led to the triumph of competition over co-operation as an accepted and valued modus operandi for almost everyone within the system: a system that actually includes almost everyone on the planet reliant on wages, charity or welfare. And in any competitive system the winners can only be winners if there are losers. The wealthy industrialized countries tend to look after their losers through welfare but the system of competitive governance does not stop at our borders. And while it has been pointed out many times that our benefits system is set at a level that puts unemployed benefit claimants within the top 25% of the world’s richest individuals, that fact only underlines just how poor are the other 75%. Indeed, if the Northern European climate allowed year-round out-door living I suspect our benefits system would not exist in its current form.
Competition has at its heart an obvious myth. Following the Olympic Games many of the medalists have appeared on television to promote the capitalists homily for the masses that goes something like this. “I’m from an ordinary background and with determination I’ve won a medal and become one of the best athletes in the world. This proves that competition is good because if I can win a medal anyone can accomplish anything if they are determined and are willing to work hard.” My response to this is to shake my head in wonder that some very bright people can promote the idea that everyone can be a winner in a competitive system.
As we know, in the face of real competition, the powers that run our economic systems and control our resources are utterly ruthless. Take the plight of the Burmese villagers who were gutsy enough to stand up to the corporations that are mining copper near their villages; many have been killed and injured and many have been burned out of their homes. Even some of the villagers who agreed to the terms of the corporations have been shafted in as much as the promised jobs at the mine did not materialize and, meanwhile, their farms have vanished under mountains of slag. So even if Aung San Suu Kyi intervenes to good effect, the people who died in their determination to save their homes are still dead and those that survived the fire-bombing are still horribly burned; that is gutsy determination by any standards but it is not winning by any stretch of the imagination.
Capitalism has fuelled a huge middle class; when I was a boy there were about 3 billion people o the planet of which one billion lived reasonably well, one billion struggled and one billion were in dire circumstances at, or near starvation; note that I do not include the rich because their numbers are so small though they own almost everything. We now have 7 billion people – more than enough to accomplish anything that needs to be done and yet there are still one billion near starvation. From a technical standpoint this is entirely avoidable; there is enough food and resources to lift that billion out of poverty if that is what our leaders wished. But our leaders do not wish it. Instead they prefer a large pool of cheap labour working for near-starvation wages to create goods to sell to the growing middle class. Capitalism writ large keeps one billion people in misery as a matter of policy. Not only does the under-class represent a pool of cheap labour, it also acts as a stark warning to anyone above subsistence who might be foolish enough to rock the boat or step out of line – watch it mate – or you’ll be next.
In the UK, the situation is a microcosm that mimics global structural inequalities. I met Pete Kelsey in 2006; we had both become homeless for very different reasons and were from very different backgrounds. My middle-class background meant I had the kind of social capital (a middle class voice) that ensured I could persuade the local authority to get me placed in the homeless hostel as soon as I was evicted; further, my landlord was very helpful to me up until that point. Pete, on the other hand, spent many cold winter nights out in the open or in phone boxes or bus shelters. As it happens, we also shared similar medical histories and were diagnosed at around the same time with emphysema. From diagnosis to death is, on average, around 10 years for that condition yet many of us will live with it into our 70s or even 80s.
But, even though luck plays a part in one’s prognosis, so does circumstance. Pete and I were of similar age but because I never had to sleep rough my lungs did not deteriorate at the same rate as Pete’s. And, because I was a resident parent, I was eventually re-housed with my daughter in a warm and dry housing association flat while Pete, as a single man in a new (to him) town was not re-housed and ended up in a dark, dank, cold and mouldy basement that would let in water in heavy rain. Though health visitors, doctors and hospitals knew how bad his condition was becoming, they did not have access to sufficient resources to help him further.
The knock-on effects of those differences are huge. In a warm and dry home one can stabilize one’s health more easily, improve one’s habits and regime and, with luck, one’s health will improve. Over time I was able to resume working part-time and thus claim additional benefits such as Tax Credits. In short, the system gave me a good chance of survival following homelessness and ensured Pete had little chance. But it is a matter of policy that there is not enough housing to go around at affordable rents and it is thus a matter of policy that single men are the last on the list to be helped, not a matter of luck or a lack of determination, or competitive spirit on the part of the homeless person. Pete had those qualities in abundance – so much so that he stuck it out and never gave up until the moment he died.
And similar stories of fighting against the odds abound in places where the situation is far, far, far worse; Palestine, Congo, Sudan, Syria and so-on and on and on.
So, this year and perhaps for all years, Christmas does not seem an appropriate event. On the world stage, there are still wars raging, there are still a billion hungry people, there are still episodes of genocide, there are still rapes on a colossal scale and our politicians and captains of industry still peddle the lies that competition is good, that everyone can win, that economic growth can be infinite on a finite planet and that those who don’t like it can damn well perish. The American NRA would have the whole world armed to the teeth in a never-ending shoot out in which ‘might is always right’ and the meek will inherit precisely fuck-all. Here in the UK, a wonderful welfare system that could have saved Pete, given the right political direction, and could have saved tens of thousands of other men, women and children, is gradually being dismantled. Everywhere we look, the privatization of public assets are underway; roads, schools, universities and the NHS. And all the while our banking system bleeds money from the poor to the rich while out tax system is a free-for-all for the corporate sector and gives tax cuts to the richest individuals that are worth vastly more than the total incomes of the poorest. This is not an economic depression brought about by chance or bad luck, it is a readjustment of the ratios of capital to labour in which a greater pool of cheap labour is required to service the middle-classes who, in turn, provide all the services for the rich and super-rich. From a capitalist’s perspective, things are really going rather well, so Merry Christmas everyone, merry Christmas.