Friday, 5 April 2013

'Live Like Common People'

The current fad in British social media circles is for this petition. It asks (or demands, depending on how you look at it) that our Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, the man primarily responsible for the biggest part of our austerity-based welfare cuts, live up to his claim to be able to live on £53 a week for a year (there's some ambiguity as to whether this is supposed to be before or after paying rent and utilities).

The petition has over 400,000 signatures (including mine, because I was feeling flippant when I saw the link). It's a combination, no doubt, of sincere belief that the man needs enlightening and desire to see the bastard suffer for what he's doing to us (the welfare reforms are completely unnecessary and unjustifiable, but the proof of that will have to wait until another day).

Anyway, it's an acknowledged problem everywhere that politicians tend to be well above the average income among the people they rule. I've touched on this before in a theoretical sort of way, but it's worth saying something more practical about it. Politicians very rarely have any experience of being poor, and poverty is not something you can understand unless you've experienced it.

If that sounds self-pitying, bear with me until the end of this paragraph. In total, across the last three years, I've spent under £20,000. My total cost of living has been that amount or under (for comparison's sake, that's equivalent to at most £130 a week before rent and bills or £59 after - but my actual budget has generally been much, much less, coming down to an average of about £20/wk after).

Despite that, I'm not poor.

Nor have I ever been, really, because there's a lot more to being poor than just living on a small budget. I've fed myself on under £3 a day for months at a stretch, sure, but I've always had a safety net in place. My parents, while not by any stretch of the imagination rich, are very good with what money they have and have set aside a fund for covering any emergencies my sister and I might face while finding our feet in the world.

So for example, when my computer conked out last summer, victim of what looked like a hard drive error that could have spelt doom for both my writing ambitions and my PhD, I could call home and ask for funds for a replacement (it turned out to just be a broken RAM chip, all of £15, but that was one of the most stressful weeks of the year all the same). And it's not just outright disasters; my day-job is sporadic and difficult to predict, and as a result in the first year I worked there I made about half what I'd budgeted on, and my folks covered the shortfall.

My point is well-put by Polly Toynbee in this article about the petition, but perhaps best-put by Jarvis Cocker;
'Cos when you're laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall
If you call your Dad he could stop it all.
You'll never live like common people
You'll never do what common people do
You'll never fail like common people
You'll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw
Because there's nothing else to do
It's easy to think that being poor just means not being able to afford stuff, and we're all familiar with that. I'm sure even Bill Gates has things he wishes he could afford (the end of human suffering, apparently). But that's not poverty, or at least it's not the most important thing about poverty, the thing that no simulation can caputre.

Poverty is about fear - the fear of losing your home, the fear of another thing breaking that you can't afford to replace (and what if this time it's something you can't live without?), the fear of watching your life slide out of view. A fear I've been quite fortunate never to have seriously felt - the closest I've come is fear of the shame of having to go home and admit to my parents that I've failed to make enough to live on again. Personally significant, sure, and unpleasant, but hardly worthy of the name 'fear'.

And making IDS (as the British press has long since taken to calling him) live on £53 a week for a year or even a decade will never make him feel that fear. If all you do is limit his budget, well, he's still got at least one house of his own, his own car, a houseful of luxury goods, probably mostly top-of-the-line and decently reliable. Take all that away, strip him of all his savings and earthly wealth, he's still got his name and reputation to trade on; there will always be talk shows, after-dinner-speaking engagements and punditry for him, opportunities and markets to which the truly poor have no access at all.

It's a great recurring theme of political discourse - how do we make the politicians see what it's like for us? How do we make them live like us? Heck, in ancient Greece when Plato was giving birth to political philosophy, he argued that the leaders should be banned from owning property to remind them that they were servants of the people, not masters. But none of this will ever bridge the gap, because simply by being our leaders, they are set apart, presented with opportunities and security we will never enjoy (this doesn't mean we shouldn't celebrate the occasional honest and sincere attempt - I salute you, Mrs. Goodman).

Here's another petition, one which, while less satisfying, is at least a step in the right direction. Rather than trying to conjure up a fear which cannot be simulated, it seeks some actual facts which might be translatable into political language in a way that the experiences of individual citizens could never be. It's a step in the right direction, and I'm all for more science in politics and policy-making, but I'm not sure this particular idea will help at all (though again, I signed the petition).

See, just as the IDS petition appeals to a fear he'll never feel, this one appeals to a conscience that I honestly believe most of our leaders lack. Somewhere in the broad but sparsely-populated band between ordinary wealth and the Bill-Gates-rich, there live people like IDS who are rich enough to be totally secure but still have lots of people to envy the wealth of. And where they are, it's easy to develop a mindset of 'might makes right' - there's no-one to stop them doing what they want, and the people they're most likely to hurt can't hurt them back, so there's no loss to them. At a very deep level, they just don't register the suffering they cause in others as relevant to their decisions.

There's a fundamental disconnect not just of circumstance but mindset between us as citizens and the politicians who lead us, and I can think of only two ways to counteract it. The first is the ballot box - some 30-40 million people are eligible to vote in Britain, and fewer than 10 million actually stand to benefit from the Conservative agenda IDS is pushing - but when people already feel powerless, trying to get them to turn out to vote is just a new version of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

The other solution is to show that these policies will actually hurt the people pushing them, not just the rest of us. These are policies, remember, that explicitly promote inequality - inequality, says the government, drives aspiration and thus achievement. People who work hard will earn their way out of poverty, and rightly so, while those who stay poor must deserve it. That's the rhetoric, but what it means is a strict (and in actual fact entirely arbitrary) division between the haves and the have-nots. So the task is to show that inequality is bad for the rich as well as for the poor.

And it is. There's so much to be said on this topic, and I'm not really qualified to say any of it, but, though these days it's much-contested, The Spirit Level is a great place to start. I'm not saying that either of the petitions I've linked to is a bad thing - at worst they're harmless and we get to see another cabinet minister squirming, and I signed both - but for me the key to actually getting the austerity agenda turned around is the effect it will have on the lives of the rich. It's a difficult message to push, but then so are all the good messages.

1 comment:

  1. Liked this post Rik, passionate and rational (two words that often stuggle to fit comfortably into the same sentence). On the Jarvis Cocker thing: One of my all time fave songs (which I play an explosive version of at many open mikes..) it it always good to see how many people warble along with the exact lines you have quoted. It is impossible for people with a 'way out' to EVER understand what it is like not to have a way out. Try Somerset Maughn 'Of Human Bondage' or Orwell's 'Keep the aspidesta flying' to read brillant descriptions of descent into penury.. but contract with 'Down and out in Paris and London' where Orwell exposes himself to extreme povery, but when he has had enough simply packs his bags and goes back to a middle class life by virtue of his many 'old boy' contacts. Anyway I'd guess you have probably read all of these... but interesting to note that these very wise authors observed the same phenomena : that poverty is not being without 'things' .. is is being without options.