The UN report is a charge sheet of crimes against humanity: the prosecution and conviction of those responsible is long overdue.Poverty, as everyone who is yet to slide into complete intellectual torpor knows, is no natural phenomenon. It does not fall out of the sky like the rain , and neither does it arrive in our midst like some uncontrollable disease. Instead poverty is the very foundation of a society predicated on the virtues of unfettered capitalism and rampant individualism. And at a time when desensitisation to the ceaseless suffering of millions of our fellow citizens has never been more normalised, Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s moral broadside against poverty has never been more necessary:
The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization.
Britain in 2018 is a country in which the class system is more openly flaunted than any other of the ‘industrialised’ world. It is also a country where barbarism, dressed up as government policy, reins. The mere fact that a UN official — in the person of Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights — should deem it necessary to visit the 5th largest economy in the world, a country that in 2017 boasted a GDP of 2.622 trillion USD, by itself constitutes the most searing indictment.
What Professor Alston found in the course of his tour of the country over two weeks, outlined in a excoriating 24-page report, removes any lingering doubt that since coming to power in 2010 successive Tory governments have prosecuted a relentless, systematic, wilful and devastating economic assault against the poorest and most vulnerable section of British society, tantamount to the unleashing of a class war.
In the past two weeks I have talked with people who depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep, who have sold sex for money or shelter, children who are growing up in poverty unsure of their future, young people who feel gangs are the only way out of destitution, and people with disabilities who are being told they need to go back to work or lose support, against their doctor’s orders.
Taken on their own terms the statistics are damning enough. Fourteen million people — that is 14 million — currently living in poverty. This translates to a fifth of the population with four million of them more than 50% below the poverty line. Meanwhile between 1 and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials.
Even so, no matter how damning, statistics fail to penetrate and expose the actual lived experience of the lives they embrace, people forced each and every day to surmount the mountain of economic, material, psychological and soul-scorching pain that describes poverty and destitution. That they do so while surrounded by the ceaseless churning out of propaganda promoting the dominant cultural values of society’s affluent middle class, this adds another layer of psychological humiliation to proceedings.
Returning to Professor Alston’s report:
The government has made no secret of its determination to change the value system to focus more on individual responsibility, to place major limits on government support, and to pursue a single-minded, and some have claimed simple-minded, focus on getting people into employment at all costs. This mentality has informed many of the reforms that has brought the most misery and wrought the most harm to the fabric of British society. British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society.
Set out above is the warped, sociopathic ideology that underpins conservatism. It is an ideology by which concepts such as solidarity, welfare, solidarity and compassion are anathema, deemed the enemy of human progress as fashioned under deregulated free market capitalism.
But what Professor Alston’s report exposes, and indeed what anyone who cares to notice will already have known, is that the free market is far from being free. On the contrary the toll it exacts is measured in unalterable despair, immiseration, poverty, truncated lives and, in all too many instances, premature death for those bludgeoned by its merciless lack of compassion for the weak in a society configured to serve the needs and interests of the strong.
Perhaps, though, we would rather not be woken up to the brutal reality of Tory Britain that surrounds us, preferring instead to exist in a bubble of denial when it comes to being reduced to passive spectators of the mass experiment in human despair that has and continues to be inflicted on so many by so few. If so, I respectfully suggest that things have reached the point where denial is no longer an option.
When Karl Marx opined at the beginning of his Communist Manifesto that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” he took a scalpel to the benign mask behind which the snarling, feral beast of clss power resides. But just as you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, neither do you have to be a Communist to know what injustice looks like. All you need do for that is take yourself into any Jobcentre in any town or city on any given day to see it being played out in real time. There you will see the human impact of the criminalisation of the poor rather than poverty which the authors and champions of austerity have rolled out.
The staggering thing about it is how so easily and so willingly those who work in Jobcentres and at the DWP are able to dole out this level of economic terrorism. Where are those with the moral courage and principle to stand up at their desk and proclaim “No I won’t?!” It’s as if they are part of a vast Milgram Experiment, affirming the horrifying extent to which ordinary people are capable of committing monstrous acts of cruelty in obeisance to authority.
Hovering into admonitory relief at this juncture arrive the thoughts of Erich Fromm, who writes, “Once the living human being is reduced to a number, the true bureaucrats can commit acts of utter cruelty, not because they are driven by cruelty of a magnitude commensurate to their deeds, but because they feel no human bond to their subjects. While less vile than pure sadists, the bureaucrats are more dangerous, because in them there is not even a conflict between conscience and duty; their conscience is doing their duty; human beings as objects of empathy and compassion do not exist for them.”
Professor Alston also takes time in his report to outline a few of the reasons why proponents of the country’s departure from the EU should pause for thought:
There are many concerns linked to Brexit. Given the vast number of policies, programs and spending priorities that will need to be addressed over the next few years, and the major changes that will inevitably accompany them, it is the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society who will be least able to cope and will take the biggest hit. The IMF has suggested that a no-deal Brexit could cost the UK economy somewhere between 5% and 8% of GDP, representing a loss of thousands of pounds per household.
In my meetings with the government, it was clear to me that the impact of Brexit on people in poverty is an afterthought, to be dealt with through manipulations of fiscal policy after the event, if at all.
It bears repeating that the financial collapse and ensuing global recession of 2008 was the product of private greed on the part of those for whom the taxpayer was used as glorified ATM machine in response, bailing them out to the point where the resulting pain has been almost exclusively borne by the poor and working class. The reality is that the recession was used as a pretext to effect the transference of wealth from the poorest in society to the richest, sold as the need to ‘tighten our belts’ and clear up the mess left behind by the previous Labour government.
In the conclusion of his Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, Professor Mark Blyth writes, “Austerity doesn’t work. Period…The costs of this epistemic arrogance and ideological insistence [in support of austerity]have been, and continue to be, horrendous. If European economic policy makers, like medical doctors, had to swear to ‘do no harm,’ they would all be banned from ‘practicing’ economics.”
The key word in this aforementioned passage is ‘ideological’. Austerity is not and never has been driven by economics. It is an ideological weapon deployed in the interests of the rich against the poor in conditions of economic extremis. It is an attempt to breath life into the corpse of neoliberalism, the most extreme variant of free market capitalism whose burial is long overdue. But instead of burying neoliberalism we have a Tory establishment that has opted to bury the most vulnerable with wave after wave of assaults on their ability to survive.
Professor Philip Ralston’s report, commissioned by the United Nations, amounts to a charge sheet of crimes against humanity. The main conclusion to be taken from it is that the prosecution and conviction of those responsible is long overdue.