Now is the time to turn the tables on the Victorian values embedded in our society, argues Lindsey German
The news that many people on universal credit will lose their benefits in December because there are five paydays in the month this year isn’t losing the Tories too much sleep. These people can claim it in January they say. This insouciance shows how little they know or care about working class life. They have already demanded a six-week wait until people receive the credit, putting many people in real hardship and meaning anyone applying for universal credit now will not receive it before Christmas.
They don’t seem to understand that for millions of people credit is impossible or difficult to get and that the costs of borrowing are astronomical. For those people – maybe already relying on food banks, or in extremely precarious employment - Christmas is just one set of demands on their tiny resources after another, and they struggle to feed their families, let alone afford luxury toys or treats for their children.
It is almost impossible for ordinary people not to be affected by the daily signs that so many are now suffering in often dramatic ways. A piece of research published last week estimated 120,000 extra deaths linked to government austerity policies. Headteachers in the Midlands have talked about their schools being the only safety net for a number of their pupils, who stuff food into their pockets on Fridays in order to fend off hunger over the weekend. As the cold weather bites, there are homeless people seemingly on every corner in London, all vying for support from their fellow citizens, many of whom are unable themselves to do more than donate small items of cash or food.
This is an indictment of a society which only works for a tiny minority, and which is totally callous about what happens to those outside its magic circle. Even the Victorians had a greater sense of civic responsibility. While benefactors and the wealthy spared a tiny bit of their wealth to help house the ‘deserving poor’, today we have Wandsworth council demanding tenants in high-rise blocks pay for their own sprinklers to make them safe.
Michael Rosen wrote last week about the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens and his perhaps most famous book, A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote his character Scrooge as a miserable capitalist, his wealth being the only thing he cared about. When asked whether he would donate to a Christmas charity, he countered by asking whether there were any prisons or workhouses to deal with the poor. The ghosts of Christmas, who haunt Scrooge, spread his life out before him and show him the error of his ways.
Dickens created a series of characters who epitomise the meanness and cruelty of Victorian capitalism – Mr Bumble, Mr Gradgrind, Wackford Squeers, and of course Ebenezer Scrooge himself. Some of his most powerful (and least sentimental) writing describes the inhumanity of the workhouse. We can see his characters’ descendants in the Tory ministers, school academy owners, NHS privatisers and benefit cutters who dictate misery in 21st century Britain. Everything is judged by profit and nothing – health, happiness, education – matters apart from this.
It was once thought that the world of Dickens had disappeared. David Lean’s dark Dickens films of the 1940s are a critique of that society. Yet the hope envisaged in the 1940s, that misery, ignorance and poverty would become a thing of the past, has proved false.
This week’s budget may make some tiny concessions, but will do nothing to ameliorate the worsening conditions which blight so many people’s lives. The last nearly 40 years have seen a shift away from reasonable welfare provision, from adequate funding for public services, and of course from strong trade union organisation. The consequence has been a shift in wealth towards the already wealthy, and a decline in the share going to the people who actually produce the wealth. Those who are homeless or on benefits find themselves at the sharp end of society’s attacks on all of us – but the answer to these attacks is greater solidarity and organisation.
It’s a great idea that the People’s Assembly demo against the budget this week in Westminster is calling on people to bring goods for food banks which will be displayed outside Downing Street before being donated. There should be solidarity collections in every workplace. More than that, we should demand free breakfasts and lunches for school children, and the opening of emergency shelters for the homeless. There are plenty of empty buildings around, and they should be put to good use. I’m not very keen on elected mayors, but since they are there surely they should be doing something, not presiding over ever-worsening cuts.
Zimbabwe: a tale of colonialism and corruption
Few will mourn Robert Mugabe’s departure as president of Zimbabwe, which now looks like it’s heading to full impeachment proceedings. Repression, corruption and misery for its citizens is hardly a recipe anyone would want to follow. Mugabe is now a very old man and will no doubt see out his remaining years in some comfort, unlike most Zimbabweans. But we should beware the narratives which hark back fondly to the colonial times. It’s worth reminding ourselves that Zimbabwe was then called Rhodesia, after the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Blacks had no vote and no rights, the political system resembling apartheid South Africa.
Such was the intransigence of this particular white colony that, in the 1960s, when African countries were gaining independence, Rhodesia’s white minority refused, and when mildly pressured by the British Commonwealth, declared independence, with the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, in defiance of most international opinion. The wars fought by ZANU and ZAPU were long and bitter, until victory was eventually achieved in 1980. Mugabe then was recognised as an important fighter for national liberation with a sense of determination and strategy, and was successful in defeating not only the white colonials but also his rivals.
National liberation was a huge motor of change in the decades after the Second World War. But on its own, the danger was that it replaced the old colonial rulers with another minority who ruled in their place. There is always a class element in national liberation, which socialists stress, and it means that the process cannot end there. Karl Marx learnt this through his bitter experience of the failed revolution in Germany in 1848, which is why he talked about a ‘revolution in permanence’. Failing that, and when the demands of the working class and poor peasantry are subordinated to the national ruling class, society does not move forward.
Worse, the ruling class moves to control more power and wealth – obscenely so in the case of Mugabe and his wife Grace. Importantly, at present this coup remains an internal fight between different sections of the ruling class, with the mass of people still onlookers. If there is going to be real change now in Zimbabwe, those who have suffered so much under Mugabe need to move centre stage and demand that this is not just political but social and economic.
It isn’t going away
We held a very good parliamentary briefing for Stop the War, hosted by Chris Williamson MP. There were really excellent contributions from a series of people covering from Korea through Afghanistan and the Middle East to the Balkans. The points I made included that these wars are not going away, that they are all of them failures, that we live in a very dangerous world and that although we have a Labour leader who is anti-war, we don’t have a Labour Party that takes this position. These questions will be central to British politics next year and can’t be hived off to a few ‘experts’. In fact, foreign policy is domestic policy in Britain – there is no wall between the two.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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