The real level of poverty in Britain
Now that the ‘credit crunch’ has been officially upgraded to a ‘recession’, which we are told could be with us for between the next 10-20 years, and knowing that the bourgeoisie of all countries will endeavour, as always, to pass the worst effects onto the working class by means of diminishing services, wage cuts, job losses and chronic homelessness, this article seeks to pinpoint the real level of poverty already existing in this country.
Why? Not as an academic exercise, but in order to ready workers for the struggles ahead, and to help those who do not yet see, for various reasons, the current reality even before the next attacks on our living standards hit home; to show clearly that even without the periodic and chronic crises of capitalism there is no future for this system of anarchic production based on exploitation; to help build the necessary unity that will be vital in the coming struggles, when our enemies, especially the social-democratic traitors within our ranks, will try to divide us along racial, national or religious lines; and to expose the lie that some people don’t want to work through laziness, that they are anti-social scroungers and thieves by choice, etc, etc.
Let us be quite clear. There is, in fact, a layer of anti-social people living off the majority in this country. They have taken the means of production into their private ownership; they have amassed great wealth from the rape of other nations and from the labour of workers everywhere, constantly turning the key to squeeze more surplus value from each worker in the quest for maximum profits. And all this great wealth is used only to make more wealth for these few parasites while inflicting greater misery on the majority.
Of course, in the third world, where the level of exploitation has reached even higher levels, poverty is far greater. But poverty exists in the heartlands of imperialism as well. It is grinding, vicious and de-humanising. And although its worst effects are currently felt by only a minority of the exploited working class, these numbers are set to grow rapidly as our political masters decree that ‘we must all tighten our belts for the sake of the nation’, by which, of course, they mean that workers must make do with less to try to keep the profit rates as stable as possible in a crisis of the exploiters’ making, yet over which they have no control.
It is the job of communists to lead the resistance of workers to this exploitation, but we have a mountain to climb in building resistance to the coming onslaught. Many workers in this country have already accepted, if only temporarily, the divisive lies of the ruling class and their lackeys, the bourgeois parliamentarians of all hues and their various hangers-on within the housing, health and education professions. These gentry work together to draw a veil over the worst of Britain’s poverty by blaming the damaged victims – people who have faced a lifetime of deprivation from the good things in life – for somehow causing their own miserable conditions through laziness, immorality, stupidity, selfishness and even ‘criminal genes’!
Communist leadership of the resistance at this stage tries to inform and educate workers so that when they do fight back, as they surely will, it will be in a decisive and productive way and not with divisive calls for ‘British jobs for British workers’.
To those who can see, or who currently experience, this poverty, there is nothing in all the writings of Charles Dickens that is alien or unknown, that is not seen daily on the battered council (or ex-council) estates or other run-down areas (these are the totally dilapidated areas of private housing, both rented or ‘owner’ occupied, that are considered suitable only for the poor) of Britain. Nothing unknown, that is, except the upper-class philanthropist who comes along and sorts things out for the hard done-by hero, while leaving everyone else to their well-deserved fate.
In reality, in Dickens’ time as well as our own, these wonderful saviours who breeze in and rescue deserving cases from the sewer do not exist. And even if they did, they wouldn’t, couldn’t, alleviate the misery of the masses. Poverty will only be abolished under the planned economy of a socialist system.
There are many who will tell you that fairness can be had under the present system, that there does not have to be poverty and war under capitalism. These people are either fools or else they think we are fools!
Any political system that has immense individual and corporate wealth at one end of the scale has to have miserable, life-sucking poverty at the other end, and those who suggest that the obscene wealth of the top ‘few’ could be cut down a little in order to help the situation of the very poorest at the other end must be living in a fool’s paradise to keep mouthing this fable in the face of all the evidence. Either that, or they are consciously trying to deceive the rest of us.
Capitalism would not, could not, be capitalism if it were caring! Only maximum profit will do; only the turning of everything into a commodity to be properly and completely milked of every drop of profit that can be had from it will be tolerated. This much is obvious if we look at the example of the vast numbers of children, both male and female, from the ghettos of the poor who end up being used for prostitution, there being little or no other lucrative use for them.
And if these children see huge amounts of money pass through their hands, it is only ‘passing through’, usually on to those who ‘run’ the children’s ‘activities’, or to the suppliers of the crack cocaine to which the children have often become addicted prior to being put to ‘work’ in the various squalid places where they ply their sorrowful trade.
In working-class areas, especially on the run-down estates described above, there is, for the most part, very little in the way of amenities, to the point where a bench is seen as a meeting place by youths who have nowhere to go and nothing to pay with even if they could find somewhere, unless they turn to crime. Even when they do that, the victims are usually people from the same areas, who have little enough to start with themselves.
This is the stark reality for many working-class people. Of course, they are not all totally poverty-stricken or exploited to the same degree. That might create some unity, and our rulers are nothing if not clever. No, so long as there are different levels of poverty and exploitation, workers can be divided along racial, national and various other lines, both nationally and internationally.
According to Nick Davies, in his very informative book, Dark Heart, living on the estates and in the other ghettos of the poor means that “There is no point to life, no point to families, no point to neighbours, no point going to school. Life is traipsing in the rain to the Netto supermarket where everything’s cut-price and traipsing home again [hoping] nobody notices your shameful Netto bags. Life is queuing for Giros, propping up a wall on the corner of the street …”
And so he goes on, apparently seeing nothing but despair. Yet in his book, Davies also notes the fightback against the system. This rebellion is not pretty or particularly well-aimed, and certainly not effective, but still, the spirit of the kids on the Leeds estate who brag about beating the coppers off the street is there to see – it just needs political direction.
Davies describes one incident when the aforementioned Leeds boys routed a police stake-out and burnt down the pub where a police informant was living, while stopping police reinforcements getting onto their estate.
“They had to stop the enemy spying on them and so they had commandeered road blocks and organised an assault and successfully taken out the enemy’s forward position. And then they dealt with their traitors.” If he cannot see anger, pride, resourcefulness and hope in those actions, it is because he cannot see a future where the working class rule society for the real benefit of all.
In this book, the gathered statistics are truly horrific. On unemployment in this particular Leeds estate, Davies relates that in a 1995 report by the council “looking at the workforce of the area, they found that a quarter of those who were available for work (25.6 percent of them) had no work at all: they were either unemployed or temporarily attached to a government scheme. Among young people who were available for work, the figure was even higher: nearly a third (29.1 per cent) of those aged between sixteen and twenty-four who were able to work had no job.”
Continuing to take his facts from this report, Davies says that “In families where the breadwinner was out of work, nearly half of them (46.2 percent) reported that they had trouble affording clothes, and more than a quarter of them (26.9 percent) said that they had trouble even paying for food. As a result, there were some people who sometimes went without. Among lone parents, the position was even worse: nearly half (42.4 percent) reported that they had trouble paying for clothing, more than a quarter of them (27.3 percent) said they had difficulty affording food, and a fifth of them (21.2 percent) said they could not afford toys for their children. And so, sometimes, they went without any or all of these things.”
Looking at levels of debt, which after unemployment is the second-biggest factor in recognising poverty in this country, and is also, likewise after unemployment, the second-biggest reason for depression, poor mental health, sleep deprivation and physical and mental abuse of children, Davies relates that “A fifth of all those who were interviewed – 20.1 percent of the whole community – said that they had serious difficulty paying for fuel and water. Again, as a result of this, some of them sometimes had no heat and/or no light and/or no water.”
These last statistics will be greeted with disbelief by some, because any of the power companies will tell you that they do not cut people off any more because of unpaid bills, and in the strict sense that is true. Instead, as soon as someone is having serious difficulty paying their bills, they are forced to install a token meter, which is set to take back the arrears. So, if you put £20-worth of tokens in, someone may get as little as £16-worth of power, while the rest is taken to repay the debt. And, of course, if the person has no money for tokens, they simply have to do without the power until such time as they do have money. Very simply, the power companies don’t cut anyone off – they force people to cut themselves off instead. According to their own logic, they are not to blame for anyone’s children going cold or without hot food; it is down to the ‘consumer’s’ choice whether or not to buy the tokens they need!
Similar statistics to the ones reported from Leeds are to be had from poor areas all over the country; there is nothing special about this particular estate. And remember, this was in 1995. Over the last 20 years, the gap between rich and poor has increased remarkably, with the poorest section becoming larger, as well as moving further into poverty.
As we move into what by any reckoning will be a long and deep crisis, many more of us will taste this extreme poverty as not only jobs are destroyed, but more and more benefits are cut and restricted. Fewer and fewer people will have the luxury of looking the other way. In the eighties and nineties, many people claimed, and some even believed, that poverty no longer existed in Britain. Now, more than ever, people are being faced with stark choices: do nothing and see your family suffer or stand up, embrace the only proven weapon, that of socialist revolution, and fight for the future.
It is a pity that Nick Davies, who gives us so much useful information on poverty in his book, falls down on the ‘why’ and the ‘what to do’. The ‘why’ he blames on a few corrupt individuals in councils, and on Tory policies in the eighties and early nineties, while admitting that Labour leaders have done nothing to change anything since then.
What Davies cannot bring himself to say is that whichever bourgeois party is placed in the driving seat, so long as they are only trying to make the system work (and bourgeois political parties, including Labour, can do nothing else) they will always in the long term fail the working class and be despised as ‘all the same’. The capitalist system itself, based upon the private ownership of the means of production, the exploitation of labour through the wages system, and production for (maximum) profit rather than the needs of the masses, is the creator of poverty.
‘What to do about it’ really brings no answer from Nick Davies other than perhaps going back to pre-Friedman economics (Friedman was the darling of the Thatcher/Reagan era, advocating minimal state intervention in the economy). Certainly, he does not advance the only real long-term answer, which is to create a new society through the revolutionary overthrow of the present system and the establishment of socialism.
And yet every fact that Davies brings to light and confronts his reader with screams this basic necessity. Instead, he laments: “So it is that the economic strategy which first created the new poverty in Britain is allowed to remain in place. In a country where values have been commercialised, morals are less than chaff in a breeze. A taint of imbecile rapacity blows through the land, like a whiff from some corpse.”
Welcome to imperialism in all its ugliness, Mr Davies! May we suggest before you put your head in the gas oven or slit your wrists in despair that you look again at the working class that you have so readily dismissed? They really are the ruling class in waiting, as damaged and demoralised as they may seem to you – they need only to be equipped with the correct ideology.
That same ideology led the semi-serfs of imperial Russia to overthrow their masters, build socialism and defeat the hordes of Nazism. That same ideology saw the poor peasants of tiny Vietnam and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea take on and defeat the strongest imperialist armed forces in the world. And that self-same ideology keeps even smaller Cuba standing unbowed in the face of its giant imperialist neighbour, the USA.
The British working class can and will win power. Not politely; not without bloodshed, and not without some instances of revenge, but it will win power, and then the healing process of revolution and the building of socialism will begin!