At the bottom end of the socio-economic scale, what is happening in Britain today is what my generation thought would never happen. We had the welfare state. Anyway we were too civilised to allow it. How wrong we were. Starvation, homelessness and the criminalisation of those with no income are all continually increasing.
There is no shortage of evidence. Statistics abound. An example is the report of the Joint Public Issues Team representing the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches. For an example of the personal effect, see this report of a man ‘sanctioned, starved then jailed’. A good example of research on what is happening in Liverpool is the Getting By Project.
To anyone who cares for the well-being of other people all this is truly horrific, but you will be lucky to spot any such information in a newspaper or television programme. Why is it not front page news?
Because what Owen Jones calls ‘the Establishment’ in his latest book – the political class, business leaders and the mass media – are, between them, making sure most of us remain unaware.
The economic experiment the cruel dictator Pinochet conducted in Chile is now being imposed on European counties including the UK. It is wrapped up in economic theory, but the point is that, to make the rich richer, the poor must be made poorer.
A general election is only a few months away so, for a short while, public opinion matters. The three traditional techniques are being used for all they are worth.
1. Blame the victims
If we will insist on caring about the plight of the desperately poor, they give us someone else to blame. This is the age-old trick of ‘divide and rule’. The Government is distracting attention from their own cruelties by setting the employed against the unemployed. Get yourself a job, lazybones – as though anyone could go into town and just do that. By promoting a witch-hunt against welfare recipients, within a few short years the Government has turned the banking crisis into a welfare crisis. Last week Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions launched an advertising campaign to encourage us to report anyone we know who is fraudulently receiving benefits. If you think this is a sensible initiative, read this Huffington Post article.
2. Change the subject
Better still if we can be persuaded to forget about poverty. Those who are desperate for something to eat probably won’t vote anyway. Those of us who care about what is going on in the country need to be given different things to worry about. The two issues chosen for us are the European Union and immigration.
Neither of these issues is a significant factor in the present situation. The debate about the EU picks up on a bit of xenophobia, and there is no doubt some irritation in government circles that they have to abide by EU rules, but the real debate is between business leaders. Big business is a competitive world, so inevitably some favour the EU and others do not.
As for immigration, the number of non-UK citizens entering the UK is only slightly greater than the number of UK citizens choosing to live elsewhere. Migrants need some kind of income, either benefits or a paid job. Whichever they do, we can condemn them. Meanwhile, British opinion polls show that the number who think foreigners should be restricted from entering the UK far exceeds the number who think British emigrants should be sent back home.
Neither the EU nor immigration are significant contributors to the declining standard of living so many people are experiencing. They are being given disproportionate time in the media to distract us from the real reasons living conditions are getting worse.
3. Entertain us
Most of all, what they would like us to do is to ignore what they are doing altogether. We need to be distracted by what Juvenal called ‘bread and circuses’.
Juvenal was an ancient Roman satirist. This phrase comes from one of satires (10.81, written in the early second century CE). He mocks those who seek power, singling out Sejanus who governed the empire for some years on behalf of the emperor Tiberius. Sejanus was deposed when Tiberius was convinced that he was governing badly. Juvenal writes:
The head of the people’s darling glows red-hot, great Sejanus
Crackles and melts. That face only yesterday ranked
Second in all the world. Now it’s so much scrap-metal,
To be turned into jugs and basins, frying-pans, chamber-pots…
Everyone cheers. ‘Just look at that
Ugly stuck-up face,’ they say. ‘Believe me, I never
Cared for the fellow.’
Juvenal knew how seriously to take popular opinion:
If the doddering Emperor
Had been struck down out of the blue, this identical rabble
Would now be proclaiming that carcase an equal successor
Tiberius was the second emperor. Before the first, Augustus, there had been a republic with Roman citizens given the vote. Since many citizens lived in desperate poverty there had been much selling of votes. Juvenal continues:
But nowadays, with no vote to sell, their motto
Is ‘Couldn’t care less’. Time was when their plebiscite elected
Generals, Heads of State, commanders of legions: but now
They’ve pulled in their horns, there’s only two things that concern them:
Bread and circuses.
What Juvenal could see then is happening now. Unlike the Romans we still have the vote, but we have become disillusioned with it. What is the point of voting, if it makes no difference? So people lose interest. Bread and circuses – food and entertainment – suffices to keep most people happy, and that is how the ruling classes consolidate their power.
So the establishment – in Owen Jones’ sense – is busy encouraging us to be satisfied with this. If we do not vote at all we do not threaten them. If we are to vote, they give us the usual range of much-publicised traditional parties; and since we protest, they give us one protest party whose only significant proposal is to exit the EU.
Meanwhile the newspapers and television programmes fill us with irrelevant entertainment to squeeze out any serious analysis. They want us to be bored with politics.
Last May, while the Euro-election campaign was in its stride, I was reading some Greek newspapers. The contrast was unmistakeable. The Greek newspapers followed the campaign and the election results in incomparably greater detail than the British ones did. As far as the British estabishment are concerned, we are to become what Juvenal despised – only concerned with bread and circuses, leaving them to do the governing.
We could stop the rot. Sadly, the method to stop them only arises once every five years. May 2015 is only a few months away. So far, the opinion polls show that their methods of distraction are working nicely. Opposition is growing, but has a long way to go.
We could vote for bread and circuses. Or we could vote to care for our fellow-citizens.