NOTE: I wrote this for The Nopebook back in October 2017. Their site is down (permanently, it looks like) so I can’t link to the original publication any more, so it’s been dug out of cold storage on my laptop and dumped here. It’s not pretty, it’s as I wrote it and I haven’t checked the links still work, but it seems like a good time to remind everyone that the Tory vote against feeding staving children hasn’t come out of nowhere. This is who they are.
Believe or not I wrote that sentence a week ago – long before the amazing long-read Buzzfeed article hit the internet last night. That article proves conclusively that these issues have never gone away, they are still absolutely as relevant as ever and need to be dealt with. We cannot just sweep these things under the carpet and hope they’ll go away – racism, sexism, classism and all manner of other prejudices have not simply gone away, and they won’t unless we work really hard at it. And no giving up when we’re halfway done, either, because they make a comeback, in the same way as bacteria do if you don’t finish your course of antiobiotics. Yes, I did just compare white supremacists to the kind of bacteria that give you a nasty little itch. You’re welcome
There are a couple of things I’d take issue with in that article, though. One is naming Zoë Quinn as ‘another GamerGate target’, whereas it was the targeted harassment of Zoë Quinn, triggered by a bunch of false claims made by an unhappy ex of hers, that started off the whole boiling cess pit. A handy What on earth is GamerGate? Guide can be found here.
The other thing I’d take issue with is the idea that these ideas of white supremacy had to be smuggled into the mainstream. The far right has never fully gone away, and a lot of the ideas predate GamerGate, Hitler, even Dickens. I suspect that the ideas are as old as time, because they come down to a fear of being overwhelmed, and that will have been around for as long as there have been an elite few who have tried to hold on to power and who fear it being taken away from them. These views are often hidden in plain sight, as the people who hold them tend to be in positions of influence, so it’s often not seen as extremism. There’s a whole cultural mechanism, in fact, dedicated to making it seem as if this point of view is normal and acceptable, whereas it is in fact just one end of the spectrum.
So, back to Dickens. Why him? Well, because he was writing at a time when inequalities were stark; when political thinkers and philosophers in the UK were starting to grapple with the issues of poverty, what causes it, and how to deal with it through the statute books; and he knew what he was talking about – having had to leave school and work in a factory after his father was sent to a debtors’ prison.
Oliver Twist, and the whole ‘Please, sir, I want some more’ episode is a story that will be familiar to many, but have you ever thought about the system that Oliver was in? What was it and why was it there?
Before 1834 the destitute were ‘helped’ under a set of laws that had their origins in Tudor England, and it was up to each parish to organise, fund and fulfil their obligations. There was a poor house for those who were physically unable to work. Those who could do so were put in a House of Industry and given work to do, and children became apprentices – but those who were considered the idle poor, or to be vagrants were to be punished, often by being imprisoned.
The ‘new’ Poor Law of 1834 sought to reform the old system, and there were a variety of influences that went into drawing it up. Thomas Malthus had been a critic of the old poor laws because he thought that by simply giving the poor more money to spend on food that inflation would occur and then food would be more expensive for everybody. He also had a theory that making food production more efficient would simply lead to people having more children, and that the increase in population would always outweigh the increased food production, which is all kinds of wrong but for another time.
Another influence was Jeremy Bentham, who was quite a progressive thinker in many ways – advocating for equal rights for women, the abolition of slavery, an end to homosexuality being illegal, and animal rights amongst many other things, and yet he appears to have thought that just giving people stuff would mean they wouldn’t work, ‘people did what was pleasant and would tend to claim relief rather than working’.
That may be true for a small percentage of the population, in the same way that a very small percentage of people will claim benefits fraudulently, and yet it seems to have influenced policy to treat everyone as if they would scrounge rather than work. A little reflection would show that this simply isn’t true, but if it is then it’s the best argument I can think of to make sure that the seriously wealthy have all their property removed at death so their children get nothing. Because we all know that people who are just given stuff don’t work, right? Right.
It seems it’s one rule for the rich and another for the rest, but we’re not two separate species – if we can accept that rich people still want to work, then why is it so hard to believe that others will too, even if they have enough money. I mean, some people will even work quite hard for free *waves at fellow Nopebook staff*.
Anyway, back to the Poor Law Reform of 1834. It aimed to make things a little more efficient than the old poor law and to stop abuse of the system. In order to qualify for help you had to go into the workhouse – and these were designed to be as off-putting as possible, so that only those who really needed them would go – and that’s where we find Oliver Twist. Half-starved, set to work despite being only a child, and badly treated when he tries to get more (there was plenty more to be had in the story, by the way).
These institutions were grim. Most people would do anything to avoid having to go. It wasn’t just the conditions, either, it was the shame of having had to go there. Work houses cast a long shadow – one local to me was reused as a hospital after the formation of the NHS, but my neighbour worked there as a nurse was aware of people who would still refuse to be admitted there, because of the mental scars.
The workhouses were built out of a fear of being swamped. The money raised to be spent on poor relief had increased – and despite wondering whether the system was being operated by the corrupt and the money failing to get where it was needed, without considering that there might be other factors that increased costs such as the increasing cost of food, an increase in prices generally, and an increase in population, what was actually done was an attack on the poor themselves. They bore the brunt of the austerity measures. If this all sounds horribly familiar, then yes, it should.
Those who built them thought that this was a good way to treat the most vulnerable people in society, they begrudged paying just a few pennies more to make the lives of their fellow humans more humane. As has often been said, a loss of privilege can feel like persecution. Being asked to give up a little so that someone who has nothing can have something is obviously too much for some people, and it’s often those who have least who give most, and those who have most who give least.
Those who have most see themselves surrounded by many, many people who might want to take away their privilege, as can be seen by the language that is often used. Immigrants are a ‘swarm’, the poor are ‘scroungers’, unmarried mothers are ‘feckless’, and the disabled are a probably a nuisance that they wish would just disappear. Anything but have to deal with them.
The way they deal with this, of course, is to try to get the rest of us to buy into their narrative. Divide and conquer. After all, we pay our taxes as well as, or perhaps I should say instead of them. The super-rich are adept at avoiding such things, unlike the rest of us on PAYE. And so we are invited to snitch on benefits cheats, invited to sneer at unmarried mothers of more than one child, and then of course there’s the paranoia about immigration that has been whipped up to absurd levels.
Now we have food banks instead of workhouses, increasing in number and usage. Jacob Rees-Mogg, showing himself up for the Dickensian villain he is, thinks they’re a good idea. We shouldn’t need them, they shouldn’t even be there, because there is more than enough wealth in this country to support those who are vulnerable without making them resort to such measures. I’m sure the volunteers who run them are lovely, but I’m equally sure that the people who have to use them would much rather not. The benefits system does need an overhaul, but not in the sense that the right-wing mean when they say it. It needs to be system based on generosity, not a spirit of begrudging.
The truth is that the poor will always be with us, because there will always be the super-rich, who hold onto wealth and refuse to be bound by the same rules of taxation as the rest of us – there’s no PAYE scheme for the Richard Bransons of this world. If we truly want to solve the problem of the poor then we need to get serious about sharing wealth more fairly.
Otherwise we will end up with a society where the Rees-Moggs of this world will turn onto full-on Dickensian characters when asked to provide a little more tax, to help those who would rather die than go to a foodbank, “If they would rather die,” said
Scrooge Rees-Mogg, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”