For some time I have been wrestling with the issues of money, care for the poor and how our present western economic system seeks to support people in need. As a community at Antioch, Llanelli we have a focus on ‘God’s presence and the poor’ and over many years see the day to day pressures of folks who are increasingly struggling financially in these challenging times.
We face a Eurozone in crisis, Greece in economic and social meltdown and growing protests against austerity measures across Europe. These are stern warnings that we are in desperate times and need some radical solutions.
There are many layers, different places to stand and survey the current landscape as well as the ‘spiritual’ roots in history. Many of the present economic institutions and systems have their origin in Elizabeth I’s reign and it is interesting that in Elizabeth II’s reign we are seeing something of their unravelling – Martin Scott has noted that we are seeing the demise of systems that have been in place for 500 years.
I’ve just finished Zygmunt Bauman’s book, Work, consumerism and the new poor and found it provided some helpful perspectives on the journey to here and what may lie ahead. In looking for ways forward I have sought to understand where we have come from and how we have arrived at this point. No doubt there are a variety of perspectives from which to view the journey but from where I stand its clear there has been a shift in what it looks like and feels like to be poor, and how people become poor, that have some roots in the Enlightenment movement.
Enlightenment – a rejection of God as Father?
The Enlightenment has been described as a set of values that spread as a movement across Europe from the 17th century through the Masonic lodges, coffee houses, books, journals, pamphlets, newspapers, debating societies and French salons. Dorinda Outram provides a standard intellectual definition
Enlightenment was a desire for human affairs to be guided by rationality rather than by faith, superstition, or revelation; a belief in the power of human reason to change society and liberate the individual from the restraints of custom or arbitrary authority; all backed up by a world view increasingly validated by science rather than by religion or tradition.
It seems that the seed-bed for it was, amongst others factors, the pain of the 100 years of religious wars and the inability of the church to engage with new developments in a variety of spheres – philosophy, social, political, and discoveries in science.
Faced with a failure of the existing religious authority structures to deliver peace and safe society I would suggest that Europe as a continent dissociated faith and emotion. Relegating them to the private sphere and embracing the lie that we do not need Father God, can’t trust Him and have to take care of our own needs – a rejection of His parenthood and values. It resulted from the church’s mis-representation of the Father – they were His face on the earth and, for the most part, it was an abusive one.
The influence of Greek rationalism, the reliance on science and ‘progress’ and man in control of his own destiny led us into the Industrial Revolution and the de-humanising approach to work. Work became the means of self-improvement and was given a moral imperative by the preachers of the gospel of ‘progress’.
Descartes, the founder of modern medicine, was a key influence in the 17th century and in particular his separation of mind and body (Cartesian Dualism). He basically cut a ‘turf deal with the Pope’ (see ref., Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion (1998) p.18), where he made a pact with the Pope to establish body and soul as separate territories and de-sacrilised the body. He thereby gained permission from the Pope to dissect human cadavers to further medical research i.e. Descartes took the body and the Pope had the mind and soul. This was a significant factor in the devaluing of humanity, mind and emotion. Coupled with the elevation of rationalism it contributed to the conditions for the rise of western capitalism, economic slavery and the present disease of consumerism.
The Enlightenment could be said to have provided the momentum, context and conditions for the rise of the Industrial Revolution along with the other national revolutions. With it came the persistent breaking down of the traditional social and cultural values. Prior to the Industrial Revolution there was a direct connection between craft and the craftsmen/women, between producers and what they produced whether that be a shoe-maker, a baker, a farmer etc. They produced what was needed personally/locally and saw no need to produce more for the sake of it. There were other things they could do with their time and their time was theirs to spend as they chose.
With the progress of science, technology we moved into the realms of increased productivity through mechanisation – with men being seen as a mere extension to the machine, and increased profitability for business. Bauman notes that for the first time in history priority was given to ‘what can be done’ over ‘what needs to be done’. A natural boundary of meeting present needs was removed and replaced with ‘growth for growth’s sake’.
In the beginnings of this phase there was a real demand for human labour to keep the ‘factory system’ producing and many of our social systems were geared to providing and motivating that pool of labour to be employed. The work ethic was preached from pulpits and market squares and the goal was full employment to be able to produce all that society needed and to maintain an orderly ‘norm’. People were defined as poor if they were unemployed and punished if they chose not to engage with factory employment.
The poor were seen as rats to be eliminated but there wasn’t a way to simply get rid of them so the work ethic and its assertion that work was the only moral and decent way to earn one’s right to live gave the platform for the Poor Law reformers of the 1820 and 1830′s to remove the generally available ‘poor relief’ and move towards a system that confined relief to inside the poorhouses. They sought to make the life of the non-working poor so degraded that they would take any work, no matter how bad the wages or the conditions, even prostitution, rather than live in the poorhouse.
Further changes in the motivation to work, developments in science, technology, business, IT, medicine, media, a few world wars, and some further shifting of values has meant that everyone’s ‘labour’ is no longer needed to produce all that society needs. A person’s life is now no longer built around work, having a profession or jobs but around possessions, experiences, consumer choice and having access to those choices and experiences. Money being the key factor in gaining access to those choices and experiences and consumption being the measure of a successful and happy life.
Charles Dickens’ novels vividly describe what it looked like and felt like to be poor in the Victorian era. He was a fierce critic of the poverty, class and economic systems of his day. Interestingly this year there are widespread celebrations of the 200th birthday of this social commentator. Present day social commentators could include the young people, disaffected adults and opportunists of the August riots in England in 2011; until early 2012 the Occupy protest outside St Paul’s; UK Uncut online and in situ demos; along with a plethora of You tube clips, blogs and websites. The riots in England in August 2011 for me, in part, reflect the expression of a marginalised and disenfranchised underclass of ‘flawed consumers’ who lacked the wherewithal to access legitimately (through money) the experiences and goods flaunted as the badges of success and worth by the advertising machine and celebrity culture. These are amongst the ‘new poor’, whether or not they work – the definition has changed fundamentally.
Peeling back the state
We are seeing the most significant shake up of welfare provision in the last 50 years. At its inception the welfare state was only ever meant to be a safety net for the army of labour when they were out of work and in between jobs; the goal was full employment so unemployment was only ever expected to be temporary. The assumptions upon which the welfare state was built are no longer relevant to a vastly different society so there does have to be change. But I question whether or not working within an outmoded framework in a world of finite resources will produce a just outcome.
The cuts and changes to benefits are affecting working and non-working poor alike as the elderly and families struggle with the choice between heating or food and support Centres for vulnerable adults close due to funding being withdrawn. The Trussell Trust has 200 foodbanks across the UK with 2 new foodbanks opening every week. At Antioch we run a food, clothes and furniture bank and have seen a hike in the last few months of the number of people coming for help as their benefits are withdrawn or changed and there is a delay in processing new payments. There is a slide from relative to moderate poverty and also into extreme poverty. An interim briefing by the new economics foundation (nef) reports on the impact of the austerity measures being introduced by the UK government. Owen Jones, a collumnist for The Independent is chronicling and commenting on some of the impacts and casualties of the changes, particularly for those on disability benefits. He notes that six of the biggest disability charities have warned that the campaign of demonisation – by both journalists and politicians – has led to a surge in abuse towards people with disabilities. This has to set major alarm bells ringing!
Economic assumptions being challenged as obselete
William Hague was recently quoted as saying that there is only one answer to Britain’s economic difficulties – hard work. He was compared with Norman Tebbit in the eighties who told the unemployed to ‘get on their bike’, only Hague thought the bike didn’t go far enough and told UK bosses to “get on the plane, go and sell overseas, go and study overseas”. But there is a growing skepticism of the belief that the answers lie in nations producing more, of a consumer led recovery. It can no longer be ‘business as usual’ as debt financed consumption has been at the heart of the economic breakdown.
It seems there is a will for things to be different. The new economic foundation (nef) is an independent think-and-do tank that looks at economic, social and environmental issues and is pressing for innovative and radical changes to how we live as a society. It is one of the agencies I have found that is calling for a new approach. Their call is for, amongst other things, a radical shake up of income, work distribution and a focus on well-being that includes a different definition of work which will alter fundamentally how we function as a society. There are also calls for fundamental reform of welfare provision through a citizen’s income. The question is will these calls be heard or fall on deaf ears, and what level of catastrophe will it take to see real change?
I hope to explore these themes in more detail in a blog using Bauman’s book as a ‘road map’ as I seek to understand and imagine how things could be different, adding my voice and prayers to the call for radical change and justice for the poor and the powerless.