Thirties Redux: A Pelican More Frequent/ Hard Times Indeed/ Community Work Placements: Another Nasty Piece of Work by the Department for War on the Poor (DWP)/ IPSO Facto
It never ceases to amaze me at the moment how our society and culture seem to be regressing in so many significant but perhaps not explicitly obvious ways to the materially battered, almost defeated mindset of the Thirties, which is perhaps inevitable at the tail-end of the “Great Recession”, which is the definitive repeat in many respects of the Great Depression of 80 odd years ago. During the worst-hit years of austerity –2010-2013– I was certainly becoming increasingly aware myself of the creeping sense of cultural stagnation, if not paralysis, of the façade of anarcho-capitalism starting to come undone at the seams and peel –and yet society itself, at least, its ruling right-wing hegemonies, under the auspices of a capitalism on life- support, attempting to somehow patch over this entropy.
Following the sad and quite symbolic demise of Woolworths (which, historically, started out as more than simply an emporium for cheap tat but also one for cultural redistribution and education via cheap Penguin and Pelican paperbacks –see below), last of the post-war retail stalwarts, we then had the near-liquidation of HMV, only to witness its sporadic Phoenix-like resurrection in the form of temporary ‘pop-up shops’ that would often vanish as quickly as they materialised, then materialise again, in the manner of the spiky fiends in classic children’s animation Chorlton and the Wheelies.
But for me the most marked symbolic gesture as to what I call the ‘Thirties Redux’ has been the rapid sprouting of ever more charity shops and the flourishing retail-metaphors of antique emporiums and Thirties-retro boutiques and flea markets, all with quixotic names and logos and primary lines in art deco collectibles –Clarice Cliff and the like, and bakelite assortments from the Forties. And how ubiquitous the de-contextualised legend KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON has become during the past four years of latter day Austerity Britain (I even came across a sign on a newsagent counter reading KEEP CALM AND PAY YOUR BILLS –so symptomatic of the current British vogue for unquestioning stiff-upper-lipped supplication and fealty to the plutocratic dismantlers of our social infrastructure. But what sticks in the craw is that the aforementioned slogan, originally expressive of a far better sentiment of cooperation and solidarity from the Blitz days, has been misappropriated by Cameron for his phantom ‘Big Society’, which, oppositely, promotes only social atomisation, mass-impoverishment and Social Darwinism.
At least the rations and austerity of the late Forties was to some common purpose: the foundation of the Attlee Settlement, the Welfare State and NHS; whereas this recent fiscal infliction has simply been in the cause of patching up an economically and morally bankrupt anarcho-capitalist system while simultaneously decimating public expenditure and dismantling that same welfare state. Added to this hollow bakelite nostalgia for old ‘Blighty’ was the Ruritanian cultural narcolepsy of the bunting-dribbled Jubilee, during which a cuts-pelted nation could drown its sorrows in a great gold trough of ovine grovelling at the feet of the Saxe-Coburg Gothas (I mean, Windsors). I am now almost physically nauseated by the mere sight of a Union Jack (though we may not have to look upon that loud flag again post-September). Personally, and for purely aesthetic reasons, I’m more partial to a spot of radical Thirties art deco than patriotic Forties bakelite, and, in spite of the cultural regression signified in the recent resurgence of Depression-era paraphernalia, being a rather old-fashioned type of person myself, I do appreciate this latter day atmosphere of retro-time travelling in the independent retail sector.
Local to me in Brighton is a wonderfully shabby-bohemian, Bloomsbury-esque coffee house hollowed out from what used to be an old Methodist Chapel or Temperance Hall: appropriate for these old curiosity times, it is called The Emporium. It’s not only for their impeccable flat whites that I go there practically every other day, but more for aesthetic respite, and that quality so rare in today’s compact-and-beaju café culture: space. The Emporium certainly has plenty of space: that’s why it’s a coffee house as opposed to a mere café, because the churn of its coffee-grinding machines and the chatter of its clientele literally echoes around its chapel-high ceilings. It has old wood pews painted in fetching pale greys and whites either side of its congregational width, hedging in tables for more intimate libations, and has a thrown together Charleston-esque look, antiquated décor, random chipped garden statues, eye-catching patches of paint and plaster on the walls, and tall stunning multi-coloured floral stained glass windows. Along one side of the hall is the long, painted wooden-panelled comestible counter, which has a curious antiquated water-dispensing machine marked TUDOR. It’s the kind of coffee-scented outré sanctuary of kitsch avant-garde where the perfect aural tipple would be a spot of Percy Grainger or Cole Porter.
Another emporium, which was local to me when I lived in Hove between 2010 and winter 2013, was a retro flea market-cum-antiques den called DEPARTMENT. Among its many curiosities, it had a display cabinet entombing a dozen or so copies of original burnt-orange coarse-grained covered Victor Gollancz’ Labour Book Club Editions, and almost all salvaged from the shelves from past LBC members, each bearing the strapline NOT FOR SALE TO THE PUBLIC near the foot of their covers. At the time, in my ignorance, I assumed this meant that Gollancz only distributed such titles within a tight circle of bespectacled socialist intellectuals, until I learnt a bit later that these now quixotic-seeming polemical interventions from an infinitely more enlightened and forward-thinking past had actually sold on average in the tens of thousands –some even in the hundreds of thousands. I think at the time –probably around 2011– I invested in a copy of Clement Attlee’s The Labour Party in Perspective. Since then, I managed to find a copy of Wal Hannington’s The Problem of the Distressed Areas –an absolute masterpiece of social and cultural insight into the Thirties– and later on, still more LBCs cropping up here and there in second-hand bookshops.
Simultaneous to this, I also started finding and collecting countless Pelican paperbacks, mostly of the 60s and 70s, and I’ve now gathered a formidable library of their pale blue spines. Some of these ambrosial books are simply fundamentally important reads for anyone who considers themselves to be on the cultural left. Significantly, both the Pelican range, and the LBC, were both piloted in the Thirties (and, equally significantly, both finally truncated around 1989/1990, at the tail-end of the Thatcherite ‘de-settlement’), a decade through which they were enormously well sold and helped to build the new socialistic consensus which see a Labour landslide victory in the 1945 general election and the foundation of the two pillars of modern British social democracy, the welfare state and NHS, both of which are, of course, currently having the wrecking-balls of a resurgent extreme right-wing Toryism swung through them. The Tory project being, essentially, the final dismantlement of the Attleean Settlement and the Bevanite Covenant, and the reestablishment of pre-welfare state Britain –a Thirties Redux.
It is a combination of all these strange, almost time-travelling anti-developments in British austerity culture of the past four years that inspired me to start working on a partly satirical polemical epic poem juxtaposing today’s social, political and cultural attitudes with those of the first Great Depression in the Thirties. The work, currently still ‘in progress’ but adumbrated at its own website since late last year, Odour of Devon Violet, is a kind of dialectical materialist take on the cyclical recidivism of capitalism, a kind of perpetual repeat so typical to its technical commodities which are so often simply fractionally reconfigured duplications of the same line of adulterated products, and almost always, like capitalism itself, built only for short-term sustainability, until they inevitably break down and have to be replaced –but always replaced by superficially ‘improved’ and still intrinsically faulty near-replicas. Capitalism is the ultimate consumer: it consumes everything in its path, and then spits it all out again. Capitalism is a repeat offender which perpetually perpetrates the same pattern of mistakes that just so happen to impact on the equally cyclical lives of all humans trapped within its auspices.
Capitalism can never bring true human, social, cultural or spiritual improvement, only technological progress –and can only ever ameliorate its own contradictions –boom and slump, overproduction and under-consumption, ever out-of-synch demand and supply– and inescapable susceptibility to periodic near-collapse, by patching over these contradictions and occasionally purging the excess puss that builds up through them, which normally involves fiscally sacrificing the poorest sections of society (i.e. in capitalist terms, the ‘economically impotent surplus population’) through horrific cuts in public expenditure. In these senses, the Cameron-Osborne Government has based its disgustingly brutal austerity regime on the template of Stanley Baldwin’s equally punitive right-wing Tory-led National Government of the Thirties.
The most marked parallels are in both government’s uncompromisingly punitive cuts to benefits for the unemployed and the sick and disabled –the hardest hit victims of two banker-caused recessions. It was in opposition to the proposal by ‘Labour’ prime minister James Ramsay MacDonald in 1932 to bring in sweeping cuts to unemployment benefits that led to his own symbolic decapitation by his own party, which then went into principled Opposition under a new leader, Arthur Henderson. MacDonald clung to his premiership with the help of the Conservatives and Liberals, until such time as Tory leader Stanley Baldwin inherited the fetid chalice of the National Government, swinging it even further rightwards for the lion’s share of the mauling Thirties. Iain Duncan Smith –the Baden-Powell of unemployment– would find much in common between his despicable punishing policies and those of the mandatory labour camps for the unemployed brought in under Baldwin.
The parallels, indeed, between the austerity culture of today and its accompanying social attitudes and political rhetoric and those of the Thirties are truly uncanny. On the plus side, there is a genuine groundswell of undergraduate radicalism and campaign activism today which constitute the only real ‘green shoots’ that have grown from the otherwise hopelessly pessimistic past four years, and combine to make for a significant resurgence in anti-capitalist feeling for the first time arguably since the decline of the Left during the Thatcherite Eighties. The prospect of such anti-capitalist activism would have been laughed off as almost fantastical during the politically complacent Nineties and early Noughties, but today it is as much par for the course as the oppositely socially intolerant and judgemental anti-welfarism and “scrounger”-mongering of the Tory-led Government and associated right-wing red-tops. Today’s ‘Opposition’ is mostly extra-parliamentary, manifest through such protest and campaign groups as UK Uncut, Occupy, Coalition of Resistance, the Black Triangle, Disabled People Against the Cuts, 38 Degrees, War on Want, End Hunger Fast, and of course our own Poets in Defence of the Welfare State; and emerging political movements such as Left Unity and the Peoples’ Assembly. Such civic movements are reminiscent in some respects of such organisations as the Popular Front, Peace Movement and the Left Book Club of the Thirties.
The only key differences are that today’s anti-austerity movements, though broadly under a banner of ‘anti-capitalism’, are not as ideologically concentrated as those of the Thirties, most of which were either Socialist or Communist of orientation (sometimes doctrinally so, as with the LBC, for instance), and so lack the same chiliastic pitch of the Thirties’ groups whose only real historical comparison was the explosion of Christian social radicalism during the 1640s and 1650s, of the likes of the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Seekers, Quakers, Millenarians, Fifth Monarchists, Muggletonians et al. –although even in these regards there are today some truly striking parallels, particularly in the re-emergence of modern day Digger groups, such as the Runnymede Diggers and the Wigan Diggers, while Occupy –particularly its St Paul’s camp– can be seen as very much a modern manifestation of the pitched encampments of the 17th century Digger communities, upholding the still-revolutionary principle of land in common and an aspired end to the societal tyranny of private property (the root of all civil poverty). But, sadly, today it is not so much a case of The World Turned Upside Down as The Welfare State Turned Upside Down.
Odour of Devon Violet attempts to chart, by parallels, the cultural and political developments of the Thirties and those of today, two key periods of capitalist paralysis and public austerity –it’s a formidably broad sweep of subject, which is why the work has expanded into something of an epic, and to date, only a small percentage of the full work is as yet published on the accompanying website www.odourofdevonviolet.com. The title is an allusion to a cheap perfume which was popular in the inter-war years, through the Thirties and Forties: Devon Violet, which was apparently sold in various affordable receptacles through, among other retail outlets, Woolworths. I first came upon a mention of the perfume in relation to the proverbial scent in cinemas during the Thirties, being depicted as a foreshadower of today’s austerity culture in an article in The Guardian a couple of years ago (I forget which now), and then thought it would be interesting to employ this olfactory motif of ‘cheap luxury’ for what became an enormous poet-polemical undertaking. Since our sense of smell is regarded as one of the most evocative and even mnemonic (memory-triggering), it seemed like a perfect metaphor for an austerity-struck society attitudinally and culturally returning to its nearest historical reference-point: the Thirties.
By serendipity, simultaneous to my embarking on writing this work, the Morning Star, which I have been reading almost religiously throughout the last four years in particular –it having been a true ideological sanctuary of humanity and compassion in an otherwise near-uniformly right-wing and/or liberally quiescent media– started featuring a daily column exploring the paper’s own archives from the Thirties, when it was published as the Daily Worker; these ‘80 Years Ago Today’ columns, sourced and compiled by Graham Stevenson, have been absolutely invaluable while researching the social and cultural ins and outs of the Thirties, and I’ve now a whole box full of cuttings still to incorporate into the historical fabric of the work. Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age has also been a kind of primer in my research, as well as much literature written during the Thirties, such as Wal Hannington’s Problem of the Distressed Areas, Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise, George Orwell’s Road To Wigan Pier and, the most pivotal polemical source for the work, Christopher Caudwell’s Illusion and Reality, something of a classic text of the British Left, a highly ambitious Marxist polemic on the role of poetry in capitalist and pre-capitalist society, as well as his slightly later polemical companion-piece, Studies in a Dying Culture.
A Pelican More Frequent
As if to take part in this Thirties Redux today, but blessedly from a far more promising and hopeful point of view, is the re-launch of the Pelican imprint –started in 1937 by Allen Lane, as a non-fiction didactic offshoot of Penguin, displayed aplenty in cheap stores like Woolworths for only threepenny or 6D, bringing culture to the hoi polloi. I’ve been fortunate over the past few years to have lived near several excellent second-hand bookshops with prolific quantities of those much-prized pale blue spines, and now have a pretty massive collection of Pelicans (see below for The Recusant’s top recommendations from this classic species of titles).
A wonderful spread on the re-launch of Pelican was included in The Guardian of Saturday 26 April 2014, which I excerpt below –images of some of the iconic Pelican book covers are also reproduced from the photo montage of this piece:
"The really amazing thing, the extraordinary eye-opener that surprised the most optimistic of us, was the immediate and overwhelming success of the Pelicans." So wrote Allen Lane, founder of Penguin and architect of the paperback revolution, who had transformed the publishing world by selling quality books for the price of a packet of cigarettes. Millions of orange Penguins had already been bought when they were joined in 1937 by the pale blue non-fiction Pelicans. "Who would have imagined," he continued, "that, even at 6d, there was a thirsty public anxious to buy thousands of copies of books on science, sociology, economics, archaeology, astronomy and other equally serious subjects?"
His instinct was not only commercially astute but democratic. The launching of the Penguins and Pelicans ("Good books cheap") caused a huge fuss, and not simply among staid publishers: the masses were now able to buy not just pulp, but "improving", high-calibre books – whatever next! Lane and his defenders argued that owning such books should not be the preserve of the privileged class. He had no truck with those people "who despair at what they regard as the low level of people's intelligence".
Lane came up with the name – so the story goes – when he heard someone who wanted to buy a Penguin at a King's Cross station bookstall mistakenly ask for "one of those Pelican books". He acted fast to create a new imprint. The first Pelican was George Bernard Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism. "A sixpenny edition" of the book, the author modestly suggested, "would be the salvation of mankind." Such was the demand that booksellers had to travel to the Penguin stockroom in taxis and fill them up with copies before rushing back to their shops. It helped of course that this was a decade of national and world crisis. For Lane, the public "wanted a solid background to give some coherence to the newspaper's scintillating confusion of day-to-day events".
Shaw wasn't a one-off. The other books from the first months – written by, to name four of dozens, HG Wells, RH Tawney, Beatrice Webb, Eileen Power – were successful too. (This despite, or because of, the fact that the co-founding editor of the series, VK Krishna Menon, was a staunch socialist and teetotal vegetarian who drank 100 cups of tea a day and slept for only two hours a night.) The whole print order of Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Pelican No 24, sold out in the first week.
These books were like an education in paperback form – for pennies. The title of Virginia Woolf's The Common Reader, another early bird, was apposite (though it has since been misinterpreted as snooty): in the essays, Woolf attempted to see literature from the point of view of the non-expert, as part of what Hermione Lee has called her "life-long identification with the self-educated reader". It flew off the shelves.
It was the beginning of an illustrious era. Nearly 3,000 Pelicans took flight during the following five decades, covering a huge range of subjects: many were specially commissioned, most were paperback versions of already published titles. They were crisply and brilliantly designed and fitted in a back pocket. And they sold, in total, an astonishing 250m copies. Editions of 50,000, even for not obvious bestsellers, were standard: a 1952 study of the Hittites – the ancient Anatolian people – quickly sold out and continued in print for many years. (These days a publisher would be delighted if such a book made it to 2,000.) The Greeks by HDF Kitto sold 1.3m copies; Facts from Figures, "a layman's introduction to statistics", sold 600,000. Many got to the few hundred thousand mark.
"The Pelican books bid fair," Lane wrote in 1938, "to become the true everyman's library of the 20th century … bringing the finest products of modern thought and art to the people." They pretty much succeeded. Some were, as their publisher admitted, "heavy going" and a few were rather esoteric (Hydroponics, anyone?). But in their heyday Pelicans hugely influenced the nation's intellectual culture: they comprised a kind of home university for an army of autodidacts, aspirant culture-vultures and social radicals.
In retrospect, the whole venture seems linked to a perception of social improvement and political possibility. Pelicans helped bring Labour to power in 1945, cornered the market in the new cultural studies, introduced millions to the ideas of anthropology and sociology, and provided much of the reading matter for the sexual and political upheavals of the late 60s and early 70s.
The film writer David Thomson, who worked as an editor at Penguin in the 60s, has recalled that as an employee "you could honestly believe you were doing the work of God … we were bringing education to the nation; we were the cool colours on the shelves of a generation." It was all to do "with that excited sense that the country might be changing".
Similarly, in Ian Dury's classic song, one of his "Reasons to be Cheerful" is "something nice to study", and his friend Humphrey Ocean has said the lyrics sum up "where he was at … The earnest young Dury – Pelican books, intelligent aunties, the welfare state, grammar school. It's nothing to do with rock'n'roll really, it's all to do with postwar England at a certain, incredibly positive, moment."
The leftish association with improvement – self and social – had always been part of the Pelicans. The wartime years were good ones for autodidacts. Orwell wrote that a "phenomenon of the war has been the enormous sale of Penguin Books, Pelican Books and other cheap editions, most of which would have been regarded by the general public as impossibly highbrow a few years back." One of the driving forces behind Pelican was the amiable, crumpled but well-connected WE Williams – "Pelican Bill" – an inspiring evangelist for the democratisation of British culture, who not only had ties to adult education (the WEA) but became director of the influential Army Bureau of Current Affairs, and during the war ensured the imprint thrived among servicemen. (Koestler called these self-improvers the "anxious corporals".) A 1940 book on town planning went through a quarter of a million copies. Richard Hoggart later wrote of his time in the forces that "We had a kind of code that if there was a Penguin or Pelican sticking out of the back trouser pocket of a battledress, you had a word with him because it meant he was one of the different ones … every week taught us something about what might happen in Britain."
After the war, as Penguin collector Steve Hare has recognised, the idea of a Pelican home university became more explicit; the number of "Pelican originals" increased, and the commissioning editors were astute in often choosing young scholars on the rise. (The books were also expertly edited, notably by the tattoo-covered Buddhist ASB Glover, a former prisoner with a photographic memory who had memorised the Encyclopedia Britannica behind bars.)
So if you wanted to find out about ethics or evolution or sailing or yoga or badgers or fish lore or Soviet Marxism, it was often a blue-spined paperback you cracked. The volumes came thick and fast, and were classy. In the 10 months between August 1958 and May 1959, for instance, Pelican titles included Kenneth Clark's study of Leonardo, Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, The Exploration of Space by Arthur C Clarke, one of the studies in Boris Ford's highly influential and bestselling Pelican Guide to English Literature, A Land by Jacquetta Hawkes (described by Robert Macfarlane as "one of the defining British non-fiction books of the postwar decade") and A Shortened History of England by GM Trevelyan. And this selection is fairly typical.
Hoggart's book, one of the founding texts of cultural studies, which taught, among other things, that popular culture was to be taken seriously, was a good seller for Pelican: 33,000 in the first six months and then 20,000 copies a year through the 1960s. It has been suggested that one of the impulses behind Hoggart's criticism of commercialised mass culture was his sense that the opportunity to build on the autodidactic legacy of 1939-45 – the Pelican-style legacy, as it were – was at risk. But the imprint itself thrived, and published other books that were to become cultural studies classics: Michael Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy (No 485, September 1961), later misunderstood by Tony Blair, who didn't grasp that it was an argument against meritocracy – "education has put its seal of approval on a minority". Young, with Peter Willmott, also wrote the seminal Family and Kinship in East London, another Pelican, and at one time known affectionately by sociologists as "Fakinel", pronounced with a cockney accent. Raymond Williams's Culture and Society (No 520, March 1961) was another of the countless Pelicans at the centre of a revolution in thinking.
The books were also an important conduit of American intellectual life and progressive thought into Britain. The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson, who had yet to write Silent Spring, had been an acclaimed bestseller in the US, and was published as a Pelican in 1956. JK Galbraith's The Affluent Society was published in 1962; Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities came out in Britain three years later. Vance Packard's The Naked Society and The Hidden Persuaders questioned the American dream. Erving Goffman and Lewis Mumford appeared under the imprint, as did Studs Terkel's report from Chicago, Division Street: America.
The fashionability of Pelicans, which lasted at least into the 70s, was connected to this breaking open of radical new ideas to public understanding – not in academic jargon but in clearly expressed prose. But it was also because they looked so good. The first Pelicans were, like the Penguins, beneficiaries of the 30s passion for design. They had the iconic triband covers conceived by Edward Young – in Lane's words, "a bright splash of fat colour" with a white band running horizontally across the centre for displaying author and title in Gill Sans. A pelican appeared flying on the cover and standing on the spine. After the war, Lane employed as a designer the incomparable Jan Tschichold, a one-time associate of the Bauhaus and known for his Weimar film posters. His Pelicans had a central white panel framed by a blue border containing the name of the imprint on each side.
In the 60s the books changed again, to the illustrative covers designed by Germano Facetti, art director from 1961 to 72. Facetti, a survivor of Mauthausen labour camp who had worked in Milan as a typographer and in Paris as an interior designer, transformed the Penguin image, as John Walsh has written, "from linear severity and puritanical simplicity into a series of pictorial coups". The 60s covers by Facetti (eg The Stagnant Society by Michael Shanks), and by the designers he took on – Jock Kennier (eg Alex Comfort's Sex in Society), Derek Birdsall (eg The Naked Society) – are ingenious, arresting invitations to a world of new thinking.
Jenny Diski has written of subscribing in the 60s to "the unofficial University of Pelican Books course", which was all about "gathering information and ideas about the world. Month by month, titles came out by Laing and Esterson, Willmott and Young, JK Galbraith, Maynard Smith, Martin Gardner, Richard Leakey, Margaret Mead; psychoanalysts, sociologists, economists, mathematicians, historians, physicists, biologists and literary critics, each offering their latest thinking for an unspecialised public, and the blue spines on the pile of books on the floor of the bedsit increased."
"If you weren't at university studying a particular discipline (and even if you were)," she goes on, "Pelican books were the way to get the gist of things, and education seemed like a capacious bag into which all manner of information was thrown, without the slightest concern about where it belonged in the taxonomy of knowledge. Anti-psychiatry, social welfare, economics, politics, the sexual behaviour of young Melanesians, the history of science, the anatomy of this, that and the other, the affluent, naked and stagnant society in which we found ourselves."
Pelicans reflected and fed the countercultural and politically radical 60s. Two books by Che Guevara were published; Stokely Carmichael's Black Power came out in 1969. Noam Chomsky and Frantz Fanon were both published in 1969-70. Martin Luther King's Chaos or Community? came out in 1969, as did Peter Laurie's Drugs. Peter Mayer's The Pacifist Conscience was published as LBJ escalated the Vietnam war. AS Neill wrote about his lawless progressive school Summerhill while Roger Lewis published a volume on the underground press.
In terms of history there was Christopher Hill on the English revolution and, to mark the 1,000th Pelican in 1968, EP Thompson's The Making of English Working Class, a book admirably suited to a left-leaning imprint flavoured by Nonconformist self-improvement. (The Guardian published a special supplement to celebrate the landmark.) In less than a decade it had gone through a further five reprints.
Owen Hatherley has described the Pelicans of the late 60s as "human emancipation through mass production … hot-off-the-press accounts of the 'new French revolution' would go alongside texts on scientific management, with Herbert Marcuse next to Fanon, next to AJP Taylor, and all of this conflicting and intoxicating information in a pocket-sized form, on cheap paper and with impeccably elegant modernist covers."
But then decline. The Pelican identity seems to have become diluted in the late 70s and 80s, and 25 years ago the last book appeared (The Nazi Seizure of Power by William Sheridan Allen, 1989, No 2,878). As an imprint it was officially discontinued in 1990. The reasons are murky. The Sunday Times suggested it was "for the most pedestrian of reasons: the name was already copyright in America and was not so well known in foreign markets". A Penguin spokesman also mentioned at the time that the Pelican logo gave the message: "this book is a bit worthy".
They were, perhaps, out of sync with the times. But they remained in second-hand shops. A splurge of Pelican blue on your shelves or in your pocket could still define the person you were, or wanted to be. I remember myself in my late teens, posing around with a copy of The Contemporary Cinema by Penelope Houston I had picked up on a stall for small change (it came out in 1963). I knew absolutely nothing about Antonioni and Bergman, Resnais and Truffaut, but I knew I should know about them, and I liked the imaginary version of me in a polo-neck, very fluent in such matters. Plus the cover was cool. I was a bit late to the party, but I was definitely a Pelican sort of person.
And now they are back, in a new series of originally commissioned books. The first volumes come out in May, and the opener (No 1) seems very Pelicanish: Economics: A User's Guide by the heterodox economist Ha-Joon Chang (whose 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism was a bestseller); it is a "myth-busting introduction" written "for the general reader".
Also forthcoming are The Domesticated Brain by the psychologist Bruce Hood, Revolutionary Russia by Orlando Figes and Human Evolution by the anthropologist Robin Dunbar (who caused a splash in our Facebook age with How Many Friends Does One Person Need?). Non-fiction sales have been falling in recent years, and no doubt Penguin's aim is to capitalise on the now-fetishised Pelican brand. The new books will be turned out in a shade of the famous pale-blue livery and the Pelican logo itself has been updated for the relaunch. Given the lucrative nostalgia market in Penguin mugs, postcards and tea-towels – not to mention a roaring collectors' trade and art-world homages such as Harland Miller's beaten-up paintings – the publishers can hardly be unconscious of the importance of design.
And, as with Allen Lane in the 1930s, there is more to the relaunch than financial opportunism. Penguin seems sure that the self-education urge is still strong. Hood has himself pointed out that while university education is, unlike in Lane's day, open to many (at least for the time being), it has become more utilitarian: a more rounded education has, more often than ever, to happen around the edges. Wikipedia, however excellent, isn't enough.
According to Penguin the hope is that readers will once again "turn to Pelicans for whatever subjects they are interested in, yet feel ignorant about – Pelicans can be their guides". It's the latest incarnation of the unofficial university, and of the optimistic belief in the appeal and influence – and profitability – of "Good books cheap".
A fitting time then for Pelican's auspices to wing back in. The Recusant wishes further that Gollancz might also relaunch the Left Book Club. Here, for what it’s worth, are The Recusant’s recommendations from the prolific crop of the first few generations of Pelicans (1937-1989) –put in chronological order, as with The Guardian’s own ten highlights, and though there’s at least one crossover, our choices are in the main very different:
1. The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart (1957)
A definitive social document-cum-polemic on the social and political functions of language in the era of mass media, specifically its controlling and limiting effects on the working classes. Richly written by a working-class autodidact from the vantage-point of an established academic, it also includes some fascinating autobiographical chapters on the author’s impoverished upbringing in Leeds during the late 1920s and 1930s. This book in many ways is the ultimate scholarly backwash of the Pelican redistribution of knowledge: written by a working-class autodidact, himself helped in his self-education by such auspices as Pelican, returns the favour by educating the middle classes on the nuts and bolts of growing up in poverty and with limited opportunities for self-betterment. This writer read this book the most recently of those listed here, which is probably why, memory working the way it does (taking time to assimilate and process, thus recalling things further back in the past more clearly), he can only at this juncture recall the broad aspects to it. But it is a hugely important and inspiring piece of work.
2. The Rise of the Meritocracy by Michael Young (1958)
A proleptic polemic composed in retrospect from the future vantage-point of 2034 in a post-meritocratic society where the elites have long been selected not on the basis of hereditary backgrounds but individual intellect and aptitudes –a kind of macro-scholarship. Defined as a ‘satirical essay’, though more a monograph, Young’s first-person narrator and much post-1960 he critically reflects on, are of course largely fictional, but based on sociological projections deemed probable during the more progressive period of the ‘post-war consensus’. Young’s thrust is actually quite meritocracy-sceptic, not from a social point of view –he was himself a socialist and Labour MP, and helped draft the party’s 1945 manifesto Let Us Face the Future– but from an anti-elitism standpoint: that is, an elitism based on purely, as he predicts will be the case, on a narrow scientific definition of ‘aptitude’ (i.e. IQs), without equal consideration of more creative and/or humanistic qualities. Young certainly wasn’t anti-social meritocracy, and, in the implicit spirit of Pelican itself, was an evangelist for redistribution of knowledge, particularly to the working classes, as evidenced in his co-founding, among other organisations, the Open University. This book, then, is more a warning against any future societal systems that inadvertently create a new class-hierarchy of practical intellect as a replacement for the old one of social stratification, which might in turn further mutate into another form of Social Darwinism or Malthusianism as is encountered in capitalist and fascist societies; his emphasis is more on a humanistic meritocracy.
3. The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson (1963; 68)
A formidable bible-thick tome that is essential reading for all scholars of English proletarian social history, and the development of the Labour Movement –partly in response to the rapidity of the Industrial Revolution of the period 1780-1832– through Luddism, Chartism, Owenism and Unionism, including such autodidactic auspices as the London Corresponding Society (almost the forerunner of Pelican itself). It also includes a fascinating insight into the first clandestine revolutionary working-class group, ‘The Black Lamp’ –a real life collective proletarian alternative to the fictional aristocrat-rescuing Scarlet Pimpernel– which Thompson pinpoints as a pivotal movement in the development of an incipient ‘working-class consciousness’. Given the vast amount and detail of social history and document the book covers, 900 pages plus small overspill (inclusive of Postscript) is still pretty compendious given the subject –even if it is exclusively on the English rather than British working classes. Fittingly, this was Pelican’s thousandth title. Apart from Richard Hoggart’s classic text, this is, I think, the only other crossover in selected highlights of the Pelican list between The Recusant and The Guardian.
4. Marxism and Christianity by Alasdair MacIntyre (1968)
Aptly published in a year of radical political upheaval in Europe, MacIntyre’s monograph is an absolutely fascinating comparison of the precepts of Christianity with the often almost indistinguishable principles of Marxist socialism, arguing that the two ideologies, though ostensibly spiritualistic and material, numinous and pragmatic, respectively, share common values such as community, equality and compassion. The main thrust of MacIntyre’s thesis is that Marxism, or dialectical materialism –via Hegelian dialectics– became the secular replacement for Christianity in modern agnostic thought and practice, and certainly the character of original Christianity, which was implicitly communitarian and anti-materialist, was, in its worldly manifestation, a proto-Communism; and the gradual mutation of that authentic Christianity centuries later through the Reformation in turn influenced the Christian-Communist experiments of the 17th century English True Levellers and Diggers, eventually evolving into the ostensibly non-religious form of Socialism, and the, ironically, anti-religious ideology of Communism. But here MacIntyre appositely picks up on the ironic ‘religiosity’ ritualistic and iconic aspects to systematised forms of Marxism, such as the Soviet Union, where the baroque high Catholic onion domes and minarets of the Russian Orthodox Church were outlawed and replaced by the glass mausoleum of a posthumous Lenin embalmed and perpetuated like a mediaeval Saint (or even much later, like the seemingly incorruptible corpse of Bernadette of Lourdes), and the monolithic statues of the Stalin Cult, which depicted the atheist leader of the nation not so much as a new form of un-anointed Tsar than a living god.
5. Anxiety and Neurosis by Charles Rycfort (1968; 1970)
This is a slim and compendious study of the causes, symptoms and effects of the neuroses, perhaps the cloudiest spectrum of mental illness, since its sufferers, in spite of sometimes near-crippling debilitation, still retain a conscious objectivity as to the seeming irrationality of their afflictions. For this writer, the section on obsessional neurosis is an invaluable primer –and repeat-primer– for reminding himself of the complex workings of the exhausting mindset from which he himself has been a sufferer all his life. But such personal associations with this book do not pose a conflict of interest in selecting it here: it is an invaluable and accessibly written guide book to the various nuances of neurosis, and, like many Pelican books, was way ahead of its time in pinpointing the sub-divisions of anxiety towards a future more detailed delineation in psychiatric diagnostics of the obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders. At times of peaking anxiety I have often returned to this immensely reassuring as well as instructive book.
6. The Death of the Past by Prof. J. H. Plumb (1969; 73)
This is a slim gem of a monograph which differentiates ‘the past’ as a common general or ancestral memory-bank from ‘history’ which is more specifically the appropriation of the past for political motives by hegemonies of various periods by which an ideologically interpretative ‘narrative’ is superimposed over the bare facts of the past –echoing that old axiom: ‘history is written by the winning side’. The trans-cultural bereavement of the title of Plumb’s polemic alludes to this legacy of ancestral vicissitudes reconfigured to religious, and later, political teleological narratives, which have in many respects mythologised the past for contemporary social purposes (the most grotesque example of course being cultic Nazism), or, more innocuously, pickled it in the aspic of ‘rose-tinted’ nostalgia (e.g. the ‘myth’ of the Anglo-Saxon Golden Age popular among radicals in mid-seventeenth century England). Here Plumb also compares the Salvationist impetuses of both Christianity and Marxism, spiritual and secular respectively, but the latter as metaphorically chiliastic as the former is literally: both, in Plumb’s view, are eschatological ideologies: they inexorably lead to certain dialectically predicted ends –Christianity, to the end of ‘Time’ as proleptically depicted in the Book of Revelation, Armageddon and the Last Judgement; and Marxism, to the overthrow of capitalism and the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ through which ‘class conflict will end’ and ‘the state wither away’ –on this latter depiction, Plumb argues: ‘Marxist dialectic itself supposes an ultimate end for the practical use of the past’, which echoes, by way of the most brutal examples, the ‘historical cleansing’ of Stalinism, and, not least, the ‘Year One’ of the French Revolutionary Calendar and the ‘Year Zero’ of the Communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Plumb also takes in the historically sporadic cults of ‘ancestor worship’, up to the modern day, where the nouveau riche seek to lift themselves above the hoi polloi from which they sprang by acquiring their own personal Bluemantles to chart their genealogies in the hope of finding some blue blood somewhere in the family tree, and to concoct their own heraldic coats of arms. As with most of the polemicists of the post-war consensus decades (50s to 70s), Plumb’s prose style is also impeccable.
7. Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman by Ken Coates and Richard Silburn (1970)
Considering it was researched and written around 1969, at the tail-end of a still reasonably left-wing (relative to today) Labour Government and Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” revolution (perhaps in some ways a proto-manifestation of Michael Young’s polemical concerns), this monograph on poverty, and the punitive perceptions of and provisions for it, demonstrates how British society has ever dished out the dole with more a clenched fist than an open palm. In these respects it prefigures by thirteen years the classic polemical text Images of Welfare by Peter Golding and Sue Middleton Martin (1983); but Coates and Silburn’s book, based almost entirely on surveys of impoverished districts in Nottingham, is a blistering indictment of social inequality in capitalist society, and has some schematic aspects to it reminiscent of the Mass Observation Movement of the 1930s-1950s. Coates and Silburn’s exposé on a welfare state calculatedly architected to only at best damage-limit the effects of contemporary poverty but never comprehensively alleviate or even end it, is particularly illuminating, and this writer drew much on quotes from this book in his polemical Afterword to Emergency Verse – Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State.
8. Superman and Common Man – Freedom, Anarchy and the Revolution by Benjamin R. Barber (1971)
Perhaps not an obvious monograph for this writer to recommend, it being, at least on the surface, something of a countervailing argument to the more socialistic intellectual trends –as richly represented in the plethora of Pelican’s own list– of the progressive period in which it was written; but this book provides an instructive insight, from a point of view which seems to be a mixture of individualistic self-determinism and creative existentialism, into some of the disputable contradictions inherent in the apparently antithetical spectrums of democracy (both liberal and social) and anarchism, pretty much turning both systems on their heads. Anarchism is deconstructed to be much less about mass liberation and much more about non-conformist individualism which Barber argues has historically most appealed to recalcitrant aristocratic thinkers and writers, and is often expressed as a kind of evangelical noblesse oblige, or even, oxymoronically, ‘egalitarian élitism’; while democracy is criticised for amounting in the end to a kind of ‘majoritarianism’ (rule by majority –or ‘the mob’?), as intransigent, and even tyrannical in some respects, as autocracy (rule by ‘a leader’/dictatorship), oligarchy (rule by a few) or plutocracy (rule by the rich) [and few socialists today would deny that our contemporary ‘liberal democracy’ is effectively a covert plutocracy/oligarchy]. The Chapter ‘Poetry and Revolution: The Anarchist as Reactionary’, is particularly fascinating, and culminates in a diagnosis of anarchism as essentially a philosophy of mind, a trans-material ‘movement’ of the imagination, and, in such aspects, not completely dissimilar to religion, while Marxism is seen as in some ways just as materially acquisitive –though towards entirely different aims– as the capitalist system it seeks to usurp.
9. The World Turned Upside Down –Radical Ideas During the English Revolution by Christopher Hill (1972)
An exceptionally informative and compendious overview of the many varied radical religious and political groups of the 1640s and 1650s, such as the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Seekers, Millenarians, Fifth Monarchists, Muggletonians etc. Succinctly written but richly didactic –a classic sourcebook for scholars of the English Civil War and Commonwealth. Hill excerpts from some fascinating tracts of the period written by such radical luminaries as Gerard Winstanley, John Lilburne, Joseph Salmon, Joseph Bauthumley, Lawrence Clarkson et al. The interface of faith and politics is extensively explored –for in the 17th century, politics was almost implicitly the practical application of biblical hermeneutics, and revolutionary ideas were often a social expression of chiliasm. There is also a particularly illuminating chapter on ‘Radical Madness’, which examines how many social radicals, particularly Ranters, pragmatically feigned ‘religious mania’ or ‘insanity’ as a protection against persecution for their sometimes extreme, or perceived-to-be-‘blasphemous’ opinions; but more importantly, this incidental ‘brown study’ as it were, which also incorporates focus on Robert Burton’s seminal psychiatric work, The Anatomy of Melancholy, anticipates future anti-psychiatry theories, such as those conjectured by R.D. Laing: that mental illness is more a socio-political-cultural construct, a partly rational response to or personal replication of the irrationality and contradictions of capitalist society.
10. The Language of Madness by David Cooper (1978; 80)
A poetically composed polemic which attempts, from a broadly Laingian perspective, to re-appropriate language and nomenclature for those tagged with the diagnostic labels of ‘mad’, ‘schizophrenic’, ‘psychotic’, ‘mentally ill’, etc. An extremely idiosyncratic work –reminiscent in its distinctive literary conceptualism of R.D. Laing’s Knots– but it is also a compendious guide to the history of psychiatric diagnostics, taking in more recent progressive ideas of the anti-psychiatry movement, such as the theories of Kraeplin, Szasz and Laing et al. In a sense, it’s a kind of epistemological monograph on psychology and the uses and abuses of psychiatry. It also focuses much on similar themes to those of Hill’s ‘Radical Madness’ chapter in his The World Turned Upside Down: that there is and always has been a deeply political component to both the nature and classification of ‘madness’ throughout the centuries, and that many manifestations of mental illness might be sublimations of ideological antagonisms with the dogmas of particular societies. As with much anti-psychiatry dialectics, Cooper’s places particular emphasis on the Social Darwinism and hyper-competitiveness of capitalist society as a prime germinal for much ‘mental illness’. He also charts the latter day initiatives of ex-psychiatric patient collectives to appropriate psychiatric nomenclature themselves in order to empower their minority voice and challenge hegemonies by asserting their own ‘narrative’ from the perspective of experiential treatment.
Another two Pelican titles which The Recusant recommends, but this writer hasn’t time to detail at this juncture, are:
11. The Spanish Civil War by Hugo Thomas (1961)
The definitive in-depth account, replete with full analysis of the ideological complexities and nuances of both sides in the conflict, and of the widespread appeal of the voluntary International Brigades to the young Left intelligentsia and literati of the period.
12. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity by Erving Goffman (1963)
As its title stipulates, a thorough monograph on the perennial social and political purposes of applying ‘stigmas’ to certain physical, mental, behavioural, social or racial ‘deviations’ from the perceived ‘human norm’ of particular societies; in some respects, a compendious complement to Carl Jung’s On Scapegoating. In today’s climate of rampant ‘Scroungerology’, this book should be required reading by way of antidote.
It just remains for me to say that I’ve drawn on the Pelican library for much invaluable information and inspiriting tilt of thought over the years, the aggregate of which has seeped into much of my poetry and polemics, most particularly the titles I’ve selected above. More broadly, the very polemical fabric of The Recusant might have been markedly different without the transfusion of knowledge through the social documenting of so many Pelican authors; and, indeed, The Recusant (and, indeed, Caparison) was set up precisely to pursue –in however relatively modest a form– the same type of aims that were behind Allen Lane’s launching of Pelican back in the 1930s (a decade so uncannily echoed today): the mass-circulation of socially progressive literature, poetry, polemic and (counter)-cultural comment, as well as the promotion of the writings of neglected and under-promoted past and contemporary voices from socially and/or psychologically marginalised backgrounds. May the pale blue spines of progressive scholarship do their best to provide vital alternative narratives to the philistine and materialistic dogmas of plutocratic capitalism.
Hard Times Indeed
Coinciding with this current media focus on our ‘Thirties Redux’ was another article in The Guardian of last week, penned by the writer of a new cultural study which compares in particular the rising rates of both poverty and suicide as results of economic recession/depression and austerity: Tom Clark’s new book, Hard Times: the Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump, specifically compares facts and statistics between today and the Thirties, and his introductory Guardian column, replete with interactive graphs and charts, is hugely instructive, and is excerpted here:
How big a deal is it when a rich society gets a bit poorer? It is a question that holds few terrors, especially not amid a recovery, where the dole queues are shrinking so fast that the Conservative chancellor has taken to talking about full employment. We may just have lived through the biggest slump since the Great Depression, but already there are "a record number of people in jobs", and this summer George Osborne will be able to announce that the British economy is bigger than ever before. After a confident budget, there is a new spring in the step of the Tory party, as it starts to imagine an election pitch that echoes that old interwar anthem – "Happy Days Are Here Again".
Western societies were not able to shrug off the slump of the 1930s so lightly, of course. The hardship of those years is remembered through The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), both books appearing at a greater interval from the 1929 crash than the five and a half years that have passed since Lehman Brothers fell. Economic depression then gave rise to a "social recession" with lasting consequences. There was a sharp suicide spike in England, a documented withering away of civic involvement in the US, and – in Germany – political consequences so infamous that they hardly need describing.
But having started out so much better-off this time around, with real incomes roughly quadruple those of the hunger-marches years, a temporary dip down from this far higher peak really ought to be easier to endure. Look at contemporary Japan, where 20 years of stagnation do not appear to have dented health or happiness: as volunteers braved the radioactive fires of Fukushima during the deeply depressed year of 2011, the solidarity of the citizenry seemed undiminished. Could it be that the fabric of British society is emerging similarly unscathed?
Zoom up to 30,000 feet and glance loftily down at the reassuring average statistics for crime or life expectancy, and you might be able to maintain that impression. In more prosperous parts of the country, new chichi cafes are again popping up, house prices are resurgent, and the slump is indeed being rendered a memory. That is how it feels if I open my door in east London, and walk 10 minutes in one direction. And yet, if, instead, I walk half a mile in the other direction, I hit the junction of Mare Street and Amhurst Road – the asphalt intersection that briefly earned nationwide notoriety as the flaming heart of England's 2011 summer riots, riots that suggested a society coming unstuck.
In all but the most affluent high streets, there is a sense of trouble below the surface. A gleaming new shopfront might catch your eye before closer inspection reveals that it hawks loans to the desperate, at annual interest charges of 4,000%. Market towns that have always thought of themselves as prosperous are waking up to discover that they are playing host to a food bank. And as anyone who had the misfortune to glance at Twitter during Channel 4's Benefits Street will know, there is an unmistakable heightening of resentment against the "undeserving poor".
There is a puzzle here. In hard times past, the same sort of polling that today confirms this resentment registered rising solidarity: those who had clung on to their jobs looked towards those down on their luck and mused, "There but for the grace of God, go we." Indeed, many of the assumptions and structures of the welfare state, which are now coming under assault, were initially put in place as part of a consciously collectivist response to the atomising trauma of the Great Depression.
The Great Recession, on the other hand, has bequeathed communities where social lives and political opinions are more divided than ever. This split into two nations cannot be explained by the immediate economics, for the great crash in the City really did put a (brief) brake on bank bonuses, while – at the other end of the scale – the social safety net initially protected people, just as it was designed to do. Believe it or not, income inequality actually fell for a couple of years after 2008, although that all-in-it-together finding is hard to square with the burgeoning food banks, or with last year's announcement from the Red Cross that for the first time in 70 years it would start handing out food in Britain.
It is hard to square, too, with the testimony of recessionary victims in this recovery. People like "Peter", a lean 47-year-old man with a West Indian background, living in Stanmore on the fringes of London. After the loss of his job was compounded by a punitive benefit "sanction", for failing to sign up to a government scheme on time, Peter sunk into serious poverty. He now passes his days in a bureaucratic nightmare, "lost in the Department for Work and Pensions", writing endless letters trying to explain his administrative oversight. His meals are planned on a £10-a-week budget, a challenge this former chef might be well placed to meet, were it not for the fact he doesn't have a cooker. He used to enjoy birthday barbecues with his close West Indian clan, but now says he tries "to distance myself when there are family functions". A former youth worker – who once had a passion for "bringing people together" – today sums up his involvement with the community thus: "I don't get involved. I don't even put myself out there."
Interviews with two dozen more cash-strapped men and women, conducted three to four years after the official end of recession, when many were in work, produced similarly chilling words about the continuing toll that a financial crisis had taken on those things – family, community and friendship – that we like to imagine that money can't buy.
Why? While pay was squeezed across the range, this squeeze came after 30 years during which inequality in incomes had run out of control. Then, with the slump, just about everything else we can measure took a concentrated hammering in poorer neighbourhoods. Such a hammering, in fact, that neither the affluence of the age, nor the social safety net proved adequate to prevent the onset of the penury that austerity is now set to drag out for many years to come.
Employment itself, for example, fell away everywhere during the slump, but more than twice as rapidly for those who left school unqualified as for college graduates. There was a similarly disproportionate disappearance of work for all those people – northerners, ethic minorities and youngsters – who were already especially likely to be without it. And, in the case of young people, after a full year of solid growth, the unemployment rate remains at virtually 20%. But the more distinctive malady in the recent recession – and especially the gathering recovery – is not unemployment but unreliable, insecure jobs. The additional million consigned to the dole queue were joined by another extra million who were either newly underemployed (that is, working but for fewer hours than they wish) or newly insecure (working on a temporary contract because of the lack of permanent openings).
While unemployment is now a third of the way back down from its recessionary peak, the number of these exposed workers has barely shifted. During the downturn, footloose forms of hiring – such as zero-hours contracting – became so acceptable that by 2009 Buckingham Palace was hiring help on a zero-hours basis. And with the taboo broken, the upswing is not reversing the trend: in recovering 2013, it was turn of the Palace of Westminster to seek to hire staff, scribes for Hansard, in the same no-strings style.
These two palaces represent the twin pinnacles of the British constitution, illustrating how a once-hidden casualisation of the workforce has moved into full view. The effects are most acute at the bottom of the heap, where jobs lacking in prospects as well as pay are proliferating. Looking ahead to 2020, the distant time when austerity is meant finally to be over, the Institute for Employment Research projects that about a million secretarial, manufacturing and skilled trade posts will have disappeared, many of them replaced by new positions in the notoriously low-paying leisure and care sectors.
Many employers in these industries regard staff as disposable kit, and the slump provided the opportunity to degrade employment terms to the point where the once clear line between the working and the unemployed is blurred. A 30-year-old barman for a London pub chain, talking on condition of anonymity to the Guardian last year, described how zero-hours staff like himself were hauled in to work "on the basis that [management] want more staff available than they actually need, so that they can call on people when they suddenly get busy". Once a shift gets under way, however, "managers are constantly trying to gauge how few staff they can get away with", sending workers home with reduced pay.
It is true that, after six years of sinking real wage rates, inflation finally fell below typical pay settlements this month, so there are immediate hopes of real pay bouncing back up from the bottom. There is, however, no guarantee that any advance will be sustained. In the US, where ultra-flexible employment practices have been normalised for longer, salaries bob up and down, but there has been no cumulative advance in median male wages since the early 1970s, and no advance in typical family incomes since the late 1980s.
The UK has long given employers a relatively free hand too. The all-important question, however, is not the notional freedom (or "flexibility") that supposedly safeguards jobs, but rather how far that freedom is exploited. The answer is proving to be "a great deal more after the crash". The government is dragging its feet on regulating zero-hours contracts, consulting not merely on options for reform, but also on the alternative of relying on "existing common law", the flimsiest code for doing nothing at all. There can be little confidence that the recovery will do much to restore traditional expectations of security at work.
And whereas the state always used to take the roughest edges off the labour market, the coalition government is currently engaged in a historic dismantling of the benefit safety net. Several individual cuts could not have been better designed to increase insecurity. The social fund – an emergency, low-interest loan facility, to cover broken beds and overdue utility bills – has been shredded, leaving the payday sharks to move in. While council tax is frozen for middle England, the destruction of the nationwide rebate system leaves millions of the poorest people facing a bill for the first time. An entirely arbitrary cap on large families' total benefits punishes children for having too many brothers and sisters. Without serious action on poverty pay and rip‑off rents, a second cap on overall benefit expenditure – waved through by a near-unanimous Commons last month – will deny all those who rely on state payments, whether they are unemployed or working at wages that require topping up, any share in recovering national prosperity for many years ahead.
Whereas the Labour government of 1931 fell because it refused to accept a 10% cash cut in unemployment benefits to reflect a cost of living that was actually falling, the coalition is imposing cumulative cuts of 10%-plus in real terms on many vulnerable families. Taking into account the way things are going in the jobs market, the most recent projection from the Institute for Fiscal Studies is for 3.7 million children and working-age adults to sink into absolute poverty over the rest of this decade, as the brief reduction in inequality seen at the start of the slump unwinds in the recovery.
Specific worries about paying bills or securing adequate work are breeding wider fears. Three full years into the official recovery, among Britons who claimed to have been materially affected by the country's recent economic difficulties, an overwhelming majority of 70% told YouGov that they felt anxious more often than they used to. Of Britons who got through the recession unscathed, by contrast, only 40% made the same claim. Consider the sheer variety of things – from troubled romances to turbulent teenage kids – that can lead people to worry, and this 30-point gap represents a strikingly close connection between economic and psychological insecurity.
The official line is always that work is the best route out of poverty, and yet the available data suggests not only that many jobs will leave you poor, but also that the most exposed workers will share in around half the worries of the jobless. From the single root of anxiety, all manner of rot is spreading through poorer communities, even though much of this is concealed by the soothing compression of the statistics.
Take divorce rates, which showed a decline in depressed 2009. The heartening conclusion might be that families were weathering the storm together. Alas, the cautious demographers of Whitehall and family counselling caseworkers were of one mind – the encouraging average figures represented not divorce averted, but merely divorce delayed. The charity Relate reported seeing many more families who were sitting things out in unhappy homes because they couldn't afford two lots of rent. Sure enough, the latest data suggests that legal separations have edged up since the trough.
And because wedlock has become rarer in many poor neighbourhoods, the rupturing of families experiencing the worst financial strain will often fail to register in any official statistic. But YouGov polling, conducted as the recovery picked up pace, found that slump-hit Britons (just like slump-hit Americans, though intriguingly unlike counterparts in Germany or France) were much more likely than others to report rowing increasingly often with their families. Former scaffolder "Jamal", 41, from the Isle of Dogs in east London is in no doubt – asked last year why his relationship had recently broken down, he said: "We split up because of arguments about money."
There is powerful evidence, too, of suicides having clustered in those parts of the country that suffered more in the slump – a particular worry, because the regional imbalance in the British economy has actually widened since the downturn. And then there is community life, where economic anxiety breeds a deep reluctance to get involved. The slump belied talk of a big society, revealing instead a Britain where community withered away in the face of hard times.
As the crisis took hold, the average time individuals spent formally volunteering took a definite dive in the official citizenship survey. The comforting reading would be that this simply reflected pinched Britons cutting back on travel costs or subscriptions to clubs that organise do-gooding, while finding other, more spontaneous, outlets for their altruism. But, disturbingly, informal networks of kindness appear to have disappeared just as fast. The survey asked about everything from keeping in touch with a frail friend to giving advice to a neighbour, and found that the doing of such good deeds diminished with GDP.
Taking such informal helping together with organised volunteering as an overall gauge of community involvement, a cautious estimate of the total recessionary decline amounts to nearly an hour a month for every adult in the country, or a couple of minutes a day. That is time enough to change a lightbulb for the frail pensioner living next door or to send a text to a depressed friend. The direct consequences of every single person across the country suddenly ceasing to do something like that every day are grave enough in themselves, but what this reveals about the frailty of the underlying social fabric in particular places is even more worrying, for that hour-a-month reduction is a statistical average, ameliorated by slump-proof communities with robust social networks. Zoom in on more deprived streets and you find a far larger drop in civic participation.
You might have thought that the prime minister who talked about the big society would be panicked by such findings. And yet when challenged in the Commons last year, he pointed to new data suggesting that volunteering was again on the up, a possible sign of the economic recovery spilling over into the civic domain. It is early days, and the effects of the volunteer-propelled Olympics on the data gives particular reason to be cautious, but it is perfectly possible that Cameron is right when considering the country as a whole. Whether he could claim the same thing about Britain's poorer communities is, however, much more doubtful.
A careful reading of past recessions reveals that unemployment leaves deep scars. Since the 1980s, economists have understood how redundancy notices can take a lifelong toll on earning potential, as individuals are knocked off the tracks and on to a low road in life. My book Hard Times shows, first, how this effect passes on to the next generation, with the experience of jobless parents blighting the job prospects of their children. And furthermore, how such scarring spreads into the social domain. Baby-boomers who got laid off as twentysomethings during the Thatcher recession of the 1980s, for example, were still around a fifth less likely to be involved with social or civic groups than their peers at age 42. And that enduring participation gap continued to widen, so that by age 50 the shortfall was fully one half.
All this suggests that dead social roots will long lurk beneath economic green shoots in any recovery. But in this particular recovery – with all the insecure jobs, and the retrenchment – the prospects for those who are poor look particularly grim. Whereas the Great Depression revealed the need for economic shelters, which were duly built with the Beveridge reforms, it is an extraordinary fact that just a few years after the biggest slump in living memory, the UK is tearing them down. The final puzzle about this recovery is how democratic politics is allowing this to happen.
Crunching 30 years of British social attitudes data reveals a deep tide running against the idea that inadequate unemployment benefits "caused hardship" (as 50%-plus believed a generation ago), and towards the view that excessive state payments "discouraged work", as 62% believed by 2011. At first blush it is hard to reconcile this with the fact that jobseekers' allowance has tumbled as a proportion of typical pay over these years. Many on the left will point to the demonisation of poor people in parts of the press, which has no doubt played its part in hardening opinion, as indeed did New Labour's shift towards anti-scrounger rhetoric in the mid-1990s.
But there is something deeper going on too. Experience has now demonstrated three times since the 1980s that recessions do not fall equally on the whole community in unequal countries, but reliably hammer the same sorts of people – the unschooled, the black and the young. The rest have learned that they have little to fear from a slump. The whole logic of social insurance, the logic of pooling risk, threatens to break down as large parts of the country have come to conclude that they have nothing to insure against.
The real victims, by contrast, are desperate for help, but they remain an electoral minority, even if a large one. YouGov polling last year confirmed the rupture into two nations, with slump-hit individuals inclined to believe that the government is being "too harsh towards people on benefits", while those who have escaped the recession overwhelmingly judge that policy is "not being tough enough". Divided experience of recession is thus bequeathing not only diverging communities, but an increasingly polarised politics too. The challenge for the left is to fashion an appeal that can reach across the divide. These are harsh as well as hard times, with many people a long way up from the bottom resentful at feeling the pinch. One part of the answer politically is to identify the right villains. Rip-off corporations are one obvious target; another is underpaying employers. Whereas the government has carried all before it in cutting benefits, it ran into difficulty over a so called "work experience" scheme, which required benefit claimants to toil for free for companies such as Tesco. It turned out that the public disliked freeloading corporations even more than benefit cheats, and – after the PR‑minded companies walked away – ministers had to back down. Other challenges, none of them easy, involve designing smart regulations that can somehow tackle the insecurity gripping the workforce without threatening job creation, and communicating the reality that in market economies bad things can happen to good people.
The politics of division has made the running so far. Until it can be challenged, a property-puffed, southern-skewed recovery will do little for those tracts of the country where hard times are not going away.
In this Thirties Redux, unfortunately, “Happy Days Are Here Again” only for the rich and super-rich 1% and the rapacious species of buy-to-let property capitalists currently surfing Chancellor von Osborne’s new artificially inflated housing boom (and rental crisis!), which looks likely to tip the UK back into recession, but not of course before the general election next year. In the meantime, the Tories continue to use welfare as a political football which they hope will leave them an open goal in 2015. Tragically, and much to the detriment of our ‘Thatcheritic’ culture, in the Thirties, the iniquities of the Means Test and labour camps for the unemployed were almost universally despised by the public, but today, in spite of the vast social devastation visited on whole communities across the nation by the Malthusian pincer-movement of benefit cap and bedroom tax, with 4.7 million living in food poverty and food banks mushrooming over the map, the seemingly unstoppable rhetorical and material persecution of the unemployed, underemployed, poor, sick and disabled seems still stubbornly popular among the majority of the public –which says just as much about the British mentality as it does about the Tories. As evidenced in Tom Clark’s study, one of the prime reasons for this national poverty-intolerance would appear to be in part the result of a wearing down of social compassion and empathy through four years of remorseless austerity.
Far more worrying than any outstanding “structural deficit” this country may or may not still have is the very real moral or spiritual deficit which has been cultivated over the past four years through public complicity with the fiscal cull of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, the tens of thousands of human sacrifices made to Mammon in order to try and pay back some of the money ransacked from the nation by the still unpunished City speculators. And, to add insult to mass-injury, according to Clark’s projections, in spite of an alleged economic recovery currently underway, thanks to the Tory-led Government’s unconscionable clampdown on a now near-vestigial welfare state, the poorest are predicted to be kept poor for years to come, while, satanically, the rich and propertied will enjoy continued prosperity.
Perhaps in part this is why I currently have my austerity-themed take on Thirties Redux, Odour of Devon Violet, on the long finger of a ‘work in progress’, because, tragically, its polemical fabric is likely to be relevant for quite some time to come, irrespective of whether we are officially “out of recession” or not: for the poor of this country, not least of the world, recession is the nature of existence, it never really goes away, but is a permanent economic condition –it varies periodically in severity, it is cyclic, but for the underclass of society its cycles are almost imperceptible: they are the ripples on the surface, the upper currents that are always undetectable, neither seen, heard nor felt, by those perpetually kept at the lower depths of the riverbed, where no ‘trickledown’ can ever reach.
But occasionally strange luminous electric lights will plumb down to these depths, with big fish-eye lenses probing in the murk: bottomfeeders scouring the riverbed seeking out unwitting subjects for manipulative and judgemental documentaries: the rich need their vicarious poverty fixes, it’s the new bourgeois escapism, “poverty porn”, whether a fly-on-the-wall spot of unemployment-voyeurism or a tourist trail through the unsanitary slums of African shantytowns –for what is wealth worth if there isn’t an abundance of its opposite on which to gloat?
Community Work Placements: Another Nasty Piece of Work by the Department for War on the Poor (DWP)
Just when the unemployed might have thought that things can hardly get much more punishing and dehumanising in terms of how they are treated by the Government whose calculated economic choices and Malthusian welfare policies have trapped them in their impoverished predicament, the scabrous new workfare regime euphemised as ‘Help to Work’, which translates in reality as ‘Help to Exploitation’, has just been rolled out yesterday, 28 April 2014. Four years ago, when I wrote the polemical Foreword to Emergency Verse – Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State, I depicted the likely dystopian scenario a little further down the track of Tory rule whereby unemployed claimants are lined up like chain gangs in tabards along the roads and motorways breaking rocks. Of course, that was intentionally hyperbolic: but what we’ve learnt in the past four years under the remorseless Cameron-Osborne-Smith axis of power is that reality is several steps ahead of satire, and that it took the Tories a shockingly short amount of time before they tightened the thumbscrews on the long-term unemployed.
‘Help to Work’ is just the latest despicable manifestation of this very deliberate exploitation of the long-term unemployed –the perpetual political footballs and scapegoats for public resentment that should be directed at the banks, speculators, property capitalists and bosses who caused the recession– as a new slave-labour surplus workforce who are now officially being forced into the new oxymoronic Tory construct of ‘mandatory voluntarism’, or workfare, whereby claimants are effectively used to perform labours in return for their paltry benefits which amount to around £50 odd quid a week; hence they are being forced against their will, and arguably against legality, to work for way, way below the national minimum wage.
Even if the British Government observed the European benefit averages stipulated by the Council of Europe as the basic requirement for the unemployed to live on, which is over double the pitiful amount JSA claimants receive in this country –but which is, insanely, still referred to as “too generous” by the political Right, and, indeed, the Centre too– the new slave population of Tory workfare –the Workfare Helots– would still be working for less than the minimum wage! But it would at least not be quite so utterly demoralising, humiliating and scandalous as having to work effectively full eight hour days for an average of £10, which works out at about £1.25 per hour!!! The only other ‘alternative’ these claimants have is to attend mandatory daily appointments to sit in front of glazed-eyed job centre ‘advisors’ who have no proper support to offer them, and certainly no proper jobs.
But transparently the plan of this Tory-led Government is to perpetuate such pauperising underemployment via mandatory voluntarism, unpaid work placements and internships, zero hours contracts and a general casualisation of the workforce, in order to both superficially reduce the unemployment statistics while diligently maintaining what is in any other terms basically chronic long-term unemployment among a number of people significantly higher than the official and doctored statistic of 2.4 million. Why? Because the Tories know that as long as there is chronic unemployment then wages are kept down and private profits keep rising. Hence the fallacy of the Chancellor’s projected aim of creating “full employment”: if we ever had full employment, then there would be an industrial peripeteia (reversal of circumstances): it would mean that workers would regain far greater labour bargaining power, able to do what the bankers and speculators do in our anarcho-capitalist society today, and effectively threaten withdrawal of their labour if their wages aren’t increased by citing other employers in the labour market willing to pay them more –the boot would be on the other foot in capital-labour terms (as it once was in the Seventies).
This is why –with crowning irony given its relentless anti-claimant rhetoric– the Conservative Party has traditionally always been the party of high unemployment, while Labour used to be the party of full employment (a state of affairs which Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 Labour Government pretty much achieved). It’s no different today, only the rhetoric is designed to give the opposite impression. By forcing millions into mandatory unpaid labour in receipt for the same derisory, poverty-level benefits, the Tories have their cake and eat it: wages are still kept down, private profits increased, even though on the statistical surface, unemployment is reducing. Even if unemployment was reducing, poverty is increasing, hence the food bank epidemic, and it doesn’t take a fiscal genius to work out why: the welfare caps.
Here is the Morning Star’s more succinct take on it all from today’s editorial (29 April 2014):
Jobless figures may tumble in coming months, but it won’t be because unemployed people are finding jobs.
It will be the result of a cynical scapegoating government exercise called Help to Work, which ought to be renamed Help to Victimise. Even official understated figures indicate that well over two million people cannot find work in Britain today.
This is not their fault. The capitalist system depends on a body of jobless people to serve as a constant threat to those in employment.
Governments pay lip service to the goal of full employment but, if achieved, this would encourage workers to better their pay, pensions, working conditions and fringe benefits.
Despite the system’s inbuilt surplus workforce, all parties committed to neoliberalism pretend that people are unemployed because of their own innate weaknesses and must be helped into the world of work by compulsory schemes.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who lives in great comfort courtesy of his wife’s family’s inherited wealth, lectures everyone to stand on their own two feet.
Finding a job is, for him, a matter of people making themselves employable by improving qualifications, training or personal attitude.
They are encouraged to make these qualitative improvements by taking on unpaid work with charities for a six-month period, attending a jobcentre on a daily basis or signing up to a training scheme.
This approach appeals to well-heeled politicians and Fleet Street newspaper leader writers who portray people living on benefits as scroungers or layabouts rather than victims of an uncaring and inefficient
Claimants are given ever-more stringent duties of attending meetings, sending CVs and writing job application letters, but they are set up to fail.
Not only do these rarely bring full-time employment but every missed appointment, late attendance or failure to reach an arbitrary letter-writing target can bring a benefits sanction.
Research indicates that sanctions — cutting benefits for weeks or months — leads to rent arrears, growing debts, less money for food and other necessities and a general feeling of desperation.
Vulnerable people suffering long-term unemployment need real help to find paid work, not an oppressive and debilitating regime that prioritises catching claimants out and hacking their benefits.
The government’s obsession with making cash-strapped charities an integral part of its scapegoating activities undermines their reason for existence — helping the less fortunate in society.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner is correct to designate this scheme as workfare and to urge charities not to play this dirty role for the state.
Oxfam, the Salvation Army and the YMCA are among 30 organisations that have taken a similar view to Unite, launching a Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign.
Coercion to work for a charity, on pain of having your benefits chopped, does not provide the right motivation for “volunteers.”
Labour shadow employment minister Stephen Timms criticises the government for its scheme — not because of its vindictive nature but because it’s too soft.
“This government allows jobseekers to spend up to three years claiming benefits before they get literacy and numeracy training,” he complains.
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls has already warned that a Labour government would strip claimants of benefits if they refuse to join his temporary job scheme.
If MPs backed public investment to create decent, full-time, well-paid jobs instead of bullying the unemployed, they might change the general contempt that many people feel for the political elite.
And its news item on the latest punitive policy:
Cruel new government “workfare” measures that threaten benefit cuts for the long-term unemployed if they refuse to take part in the scheme came into force yesterday.
The government said jobcentre staff will have more options to support the hardest to help under its help to work scheme, masterminded by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
Anyone who has been on the government’s existing work programme for more than two years will be forced to undergo “intensive” coaching, a requirement to meet an adviser every day or doing community work for up to six months.
Ministers pointed out there are more than 600,000 vacancies in the economy at any one time, saying that the new measures were intended to help unemployed people fill them.
The voluntary work could include gardening projects, running community cafes or restoring historical sites and war memorials.
Placements will be for up to six months for 30 hours a week and will be backed up by at least four hours of supported job searching each week.
Unite has already urged the bosses of charities not to take part in the programme, describing it as “workfare.”
The union’s assistant general secretary Steve Turner said: “This scheme is nothing more than forced unpaid labour and there is no evidence that these workfare programmes get people into paid work in the long-term.
“We are against this scheme wherever ministers want to implement it — in the private sector, local government and in the voluntary sector.
“It is outrageous that the government is trying to stigmatise job seekers by making them work for nothing, otherwise they will have their benefits docked.”
Thankfully, even in Con-Demned Britain, there is always a glimmer of hope in terms of humanitarian opposition –as the Morning Star reported on yesterday (28th April):
Charity bosses have been urged not to exploit forced labour available through the government’s new “workfare” programme, which was launched today.
The new mandatory community work placements (CWPs) require that jobseeker’s allowance claimants do six months work placement — or risk losing their benefits.
General union Unite reps in the not-for-profit sector will challenge the exploitative new scheme and ask charity managers not to sign up for community work placements, which are being promoted by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
The union branded CWPs as “nothing more than forced unpaid labour” and said they were against the scheme “wherever ministers want to implement it — in the private sector, local government and in the voluntary sector.”
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said: “The hours demanded by workfare are greater than a community service order you would get for a criminal offence, such as punching someone in the street — this is just bonkers.
“The government sees cash-starved charities as a soft target for such an obscene scheme, so we are asking charity bosses to say No to taking part in this programme.”
A group of voluntary organisations, including Oxfam and Anti-Slavery International, has also launched the Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign against the measures.
Oxfam head of volunteering Daniel O’Driscoll said: “These schemes involve forced volunteering, which is not only an oxymoron, but undermines people’s belief in the enormous value of genuine voluntary work.
“These schemes impact unfairly on the support people receive, and so are incompatible with our goal of reducing poverty in the UK.”
How significant it is that among the charity/campaign group signatories against the new imposition of the penal-like CWPs on the long-term unemployed is Anti-Slavery International: only a couple of weeks since David Cameron’s now-notorious ‘article of faith’ in the Church Times, in which, among other things, the wilfully blind prime minister lauded Britain’s determination to end modern day “slavery”, his Government, or more particularly, the Department for War on the Poor, is now implementing a whole new form of slavery flimsily euphemised as Community Work Placements; of which, Unite’s general secretary rightly points out:
The hours demanded by workfare are greater than a community service order you would get for a criminal offence, such as punching someone in the street — this is just bonkers.
Not only bonkers, but brutalising and insulting to the hundreds of thousands of decent law-abiding citizens made and kept unemployed through no faults of their own by the calculated austerity policies of the most right-wing government since Stanley Baldwin’s ‘labour camp’-happy National Government of the Thirties, now forced, on top of a four-year tidal wave of stigmatisation and impoverishment to ‘volunteer’ full time hours in some of the very communities that have been complicit in said stigmatisations, and for no extra dole! The symbolism of the CWPs serves as the most despicable rubric to date of the Tories’ conviction that unemployment is a kind of deviancy, that to be unemployed is commensurate to a criminal offence, and that therefore the long-term unemployed should be treated no better –in fact, even more punitively– than ex-prisoners on probation: that the JSA claimant must now be seen, very visibly, to be ‘repaying’ his or her ‘debt to society’ in a manner hitherto prescribed only for ex-offenders.
The implication here, therefore, is that unemployment is now itself considered an ‘offence’ against society, rather than an offence against the individual who is unemployed. One Guardian commentator remarked that if the unemployed are now forced into a kind of mass gulag, or herded en masse into job centres on a daily basis, they might begin to ‘organise’ against the Government which oppresses them. We can only hope that this might come about serendipitously from this otherwise horrendous imposition on them. But no doubt Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is already dreaming up plans for suspending suffrage among the long-term unemployed, if the Tories grease back into power in 2015 –another Malthusian gerrymandering policy in the cooking pot no doubt. But in the meantime, all power to Anti-Slavery International’s Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign).
No method is too exploitative, punishing, dehumanising and plain nasty for Iain Duncan Schmidt’s Department for War on the Poor (DWP) to stoop to in further flagellating the nation’s workless. Nothing will stop IDS in his remorseless persecution of the unemployed: not all the facts and figures, petitions or open letters from Churches and charities in the world will prompt him to stop and think on his heinous policies. He is the Baydon-Powell of the welfare state; the boot-camp heel-clicking commandant of social security. He is responsible for what has become basically a Malthusian purge of the ‘surplus’ population, resulting to date in a death toll exceeding 50,000 in just four years -40,000 of whom died within six weeks of being found “fit for work” (inclusive of scores on scores of suicides) by his now discredited Atos lackeys; he is responsible for the biggest ‘spike’ in suicides, particularly among the under-25s, since the 1930s; he is responsible for casting approximately 80,000 families into the purgatory of B&Bs following the inhumane bedroom tax; he is responsible for plunging around 4.7 million into food poverty, over 2 million of whom are weekly dependent on local food banks just to survive.
Left-wing Labour MP Ian Lavery wrote an apposite column titled 'Revenge of the Poor Law' in today's Morning Star (30 April), leading in with: 'The Tories are conjuring up a Victorian workhouse-style regime that literally starves people. It must stop':
It is perhaps a sign of the apathy of these dark days that more people in Parliament turned up for the badger cull debate than the debate on benefits sanctions that followed it.
We are living through an era where being disabled, poor and disenfranchised attracts state punishment rather than help. The government’s flagship social security reforms and their wider austerity measures are pushing vulnerable people to the brink.
It is a period in our history that will be looked on by future generations with horror.
This is 2014. We are meant to be living in enlightened times, where the barbaric treatment of humans and animals is a thing of the past. It is 180 years since the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was passed. But almost two centuries on, the Act’s incredibly harsh ideas have taken seed among a new generation on the government benches.
The hate-filled rhetoric of those tasked today with responsibility for looking after the well-being of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens is strikingly similar to that of the politicians who passed the
Based on a royal commission into the existing poor laws and largely the work of Nassau Senior and Edwin Chadwick, it took some rather extreme yet strikingly familiar views.
It supposed that poverty was essentially caused by the individual rather than economic and social conditions. Thus, the pauper claimed relief regardless of his merits. That because larger families got more, it encouraged irresponsible marriages. That women claimed relief for illegitimate children, encouraging immorality.
Among its recommendations were that workhouse conditions should be “less desirable” than those of an independent labourer of the lowest class.
Substitute the workhouse for the welfare state, move the protagonists from the last days of Georgian to modern Britain and change the scene of the crime from the slums of the industrial towns and cities to socially and privately rented accommodation throughout Britain. Welcome to IDS UK.
The Work and Pensions Secretary and his cabal of true blue Tories, only some of whom actually belong to the party, are intent on imposing the severest of welfare reforms and are causing misery for people throughout the country.
With the white-hot fires of spite and intolerance fanned by a right-wing media determined to see the end of the welfare state, is it any wonder that they are succeeding in going further than even Thatcher dared?
This is an ideological crusade to shrink the state led by people who simply don’t care about its consequences and are unmoved by the harrowing personal stories. Each piece of pernicious legislation that they have introduced has been exacerbated by the sheer incompetence of the ministers overseeing them.
The Department of Work and Pensions approach to sanctions is no different and has been characterised by the chaotic implementation of universal credit, personal independence payments and the bedroom tax.
The DWP’s own website showed that almost 60 per cent of decisions on sanctions were overturned on appeal. These figures, perhaps unsurprisingly, have now been removed from the website.
As I said in the Commons debate, we are now saddled with a system which disproportionately imposes penalties for non-compliance with harsh and often ridiculous rules. It is a system set up to punish people.
Even in the most extreme cases of non-compliance, who actually suffers when sanctions are applied? With crimes under the law, it is the perpetrator who is punished, but when DWP rules are broken the people around a person are punished too.
There is no thought for the partner of the person who has had their social security halted — the person whose often meagre wage or social security income now has to support two people. No thought for the family who now have even less to live on than before.
The system may well be sanctioning the person by name but it is a broad swipe at everyone in a household, family or circle of friends who have the obligation of the state transferred to them.
It amounts to no more than torture by hunger and forcing families into dire poverty. In a civilised society it would be unacceptable.
For each person who attracts the attention of the right-wing media for playing the system, there are literally hundreds of thousands more who are trying to do the right thing.
They are forced to jump through hoops and take part in meaningless exercises to be awarded a few measly pounds, barely enough to survive on. Fall foul of the system and it can be a descent into degradation as the victims of circumstance, officious advisers and cruel policy.
The impact of sanctions is reaching crisis proportions. People are being sanctioned for the most cruel, arbitrary and ridiculous reasons.
A man from south-east England, who has been blind since birth had his benefits stopped because he wasn’t replying to letters. The DWP failed to send the letters in Braille or any other accessible format. He didn’t reply because he didn’t know he had them.
This was a man who had worked for most of his life and because of the DWP’s error was forced to turn to a payday loan to survive. Forced, through the chaotic system, into hunger and poverty.
A man in my own constituency visited my offices in desperate need having been sanctioned after missing an appointment with a works training provider.
He had a problem with his heart and had to visit hospital. He was sanctioned despite his training provider submitting a letter the next day to support him. This sanction was later overturned but not before he was driven to almost starvation and the local food bank.
All he had eaten in the previous days were mushrooms from a local field and eggs borrowed from a neighbour. Do we really want to live in a country where we force sick people into starvation?
This sanctioning regime needs serious investigation. But just why are people being treated in this way?
Is the government offering incentives to penalise a set number of people to get them off the claimant count and make the figures look better? Or are advisers being deliberately given sketchy information and no room for common sense to confuse them and recipients?
In the run-up to the election in 2010 people were worried the Conservatives would take us back to the 1980s. With the help of their Lib Dem allies they have succeeded in dragging us back much further than that.
As a society we will be judged harshly by history, harshly for punishing the poor, the disabled and the vulnerable. It is time we, as a wider society, said enough is enough and ended these terrible injustices once and for all.
IDS has clearly based his punitive ‘gulag’-style methods towards the unemployed on the template of the Thirties Stanley Baldwin National Government, which systematically herded the unemployed into forced labour camps –these, of course, adumbrated the concentration camps that came a little later in Nazi Germany. The rhetoric was also almost identical: the Nazis also called the unemployed “workshy” and “parasites”. Such policies are more than simply punitive: they are political offences against fundamental human rights. There will be a comeuppance for the likes of IDS in time, along with Cameron, Osborne, Grayling, Miller and McVey, for their malfeasances and crimes against the poor, sick and vulnerable. No wonder the Tories are so impatient to ‘opt out’ from the purview of the European Court on Human Rights: they want to cover their tracks like the pinstriped fascists they are –but chief perpetrators of these offences against civilised democracy, the ‘green bench Gestapo’ of the Nasty Party, will undoubtedly be pursued far into the future by diligent Nasty-Hunters… There will be nowhere for them to hide from the glare of their grievous violations in the long run: the sunlight of retribution will prove a forensic disinfectant…
IPSO: Ipso Jure, Ipso Facto
In their bid to continue ‘marking their own homework’ a la Parliament, and, indeed, the current Press Complaint Commission’s Editor’s Code of Practice Committee (Chaired by Paul ‘Impune to Democratic Accountability’ Dacre, the 'untouchable' of the tabloids), the right-wing red-top and lampblack brigades of the British newspaper industry –i.e. about 98% of it!– has announced its own new ‘regulatory’ body, the duplicitously titled Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which is to be Chaired by retired judge ‘Sir’ Alan Moses: ipso facto, ipso jure? Here is Roy Greenslade’s Guardian column of today (29 April) on this latest trans-satirical farce in the cause of maintaining an ever pane-tinted culture of ‘accountability’ for Fleet –and Grub– Street’s oligarchic propagandists and hostage-holders of our vestigial ‘democracy’:
With the appointment of Sir Alan Moses to head the new press regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), it's a case of back to the future.
The Press Council (PC), the first regulatory body created by the newspaper and magazine industry in 1953, proved to be a sinecure for retired judges.
Among the most notable were Lord (Patrick) Devlin, a former Lord Justice in the appeal court (like Moses), who chaired the PC from 1964 for five years, and Lord (Hartley) Shawcross, one-time attorney-general and the lead British prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. He was PC chairman from 1974 to 1978.
Shawcross was outspoken. As his Daily Telegraph obituarist pointed out, he "was forthright in his condemnation both of journalists who committed excesses and of proprietors who profited from them."
In 1988, the barrister Louis Blom-Cooper QC became PC chairman. He wished to reform it but he was unlucky with the timing. He had taken the post when it had fallen into disrepute with both the public and its industry funders. It was replaced in 1991 by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).
At the time, many critics of the Press Council - who included most of the then newspaper proprietors - believed it had been misguided to place judges in charge. They were considered, not least by Rupert Murdoch, to be far too independently minded.
By contrast, the PCC came under fire during its 23-year existence for being too reliant on Tory peers as chairs. Even though two of them were not peers, its critics felt all of them lacked sufficient independence.
Therefore, with that in mind, Ipso's publishing founders were conscious that it would be unwise to choose a Conservative peer and, indeed, any peer. In such circumstances, a judge is a rational answer. But what are we to make of Sir Alan Moses?
His record as a judge and a barrister is interesting. As a judge, he presided over the Soham murders trial in 2003 and made rulings that kept the press in check.
At one point, during a pre-trial hearing, he was reported to have been so angered by the "sensational and lurid" press coverage that he threw a pile of newspapers across the courtroom.
As a barrister, he acted successfully for the attorney-general in 1994 against Associated Newspapers when its paper, the Mail on Sunday, launched an appeal after being found guilty of contempt of court.
Neither example offers conclusive proof of how independently he will act as Ipso chairman, but they should be taken in conjunction with the fact that he has nailed his colours to the mast with his statement in today's Ipso press release:
"To those who have voiced doubts as to the ability of Ipso to meet the demands of independent regulation, I say that I have spent over 40 years pursuing the profession of barrister and judge whose hallmarks are independent action and independent judgment. I do not intend to do away with that independence now."
Despite Hacked Off's view that the process has been rigged - as reported in The Observer - my hunch is that the Moses appointment may well give pause for thought to those who remain sceptical about the new regulator.
I have no idea whether it will lure The Guardian and The Independent to sign Ipso contracts. Without wishing to pre-judge the judge, I still maintain that Ipso is part of what I recently called a publishers' club.
That said, look again at Shawcross's tirade all those years ago about proprietors making profits from journalistic excesses and remember that he and the Press Council were creatures of the industry too.
Will Moses also dare to turn on his employers down the line? It's going to be a fascinating couple of years.
Funnily enough, ‘IPSO’ appears to have already been appropriated as the brand name for a manufacturer of washing machines and tumble dryers, IPSO Distributors, whose catchphrase is ‘Invest in Laundry’. We suspect that the newer IPSO will be coming unstuck in time under the Trades Description Act, and for more than just one reason. Undoubtedly, too, it will be dealing in a lot of dirty laundry as its ‘independent’ and ‘impartial’ board of intransigently right-wing editors take in each others’ washing and put it through a purely nominal wringer of regulation –the stains of gross journalistic malpractice coming out from the spin-dryer sweet-scented and pristine-white as the soap and UKIP-politics these papers represent.
Finally, just to note another excellent polemical intervention on the true 'elephant in the room' of modern society: Rent. The Guardian's Zoe Williams penned the following column in response to a new report from the Residential Landlords Association which, surprise surprise, is arguing for even less regulation of the already barely-regulated private rental sector! If we did have proper regulation of the private rental sector then rents would actually be affordable, fair and in proportion to the quality (or more often abject lack of quality) of rental accommodation offered, not to say capped in line with the recent housing benefit caps; more to the point, we'd not have as we do now around 80,000 evicted families trapped in B&Bs, and an escalating street-homeless population! Here is Williams' piece, aptly titled 'The rent racket: tenants are trapped in a game of Monopoly that won't end':
For sport this week I have tried to chase up the deposits of a couple of tenants I met on Twitter. I think some letting agents see it as a matter of honour not to return the full amount. They are like playground bullies who would rinse you for a piece of string rather than leave you unmolested.
One tenant, in London, had been waiting six weeks for his deposit, despite having caused no damage. The reason given by the letting agent was that the landlord was abroad and "quite a difficult person". Another had a third of her amount withheld for gardening costs, despite the fact that there was no evidence of damage, and nothing at all to suggest that the landlord had been left out of pocket, which is the criterion for failing to return a deposit.
Asked for something as simple as photographic proof, the agent replied: "We have no proof, but I don't believe we would have rented it out like that." When you ask as a journalist, however, these difficulties and infractions evaporate, and the money materialises; it's almost as if the objections were completely cooked up in the first place. I am struck by the bald impunity of it, the shoulder-shrugging certainty that the boot is never going to change feet.
There is something wrong with this market, and that is because it is asymmetrical: the returns for the landlord are massive. Every year of the past 18, money put into a buy-to-let mortgage has returned an average of 16.3% – all the way through a recession, immune to the slings and arrows hitting every other asset class. In the private rented sector, a third of homes are classed as non-decent (PDF). Whichever way you cut it, those landlords are rapacious – and there are plenty of them. Average rents in England and Wales will reach £765 a month by May and £800 by this time next year. It pleases the Residential Landlords Association (RLA) to compare rent costs to CPI inflation, but the salient comparison is with wages, which have been stagnant or falling for over five years.
Those brilliant returns for landlords are not free; or in other words, they are not windfalls from a beneficent universe. They are the direct result of a market in which people are being screwed for more and more of their income in rent. They cannot, therefore, amass the capital to buy, and so have to rent for longer, leaving them even more powerless in the face of price increases that bear no relation to their income. It's a racket, in other words: a game of Monopoly that won't end.
I wouldn't be moved to point out such blindingly obvious things were it not for a report published yesterday by the RLA that actually argues for less regulation. Regulation, incidentally, has been mainly responsible for the only improvements that have occurred within the sector. Since the introduction of the Tenancy Deposit Protection (TDP) scheme, in 2007, the percentage of tenants contesting withheld deposits has fallen from 40% to 1%. In the study written by Michael Ball of the University of Reading's Henley Business School, this very fact – that the number of unfairly held deposits is now pretty low – is used to argue that the scheme is a waste of money.
Ball concludes that regulation is too expensive, and has poor returns. The rationale is that the worst landlords are "unfazed" by punishment, while the best of them pick up the cost. This argument is typical of the way people with money are treated in economic equations (consider the similarities with the debate around higher rate taxation). Having agency, their likely behaviour is considered salient when decisions are made about the rules by which they should be bound. If they are likely to be unscrupulous, this militates against requiring scruples of them. Elsewhere in society the existence of dishonest people is used as an argument for more regulation, not less.
The study contends, too, that a shortage of housing equates to a "shortage of investment", which must be tackled by removing hurdles for people who want to invest. It's cynical and absurd. There is a shortage precisely because the only people investing are doing so for returns, and very few are investing for the sake of housing people.
These aims are at odds: the profit motive is driving up rents and driving down standards. Only 15% of houses in the social sector fail to meet the minimum standards for decency.
Even the success of the TDP scheme has to be put in a wider context. As Channel 4 reported earlier in the year, a massive loophole is afforded by the fact that there is no registered body for landlords; they can withhold a deposit, be reprimanded by the scheme, and simply set up as another company.
Words such as daft, unscrupulous and dishonest are diversions. The problem here is not with the personalities of landlords or letting agents but with the fact that they have too much power.
The tenants' group Generation Rent says landlords should be registered, and argues for more secure tenure. At the moment, letting agents advise setting one-year contracts because this makes it easier to ratchet the rent up. Generation Rent also points out that the poorest are also the most likely to have bad landlords, because they are the least able to front the cost of moving. With one party able to evict at any time, the power imbalance becomes absurd. It is no surprise that a fifth of students live in properties infested with vermin.
In the face of an urgent need for regulation, landlords argue for less. Nothing makes plainer their overweening power than this report, the audacity with which they tell you black is white.
As The Recusant has long argued, we need a reintroduction of private rent controls, which we had in this country until the Tories abolished them in the early 90s; and which pretty much every country in the 'civilised' world have -most of Europe, and even the regulation-lite United States! But not Blighty! In Cameron's 'Big Society' the individual's 'right' to collect up as many brick empties as he or she wishes in order to let out at exorbitant rents and thereby amass quick-fix fortunes is prized far above the individual's natural right to have just one place of shelter. Many of the younger generation are now beginning to look on the prospect of just being able to afford to rent somewhere to live with the kind of misty-eyed aspiration once associated with the purchasing of mortgages. Not so much 'Generation Rent' as 'Generation Tent'!
We think the Thatcherite Chancellor has fundamentally misinterpreted his Iron idol's dictum of a "property-owning democracy serene and assured": it was meant -in theory at least- to apply to a slightly larger section of the nation than a concentrated percentage of property speculators swarming acquisitively round a termite-mound of imotile capital in their own buy-to-let micro-climate! That's a 'property-owning plutocracy serene and assured' -while the evicted poor are part of a 'propertyless temporary-'accommodatocracy' with bed and board'! But all aspirations to property acquisition always end in tears and insecure tenancies; mortgages are millstones; and as the Buhddists teach, we don't own our houses, our houses own us. The only sustainable sheltered future for all would be in common ownership and the abolition of all private property. Writing in the 1650s, the Digger and pamphleteer Gerard Winstanley pinpointed 'private property' as the lasting legacy of Man's 'Fall', bringing with it only division, covetousness and envy; and that if humanity is ever to be truly liberated from its own self-destructive greed, private property must be abolished, and, further, the entire concept of property be completely uprooted. How right Winstanley was.
A.M. 29-30 April 2014