Forget poverty, let's talk about the real issues
From 26 July to 1 August in central London, Living Marxism is hosting
The Week conference; seven days of
controversial and innovative discussion, designed to challenge many of the
complacent assumptions of our age.
Many issues which seem to be the subject of endless debate in parliament
and the media today are in fact only ever seen from one point of view. There
is no longer any real left-right divide on issues as diverse as the environment,
the beef scare, male violence or teaching methods. At The Week, we aim to
present a clear alternative view on matters which too often are nodded through
People who pick up Living Marxism or come to a conference like The
Week sometimes find it difficult to understand why we discuss the kind of
issues that we do. Why, for instance, is this issue of Living Marxism
organised around Frank Füredi's challenge
to the contemporary obsession with risks to personal health and safety?
And why are the major discussions at The Week plan- ned to focus on the
theme of 'Challenging the victim culture'. What do such matters have to
do with left-wing politics?
The assumption is that a magazine with 'Marxism' on its masthead ought to
be devoted to protesting about unemployment, poverty, welfare cuts and the
other economic problems created by capitalism, rather than addressing issues
of the kind which have featured recently in Living Marxism (from
plague scares to the parenting crisis).
This notion reduces Marxism to a kind of poor man's version of populist
economics; while the Tories bang on endlessly about how economic success
and the 'feelgood factor' are just around the corner, Marxists are supposed
to respond in kind by chanting about the poverty and deprivation that are
the flipside of the capitalist coin.
Marxism is here misunderstood as little more than defending the underdog
against the system. It becomes reduced to a dogmatic ritual of complaint
about how greedy the rich are, how bad the world is, and how poor ordinary
people are. In fact that has nothing to do with Marxism as we know it.
Of course, we are well aware of the exp-loitative character of capitalist
economics. Clever analytical insights are not necessary to see that there
are a lot of poor people around; all you have to do is walk through any
town or city in the country. Nobody needs Living Marxism to tell
them that poverty, deprivation and need are ugly features of our society.
They can read that in respectable publications like the Rowntree Trust reports,
and hear it from countless church pulpits on any Sunday morning.
The point is not simply to describe the world, however, but to get people
to change it. In which case the more important question is not how poor
people are, but what makes people act as they do today? What needs to be
explained is not just the general exploitative character of capitalism,
but the specific determinants which lead people to respond to problems in
a particular way in particular circumstances.
This approach throws up some interesting new questions. For instance, why
can bogus health panics now move many people to boycott beef or flood helplines
for information about formula baby milk, yet the hard facts about inner-city
poverty provoke little or no reaction? Why do many people seem more animated
about the highly unlikely prospect of being attacked in their cars than
about the all-too-real possibility of being made redundant?
These are far from peripheral issues. Because if poverty and related economic
problems cannot move people today, then in political terms they do not really
matter. There must be something else going on, some new problems that need
to be understood if we are to alter the climate of thought and action in
society. For those of us concerned to change the way things are, the really
interesting questions revolve around working out what those new issues are,
and how to address them. To sit back instead and put on the old record about
poverty and unemployment would guarantee that we are out step with the way
in which problems are now perceived.
Over the past year or two, Living Marxism has gone some way towards
identifying key changes taking place in society. These changes have often
been misunderstood or missed altogether by those who would stick to a rigidly
economic explanation of events.
A good example of the need to cope with fresh political challenges came
with the recent controversy over a Mintel survey, published in June, which
revealed that more than half of 20-24 year olds in the UK now still live
at home with their parents. Everybody sensed that there was a different
kind of problem here. But what was its cause, and what might the solution
A standard reaction among critical commentators was to identify the new
stay-at-home attitude among young people as a consequence of economic insecurity,
caused by unemployment, low wages, the removal of welfare rights, cuts in
student grants and so on. The simple solution then became to demand more
jobs, better training and cheaper housing, in traditional left-wing style,
and imagine that everything would be all right if only we could slightly
raise the taxes on the rich and the benefits to the poor.
This knee-jerk economic analysis missed the point that, in previous times,
most people would have left the parental home precisely to escape from poverty
and make their way in the world. People have often travelled around the
globe in search of a job. Yet today, a big proportion of British youth reacts
to the same economic problems by hiding away at home. Clearly there is something
more than ordinary economic insecurity at work here--especially since those
young people with decent jobs showed little inclination to fly the nest
What that survey revealed above all is that many young people today are
afraid of the world. This is a new and dangerous development.
The convergence of various economic and political trends in society has
created a situation in which more young people are likely to react to events
as insecure individuals, seeking protection from the real and imagined problems
of everyday life. Whether that protection is to be provided by government
health inspectors, the police or their parents, the consequence of seeking
it is the same. It reinforces the notion that young adults are really powerless
children, incapable of standing up for them- selves or taking control of
their own lives.
This is a much bigger problem than a simple shortage of cash. It is a bad
case of social paralysis. Poverty cannot explain why so many young people
are effectively afraid to leave the house they grew up in. Nor can complaints
about poverty inspire those people to act any differently. The twentysomething
generation are not going to try to change the world so long as they are
too nervous of it to change their own bed sheets and light bulbs.
The standard economic explanation of a problem like this might sound radical,
it might even be what people accept as 'Marxist'. But in fact it is mundane,
banal and deeply conservative. It assumes that the problems created by capitalism,
and the solutions to them, are basically always the same. Such a narrow
vision reduces Marxism to a Stone Age dogma and fails to see everything
that is new and important about the problems we face today.
The fear of the world expressed by those young adults is only one aspect
of a pattern of avoiding risk and seeking safety which now runs right through
life. It is a pattern which begins with children being taught to fear adults
(escorted to school by their parents, discouraged from playing outside)
and ends with adults who are afraid of children (supporting New Labour's
calls for child curfews, refusing to teach disruptive pupils, worrying about
elder abuse). Unlike the poor, who, as the old saying has it, are always
with us, this atmosphere is entirely a product of the present. Understanding
and addressing it is also the most pressing problem of our times.
The climate of fear and uncertainty, in which caution is always the watchword
in everything we do, is the determining influence on political and social
life in the late 1990s. It influences how people see everything from the
food they eat to the people they meet. And it presents the most serious
contemporary barrier to convincing more people that it is both possible
and necessary to act together to change society.
The worship of caution, the belief that everybody needs protecting from
everything, can only reinforce the view of people as passive victims of
life rather than active shapers of their destiny. The popular obs-ession
with safety is not a capitalist conspiracy; but by paralysing resistance,
it has become the most effective ideological defence which the system has
That is one reason why Living Marxism has expended so much energy
of late confronting moral panics and health scares, rather than detailing
the extent of poverty and homelessness. It is also why discussions at The
Week will focus on challenging the victim culture, not complaining about
how much corporate executives get paid or how many lottery tickets the poor
are conned into buying.
We all know that poverty still exists. But telling ourselves and others
how terrible it is will create nothing more than deeper depression. Exposing
the causes and the consequences of the obsession with caution, on the other
hand, can be the first step towards forging a new sense of people as problem-solvers
rather than risk-avoiders. It is certainly a more practical approach to
tackling today's political problems than the tired sloganising of the poor
man's Marxists who, like other dogmatists before them, seem to think that
money is the root of all evil.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 92, July/August 1996