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Mick Hume

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 without question.

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 be?

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 either.

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 today.

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



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