In Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens introduces us to the character Newman Noggs, who has, it appears, borrowed more than he could pay back from one Nicholas Nickleby senior, father of the novel’s eponymous hero. Noggs then ends up working for Nickleby, for a pitifully small wage.
“I took him on out of charity, and he has remained with me ever since”, says Nickleby. Dickens continues: “The kind-hearted gentleman omitted to add that Newman Noggs, being utterly destitute, served him for rather less than the usual wage of a boy of thirteen”.
This is the Dickensian bargain.
You create the conditions which allow you to accrue wealth but by which others are reduced to dependency levels; you then offer those others an exchange which, within the framework of the system may appear generous, charitable, even. But those others only take the bargain because they are virtually powerless to do otherwise. They are destitute, in Dickens’s word.
Newman Noggs sprang to mind recently because, during this crisis, there have been a number of instances where those placed in a position of need, or made ‘destitute’, by policy decisions have been left to depend on charity.
It was reported in March that “Major UK supermarkets have been asked to set aside supplies for food banks after a tumultuous few days in which several emergency food aid charities closed and others struggled to meet rocketing demand from people hit by the fallout from coronavirus.”
One of the lessons we need to learn from this crisis is that the very existence of food banks is an outrage. There were some 1.6m emergency 3-day food packages given out, by the Trussell Trust alone, last year in the UK – up from a few tens of thousands in 2008-9.
So if demand is ‘rocketing’ this year, we are looking at people, in their millions, dependent on an essentially Dickensian institution, in the UK, this far into the 21st century.
How has this been allowed to happen? How have we got to the stage where we are so used to food banks as the norm that you can see politicians with balloons smiling in pictures at the opening of a new one? In my local paper recently, I even saw a food bank fundraiser featuring an Elvis impersonator trying to jolly the general public into giving a bit more to a worthy cause.
Elvis, God bless him, should not have to be soliciting donations at a food bank.
We have allowed these Victorian structures to become just another part of the 21st Century charity circuit, alongside fundraisers for abandoned puppies and rare heart conditions.
This is not to diminish the effort and goodwill that goes into such things, and certainly not to criticise the organisations who provide food for the hungry, work to end animal cruelty, or take care of the ill. I have nothing but admiration for them and for those who need their help. My point is, rather, that the state, as a result of the policy choices of recent governments, has so washed its hands of responsibility, and done it so cleverly, that many don’t even notice there is something wrong any more.
Something similar has just been reported on the BBC NI website. A network of volunteers, under the name NI Scrubs, has sprung up to fill the gap in protective clothing – scrubs – for those working in health care during the pandemic. They are using their traditional skills, combined with the powerful communication tools of the internet era to create and distribute thousands of these homemade scrubs. This network of generous, skilled, active citizens is absolutely fantastic, a great story; but it is also terrible. Terrible because it so starkly highlights the problem it has arisen to address.
After this, there can be no going back to ‘normal’, because, as a graffito in Hong Kong puts it, ‘normal’ was the problem.
Like Nickleby the elder, the government, from 2010, created the austere conditions in which, if we are not to see our health workers without safety equipment, even to see neighbours starve, we ordinary citizens must pick up the slack. We must get out the sewing machines, pull on the Elvis suits, or blow up the balloons. And those who ought to be well-equipped, or those who until a few years ago, could rely on a publicly funded social security system, must now rely upon the charitable gesture – against which, as Samuel Beckett said, there is no defence.
As for the politicians using these sorts of activities as a photo-opportunity, William Blake perhaps put it best: ‘They reduce the Man to want, then give with pomp and ceremony’.
We should feel sympathy, but not only sympathy: we should feel outrage. The policies that have brought us to this point amounted, essentially, to a deeply regressive form of taxation. Rather than raise tax on the wealthy or on profitable corporations, the government allowed the development of a food bank system that depends on the donations of ordinary shoppers in ordinary High Street superstores. You do your shop; the superstore makes a (lightly-taxed) profit; and out of solidarity you put a few tins and dry goods into a food bank box at the end of the tills.
Essentially, as someone on a fairly average wage, you’ve just voluntarily taxed yourself, because you don’t want to live in a society that lets the vulnerable starve.
Essentially, if you donate your spare bedsheets or your skills to sew new scrubs, you are plugging the hole in public finances. Essentially, the champions of austerity, those kind-hearted gentlemen, charitable to a fault no doubt, whose watches cost more than your family car, would sooner see a load of generous but relatively poor people set aside a few packets of spaghetti for their even poorer neighbours than allow the government to raise their taxes by a penny.
But the current crisis is exposing all kinds of flaws in the system. Suddenly the government has had to ask the supermarkets themselves to chip in. Suddenly the government has had to rush to throw all kinds of money at a genuine emergency – funny how quickly it managed to find the magic money tree it said did not exist – or face complete disaster. Suddenly corporate owners need the collective power of the public, for that’s the power upon which the state is built.
Years of austerity have made us forget this. We are scrambling now to make up for lost time, to regain some sense of solidarity in the face of a crisis. And it has started to work, along with those sewing machines all over the country.
When it is over, those kind-hearted gentlemen, having come to the public for support in a time of need, will want us to go back to ‘normal’. They will want to go back to collecting their bonuses and setting limits to government attempts to raise taxes; they will want us to go back to ‘normal’ too, tightening our belts, shouldering the burden of austerity – just as we did after the crash of 2008.
But we cannot do that again. Not least because once this immediate crisis is over, we will need to take all the lessons we learned from it a ramp them up to face the even bigger crisis that has been unfolding all along – environmental breakdown.
We need to take this moment as the starting signal for a revaluation of our political economy. It will be a struggle: we will need all shades of progressives, leftists, democrats, equality and sustainability campaigners – the red, the green and the rainbow – to build the new network together, in order to resist those proposing a return to ‘normal’. We have to democratise the economy and re-democratise politics, because our politics has moved away – has been moved away from democracy towards plutocracy over the last few decades.
How? Well, the current crisis offers some leverage. We now know – governments and corporations alike are telling us this – that there is a whole network of essential workers, key workers, front-line workers who have come out heroically, some of them risking their very lives to rise to the challenge of the pandemic. Are we, the public, really going to stand by and watch when having saved lives including that of the Prime Minister, they are refused a pay rise afterwards, as they were refused, to cheers from the Tory benches, in 2017?
Are we going to watch as corporations that have come to the public purse for assistance, later attempt to crank still more wealth to those in the boardroom by cutting wages, terms and conditions for those on the floor?
Any corporation which comes asking for help from the power of the public now must remain democratically answerable to the public hereafter. If you want help, we will give it; but on condition that you put workers on proper contracts and on your boards, lift the salaries of the lowest paid, divest from fossil fuels, get your profits out of the British Virgin Islands or other tax voids. And so on.
Remember this: when the chips were down, the elite, corporate and otherwise, needed the help not of the oligarchs and the online influencers, but of the ordinary workers; and the ordinary workers, the cleaners, the posties, the drivers, the shelf-stackers putting out the toilet paper and pasta, the stitchers and scrub-makers, and not least the care-workers, shouldered their tools and set about their work. At least a million of them in high risk jobs that paid, according to an Autonomy study, “poverty wages”. Oh and, for some not in the least inexplicable reason, 98 percent of workers in that category are women. (See this excellent Scope NI article for more on this – and read the rest of their posts to boot!)
After this, charity will not do. After this, should they be told to go back to ‘normal’, we, the public, the Demos of this our democracy, must rise to defend them. As you valued them during the crisis, so must you value them after this. After this, any talk of rewards for the ‘risk takers’ must start with those who risked their lives.
After this, the Great Revaluation.
14 April 2020