When there’s a problem, we naturally look for a cause. One of the many troubling aspects of political discourse in the UK and elsewhere is a consistent scapegoating of the poor, powerless, and innocent for the crimes of the wealthy, powerful, and corrupt. If that wasn’t bad enough, their position in society is too often cruelly attributed to their own personal failings.
Many people are worse off since the 2008 crash, while great wealth has trickled up to the top of society. Housing is a mess. When a lot of people in this country do the natural thing and look around for someone to blame for these issues, they see migrants, put 2 and 2 together to make 5, and think the solution is tougher borders.
Migrants are not responsible for the decimation of social housing, high rents, and the housing market. How could they be? They didn’t make the policies responsible, did they? Was it Abdul down the road who asked Thatcher to sell off social housing at a loss (creating a glut of rent-seeking landlords) and prevent councils from building more? Did Jamilah from the newsagents tell Blair not to build affordable homes?
They’re not responsible for declining wages, either. Migrants would have no effect on wages if employers weren’t able to exploit them; if there was a cast-iron real living wage and worker’s rights protected by a united workforce. Migrants don’t control what people get paid. Bosses do. If your wage goes down, maybe blame the person who writes the cheque.
As I said in Foreign Aid: Britain Can Multitask, ‘Let’s not blame the global poor for the actions of our own government and the greed of tax-dodging millionaires.’ Who caused the 2008 crash? The deregulated financial sector, bailed out with public money in a vast scheme of privatised profit and socialised risk? Or a Polish corner shop?
More broadly, poverty is often blamed on the poor themselves – on fecklessness, a lack of hard work, being ‘chavs’. The media rapidly skimmed away from the awkward reality of the Paradise Papers, while tabloids never tire of stories of benefits cheats, someone having too many kids, etc. On the other side of the coin, we see stories of individual poor people working their way up the social ladder, presented as icons of what others could achieve if they worked harder.
In general, the large-scale theft at the top of society receives less attention, and certainly less action, than it deserves. A 2016 article in The Week reported that:
a 2013 survey found Britons believe almost a quarter, 24 per cent, of all benefits were claimed fraudulently, 34 times greater than the official 0.7 per cent estimate [and that] at £1.3bn to £1.6bn, it appears outright benefit fraud accounts for less of a burden on the taxpayer than the £4.4bn officially assumed to be lost by [tax] evaders.
I’m not saying that benefit cheats don’t exist. But the issue receives a disproportionate level of focus. When we do have a national moan about tax-dodging, it’s like a valve releasing pressure so that we can swiftly forget again and carry on doing nothing about it. As for issues like wage theft, or the idea that there might be some sort of connection between soaring wealth at the top and stagnant wages for the majority over the last few decades, don’t hold your breath waiting for Murdoch’s media outlets to address them with the same ferocity they whinge about migrants.
Blaming poverty on the poor is simply cruel. Do CEOs and hedge fund managers work so much harder than teachers, nurses, firefighters? Is work really the ‘route out of poverty’, when success is so influenced by one’s background and luck, when it turns out that ‘A record 60% of British people in poverty live in a household where someone is in work’, when nurses are using food banks?
Homelessness and rough sleeping have both soared in the UK in recent years. It seems unlikely that this could be because of a sudden failure of people to work hard enough. We have to come to terms with the economic and social factors that lead to something like this. In the long term, we need to recognise those factors and get rid of them. In the shorter term, we also need to just f*cking give them a roof over their heads and the support they need. Not only because it turns out to be substantially cheaper for a country to literally straight-up house homeless people than leave them on the streets long-term. But also simply because homelessness is a moral nightmare.
At its worst, blaming the individual for their position in society rather than recognising wider factors can lead to an outright fashy perspective. ContraPoints’ analysis of the U.S. Baltimore uprising points out the depths of racism to which someone can sink if they refuse to acknowledge the realities of redlining, lead paint, and other reasons for racial disparities. I don’t want to be too quick to leap to the f-word, but fascism is very much a style of politics involving scapegoating of outgroups for social problems. It’s critical to address scapegoating early, before it gets enormously out of hand.
The idea that we live in a meritocracy can be more comforting than the idea that we live in an oligarchy, because it tells us that we’re ‘temporarily embarrassed millionaires’ who, if we knuckle down like Alan Sugar (an ‘East End boy made good’, he likes to say), can also become a billionaire with an unelected role in government.
But meritocracy has a dark side, which is brutal social darwinism. It’s not so comforting when you’re a nurse using a foodbank, when you’re homeless among oligarchs’ empty second homes, when you’re struggling to make rent but your taxes bailed out the City: and somehow you are the one to blame.
The other option it’s easy to swing to is hating the rich. It may be cathartic to share guillotine memes, but I don’t think that’s really the right way to go either. There is a place for pointing out the greed and corruption of individuals, as this Current Affairs article does so well, but the conversation shouldn’t stop there. Aside from the bitterness of feeling like that too much, and the real-world horrors it can motivate – the old ‘you hate the rich more than you love the poor!’ thing being usually a crappy argument but still not to be entirely dismissed – blaming individuals gives an incomplete picture.
The real issue is the underlying system. If wise and noble philosopher-kings were put in the 1%’s position, without changing the structure that lets a small handful of people be richer than half the planet in the first place, soon enough the system’s ingrained logic would reproduce Jeff Bezos and sweatshops and all the rest.
Blaming migrants and the poor is cruel and nonsensical, a lashing-out at those we should be working together with. It makes a lot more sense to blame the people with real power and influence, while understanding that meaningful political change (rather than mere grievance at them as individuals) is the way forward in the long-term.
However, I can see why there is resistance to seeing things this way. It challenges the status quo, it requires nuance, and, most importantly, it’s unabashedly leftist. As Hélder Câmara said, ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.’ Yikes. We don’t want to live in V U V U Z E L A, do we?
If we want a better society – one where nurses don’t need foodbanks, homelessness isn’t such a crisis, and ordinary people don’t struggle to subsidise the bonuses of the bankers who gambled with their money and lost – we have to ask how we got to the society that we have. This raises hard questions. Blaming the system instead of its victims calls for a radical shift in perspective.
But ultimately, it isn’t about hating the rich, guillotines, or anything like that. It begins with common sense, with a recognition that we are all human beings deserving of a decent chance at life, and with a refusal to let stories of benefit cheats distract us from the real causes of our problems.