Blame the Real Causes

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.


2 thoughts on “Blame the Real Causes

  1. You write that, “In general, the large-scale theft at the top of society receives less attention, and certainly less action, than it deserves.” Damn straight! And indeed, you shouldn’t “hold your breath waiting for Murdoch’s media outlets to address them with the same ferocity they whinge about migrants.” This is true of much else beyond poverty, homelessness, and such. You touch upon one larger issue as measured in economic inequality, the data of which I mostly know in terms of the US, not the UK; but I suspect it’s similar, if less extreme. Most Americans have been led to believe by corporate media, think tanks, and political parties that disparities aren’t as bad as they really are.

    Yet if you ask Americans what level inequality should not extend beyond, the majority believes it should be far lower than present levels. There would be public outrage, likely a protest movement forming, if the American people simply knew the factual truth. It is through control of rhetorical framing, mediated reality, and perception management that the elite enforce social control by suppressing public knowledge and public identity. The real Moral Majority of public opinion is pretty far left, leaving Bernie Sanders a moderate centrist, but no one would ever know this from elite-controlled information sources; i.e., propaganda.

    Ironically, this creates ignorance even among the elite, often the first victims of their own propagandistic games of power. This is seen with how even the wealthy are worse off with higher rates of violence, alcoholism, addiction, etc; in comparisons with low inequality societies. The elite unknowingly sacrifice their own self-interest and gain, in order to punish the public and keep down the masses, while ensuring they stay on top of the sad heap. It’s a mental illness, a soul sickness.

    This sorry state extends into issue after issue. There is the intentionally obscured history of redlining and the like, which in the US includes eugenics, lynch mobs, race wars, sundown towns, racist housing covenants, racially-biased government programs, voter suppression, racial targeting in policing, etc. This isn’t ancient history. All of it has happened within living memory, some of it within my own memory as a young GenXer, and other parts still ongoing. Certainly, the disinformation campaign continues to socially construct a reactionary society of mass ignorance and historical amnesia.

    But worse still is how this blinds people to present realities all around them. Think about the false equivalency between left and right. Despite the FBI acknowledge most terrorism and political violence coming from the American right, the government, including many Democrats, and the corporate media typically treats both sides as equally culpable and equally extreme; even ignoring the fact that what gets called ‘extreme’ on the left is majority opinion. The mediated and politicized narratives gets spun in many ways, not unusually with race being drawn in.

    Minorities are portrayed as particularly dangerous, but the data doesn’t support this. When poverty is controlled for, non-whites are no more likely to commit violent crimes than whites. And whether or not poverty is controlled for, immigrants actually have lower crime rates than the rest of the US population. Yet minorities are disproportionately profiled, targeted, stopped and frisked, brutalized, arrested, and imprisoned; even for crimes disproportionately committed by whites (e.g., drug carrying, use, and sales); as poor minority communities have been turned into war zones patrolled by militarized police.

    We have immense amount of data showing the systemic bias in every aspect of our society, beyond merely police departments and the legal system. Sadly, it can’t be blamed merely on conservatives and Republicans, although one might blame it on the broad political right if one includes most of the DNC elite as part of it. I have a strong sense of this living in a middle class college town, a Democratic stronghold and a supposedly liberal haven. Yet for many years, this county had the second highest racial disparity in drug rests, as compared to the rest of the US.

    There was a great book written about the racial bias in the local newspaper as well (Robert E. Gutsche, Jr., A Transplanted Chicago: Race, Place, and the Press in Iowa City). This is common, of course. Many studies have found many media biases. For example, when a black commits a crime or is alleged to having done so, the corporate media is more likely to show a photograph of the individual than when a white. This creates the illusion that almost all crime is committed by blacks, in spite of being a minority, not to mention most crime against whites being committed by other whites.

    The media manages public perception, shapes public opinion, and affects voting patterns in other ways. One tactic is to emphasize and exaggerate every real or imagined worsening by focusing on incidents and ignoring the larger societal and historical context, such as not comparing to early incidents and data. So, yeah, a video of a few immigrants crossing the border or a few blacks ransacking a store will get played and replayed hundreds of times a day on Fox News. But what is ignored is that the overall rates of undocumented immigration and violent crime, black or white, is much lower than it was in decades past; including under Republican administrations.

    Every tiny uptick or incident is reported while the drastic long-term drop goes mostly unreported. This isn’t only because drama sells. It’s intentional propaganda because the public must be made to fear itself so as, in being divided, they will willingly give away their power to social dominators who promise to solve the fantasized problem. Yet even then, most Americans, however suppressed and manipulated and deceived, aren’t fully on board with the oppressive solutions of right-wing authoritarianism.

    This is seen in public opinion about criminal policy, an old political football in the US that both main parties use while both party elites are disconnected from the general public. When given a forced choice within constrained rhetoric, the average American will choose a punitive legal system instead of letting criminals go free, which is what both corporatocratic parties have supported to main nonpartisan elite control of society. But if given a third choice of rehabilitation of criminals, public opinion shifts in that direction in opposition to present mass incarceration. The fact is most Americans want a functioning social democracy, maybe even democratic socialism; that is to say real freedom for all, not just liberty for some.

    I always love to put things in greater context. High inequality obviously is not only about Western superpowers like the UK and US. And it involves an entire international system of plutocracy and corporatocracy, what increasingly appears to be inverted totalitarianism. A central aspect of this is privatized benefits and socialized costs. Some years ago, there was a UN report that concluded that no industry makes more profit than costs externalized. What that means is nearly all of modern capitalism is a net economic loss for society. That report, one of the most damning documents in history, received some minor reporting at the time and has been disappeared since.

    As I said, these aren’t new problems. In one form or another, they go back centuries. They were core issues that came up in the American, French, and Haitian revolutions; with a proto-leftist precedent of class war in the English Civil War and radically egalitarian rhetoric extending all the way back to the English Peasants’ Revolt. But as an American, my bias is US history. Revolutionary era Anti-Federalists (i.e., real Federalists), the most famous being the two Thomases of Jefferson and Paine, included the strongest advocates of freedom, democracy, popular suffrage, abolition, progressive taxation, etc. Some Anti-Federalist aristocrats went so far as to be opposed to the feudal laws (e.g., primogeniture) upholding aristocracy because they felt them to be oppressive to the elite as well.

    In general, a main concern was high inequality. Besides progressive taxation and land taxation, Anti-Federalists hoped to achieve greater distribution of land, resources, and/or wealth. Paine went so far as to argue for a citizens’ dividend, the equivalent of a basic income, in order to compensate for the cross-generational theft of the commons. It was a compensation that could never be paid off, as long as the theft remained, and so compensation would have to be paid to every generation following. Furthermore, Anti-Federalists were for lessening monied influence in politics, in particular by legally restricting corporate charters to projects and organizations that were short term (often 20 years, a ‘generation’), non-profit, and served the public good.

    This kind of radical thinking resonated with later thinkers. It included not only leftist reformers like Henry George but also the godfather of capitalism, Adam Smith, who advocated public education and low inequality because, as he asserted, otherwise a free society would not be possible. Many of these thinkers, especially the revolutionary generation, were well versed in the ancient Greek writings on democracy, along with revered philosophers like Aristotle who similarly thought freedom wasn’t possible with high inequality. All of this is part of an old Western tradition. But it’s safe to say that none of this is typically reported in the corporate media (NPR is mostly privately funded, by the way), much less taught in the public education system nor probably in many private and charter schools.


    1. To give you a flavor of early American revolutionary ideology, a great source is the REAL History Democracy Calendar. Here is a recent entry for October 31, 1783; representative of what is commonly found in late 18th century official documents, prior to the early 19th century political backlash. That is the date when the New Hampshire State Constitution was established, in which Article 83 reads:

      “The size and functions of all corporations should be so limited and regulated as to prohibit fictitious capitalization and provision should be made for the supervision and government thereof. Therefore, all just power possessed by the state is hereby granted to the general court to enact laws to prevent the operations within the state of all persons and associations, and all trusts and corporations, foreign or domestic, and the officers thereof, who endeavor to raise the price of any article of commerce or to destroy free and fair competition in the trades and industries through combination, conspiracy, monopoly, or any other unfair means; to control and regulate the acts of all such persons, associations, corporations, trusts, and officials doing business within the state; to prevent fictitious capitalization; and to authorize civil and criminal proceedings in respect to all the wrongs herein declared against.”

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