Homelessness

Bit of a belated post here, but it’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.

Every time I travel into a large city, which for most of my life has been once or twice a year, I never fail to be shocked by the homelessness pandemic I always find.  Having been brought up in a society where even oficially homeless people have some sort of roof over their heads, it’s incredibly shocking to imagine a life of ‘sleeping rough’.

For years, I’ve never been able to decide on the morality of giving money to those who beg.  If they’re selling The Big Issue, or doing some other means of getting money, then fine, it’s more clear cut.  But I guess I feel it should be the state’s responsibility to ensure everyone, at the very least, has a house to live in (and ideally a job, too, though that clearly has not been a priority for any government in decades – the cynical side of me would say most modern governments actually want some unemployment, but that’s digressing).  However, I have quickly come to the conclusion that, although creating a system in which many people need the charity of others to survive is wrong, to simply ignore someone in such need is also wrong.

However, there has to be balance.  It is unreasonable to suggest giving money to every single homelessness person you meet, else you’ll soon be going a similar way (so widespread the problem is).  So, I guess, to ease my conscience, perhaps just giving money to one or two homeless people a day would suffice.  A quota, if you like.  I don’t know.  If everyone did this, rather than the majority who are desensitised and do walk past every day, surely their plight would improve? 

One issue is that, quite often, homeless people do spend the money they receive on alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.  When I was last in Edinburgh I gave one man a small amount of money, and later passed him smoking a cigarette.  I don’t judge him for this by any means – in such an empty, purposeless life, you would grasp anything which could provide even the slightest escape.  So I don’t see this as a good reason to ignore beggars.  There is also the issue of people faking being homeless – although I’m inclined to want to give someone money simply for the mental endurance to sit for so long in the cold, ignored and detested by society for all of that time.  I was told the other day that you can supposedly identify a true homeless person by whether they make eye contact or not; someone with experience of the streets will not, because theyre so used to being spat at or otherwise abused.

Indeed, I am increasingly noticing simply how demonized homeless people are in society.  “Oh, he’s just a stupid hobo,” is something which would not surprise or even shock me if I heard it casually said.  “That coat makes you look like a homeless person LOL!”  Because it is a situation so few people can relate to, and don’t expect to ever experience (I do not see myself being homeless in the future, for instance, even though I know it’s possible), it becomes easy to brush off their woes as self-inflicted.  I could be wrong, but I believe very few people truly understand the issue of homelessness, or care to try.  I certainly don’t.

I think, if I ever see the opportunity, I may at some point volunteer at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, or something along those lines which would allow me to actually meet and speak to homeless people, and to better understand them.  Or, I suppose, even speak to the ones on the street – show them that not everyone in society despises them, and perhaps help ease even a tiny fraction of the loneliness.  We must all do what we can.

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Thoughts on Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

I’ve been writing too much about economics, politics and the class system recently, so I’ll keep this brief to avoid repeating myself.  Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by the rising author, columnist and commentator Owen Jones, takes a unique look at the British class system.  He presents his theory that class is not a redundant issue in modern society, particularly as we enter this ‘Age of Austerity’.  His main focus is to condemn the demonization working class people face by the media and politicians, of ‘benefit scroungers’ living on council estates – all of whom can supposedly be described as ‘chavs’.  He also goes into the reasons for a political shift from working to improve working class conditions to helping people escape working class conditions.

The book is a very thorough examination of the issues.  It is extraordinarily well researched – on every page you can expect a a newspaper, politician or campaigner to be quoted, alongside several statistics.  I can’t imagine how much effort it must have taken to compile the evidence.  This accumulates to build an worthy case for Jones’ beliefs, which I was mostly convinced by at the book’s end.  What makes the book truly admirable is that it attempts to understand the reasons behind poverty and antisocial behaviour.  In the updated preface, Jones mentions differing reactions to the 2011 England Riots, from “lock up the mindless criminals!” to “maybe we should look at why this happened.”  Jones opts for the second, and rightly so; unfortunately there does not appear to be a consensus among politicians over the riots – our leadership seems to be pretending they didn’t happen and, likewise, pretending they won’t happen again.

Despite my deep praise for the book, there are a few points I wasn’t entirely convinced by. Jones argues that Margaret Thatcher’s policies as Prime Minister (1979 – 1992) were terrible for the UK, through her victories against the unions, thus limiting the power of workers to contest their working conditions, the destruction of traditional industries like mining – which have left countless communities shattered, broken and lost – and depleting the council housing stock through the “right to buy” scheme whilst not building any more.  On each of these points I mostly agree, but I would question his narrow approach to Thatcher’s policies.  Far as I am from a supporter of Conservative policies, I don’t think it’s fair to put the blame for the decline of traditional industries solely on Thatcher.  Depletion of core resources, international competition and the loss of a ready-made market through the British Empires had also been causing a decline for many decades; between 1913 and 1970, for instance, the number of coal mines in South Wales had already dropped from 630 to 54.  Thatcher’s policies may have finished these industries off, but they by no means caused the decline.

He also seems to glorify the traditional industries.  I can accept that industries like mining and manufacturing did form the heart of communities, and that their destruction has helped to cause the social problems of unemployment, drug use, depression etc. that we see today; that holes exist in communities which service-based jobs such as supermarkets have failed to adequately fill.  Yet, perhaps this was not his intention, but the book seems to lament the loss of a time when there were pre-made jobs for men to go into, jobs which were passed down from father to son, jobs which generally were not seen as jobs for women.  That, to me, seems no better than the state the country is in today.

I am glad, however, that Jones takes a balanced view towards the political parties.  Despite being a member of the Labour Party, he is perfectly willing to condemn its policies during its time in power (1997 – 2010).  Not as devastating as the Conservative rule, but certainly made no real effort to reverse the changes.

Overall, Chavs is a highly successful book at making you think, and consider things you may have previously thought nothing of.  It paints a terrifying view of Britain, a view which is actually quite foreign from my own experiences.  Living in Shetland, where we’re sustained by the generally unchanging (for now) oil and fishing industries, I really haven’t witnesses the social deprivation seen in other parts of the UK.  I hope the book is at least slightly an exaggeration

Brave New World of the 21st Century

I love Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World.  So much so, in fact, that I chose to write

my Advanced Higher Dissertation about it.  Published in 1931, it reflected Huxley’s concerns over the consequences of living in a society powered solely by the forces of profit and consumerism, of control by happiness and pleasure.  I wasn’t blown away upon first reading it, mostly because I rushed through it in a day whilst trying to find a counterpart to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but having studied it and allowed it to retire in my mind, I felt a return was needed.  What struck me most upon re-reading the book was how many parallels there are with modern life.  Similar sentiments are shared in the preface, where it’s suggested that the fall of Communism and the triumph of neo-liberalism has brought us over-closer to the world of Brave New World.  So I thought it worth a brief blog post discussing whether or not the novel did predict the direction of society’s future.

The book opens with an audacious sequence within, essentially, a baby factory, where clone groups are created and assigned into castes, which determines their occupation and social class.  While this technology sort of exists, and is being developed through stem-cell research, it’s a divisive moral issue and not something I can see being implemented anytime soon.  Huxley appears correct to assume that society cannot survive without a class system, however; although less obvious than in his time, divisions in wealth and status are just as significant now as they were then.

Where I think Brave New World is most relevant is in its portrayal of economics.  There are frequent jokes about how everything in Huxley’s world is based on the level of consumption it can create – so, children are given hi-tech games rather than a ball, people are conditioned to hate nature so they’ll play outdoor sports rather than go for walks, etc.  They worship Henry Ford, creator of the modern assembly line.  This obsessive, mad need for economic growth above all else has many parallels with our world of today.  Sure, the people are happy, but that’s only because it suits the ruling oligarchs to have a happy, consuming, unquestioning population.  Huxley never addresses the issue of living in a world of finite resources, but this is surely a flaw of both the book’s economic model and of our own.  There is virtually no debate on whether we actually need growth.  If there’s any doubt of the level of consumerism in society today, simply turn up to see a movie at the cinema on time.  You’ll endure 20 minutes of highly-paid efforts to sell you useless things like expensive cars and perfume.  I rarely watch an advert without thinking of Brave New World, now.

Granted, there is an argument for economic growth if a country is (a) developing and (b) growing in population size.  I suppose for (a) there is no ‘end point’ of development for a country but I would mark it at a point where the living standards of the population have reached an acceptable level.  (b) is fairly straight forward; if a population grows, you need to produce more stuff to sustain the growth in order to prevent lifestyle changes.  However – and this could be Brave New World’s greatest flaw – neither of these conditions exist in Huxley’s world.  The oligarchs actively prevent scientific and technological progress, and they have capped the population at a level most suited to worldwide stability.  So, why is there such a need for growth and consumption?  I’m not an economics expert by any means so perhaps I misunderstand the arguments.

I don’t think we’re quite yet at the level of art mutilation as we see in the book; thus far we’re still allowed Shakespeare and the Bible.  At least half of the world has no significant censors on cultural endeavors, whereas in Brave New World, the ideas of conflict, love, jealousy, and family are prohibited as dangerous concepts for society, which has never quite been so radical in even the most oppressive dictatorships in reality; indeed, many dictatorships need a strong patriarchal model and a scapegoat to act as an object of hate in order to survive.  The destruction of knowledge, however, is more convincing.  While on the lowest end of its atrocities, the German Nazi regime’s systematic destruction of books never fails to sicken me.  Though again, apart from some oddball countries like North Korea, this is less prominent today.

Politically, the world of today bears no resemblance to that of Brave New World.  Far from being united, we are continuing to splinter into ever-smaller countries through the principle of self-determination.  Half the world is democratic, half is dictatorial but no country really fits the mold of being a ‘benign dictatorship’.

Finally, I think most of us could testify that consumerism and economic growth has not led to the stress-free, thoughtless blissful life which Huxley envisaged.  There could be parallels made between the drug soma and high rates of drug use in the developed world today, most prominently alcohol but also illegal drugs as well as the use of anti-depressants, but, other than Linda – who spent time outside of ‘civilisation’ – there’s never such a great dependence on soma.  Modern life is extraordinarily stressful, with jobs, lack of jobs, taxes, relationships, lack of relationships, bullying, death, natural catastrophes, etc etc.  We are far from abolishing unhappiness.

In many ways, Brave New World is an ingenius satire on the nature of modern life, but we’re not quite yet at that terrifying state Huxley imagined.  Who knows, though – perhaps it’s not far off?

Drug Prosecution

Just brief thoughts:

A group of MPs have published a report suggesting that the government ought not to prosecute drug users if they are only using drugs, so in effect decriminalising the use of them – though I think the dealing would stay illegal.  This is something I’ve been arguing for ages.  Although many people use drugs in a casual, recreational manner, there are others who have serious addictions and are not getting the treatment they need because the law is insisting on fining them or throwing them in prison, which will only make problems worse (I’m sure everyone knows there’s a wide prevalence of drugs in prison).

Due to various experiences in life and family I probably have more reason than a lot of people to oppose drugs, and I do – I loathe them.  But pragmatically speaking, a tough response to drug use does nothing to solve the problem.  It’s absolutely right to continue cracking down on the drugs trade, the trade which keeps users slaves for profit, but don’t punish the victims further.  The MPs have called for a system like Portugal, where drug users do not get a criminal record if they willingly go onto schemes to help fight the addiction.  I also think this is a good idea.

David Cameron has rejected the report.  Of course.

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20667139