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Call off this culture war against ‘the poor’

In a speech for the Liberty League in London, Brendan O’Neill denounced the dictatorship of
do-gooders colonising poor communities.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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On 22 October, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill was invited to speak about ‘the poor’ at the Liberty League’s annual conference in London. A transcript of his speech is published below.

I think we should always be very sceptical whenever we hear the phrase ‘the poor’. And we should be super-sceptical whenever we hear the phrase ‘the underclass’.

Because I can guarantee you that every time you hear those phrases, you will discover far more about the person doing the talking than you will about the people being talked about. You will discover far more about the speaker’s own fears and prejudices than you will about the lived experiences or morality of those cash-strapped sections of society.

In no other area of public life does anecdotage trump evidence as fantastically as it does in discussions about ‘the poor’. In no other area of political debate is it so acceptable to marshal rumour and hearsay to your cause as it is in debates about the underclass or the residuum or whatever we’re calling it these days.

Indeed, I would argue that ‘the underclass’ is not an objective social phenomenon – it is more like a moral phantasm, magicked into existence by the subjective panicking of people at the top of society. The underclass is an imaginary category, whose existence is not proved by graphs or hard-hitting investigations but rather by the fireside storytelling of journalists and academics who claim to have encountered this strange tribal group.

This was brilliantly captured in a comment piece in the Independent published in November 2008, which contained the following sentence: ‘A friend of mine has worked in child protection for 20 years and she says that, yes, there is a definite underclass.’ Well, there you have it – you can’t really argue with such searing social evidence.

Of course, there is such a thing as ‘poor people’ – people who have less money than you. But there isn’t really such a thing as ‘the poor’, meaning a whole swathe of society who allegedly share the same degraded morality and who are all promiscuous and fond of booze and so on. I think the service that ‘the poor’ provide for the political and chattering classes today is as a kind of fodder for moralism, a kind of endless pit of anecdotes and horror stories that are used to motor moralistic campaigns and moralistic commentary.

What we have today is a situation where all sorts of activists and thinkers basically go fishing for anecdotes in ‘underclass’ communities and then use those anecdotes to justify their own Victorian-style campaigns of pity or condemnation. This means that everyone has a tendency to see in ‘the poor’ what they want to see, what is most useful for them and for the promotion of their pet projects.

So for example, child-protection charities, or the child-protection racket as it ought to be called, see widespread depraved child abuse in poor communities. They always exaggerate it, of course, by lumping together everything from a child being slapped to a child being killed as examples of child abuse – because the more abuse there is, the more these charities can continue to justify their own miserable existences.

Likewise, domestic-violence charities imagine that wife-beating is rife on council estates and in poor communities, especially after tense football matches and during times of recession. That is why in 2009 the New Labour government, with the backing of domestic-violence campaigners, published a pamphlet advising women how to cope with ‘recession-related domestic violence’ – because it fantasises that poor men are naturally violent and that they therefore become more violent as they become more poor.

Campaigners concerned with food fantasise that ‘the poor’ spend all day eating so-called junk food. This means someone like Jamie Oliver can make utterly unfounded statements about the gastronomical depravity of poor people and nobody challenges him. He claims that in some ‘white trash’ communities – his words – children are eating such bad food that they are now vomiting up their faeces. This is complete nonsense, of course, a physical impossibility. Once again, it reveals far more about the base, scatological mindset of certain sections of the chattering classes than it does about life or dinnertime in less well-off communities.

Animal-welfare charities imagine that poor people are always mistreating their pets, especially their so-called dangerous dogs. This means that someone like Jon Snow, liberal London’s favourite newsreader, can say about dangerous dogs: these ‘violent uncontrollable animals… these beasts fulfil some animal instinct [within their owners]’.

Meanwhile, right-wing commentators concerned about the decline of manners and morality see in ‘the poor’ a tidal wave of foul language and disrespect. Christian groups worried about the state of the institution of marriage see in ‘the underclass’ too much fornication and too many single mums. Left-wing academics who find materialism distasteful see a rising tide of mental illness – or what they call ‘affluenza’ – amongst less well-off people who are only interested in acquiring more ‘stuff’ rather than becoming better people. And so on and so on.

Time and again, across the political spectrum, from the conservative right to the radical left, people cite ‘the poor’ and their depraved antics as a way of promoting their own prejudices. ‘The poor’ have become a kind of vast political library for politicians and opinion-formers, who go in, borrow an anecdote or a horrible image, and then use it to push their narrow political agendas.

The unreliability of this library, the fact that it is little more than a gallery of imaginary horrors that the chattering classes pilfer from, was brilliantly summed up in a recent Conservative Party report which claimed the following: ‘In the most deprived areas of England, 54 per cent are likely to fall pregnant before the age of 18.’ Actually, it’s not 54 per cent but 5.4 per cent. But decimal points don’t matter when your aim is simply to paint a picture of doom designed to make you look morally upstanding in contrast to the immoral poor.

The problem with all this stuff is not only that it is ill-informed and snobbish and annoying, although it is all of those things. The real problem is that this orgy of moralism towards ‘the poor’ increases and exacerbates the very thing that is actually denigrating poor communities today: external intervention.

The demand of all these underclass-obsessed agents of doom is always more state or political or charity intervention into poor people’s lives, whether it is more tough policing or what they call ‘tough love’. More CCTV cameras or more charity assistance. More cops on the street or more welfare handouts. More parenting classes, more relationship education, more psychological analysis, more food advice, more dog-training expertise… all of this and more is now offered to ‘the poor’, as every area of their lives becomes fair game for the meddling of experts and emissaries from the welfare state.

From the right to the left, there’s now a desire to lift ‘the poor’ out of their moral and economic squalor by re-educating them or wrapping the welfare safety net more tightly around them. This is a disaster, because the problem facing ‘the poor’ today is not their own moral turpitude or some natural propensity to violence and gluttony – it is the dictatorship of do-gooders that wants to colonise their lives. It is this dictatorship of do-gooders that weakens community bonds by inviting poor people to become more reliant on the state than they are on each other. It is this dictatorship of do-gooders that ruptures family ties by communicating to children the message that there are experts out there who are better at bringing them up than their own parents are. It is this dictatorship of do-gooders that undermines free-spiritedness and aspiration in less well-off communities by welfarising every aspect of their existences.

It is fashionable these days to talk about balancing freedom and responsibility, as if there is a contradiction between these two things. But there is no contradiction. Indeed, it is only through being free that you can become a morally responsible being. It is only through exercising freedom of thought and speech and choice that you can become morally autonomous and properly responsible for your life and its direction. As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, ‘The human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity and even moral preference are exercised only in making a choice. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are only improved by being used.’

Today, people’s mental and moral powers are being decommissioned, weakened, undermined, put out to pasture by the relentless intervention of the welfare, nanny and psychological states into their lives, constantly telling them how to parent, how to eat, even how to think about themselves and their futures. So next time one of those snobs obsessed with rescuing ‘the underclass’, and its children and its pets, wonders out loud why there seems to be a lack of spirit and drive in some poor communities, you should tell them: ‘It’s your fault. Get out.’

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. The above is an edited transcript of a speech he gave in London on 22 October 2011.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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