Friday, 19 August 2016

New Project: Notes from the Underclass

Hold onto your nuts, I have started a new blog on Medium called 'Notes from the Underclass'. Pretension and procrastination continue to be my main skills. I intend to rejuvenate this platform too, and generally refocus my efforts.

As I am unemployed for the time being, I thought I would blog about the arduous task of applying for universal credit and chart the process (which could take up to six weeks). I also intend to interview people who have been living on benefits for far longer than I have. The point being to get the insights of ordinary people completely overlooked, marginalised and vilified by the media and political class.

This is not meant to be a long-term project, as I intend to get hired soon, but it is meant to provide some illumination and humour on unemployment. It's not enough to be morose about the state of affairs in the world. Though it is certainly understandable.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

'The Evidence': Unemployed? Prove it!

If you’re unemployed, can you prove it? Actually, can you even prove you exist? And, if you do exist, can you prove you’re you? Apparently, I can’t. Not according to Universal Credit’s Mail Handling Site B in Wolverhampton. This must be a common problem because Site B felt the need to send me one of the standardised letters. You know, the kind of letter typed up by a robot.
“You must provide evidence to support your claim to Universal Credit,” the letter goes. “We asked you to provide some evidence to support your Universal Credit claim, please contact us on the number above. It is important that you provide this evidence as your payments may be delayed or your Universal Credit claim closed.”
So I could have to restart my entire application because I have no idea what they want from me. The letter does not specify anything. I received this letter after a week out of town. It was sent out on the day after the last timeI went into the job centre.
As requested, I provided copies of my passport, tenancy agreement, bank account, birth certificate, change of name deeds and my national insurance number. What could the evidence be? I suppose I’d best call them, and sit through Vivaldi’s Spring once more, to play it safe.
Of course, there is no name on the letter, just the title ‘Office Manager’ to sign off with. Although the letters are churned out en masse, I do like to imagine Site B as a soulless factory floor, complete with dead-eyed staff and a conveyor belt, feeding countless letters to waiting vans.
Clear sheets of paper are passed through row after row of printing machines, the same words pressed onto them in unison, to be sorted into envelopes and neatly stacked. Every letter requires a different address, so the paper is filtered by a set of robots armed with ink and the right details, before heading facing human eyes.
I like to think the main task for the human staff is to check for typos and provide the necessary saliva to seal each envelope. I feel for them. At least the machines can’t get sad. It’s an assembly-line of bad news just for the people trying to claim benefits, but especially for the people who forgot to include a bank statement. It is meant to be efficient, but it’s just not.
How many addresses do they get wrong? What happens if one of the robots breaks down? Is there a vast sorting machine for hate mail sent back? Perhaps there is a special conveyor belt to carry all the angry tirades directly into the mouth of a blazing furnace.
This would surely keep Site B going all night long. Imagine it: A public building powered entirely by despair. It would befit the benefits system devised by sadistic politicians and their half-witted and cretinous bureaucrats. Maybe this is the answer to climate change.
Woe to the people who work in such places. What truly miserable lives they must lead. The machines can’t cry for them, but they should.
This article was originally written for Notes from the Underclass.

Brexit as Class War

In the wake of Brexit, we were told the vote was a great revolt by the white working-class. We were told it was grounded in racist discontent with an out-of-touch metropolitan elite. The Leave vote was entirely composed of ill-educated, poor racists living anywhere between the progressive bastions of London and Scotland. It's worth asking what's wrong with this view.

Too much bile has been directed towards the working-class for voting the wrong way. It's as if europhilic liberals cannot bring themselves to look in the mirror and examine the Remain campaigns for any failing. And the EU is left beyond scrutiny. Instead the working-class is supposed to play the scapegoat for an incoherent and lacklustre campaign strategy.

There are no legitimate reasons to advocate Brexit, in this view, the vote is simply an expression of racism and ignorance. Importantly, the European political terrain is increasingly split between liberalism and nationalism with each side helping to constitute the other. This basic antagonism has dominated the entire EU debate and, in turn, shaped the way the working-class has been tarred by middle-class journalists.

My first reaction was to characterise Brexit as a "fuck you" vote. I still think it was, but not necessarily by people who have been left behind by globalisation. As Zoe Williams has pointed out, it was the Southern English middle-class that tipped the balance – not working-class Northerners. This should not be a surprise. Middle-class and elite votes play a major role in all elections, as they dominate the whole discourse, the media and political agenda.

No War Like Class War

By holding a vote, David Cameron hoped to resolve the tension within the ruling-class and his own party. He did not believe he could lose the referendum because he was so accustomed to winning on every occasion. There was no game plan for an exit. So when the men who had always won everything finally lost, they had no idea what to do – and they still don't. But this is not the fullest account of the character of the vote.

Although the ruling-class was thinking of its own interests, the middle-classes and the working poor were significant actors. The breakdown of the Leave vote in ABC terms of class, not necessarily the best analysis, it must be said, shows 10 million upper/middle-class votes and seven million working-class votes cast for Brexit. By contrast, the Remain vote was made up of 12 million upper/middle-class votes with around four million working-class votes.

Similarly, the base of UKIP is often wrongly described as working-class and eating into the Labour vote. Actually UKIP has primarily threatened the Conservative Party, and often overtook it in Labour constituencies because so few locals would vote Tory. The UKIP base is petty-bourgeois with some elements of the poor and the rich backing them. Nigel Farage may be the first ultra-rightist to lead a party based on a cross-class alliance.

So we find the narrative of a working-class revolt is somewhat inaccurate. As in most votes, the working-class was present, but key roles were played by elite interests and middle-class votes. This is not to diminish the role of the votes cast by working-class people. Certainly, the grievances of the working-class were a significant factor. But the fact that the Leave vote was a convergence of different class forces should not surprise us.

Likewise, the vote was not a case of total white flight, though it is mostly. Around 33% of Asian voters opted for Brexit, alongside 27% of black voters. Again, this is not to explain away the role of the racism. After all, you can still cast a vote to limit EU migration on the grounds that the system privileges EU nationals over migrants from other parts of the world. This is why multiculturalism did not prevent Birmingham from voting for exit.

In fact, Nigel Farage often made this Commonwealth argument against EU membership. The basic idea goes that the UK should become closer to its former colonies and not the small cluster of European states. This reveals more than a scintilla of colonial nostalgia is present in the kind of nationalism invoked by Brexit campaigners. The wish to "get my country back" can take a variety of forms. It harks back to a dead empire.

The Left and Brexit

Still, the key question for the Left is the role of the working-class. There are those on the radical Left, who made the progressive case for British withdrawal from the EU. Veteran agitators such as Tariq Ali and George Galloway rank in the Lexit camp. Many other socialists found themselves sympathetic to this argument thanks to the EU's austerity programme. Ultimately, the prospect of siding with Farage may have been too much to stomach.

Economist Paul Mason warned against a Lexit vote on pragmatic grounds: the timing was wrong, as the Left lacked a mass movement and leadership, to overhaul the status quo. One might wonder if the time is ever right. Others like John Pilger framed the Brexit vote as an "act of raw democracy" by millions of ordinary people. This repeats the idea that the working-class was in the driving seat and this vote was a "fuck you" to the ruling-class.

Not only is the working-class not in the driving seat, the sections of the poor which supported Brexit may well have done so out of nationalism. This does not mean there was no left-wing element in the Leave vote, though it is a fact that the Left was divided over the EU – which, at once, stands for freedom of movement and neoliberalism. Poor people fell on both sides of the debate too.

Yet the Lexit crowd wants to pretend that the working-class is vote was devoid of racism. This brings us to one of the classic fixations of the Left: if the working-class as a revolutionary agent, how is it that capitalism has not been overthrown? The easy answer is that it is deficient leadership on the part of trade unions and parties. While this may well be true, it does not rule out the possibility that the working-class is open to demobilisation, as well as reformist and reactionary politics.

If liberals are guilty of presupposing the inherent backwardness of the working-class, then a number of leftists can be criticised for claiming the working-class is inherently revolutionary or even communist already. The working-class has agency, and the potential for revolutionary agency, which means the choice is not between a unwashed xenophobic rabble and a red flag-waving proletariat.

Revolutionary Ideals

Obviously, class interests are not self-evident axioms. Classes are alive, they are not subject to test conditions, as they engage in the world and face changing social conditions. If working-class agency means anything, it means the ability to disagree and make independent choices. But this does not extend to the terms of the choice itself.

Even if the proletariat is not on the cusp of a great revolt, it is the Left that needs the working-class and, likewise, class politics is the only way forward for ordinary people. Left-wing ideals without class is a form of anti-politics. If a section of working people, or even a majority for that matter, are not mobilised by the Left, this would not vindicate those who say the poor are backward.

It is worth acknowledging that the main demand of Leave voters was national sovereignty, whereas immigration controls was a secondary concern. Not that this changes the fact that the dominant character of the vote was nationalist. Sovereignty is one of those few ambiguous demands backed by radical elements across the spectrum.

Nevertheless, the Left should not try to externalise racism from the working-class in a bid to save its own romantic view of the workers. The problem here is that it presupposes that the poor ought to have the right set of ideas in order for socialists to stand with them. In this sense, the constant yearning for a revolutionary agent collapses into its opposite.

This article was originally published at Souciant.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

The Joy of the Job Centre

Four days into my workless life, I head to the job centre early and ask to apply for Jobseekers Allowance. They tell me I can’t speak to someone, so I should use the computer instead. The computer tells me I’m eligible for Universal Credit, but not JSA. I apply for Universal Credit. At first, it tells me I am not eligible for Universal Credit before suggesting I apply for JSA, and call the following number… So I decided to go home and try again.
This time the virtual form worked. I filled out everything for Universal Credit and the ball appeared to be rolling. Pleased with this, I went about my workless daily life. I was out drinking with a friend the next day when I got the phone call: the job centre has penciled me in for 9.15am on Friday. On the surface, the process was fairly efficient. Rolling all benefits into one may have resolved the bureaucratic logjam after all. No, not quite!
On Friday, I go back with all my papers (IDs, bank statements, passport, tenancy etc.) for my 9.15am appointment. I’ve been assigned a work coach, but he’s nowhere to be found. Let’s call him Dick for the sake of anonymity. Dick is late, and, for whatever reason, there is no one else around. So I sit around until 10 when I finally get to talk to Dick about joblessness. But he can’t find one set of forms I filled out online. Apparently, the form went ‘missing’ in transit somewhere between the internet and the job centre.
The centre itself is a long corridor of desks, which you descend into by a short set of stairs, each little unit with its own phone and computer — and a camera watching over the work coach. The decor is bland, even the brightest fabrics of blue and red have been discoloured with age. The walls carry notices for recruitment drives and adverts proclaiming the virtues of the DWP: ‘Making work pay’. One notice is from the local council and it lists the attributes of a suitable candidate: 1) professional, 2) ambitious, 3) responsible and 4) human. I wonder what life must be like for an unemployed amphibian.
The job centre would be Kafkaesque if it were more intelligent. I’m told to call a new number, and after five minutes of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons I get to talk to a dour Scotswoman — who has all the warmth of a death march. I’m given an appointment for next Friday. I might get my money in 4–5 weeks. Or, I can ask for an advance… if I can make it past the endless recording of the Four Seasons. This is why the job centre has a camera at every desk, just in case one of the claimants decides to tear a chunk out of someone’s head!
The good news is that the payments will be backdated to when I first made my claim. Unlike most benefit claimants, I have savings and enough money in my account to make it through the next few weeks. As I’ve got two years of experience as a journalist, I’m also more likely to find work again. Even still, this new project isn’t really about me — it’s about the experiences of people living on benefits long-term.
Over the coming days and weeks, I aim to compile just some of the experiences of people getting by on so-called ‘hand-outs’. The system needs unemployment and poverty. This is the so-called ‘underclass’, those who live on virtually nothing. These are the people spat on by middle-class journalists and career politicians. I hope not to do them a disservice in what I write here on Medium.
This was originally written for Notes from the Underclass.