Laying into the poor

From the US to China, Owen Jones documents how the demonization of the have-nots is going global.

In a society ridden with inequality, the demonization of poor people is not accidental. It is a convenient means of justifying unfair distributions of wealth and power: of cementing the idea that those at the bottom deserve their place. Neither is it new. In his 1930s classic The Road to Wigan Pier, British author George Orwell recounts that ‘a middle-class child is taught almost simultaneously to wash his neck, to be ready to die for his country, and to despise the “lower classes”.’

Mao’s ‘heroes’ brought low – a peasant farmer begs in a Beijing subway.

Guang Niu

In Victorian Britain, the ‘residuum’ was used in much the same way as ‘underclass’ is deployed today. In the late 19th century Arnold White – a rightwing demagogue who would not be out of place in the current political climate – argued that only one in five jobless Britons were ‘genuinely unemployed’. Another 40 per cent were simply ‘feckless and incapable’, while the remaining 40 per cent were wholly degenerate. Such arguments are disturbingly familiar today.

Indeed, the demonization of those living in poverty has intensified in Western societies, the Global South and the East alike. But it is the natural accompaniment of a global offensive that is cementing the power and position of the wealthiest elements, while often hard-won rights are stripped from the poorest in society.

‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,’ argued Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, as global economies reeled from the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. ‘But what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.’

It might not have been his intention, but this beautifully summed up the approach of a number of governments: to use a crisis to push policies to shift the balance of power even further in the interests of the wealthy, at the expense of working people.

'I often come across middle-class city dwellers in China who express contempt and hatred for the poor...'

As the New York Times reported, 93 per cent of the income gains in the first official year of economic recovery went to the top one per cent in the US. Indeed, male median wages in the US are now lower than they were in 1973. It is against this backdrop that the suggestion from millionaire Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (remember him?) that 47 per cent of Americans were freeloaders must be understood.

Recruiting the middle class

Much of this form of demonization dates from the 1960s, when Democratic presidents introduced social reforms for minority groups but paid for them by hiking taxes on middle-income Americans rather than on corporations and the wealthy. For example, the tax burden on the average American family nearly doubled between the mid-1950s and 1980, while corporate taxes as a percentage of federal receipts went from over a fifth to 14.6 per cent in the decade after 1965. The rhetoric of ‘welfare queens’ leeching off ‘middle-class America’ tapped into this resentment – and, as 2012’s presidential election revealed, so it remains.

Although drawing on a tradition going back centuries, the current wave of demonization of poor people in Britain began during Margaret Thatcher’s ideological crusade in the 1980s. On the eve of power, she argued that there was ‘no primary poverty left in this country’, arguing that if people were poor, it was ‘because they don’t know how to budget, don’t know how to spend their earnings’. In reality, she claimed, ‘you are left with the really hard fundamental character-personality defect’. And this was at the heart of Thatcherite dogma: that poverty and unemployment were not social problems, but rather individual failings. And if being poor was down to fecklessness or a lack of effort, then why support a welfare state that subsidized people’s personal weaknesses?

But it is during the financial crisis that such demonization has flourished. According to projections from the prestigious Resolution Foundation, the average Briton will be poorer in 2020 than they were at the turn of the century. Those in the bottom 10 per cent face a drop in real incomes of 15 per cent. It is a sustained drop in living standards without precedent since the 1920s. A study by Save the Children revealed that parents are choosing between heating their homes and feeding their children; one in eight of the poorest children are going without a hot meal a day. It is reported that schools are cutting back on the size of meals because of budget cuts; breakfast clubs are being slashed, too. Britain is the seventh-richest country on the planet, and yet it can apparently no longer afford to feed its poorest children.

And yet it remains boom-time for the wealthy. Each year The Sunday Times publishes a Rich List of the wealthiest 1,000 Britons. In 2011, their fortunes surged by nearly a fifth; in 2010, they jumped by 30 per cent, the biggest rise ever recorded. Convenient, then, to redirect people’s justifiable anger at their ever-declining living standards away from those at the top who are responsible for the crisis.

There have been attempts to turn the working poor against the unemployed; the non-disabled against disabled people; and private sector workers against public sector workers. As Sarah Teather, a former government minister, put it: ‘Whenever there is any hint of opposition they wheel out a caricature of a family, usually a very large family, probably black.’ There was a ‘rapid erosion of sympathy for people on benefits,’ she argued, adding that the attempt ‘to stoke up envy and division between people in order to gain popularity at the expense of children’s lives is immoral’.

It is a campaign of demonization backed by politicians and journalists alike. Extreme, unsympathetic examples are passed off as representative of the poorest. For example, earlier in the year, The Sunday Times ran an article headlined with ‘End the something for nothing culture’, above a photograph of a feckless family from the TV comedy-drama Shameless, as though such fictional caricatures were real life.

In another such example, rightwing commentator Rod Liddle suggested that his new year’s resolution was ‘to become disabled’ so that he could claim benefits. The Sun – Britain’s most read newspaper – has launched what it describes as a ‘crusade to end the scandalous benefits fraud crippling the country’. Benefit fraud in Britain is estimated to be worth less than one per cent of welfare spending, or $1.9 billion a year; compare that to $40 billion lost through tax avoidance by the wealthiest.

From Mao’s heroes to peasant ‘scum’

China’s may be a radically different society from Britain’s, but similar themes are evident. Following the Chinese Revolution, the rural peasant and urban worker were glorified, admittedly often in a patronizing fashion.

As China expert Gregor Benton puts it: ‘In the Mao years, there was a sustained campaign to force city types and cadres to “learn from the poor peasants”. But following Deng Xiaoping’s assumption to power, there was a dramatic shift in course. ‘Let some people get rich first,’ he declared. Adopting the slogan of xiaokang – or an ideal society providing properly for its citizens – Xiaoping unleashed market forces in the Chinese economy.

Children living in low quality housing in Britain. The poorest 10 per cent of families are facing an income drop of 15 per cent.

Karen Robinson / Panos

Although the real income of peasants increased by 14 per cent in the first six years of Xiaoping’s experiment, they began stagnating or even declining after 1995, while charges were imposed for rural education and healthcare. And after a startlingly fast process of industrialization, around one in ten Chinese citizens are now internal migrants, often living in ramshackle conditions in the slums of the city and deprived of access to services. Despite explosive economic growth, only 24 million out of the country’s 1.3 billion people make enough money to be taxed. Per capita income remains around $7,600, below that of Angola.

Many of the free market policies have put the regime on a collision course with the poor. Violent evictions are on the increase as local authorities forcibly sell off land to developers, according to a recent report by Amnesty International. This represents, it says, ‘a gross violation of human rights obligations on a massive scale’. Of 40 forced evictions examined in detail by Amnesty, nine culminated in the deaths of people protesting or resisting eviction. In addition, between 2009 and 2011, there were 41 cases of self-immolation due to forced evictions – four times as many such deaths as during the entire previous decade. And it’s not just in the countryside: in September, 2,000 Apple factory workers rioted in the northern city of Taiyuan.

As well as protest, social inequality has been accompanied by a change in attitudes. ‘The Chinese media hero-worships the rich and successful far more slavishly than the Western media,’ says journalist John Sexton, who is based in Kunming, southwest China. Newspapers and magazines promote the fantastical lifestyles of the super-élite, and when the poor appear at all, it is as those ‘who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to become billionaires or as patient, uncomplaining hard workers’.

In novels, the poor are often portrayed as dangerous, violent and irrational. In the Chinese martial arts film Ip Man, rich masters were positively portrayed, in comparison to the rural poor who were characterized as near savages.

Britain is the world's seventh-richest country and yet it can no longer afford to feed its poorest children

Negative attitudes are endemic among newly affluent Chinese citizens. ‘I often come across middle-class city dwellers who express contempt and hatred for the poor,’ says Sexton, describing terms such as ‘scum’ which are casually tossed about. Gregor Benton agrees: ‘There is not much concept of charity in China, and little sympathy or empathy,’ he says. ‘Poverty is liable to be derided.’

A survey conducted by researchers Deborah S Davis and Wang Feng revealed that it was the swelling ranks of the urban working-class who felt that inequality and social injustice were most acute.

Such growing division has not escaped the attention of the regime. In 2004, a poll of senior Communist Party officials revealed that most believed the income gap was the biggest social problem facing China, far exceeding crime or corruption.

Although the contexts differ between countries, the growing gap between rich and poor – and the redistribution of wealth and power to the élite – are common themes. The demonization of those at the bottom is an alarming but inevitable corollary. It is an ideological justification for profoundly unequal societies, giving a rationale for obscenely unjust distributions of wealth. If those at the bottom can be demonized as work-shy or as social threats to be contained, then arguments for a welfare state – or for governments to challenge inequalities – can be fatally undermined.

Only by linking together struggles from below can this global offensive be challenged. Britain, the United States and China all have differing traditions of movements which organize to resist wealthy élites. As the 19th-century African-American Frederick Douglass put it: ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’ The global war against the poor is real; but with sufficient confidence and organization from below, it can be sent hurtling into reverse.

Owen Jones is author of the bestselling Chavs – the demonization of the working class. He writes a regular column for the Independent newspaper in London.