Nothing unites people like a common enemy. As far back as the 19th century Chekhov wrote, “Love, friendship, respect, do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something.” Unscrupulous leaders throughout history have well known this and used it to their advantage.
Times right now are certainly tough. Austerity measures leading to savage cuts in public spending, increased use of food banks as well as low wages and sky rocketing energy bills… people everywhere are feeling the strain. Except some are feeling it noticeably more than others.
What we need is a war.
Only presumably we can’t afford one. In which case what better way to rally everyone together than to find a popular, sanctioned hate figure and – through the not so subtle manipulation of the media – whip the masses up into a frenzy.
Enter Benefits Street. A fly on the wall, reality style programme documenting the trials and tribulations of some of the residents of James Turner Street, Birmingham – according to the programme makers one of the most benefit dependent streets in Britain.
Out of equal parts morbid curiosity and desire to reach an informed opinion, I forced myself to watch episode 3. And what I saw was the kind of grinding poverty some might assume would no longer exist in modern day Britain.
A young couple, Mark and Becky, struggle to bring up two young children with no money, a mound of debt, barely any furniture, and next to no parenting skills. A well meaning and anxious Becky baths her son and tries to make her living room presentable in anticipation of a visit from the health visitor, whom she fears will see her difficulties in coping and remove her son from her care. Later in the programme a po-faced Sure Start worker comes to visit the family, and on hearing some neighbours outside the house loudly discussing a stabbing, informs Becky that her child should not really be being exposed to that sort of thing. Quite right he shouldn’t. No child should have to be exposed to many of the desperate kinds of circumstances depicted on James Turner Street. The fact that they are is not Becky’s fault.
Another young woman, fighting to stay clean after years of heroin addiction, phones her sons guardian, desperate for news of how he’s doing and wanting to arrange a time when she can go to see him. The phone is put down on her and she breaks down in tears.
Meanwhile the matriarch of the street, White Dee – a single mother of two – has her benefits stopped, leaving her with next to no income with which to feed and clothe her family. There are new school uniforms to be bought and she is at a loss. Swearing and smoking, she huffs down the phone trying to chase up a repeat prescription for her anti-depressants, doles out advice and cups of tea to other residents, and lends her laptop to Mark and Becky so that they can look up local parenting classes.
All in all it’s grim. Mattresses and sofas lay around on the street outside, people hang around with nothing to do, and dysfunction reigns. There is not a pot to piss in. One might assume that a natural response would be for people to feel compassion, sympathy, and possibly anger at a system that creates the kind of inequality that does this to people.
But of course the programme is called Benefits Street. And they’re all on benefits. Which somehow seems to magically transform them from fellow, equal human beings stuck in a poverty trap that renders them underpriviledged, vulnerable, and without much hope for the future, into feckless scroungers with not a care in the world, living high on the hog, their enviable lifestyles funded by the financially crippled and hardworking taxpayer.
As a result, tweets and comments now abound all over the internet calling for benefits claimants everywhere to be gassed, hung and shot. Imagine the response if any other section of society were subject to these threats. But instead of issuing any condemnation, one can only assume David Cameron is rubbing his hands in glee while a triumphant Iain Duncan Smith uses the programme – and the fact that some of the participants have the audacity to own television sets – to justify yet further cuts to the welfare state.
The common enemy has been thoroughly held up, scapegoated, demonised and villified, and it all seems to suit them really rather well.
Which made me think yesterday as I read about a young man named Twiggy Garcia (clearly the best name ever in the history of names) who, upon spotting Tony Blair dining in the restaurant where he worked, approached him and attempted to make a citizens arrest.
Apparently Blair’s response was to decline Garcia’s invitation to accompany him to the nearest police station and try to engage him in a debate about Syria instead, but that’s not really the point. The point is that if Tony Blair can, theoretically, be arrested by a concerned citizen for war crimes, then surely members of our current government – given the evidence of their determination to incite and stoke hostility towards the countries poorest and most vulnerable – can be arrested for hate crimes?
The powers that be wish to dismantle the welfare state on which we all potentially rely. Only by dehumanising those currently dependent on it can they gather the support necessary to achieve their aims. Programmes like Benefits Street are simply one more weapon in the armoury. It’s time to reconsider who is the real common enemy.