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Rich people telling middle class people to hate poor people

Updated on May 19, 2013
Monroe Co. Poorhouse. C. 1880
Monroe Co. Poorhouse. C. 1880 | Source

The rich have always feared the poor and perhaps secretly envied how many of the moderately poor managed to be happy with almost nothing. Money, it was wisely proclaimed, does not buy happiness, but few mentioned that lack of money can buy a lot of unhappiness. And the rich long ago embarked on a campaign to sell unhappiness to the poor. To do this the rich used the middle class in their war against the poor.

The protestant work ethic was invented as a tool to justify keeping the poor in their place but also trapped the middle classes in a puritan culture of repression and self denial that the pilgrim fathers exported to the land of the free. The upper classes of course were too smart to fall for that trick and continued the way they had always done.

The 2008 recession gave conservatives in the UK and the US an excuse, the cost of the Bankers Bonus Bailout, to reduce the safety net against absolute poverty built up over decades which was praised by that noted socialist Sir Winston Churchill. In order to prevent a backlash of public sympathy for the poor it was necessary to portray the poor as work shy scroungers. The origins of this war on the poor and disabled can be traced back at least to the Thatcher years and arguably to the reformation.

Now having successfully disinformed the British public the Government have, in June 2012, trumpeted plans to cut housing benefit to young people and large families, totalling less than 1% of government spending on welfare. A symbolic cut designed to penalise the poor which will have no practical effect.

Of course some cosmetic action was taken earlier about MPs expenses and a few scapegoats prosecuted. However the campaign against the poor helped people forget about that little matter.

Attacking the poor

In the early hours of Friday 11th May 2012 someone poured petrol through the letterbox of the Philpott household and started a fire in which six children died.

The parents were charged with murder. The murder charges were later changed to manslaughter charges. This does not mean the fire was an effort to get better housing. Recklessness and stupidity are never far away nor does it invalidate my discussion of the media response to the tragedy and the apparent manipulation of public opinion towards acceptance of marginal public spending cuts ( much less than 1% of public spending ) by demonising the poor.

I also anticipate that if found guilty the parents will be subtly presented as typical benefit claimants.

According to the Independent newspaper a woman called Carole Malone argued, on morning TV, without actually condoning the crime, that the family had brought this on themselves. She called the fire an accident (!) waiting to happen to be precise she is quoted as saying[2]

'This was an accident waiting to happen. There's a lot of resentment out there for families exactly like this, especially now, especially with the country in the state that it's in, there's not much money and people have seen families maybe like this one taking advantage.'

and added

'This family became a target a couple of years ago and I suspect they have many enemies out there because they were seen to be on benefits, they were seen to be asking for a bigger council house and I think they upset a lot of people at the time.'

When it was pointed out that the fire was confirmed as arson, not an accident the said

'I mean the culture of the family and the fact that they consistently did interviews about their situation. They did bring attention to themselves. The tragedy; this is what's happened. Six innocent children have died as a result.'

I presume Ms Malone would object if a rape victim were said to have brought the rape on themselves. However that is a side point here. Ms Malone represents a slice of public opinion that comes too close to applauding the arson simply because of who the victims were.

Suppose for a second she was trying to understand the roots of this crime. It is then perhaps poetic justice that she is receiving a similar response to the response right wingers, following riots in the 1990s made to those trying to to understand what had happened, that trying to understand was to condone.

But it is wrong to pay too much attention to Malone's statement except as examples of an attitude that considers the poor, especially benefit claimants, as life not worthy of life that considers those who have become poor as a result of the recession. Although the Independent metaphorically took Malone to pieces the article noted that she represents a prejudice growing in the UK under the impact of austerity measures that are arguably making the recession worse.

But it is also worth noting the attempt to portray a working single mother as an unemployed scrounger [7| as supporting the notion there is a deliberate campaign to present the poor as parasites living on taxpayer's money. Subtle bias is the hardest to detect and this event should raise some skepticism about media reporting.

Since the parents are presumed innocent until found guilty it is possible to argue that the fact the family had appeared on TV and had asked for a larger house directly caused some unbalanced person to start the fire, just as in the early 1990s Christian Fundamentalists set fire to a Pagan Bookshop when there was a baby sleeping in the flat above the shop. There are always those of doubtful sanity and when they do things like this they should be tried and sent to prison or to an asylum. One commentator said they blamed the government for spreading hatred of people on benefits, but the problem seems to me to have older deeper and darker roots.

Religion and the Work Ethic: Weapons of Mass Demonisation

Jesus said there is always poverty. He also praised those who fed the poor and healed the sick, something America's religious right feel should not be done with tax dollars in a Christian country, though the use of tax dollars for waging illegal unjust and redundant wars is perfectly acceptable: attitudes mirrored on the right wing of British politics. I have heard statements, from working and middle class people ( including many on the Shout99 website) that attack single mothers and welfare claimants. I have also, for a long time, noted how government policy, especially under New Labour, has acted to lend credibility to some of these claims (and I have argued with the people making these claims, a debate that has sometimes become acrimonious ). I anticipate being called racist or a Nazi if I even repeat them, and they are beyond the scope of this article.

There is an age old suspicion that the poor breed too fast and at the expense of hard working people through taxes. Some of this is just hatred of the poor and snobbery: In the 19th century, I read, one Glasgow priest who worked with the poor was told by his parishioners that doing so was not fit work for a man of God. For centuries there has been a classification of the poor into the deserving poor who know their place at the bottom of society, and the undeserving poor.

After the Protestant Reformation contemporary Big Business sponsored theologians who developed the Protestant Work Ethic as a way of blaming the poor for poverty and the attitude that the poor were poor because they would rather be poor than work became widespread among a middle class who accepted the aristocracy, who did not need to work, as superior, and the poor, who could not find work, as inferior. These attitudes persist today.

Fast forward to the 192os and the eugenics movement which resulted in the sterilisation of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, with Blacks over represented, the 1970s claims by Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher's mentor that "our human stock is threatened" by single parents "In [social] classes 4 and 5" having too many children and the current theory, allegedly a conspiracy theory, that there are plans to reduce the world population to 500 million by putting contraceptives into vaccines sold to developing countries. One science fiction writer write a story based on the premise that the less intelligent bred faster than the intelligent and constructed a society of morons shepherded by a few bright people. It is perhaps unfair to castigate a story teller for attitudes they may not actually hold, but the premise probably reflected a fairly widespread public attitude.

Before the 2010 election one politician argued that long-term claimants had to "take responsibility' for the number of children they had, and that the state would no longer fund large workless families. But just 3.4 per cent of families in long-term receipt of benefits have four children or more. Nevertheless these are taken as typical not extremes. And those who adopt this tactic get upset at suggestions that, for example, the UK MPs expenses scandal, the News of the World phone hacking scandal, the Cash for Questions scandal, the Cash for Honours Scandal, among others, are examples of endemic corruption in the UK political establishment.

"Benefit Cheats"

In [1] Owen Jones argues that the Tories decided to cut spending by making the poor poorer, the banks having managed to make the middle classes poorer already with a recession that could arguably have been planned and choreographed. To do this it was necessary to paint the poor, the unemployed and those claiming benefits as work shy and irresponsible to prevent any possible public sympathy for them. A similar process took place in the USA so we hear of UK benefit claimants with wall size flat screen TVs (in the early nineties ministers claimed benefits were too hight because some claimants had TVs and video players) and in the USA of “welfare queens” in Cadillacs. Again atypical cases are taken as typical.

In the mid nineties the Tories launched a crackdown on benefit fraud claiming it was costing £600 million pounds. I pointed out to my MP that this was less than 0.3% of the welfare bill. In the next crackdown the alleged cost had soared to £12 BILLION pounds. And it climbed with later crackdowns. Benefit Fraud does exist and at one time it was a source of income for the IRA, but according to [1] government figures say it is less than 1% of welfare spending (£111 Billion). which is itself only 15% of total government spending and is estimated to fall in the next few years, the major increase being in public sector pensions which already exceed welfare spending and will rise dramatically [8]. However extreme examples of fraud are claimed to be the tip of the iceberg rather than outliers.

The long term (since Thatcher's time) demonisation of the poor and those on social security has also led to an increase in attacks on the disabled. Note that the last Labour government refused to consider blind people as disabled.

The Wrap

For centuries the rich have used the middle class as front line troops in a war against the poor. The Protestant Work Ethic allowed the prosperous and respectable burghers of Europe to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the poor and disabled. In the 20th century the practice of Eugenics gave way, via the Holocaust, to use of the Matthew Effect, “To him that hath shall be given, from him that hath not shall be taken even what he has”.

At the time I wrote this the head of the Arnold Clark car dealer chain was claiming that 85% of Scottish youth are unfit for work because their apprenticeships involved only 18 hours work a week. I just note that in one company I worked for senior management had similar attitudes and would leave Mahogany Row empty from 2pm, taking their golf clubs with them on return from a three hour lunch. I also note that his comments can be taken to indicate that most work is unsuitable for humans.

A while after I read of a Tory MP claiming young people should work for less than the minimum wage [9] and allegedly said they should be busking if they could not afford a train fare to get to London to seek work. He also claimed post 16 education was worthless to employers. Apparently he based the latter remark on something a solitary businessman said to him and the former on a conversation with a former advertising executive who had busked to get a train fare. Of course employing someone for less than the minimum wage is illegal. The Tory party calls itself the party of Law and Order and generalisation from stray remarks is an evidence based policy proposal. But then evidence might contradict his opinions.

I do not know how the problems of removing the underclass created in this war on the poor can be squared with responsible fiscal policy but it seems clear that in waging war on the poor, in order to prevent a public backlash and salve the consciences (if any) of those carrying out this policy, the poor especially those on benefits were presented as demons preying on the taxpayer.


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