Things have only got better. If you don’t feel that, then you are probably some kind of communist who hates this country and turns up at one of the booming enterprises known as “food banks” for fun. Because it is a damn sight easier than trekking to the deli. I called 2012 “the year of the food bank”. This week the Trussell Trust said that three times as many people are now using them, with reports that the choice between heating and eating is even more bleak.
Nonetheless, everything is working out fine, with rising numbers in employment, according to David Cameron. George Osborne said that the use of food banks has increased simply because more people have found out about them from jobcentres. So this is a strange model: supply creates demand. The demand must have magicked itself into being and not arisen, as those who run the food banks suggest, from benefit problems or the three-day emergency food vouchers that doctors and social workers now issue. Do hungry children exist? Teachers say so. Parents say so, though they may go without to give kids toast for tea.
In the bizarre exchanges that constitute our politics, it is clear that the focus on “standards of living” has traction, largely because of the cognitive dissonance between what we are told we are experiencing and how it feels. Maybe I am being overly romantic, but there was a time when those in government at least affected to know how “ordinary people” lived. Now they don’t even pretend to know the price of milk, never mind the financial knife-edge that many live on, where the lateness of one overdue payment can drive people into despair.
If the recovery is underway – the new mantra – how come people have less money in their pockets? How come youth employment is refusing to budge, and a generation moves seamlessly into “the long-term unemployed”? Pay has stagnated, prices have gone up. To have avoided a fall in standards, one has to be either wealthy or asset-rich. This means owning property in London, as do most of the media/political class, me included.
Nonetheless, my standard of living is certainly affected by the distress all around: by the numbers of mentally ill people wandering the streets; by what happens in my child’s school; by seeing friends and family pushed out of hospital long before they are able to care for themselves. Austerity meant we quickly forgot the happiness index, but we must still comprehend that a decent standard of living comes from understanding rather than undermining mutual dependencies.
This is what underlies the ongoing argument over care for the elderly: cash versus care does not compute because care as a commodity has a different kind of value. Its value links the public to the private, stubbornly resisting easy marketisation; thus it is undersold. But having undersold the Royal Mail, it appears that the coalitions fail to understand markets at all. Earlier this week in this paper, shadow cabinet minister Stewart Wood correctly identified the “complete intellectual confusion” at the heart of the Cameron-Osborne project concerning the relationship between government and the market. Even the most pro-market folk realise reforms are necessary and in the public interest.
Globally, the pulling away of a super-rich class is deeply disturbing. Still, we are invited to celebrate the fact that Angela Ahrendts was able to “de-chav” Burberry and sell the brand in China and so can go to Apple on probably double her current £17m package. To exist with this ludicrous inequality, a twisted logic comes into play: a logic that makes those at the bottom accountable in ways those at the top never are. No one should be surprised at the thesis on education and genetics written by Dominic Cummings (Gove’s former special adviser). If those born to rule feel themselves to be born cleverer and richer than average, then those at the bottom are not just materially poorer but start off with poor genetic material. If this is so, what can government do about it and why should it even try?
Nonetheless, the endless rhetoric about getting people back to work where there is none keeps reproducing itself. So the jobless, the poor and uncared for must account every day for the awful reality of their own worklessness, or bad parenting, or general inadequacy. The entrepreneurial fantasy plays out on talent shows but becomes ever more impossible in a housing bubble. That even the middle classes don’t have a spare quarter of a million pounds to house their offspring is reported as a news story.
Politicians snipe over graphs of disposable income. Economic doublethink befuddles all parties. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith described doublethink as the ability to simultaneously hold two contradictory opinions, but a key aspect is also being able to repudiate morality while laying claim to it. This surely is where the debate about standards of living must start: the immorality of food banks in one of the world’s richest countries. Our standards of everything – mine and yours – are lowered by their existence. A society that tolerates this, a governnment that refuses to acknowledge why, is neither “big” nor clever. For, actually, the chancers or whoever these genetically poor folk are who use their services, are returning some food because they cannot afford to heat it up. This is no standard. This is not living.
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