Book Review: ‘The New Poverty’

The New Poverty

Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, December 2017 – January 2018 | Issue 2612 – 2613

Stephen Armstrong shows how consecutive governments have abandoned Britain’s most vulnerable citizens and overseen the gradual dismantling of a welfare state that once protected them. Importantly, Armstrong also tells the stories of those most affected.

Beginning with the 1942 Beveridge Report – the founding document of Britain’s welfare state – Armstrong outlines how, by adopting its recommendations, postwar governments were largely successful in eradicating what the report called the five ‘giants’ blocking the road of reconstruction: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. Today, 75 years on, these five evils have returned and, as Armstrong argues, many of those postwar achievements are now in ‘grave danger of being entirely undone’.

The statistics are shocking. In the UK, the world’s fifth-largest economy, there are now over 13 million people living in poverty, with an estimated one in five children living below the poverty line. Worse still, two-thirds of children in poverty live in a household where someone works. Work, Armstrong writes, is no longer a guaranteed path out of poverty.

The reasons? Armstrong points to decades of deregulation in the name of a ‘flexible labour market’, along with shady employment practices and adjustments to the benefit systems, which have left millions in low-paid, precarious employment. These folks drift in and out of the official definition of poverty each year – they are the ‘new poor’.

Blending statistical data and analysis with some truly horrific personal stories, Armstrong explains with great clarity how these new poor have the odds increasingly stacked against them, from the premiums they pay on energy bills and food shopping to the culture of debt engulfing them as a result of the financialisation of our economy.

Armstrong shows how the poorest are increasingly forced to rent homes in substandard and hazardous conditions. On health, he shows how unaffordable treatment has led to the gruesome rise of DIY dentistry and a ‘black health economy’. People in the poorest neighbourhoods now not only suffer longer GP waiting hours and generally poorer health, but they die, on average, seven years earlier than those living in affluent areas.

You cannot turn the pages of this book without feeling a visceral sense of outrage. With chapters on digital deprivation (the poorest 20 percent of the population lack access to the internet, depriving them of work opportunities and democratic participation), the socio-economic divisions across Britain underscored by Brexit, and the failure of our media to adequately report what’s going on, this is a timely book that deserves a wide readership. Highly recommended for all concerned citizens.

 

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Book Review: ‘Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India’

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India By Shashi Tharoor

Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, August – September 2017 | Issue 2608 – 2609

Over the years, many writers and scholars have challenged the view that the British empire was, in Winston Churchill’s words, a ‘valiant and benignant force in the history of mankind’. Shashi Tharoor’s latest book on British rule in India aims to combat what he calls Britain’s ‘historical amnesia’ over its past atrocities.

Drawing on an impressive array of historical sources, Tharoor claims that, prior to British rule, India was one of the richest countries in the world, with a 23 percent share of the global economy, as large as all of Europe put together (Britain’s share was just 1.8 percent). India’s steel, shipbuilding and textile industries were world-leading and its architectural achievements among the finest.

Then the British East India Company arrived in the 17th century, with its private army and royal backing to ‘wage war’ in pursuit of its aims. It pillaged India’s economy; looting its treasure, stealing its steel manufacturing techniques, dismantling its shipping industry, transferring its textile production to Britain, manipulating its currency, extracting punitive taxes, and fixing tariffs and regulations to favour British industry. Between the East India Company’s conquest and the British state assuming control in 1858, India went from being a mass exporter of finished goods to a mass importer of British wares, heavily dependent on its colonial master for trade. By 1900, its share of the global economy had fallen to just 2 percent. ‘Britain’s industrial revolution’, Tharoor writes, ‘was built on the destruction of India’s thriving manufacturing industries’. He also details the incessant brutality inflicted on Indians by the British. In what he rightly calls the ‘British colonial holocaust’ in India, up to 35 million people died in famines, many of which were induced and exacerbated by British policy.

During the Bengal famine of 1943, British prime minister Winston Churchill, despite pleas from his own officials, not only refused to send aid but continued to ship rice out of Bengal to serve as ‘buffer stocks’ for European soldiers. Around four million in the region, mainly Bengalis, died in the famine, which, according to Churchill, was the fault of Indians for ‘breeding like rabbits’.

Tharoor also refutes the claim, made by historians such as Niall Ferguson, that India has Britain to thank for its democracy, legal system and railways, stating that these supposed ‘gifts’ were, in their colonial origins, established mainly for the benefit of the rulers and not the ruled. The railways, for example, were not built to transport Indians, but to transport troops and goods for British industry, and the colonial courts did not bring justice to all, but were horribly racist against Indians. Moreover, Tharoor points to the fomenting of divisions among Indians and the deliberate policy of ‘divide and rule’ that helped the British consolidate their domination and contributed to the ‘horrors of partition that eventually accompanied the collapse of British authority in 1947’. More than a million people are estimated to have died in inter-communal violence between Hindus and Muslims during Partition.

While at times repetitive, sketchy, and prone to the odd sweeping statement – Tharoor does not claim it to be a scholarly work and admits his decision to write it was ‘made rashly’ – Inglorious Empire is nonetheless an impressive collection of historical information, well-written, well-argued and well worth reading.

Book Review: ‘Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy’

Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy by Peter Ranis

Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, June – July 2017 | Issue 2606 – 2607

Consider a system of organised production in which a single person (owner) or a group of people (shareholders) at the top make all the decisions and give the orders; they decide everything from rates of wages to what is produced, how and where it is produced and where it is sold.

Below them are managers who receive and transmit the orders to a group of workers further down the pecking order who are permitted to sell their labour for just a fraction of the wages that those at the top grant themselves. This form of organisation characterises capitalism, that is, the private ownership of the means of production. It is inherently hierarchical and fosters relations of domination and subordination. It is, one might observe, totalitarian by nature.

Alternatively, consider a system of organised production in which a group of members collectively own, manage and democratically decide (via membership votes) everything from rates of wages to what is produced, how and where it is produced and where it is sold.

Furthermore, consider that managers, to the extent that they exist, are democratically elected by members and job roles are regularly rotated to ensure education and the betterment of skills for all members.

This form of organisation characterises socialism, that is, the worker ownership of the means of production. It is inherently egalitarian and, rather than sustaining relations of domination and subordination, it seeks to foster relations of co-operation and partnership based on mutual respect. It is, one might observe, democratic by nature.

That the former system prevails in our society is no law of nature. Indeed, as Peter Ranis shows in this book, the latter can and does represent a workable alternative to the dominant hierarchical structures of our prevailing modes of employment.

Presenting numerous case studies from across Europe, the US and Latin America, Ranis explores how co-operative organisations of the kind mentioned above have developed and prospered the world over in response to economic crises, global protest and the general desire of working people to emancipate themselves from the aristocracy of their employers.

By combining the work of key theorists such as Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci with that of contemporary political economists like Thomas Piketty, Josephn Stiglitz and Fred Block, Ranis provides a clear analysis of the ideas, achievements and historical context of the co-operative movement.

As he points out, the latter has always aimed to provide ‘a counter-narrative to the one that assumes only owners and managers can provide leadership and function effectively in the world of production’. Certainly, if this book provides anything for the reader, it is just this.

A worthwhile read for anyone interested in understanding alternative, more egalitarian modes of production and employment.

Book Review: ‘The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service’

The BBC: Myth of a Public Service by Tom Mills

Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, April – May 2017 | Issue 2604 – 2605

Historically there has been a general consensus across British politics and among British political commentators that the BBC is, by and large, an independent, left-leaning institution that serves the public interest. But, as readers of PN will know, especially when it comes to issues of war and peace, this is a myth.

Since its inception, the BBC has overwhelmingly served the interests of the government and elite sectors in society, a fact backed up by virtually every significant scholarly study on the matter.

In this incisive new book, Tom Mills has compiled extensive historical data (from archival research, interviews, autobiographies and secondary sources) to reinforce this analysis.

Mills starts with the 1926 General Strike, when the BBC infamously sided with the government against workers. Thereafter, he explains, the BBC was indeed ‘afforded a large degree of operational autonomy, remaining formally independent’. However, this was only ‘on the tacit understanding that it would broadly serve the political purposes of the government’. As the founding director-general Lord Reith put it, the government ‘know that they can trust us not to be really impartial’.

Into the 1930s and the Second World War, Mills shows how the BBC willingly subordinated itself as an instrument of government propaganda, banning not just fascists and communists from its broadcasts, but also conscientious objectors. During this period the BBC became a ‘fully effective instrument of war’, as Reith’s successor Frederick Ogilvie stated. It was also during this period that senior BBC staff allowed MI5 to politically vet its employees (a practice that astonishingly continued until 1985). In the post-war years, Mills shows how the BBC not only distributed Cold War propaganda in ‘close cooperation’ with the government, but domestically it served to marginalise peace movements and critics of war, cancelling programmes due to government pressure and generally promoting a line favourable to established interests. The Suez Crisis, Falklands War and Gulf Wars are all explored as examples. On issues of economics, the BBC’s neoliberal shift during the 1980s is particularly interesting. Mills outlines how, following the arrival of deputy director-general John Birt in 1987, a ‘small coterie’ of radical Thatcherite reformers helped restructure the organisation, leading to a ‘remarkable growth in business and economics journalism’ and a decline in the representation of workers and their interests.

This ‘neoliberal, pro-business, right-wing’ turn, as Mills describes it, was accelerated into the 1990s and 2000s, and was plain to see in the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis when elite, pro-business sources dominated reporting. Indeed, the historical record explored by Mills leads him to conclude that the BBC is ‘no more free from the powerful interests which now dominate British society than it was in the 1930s, the last time Britain was as unequal as it is today’. It’s a conclusion hard to disagree with after reading this book, especially given the way the BBC has reported on the anti-war, left-wing socialist who is currently leader of the opposition. The contemporary relevance of this book cannot be overstated. A must-read for anyone interested in British politics.

Verso, 2016; 272pp; £16.99