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: ‘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.