Monday, April 26, 2010

"Earning £5 a year and you say you're poor? Stop talking shite..."

Back to the future with the old Blairite rhetoric that we're-all-middle-class-now.

A blogger called John B has just come up with this gem of a sentence:
"Thanks to the combination of capitalism and socialism that has prevailed in the UK over the last 100 years, everyone has enough to eat. Anyone who says otherwise on the Internet is talking shit".
Now, John B is a clever chap. He's a good debater and, aside from gratuitously borrowing from Shakesperian sonnets ("talking shit", "worthless prick", "half a brain", "mental capacity", etc), he's generally quite articulate. He also, no doubt, makes a number of good points.

I'm with him that capitalism should be regulated and not abolished. He's bang on the money when he has a pop at the "arty types [...] 'pretending not to be middle-class'". Definitely.

However, aside from the extremely unfortunate remark at the top, John B also treads into unadulterated manure when he comes up with this other sweeping statement:
"75% of the country [are] basically middle-class".
You read that. 75% of the country are middle class. SEVENTY FIVE PER CENT. Which is the type of distorted social commentary you normally see coming out of the gob of well-pampered City bankers, and not articulate leftist bloggers.

I don't know if people cling on to such remarks so desperately as a way of exorcising subconscious wealth-related guilt, like "I'm doing alright therefore, surely, everyone else is", just because we all have "enough to eat", we can all access the internet, and you no longer spot Oliver Twist being chased by Mr Brownlow down the high street.

John B reminds me of my old mate Dave circa-2000, at the peak of Blairism, when most people in Britain seemed so uncritically in awe of formulas such as "things-can-only-get-better", "we-are-all-freelancers" and "we're-all-middle-class-now".

We all have enough to eat, therefore sod over-complicated dilemmas about the nature of poverty in 2010, galloping inequality, the quality of what people eat, or the obscene gaps in life expectancy existing in such a developed country (i.e. in some Glasgow areas, males have an official life expectancy of 54. It's 83.7 for their counterparts in Kensington and Chelsea).

Nah. Stop moaning. Can't you see we're-all-middle-class-now? I am, so you must be too! Less and less people go to work dressed in blue overalls. Less and less people work in steelmaking or car manufacturing. Therefore, we're-all-middle-class-now, nevermind a skilled factory worker may earn more than a call centre chap clad in a shirt and tie and that almost 10% of the population work in the super-low-paid hotel and catering sector.

Forgive my generalisations, but John B reminds me of those people who look at illegal DVD sellers and conclude that, because they're all fiddling with a fancy mobile phone, surely they can't be doing so bad financially. I bet they-have-access-to-clean-water and they're middle-class-now as well.

Or, the old school of thought that it's surely outrageous to claim you're a bit poor if you can afford a Playstation for your son. You've gotta be middle-class-if-you-buy-that-too.

I mean, look at that glass collector on the minimum wage. How dare he say is on "low pay"? You're not telling me he hasn't got a mobile phone, an email account, and chances are he also "twitters" as well and he's even aware of inequality-related issues! He can't be doing so bad, can he, John?

Yet look at the figures. Did you know that over 7 million workers in the UK earn less than £10,000 a year? And that's the actual workers, people earning a living and paying tax.

If you consider that the median (correction: mean) income is £22,800 per year, more than 20 million people of salaried workers in Britain are below that.

Add a good chunk of the estimated eight million who are economically inactive (and don't forget the 2.5m currently on the dole), and the notion that SEVENTY FIVE PER CENT of the country "are basically middle class" is already collapsing like a castle built from arse paper.

And yet John B maintains that if you're "having the unqualified right to reside in a developed country, then you’re not poor, even if your income’s a fiver a year".

Of course.

So next time you toy with the idea that your minimum wage should be raised a touch. Or that it's unfair that people earning £6,745 should give 20 per cent of that away on income tax. Or that living on jobseeker's allowance is a bloody nightmare. Or that "[W]e are getting wealth inequalities in London now as far as we know that have not been seen since the days of a slave-owning elite", like someone said recently. Next time any of the above crosses your mind, just shut the fuck up, you "worthless prick".

Because John B said so. Just recite with him:

"Even if your income is a fiver a year, you live in a developed country therefore you're not poor".



M said...

I love this idea that middle-class status is awarded to anyone who has access to internet and food, the latter being something you can't live without and the former being something most people can't do their job without or manage social relations, as the whole society has become dependant on the Internet so much that you have to be always available, either for business or social purposes, and half of the time you can't even apply for a job unless you send your CV via e-mail. But what exactly is the real life situation of these 75% of the society who are supposed to be middle class? Where do those people live, do they own their homes, how much is their work worth, how many hours a week do they work, can they afford child care or a visit to the theatre every now and again? And how many of these people would actually not have access to basic services if they didn't have credit cards and the opportunity to plunge into debt?

claude said...


Two weeks ago a study revealed that more people in India have mobile phones than they have sinks and toilets at home.

Yet a superficial mind would say that they're all middle class in India now because just look at how many brand new blowers they all own.

This way of looking at things is absolute tosh.

Anonymous said...

Thank's for the personal critisism of something I may or may not have said a decade ago!

Anyone who quotes a made-up statistic to argue a tenuous point is clearly not worth listening to.

The ancient and increasingly meaningless class terms that are still widely used when discussing British (or any other) society do nothing to give a clear picture of the social and economic reality of the majority of people. It is about time we lose them (sorry class lovers)as our society has changed so much in the last 20 years (let alone 200) and find better, clearer ways to discuss peoples circumstances rather than allocating them to a broad social band which has always been impossible to clearly define.

Quantum Moon said...

It states there that the median income is £22,800, in fact its the mean income (the average if income was shared out evenly) that is £22,800. Since income is so unevenly distributed, the median income (the point where half the population earns above and half below) is in fact much much smaller (£16,400 according to that Wikipedia link).

Tim Worstall said...

"If you consider that the median income is £22,800 per year, more than 20 million people of salaried workers in Britain are below that."

Not convinced that this is actually possible. 50% of the labour force are, by definition, below median income. As the labour force is about 30 million people....

claude said...

Anonymous (is that Dave? :-))

I agree that the terms "middle-class" and "working class" are used in a totally inappropriate and stupid way most of the time.

Which includes swiping statements like "we are all middle class"... because, exactly, what on earth does that mean?

I stick to what I said though. The fact that many people may no longer work in factories or down the mines is not to say that cleaners, bar staff, call centre workers and temping slaves are suddenly middle class, purely because they dont wear blue overalls.

patrick gray said...

What's all this stuff about the semantics of mean, median and average? That is irrelevent. Fact is there is no way on earth anybody with any sense can say 75% of the British people are middle class. Just like that.

Also, I read that Banditry blog in question. I found one bit fantastically patronising when the writer John basically says that if you're involved in an internet campaign against poverty then you're definately not poor.

WTF?...Unless I misread it, the obvious implication is that poor people are not capable of becomng aware of things, right? They're kind of feral. How patronising is that...

Anonymous said...

@Tim Worstall: Median =/= Mean

john b said...

I'm happy to retract the 75% stat. I think there's a case for applying it to 75% of salaried workers (a single person on gbp20k a year in most of the country outside of London can enjoy something I'd describe as a middle-class lifestyle), but not for 75% of the *population*. In general, the piece could've been more coherent.

There are two separate points I was trying to make: one is "a large proportion of the UK population has something that could coherently be described as a middle-class lifestyle", the other is "apart from the mentally ill and non-recourse migrants, everyone in the UK has access to food, heating, housing and healthcare".

I'm absolutely *not* claiming that "access to food, heating, housing and healthcare" equates to a middle-class lifestyle. The minor challenge facing us-the-people is to try and allow everyone in the UK to live such a lifestyle.

The bigger challenge, and one which (to me) makes levels of relative poverty in the UK seem pretty much irrelevant, is to try and allow everyone in the world to reach that basic-minimum-needs lifestyle that *everyone in the UK already can* .

Tim Worstall said...

"@Tim Worstall: Median =/= Mean"

Yes, that's my point. More than half of workers can be below mean (indeed, they are) but more than half of workers cannot be below median. Because median is by definition the point which half of workers are below and half above.

Mr S. Pill said...

Great post, and pretty much what I thought when I read John B's original. Though nice to see him here coming close to a mea culpa ;)

Ben E said...

"apart from the mentally ill and non-recourse migrants, everyone in the UK has access to food, heating, housing and healthcare".

John, that's quite an assertion to make. There are still OAPs dying of cold in the winter, families in temporary B&B accommodation, arbitrary withdrawal of benefits (particularly DLA), but to name a few things that go on in our supposed utopia. Don't confuse availability with accessibility.

On your points about the class system, you really have no idea what you're talking about. Class is about more than money - it's about attitude, values, and upbringing. Money certainly helps but it doesn't explain differences in life expectancy, levels of education, employment prospects, and felonious tendencies between social groups. The class system is alive and well - if you haven't noticed this then you must be in a very narrow part of it.

I concede that many aspects of social provision in the UK are something to be proud of (the NHS and Sure Start spring to mind) and I'd still rather live here than in the US - but a quick walk through the eponymous locale of this blog indicates we still have a long way to go.

claude said...

Well said, Ben E.

I invite John B to take a walk from the leafy Edgbaston bit of Hagley Road to the estates around Ladywood Middleway direction Spring Hill and see if he's still of the same opinion.

Then again, now John B says that "50%" enjoy a middle class lifestyle.

Given that the seriously affluent are a minority, that leaves in excess of 20 million people who do not "enjoy a middle-class lifestyle", ranging from the seriously deprived to those who can be made to feel that they're "middle class" for a bit until the credit card bill arrives and the bailiffs knock on the door.