I am taking the kids on a local anti-austerity march today. I was just thinking that the governing classes demonize the poor to gain acceptance for these cuts and I was pondering how I would respond to the challenge that my views demonize the rich. It is a fair point, if a hypothetical one. I was on my imaginary soapbox in the shower and no one was asking me anything.
Here is the analogy I came up with for how opposing austerity and welfare cuts is neither supporting the feckless nor demonizing the rich.
The very rich were mostly born that way. They receive a privilege of birth that most of us do not and it is ridiculous for those of them that are in government to impose austerity on the rest of us and even pretend that they understand (or care about) the effects of what they are doing.
But what about those people who are always trotted out in response to left-wing arguments about the common social good and fairness? What about the self-made men and women who came from nothing and built good lives for themselves? Don’t they deserve to pass on the fruits of their achievements to their children without having their hard-earned cash siphoned away to those who are either too lazy or too stupid to similarly pull themselves out of poverty? Fair point, you might think.
But consider this analogy if you will. Imagine living in a deep, dark pit. Do you want to get out of the pit? Of course you do, up there is sunshine and fresh air. You want to get out. But what do you need to be able to get out?
You need something to climb out with – a ladder, or materials to build a ladder with – and a light to see where the ladder is.
The light represents determination, intelligence or smarts, drive and ambition and hope. The ladder/materials represent opportunity, luck, and chance. Even the most determined of grafters would not make it out of poverty if all they had was a light; you need a ladder too.
I would argue that all self-made men and women had at least some opportunities or luck, or were in the right place at the right time at some point in their lives. They had the light and they found the ladder. It is commendable that they searched for the ladder and then climbed it, but that is not the whole story.
Imagine 1000 people all in a deep, dark pit. All with lights, searching for a ladder or materials from which to build a ladder. One of the people finds the only ladder in the pit and climbs out. Once out of the pit they breathe in the fresh air and bask in the sunshine and think how lucky and clever they are to have climbed out of that horrible pit.
Then they pull the ladder up behind them and tell the other 999 people with flashlights to keep searching and find another ladder. They themselves found a ladder; if they can do it so can the others. Anyone who cannot similarly find a ladder is a feckless wastrel who is obviously not looking hard enough.
But there are no more ladders.
Determination, hard-work and ambition are not always enough if you are born in a pit and there are no ladders. Even hope sometimes dies in the dark. If hope dies, you might just sit down and turn your light off and stop looking for ladders. Or you might keep your light on but remain seated out of exhaustion and miss out on any far-away ladders (which in any case everyone else is also looking for).
Austerity measures pull the ladders up from thousands of deprived communities and make it harder for even the most determined to make a good life.
You cannot with the best will in the world, build a good and stable life for your family if there are not enough stable and well-paid jobs in your area and if rents are sky-high.
As well as (or instead of) capping benefits, why not raise wages and cap rents – actually help working people and people looking for work rather than further hurting them?
And of course, some people do not have flashlights to look for the ladders in the first place. Some people are not capable of holding down a job for whatever reason. Physical disability tends to elicit sympathy, but mental illness and addiction (a category of mental illness) are not moral failings.
Some people cannot work. Some people deserve compassion and empathy, even if many in our society would rather they didn’t exist at all. Some people need the welfare state. We all need the welfare state. For there but for the grace of god, am I.
Some people have no lights because they come from generations of people with no lights. Perhaps once they looked for ladders, but now they sit in the dark and make the best of the world around them.
We should not be pulling up ladders. We should be investing in more ladders, and in more lights.
And that is why the kids and I (and my husband) are going on the anti-austerity march.