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Thursday, February 02, 2012 

Dichotomies and Occupy.

2012, to judge by its first month, is shaping up to be just as miserable a year as the one that preceded it. It's also been one where it seems exactly what's going to happen has been mapped out in advance: David Cameron's new year message explicitly stated not just that this would be a year of circuses, with both the Olympics and the Queen's diamond jubilee to look forward to, but also that it would be a year where excess at the top and irresponsibility at the bottom would be tackled.

Not that there's any comparison between the way the two have been tackled in this first four weeks. Stripping poor Fred Goodwin of his knighthood, leaving him with only just less than £350,000 a year pension to live on is the kind of blow those shortly to fall under the £26,000 cap on benefits would dream of having. There are words to describe all those MPs that yesterday voted to amend the welfare bill to once again deny contributory employment and support allowance to cancer sufferers after only a year, yet if I were to do so it would make this by far the most explicit blog post I have ever written.

Stephen Hester meanwhile will have to get by purely on his £1.2m pound salary, as those at the other end face the prospect of having to move from where they may well have lived their entire lives as the cuts in housing benefit kick in. Almost as fascinating as the revelation that the head of the Student Loans Company was avoiding tax through a scheme apparently approved by both David Willetts and Danny Alexander was that as well as his salary of £182,000, he would also receive a £28,000 allowance for living and food costs (Newsnight tonight), or £2,000 more than the government now deems is the maximum amount a whole family can claim a year. Nice work if you can get it.

Without wanting to bring too much attention back to Diane Abbott's tweeting incident from last month, it's worth recalling that this is a wonderful example of the establishment dividing and ruling, or at least a modern version of it. The changes in welfare we are told are necessary not just to cut the deficit, without it ever being mentioned that included in the department and work and pensions budget, often reduced by ministers simply to the cost of welfare, is, err, the cost of pensions, but also because the system as it currently exists does nothing to incentivise work. While this is only true in a very small number of cases, where the loss of overall benefits (including housing, council tax relief, etc) from going into work would make the difference close to negligible, it's rendered completely moot by how there are simply not enough jobs for those currently claiming jobseeker's allowance, without bringing into the equation those on ESA who are often wrongly declared to be fit for work.

To make this scapegoating slightly less vicious we have the attacks on a few carefully selected individuals at the top: next it seems will be Sir Victor Blank, mainly it seems because of the deal struck between Gordon Brown and Blank for Lloyds to swallow HBOS at the height of the credit crunch, without the competition commission becoming involved. This will have the added bonus of once again taking attention away from the current state of the economy, for which responsibility lies wholly with the coalition, and throwing it back onto Labour. How after all can they be trusted with the economy when they ennobled these people and openly connived with them, regardless of the circumstances of the moment?

It won't do though to just blame the coalition for these tactics. Ed Miliband's trumpeting (trumping?) of the squeezed middle is just a softer formulation of Mitt Romney's comments from earlier in the week, when he declared on CNN that just as he's not concerned about the very rich, he's also not concerned about the very poor. Both can get by just fine, the very rich for obvious reasons, while the very poor because there's a safety net for them. It's this bracketing of the two together, suggesting that their lots are not that very different that so rankles. Neither might have mortgages to pay off or rents to pay thanks to housing benefit, but the rising cost of living affects the very poor just as it does the middle, especially as they have no savings to fall back on should things get even tougher. The 5.2% rise in benefits in line with the inflation of last September might look generous when most are getting by with an average pay increase of 2%, yet 5.2% of £67.50 (or 5.2% of £99.85, for those on the highest rate of ESA) a week is a lot different to 2% of £500 a week, the average wage.

As Martin Kettle and David Runicman have written, the natural British reaction may well be to muddle through. To give Adam Curtis another plug and bring in some context, he writes on a post on the failure of the left to articulate a general economic alternative to late capitalism of how while French students were rioting and directly challenging the state, our forebears to the Occupy movement were, err, taking over their art college. While this isn't to be completely fair to the protests here of that year, it is reflected in the incredible decision by those intimately involved in Occupy not to offer even the beginnings of an alternative, with Ellie Mae O'Hagan saying on Newsnight the other week (I paraphrase, at best) that this wasn't their role, it was for governments and politicians to do so, with Occupy simply bringing attention to certain issues. As Sean McHale pointed out on Twitter, the last we do is elect politicians to come up with such ideas; we elect them, at very best, on the basis of the policies and ideas in their manifestos. There is never going to be appetite for radical change when there isn't so much as one being offered by those protesting. With even David Cameron suggesting there's a crisis of capitalism, yet at the same time it's the poorest that his government is shafting, a good portion of the left seems to think the answer is daily general assemblies, teach-ins and taking control of empty buildings. A massive opportunity is once again going begging.

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