The greatest trick the DWP ever pulled was convincing the poor benefits don’t exist

I’ve just got back from the Jobcentre. My advisor – Linda -was flanked by a blank-faced, near-mute young man, consciously trying to not look bored while fidgeting restlessly on his office chair in such a way that indicated a sore, sedentary behind.

“He’s here on work experience,” Linda offered by way of explanation, evoking Basil Fawlty’s timelessly desperate “he’s from Barcelona!” quip as she did so.

“Workfare?” I nodded an acknowledgement at him and his eyebrows rose by way of affirmation.

Linda’s desk was littered with papers offering Workfare positions (they call it GBW: Get Britain Working): one at Tesco Express, stacking shelves for 8 weeks for benefits, another customer service position at an unidentified place that apparently only offered travel expenses, and so on. The hapless soul who was supposed to believe he was gaining “work experience” listening to me bicker with Linda about my own (un)employment situation later got his own back on the Jobcentre though, jamming the printer during a menial task and briefly shattering Linda’s affected calm, patient, tough-love exterior.

As I walked out, reincorporated into the BTW (Back to Work) scheme, I considered both my plight and that of the yawning guy gazing into middle distance next to advisor Linda. We’re both delicately perched on the jolting benefits wagon, prone to being thrown over the edge at any time. And despite all the grand talk of change and all the pompous, right-wing rhetoric, unemployment continues to rise, especially amongst the young and women, while even the DWP accepts that Workfare doesn’t really ‘Get Britain Working’.

What caught my eye, however, was a new statistical peak that was recorded in “the number of people working part-time who want full-time jobs”. I’ve been working on and off at a language college since October, with scant, intermittent hours and no promises made from one Monday to the next. In the past, agricultural labourers would organise their toil cyclically, reaping, sowing and harvesting according to the number of daylight hours and the time of year, and it’s a process I – and an increasing number of colleagues – find myself replicating. High season in EFL is in July and August, supplemented by brief periods of activity around Easter and New Year. Much of the rest of the year, many EFL teachers scrape by, working second jobs (often in completely unrelated fields), teaching private students (the most unreliable income one can ever find) and – increasingly – signing on.

This, of course, is perfectly legal: DWP regulations state that you can continue to sign on as long as you’re working less than 16 hours a week. However, if you do choose this route, then I feel I must warn you that it’s a dog’s life, since it contrives to combine the existentially pointless charade of the Jobcentre-coordinated job search (the last job I took via their site turned out to be an intensely odd, unsettling position in which I was required to teach a subject in which I had no background at a postgraduate level to seemingly non-existent students) with the relentless pressures and responsibilities of wage labour.

If only it were that easy..

Mornings are spent handling working life stresses and pressures: inspections, complaints, unpaid overtime, fatigue, and so on, before the ever-more-ubiquitous signing on dates, doubled in length by the confusing pile of paperwork you have to wade through in order to legally ‘declare’ your working hours. Forms ask meaninglessly inflexible questions which you “must answer”, such as “how many hours do you work on average per month?” (is ‘casualisation’ honestly as alien a word to the DWP as it is for the TUC?), while the advisor simultaneously asks you if you’ve considered call centre work. And, before you can even turn up your educated, aspirant nose, he’s already clicked it and added the tagged code to the job type you’re required to pursue while you work 15 hours a week.

Of course, the humiliations and frustrations of signing on will not be new to most readers (not anyone who’s ever claimed, anyway), but what becomes increasingly apparent with the arrival of Workfare, the vindictive Atos assessments that have forced the terminally ill back into work and even the flummoxing reforms of housing benefit law, is the wilful complication of benefits as both a punitive measure and a deterrent.

We are familiar with the concept of state violence as being random in order to ensure the widest diffusion of fear of its power. Many of us will have stood in front of police lines, watching boots and batons swing, sometimes at an obviously combative target, but we are most dismayed when they hit out – as they often do – at a confused, scared bystander. Similarly, benefits law conspires to hit the needy and the conscientious objector alike – that they may both consider means other than state subsidy, regardless of their lifestyle, motivations and potential – and it does so by de-regularising regulation. In short, no one knows what the rules are anymore, and this mystification serves to manipulate people out of their benefits.

Claiming JSA while working, for example, can be compared to one long game of Chinese Whispers. I appeared to be the first person to do so in my last advisor’s experience, since he had to fumble around for the correct forms and was unable to answer any of my questions. “That’ll be decided by Belfast,” he tells me when I ask if the JSA I’ve claimed while working will be recuperated by the Job Centre at a later date (Belfast is the location of the headquarters of the Benefits Delivery Office, where any enquiry about your benefits money must be directed, in case you were wondering). Needless to say, it was pretty essential that I knew whether my pay would later be deducted. But when I phoned Belfast, they sent me back to my regional BDO, who then told me it was to be determined by an individual ‘DM’ (decision-maker).

“So what has the DM decided? Can I talk to him?”

“No, sir, but I can send him an email…”

I still don’t know whether I’ll receive a letter through the post demanding my JSA back.

It’s a neat trick of the post-social contract state: convincing us that they’re cutting bureaucracy by stratifying and dividing every social body into a million jigsaw pieces. It facilitates the slow, silent descent of many of us between the cracks, leaving us reliant on the Kafka-esque role play between our advisor and anonymous chirps grunting between periods on hold during phone calls we’re not sure we can afford. And all the while, you constantly ask yourself: what if they do claim my month’s worth of pay from part-time work back? How will I pay my rent and my bills – fuck, how will I eat?

Moreover, true to form, every time I recount my situation to friends and acquaintances that are also caught in the benefits trap, I hear a thousand different stories. Discussions about material conditions on the dole are rendered almost worthless, since the anticipated nod of comprehension and empathy is more often than not usurped by the quizzical, confused frown. We’re all being told different things!

“No wait, they only recoup your pay if it goes above a certain figure…”

“Hang on, I thought they always recoup it…”

“Wait, you can sign on while you still work? I thought you couldn’t, what I heard anyway…”

“When I signed on while working, they took back all of my pay in one go and sent me a letter a month later…I was skint!”

“No, they take it back in stages…”

“I got away with it for a year then they chased me for the whole thing! So now I volunteer here for 3 hours a week, no point me getting paid if the Jobcentre will just take it away from me…”

“Fuck it, I don’t think I’ll bother with signing on, sounds too complicated…”

Repeat ad nauseam.

And it is this common thread which ties together all those who are reluctantly dependent on the state’s charity. The irrationality of British benefits law ensures that our lives are forever fragile, that we must always sweat from one day to the next. There is no benefit – neither personal nor social – to any of it, not for the Workfarer I saw trying to stay awake as he ‘assists’ a Jobcentre advisor, not for the cancer-stricken individual being brow-beaten back into work, and neither for the (albeit less unfortunate) young part-time, casualised worker trying to eke out a living while doing the splits between the workplace and the Jobcentre. Its objective rather, is to drive us out of their offices and off of their phone lines into isolation, via a combination of time-wasting, chastising Jobcentre ‘schemes’ and disorienting mazes of regulation.

A 2012 New Year Resolution: against the politics of abstraction and charity, for the real movement in our interests!

The fallacious logic of the 'anti-cuts movement': that there's a bill that needs to be footed

As we career headfirst into 2012, and the now customary cycle of ‘actions’ and demonstrations continue to sustain the British activist movement, I would like to use the commencement of a new year as an opportunity for a moment of self-reflection.  If 2011 was indeed the year in which more things happened than ever (and it definitely wasn’t an ahistorical perception fuelled by the constant expansion of news media), then a moment’s pause to evaluate the role of the revolutionary – mostly subsumed, not entirely prudently in my opinion, in the self-styled anti-cuts movement – should be a valuable endeavour.  I would also like to further some belated New Years’ Resolutions for the revolutionaries embedded within the working class.  However, unlike my preferred mode of blogging – in which I try to use personal experience of everyday life to inform my approach to political and social struggles – this one is largely restricted to the abstracted and divorced spectacle of hobbyism: in particular, the activities of the self-contained and largely self-defeating ‘anti-cuts movement’ (or, in layman’s terms, the left wing activist scene).

Entering 2011, revolutionaries in the UK had reasons to be optimistic. Although both the university fees hike and EMA abolition had been – or were about to be – rapidly passed by a typically perfunctory Parliament, signalling the defeat of late 2010’s student movement, many students responded by orientating themselves towards the anti-cuts narrative emanating from the revolutionary left and the anarchists who had accompanied them in their demonstrations and occupation.  Indeed, for a brief moment, the populist ‘anti-cuts movement’ concept suddenly appeared to leave the arena of leftist fantasy, instead becoming a reality via a merger of angry, radicalised students and the established activist scene/revolutionary milieu (delete as appropriate).  This was evident in the TUC’s March 26 anti-cuts demonstration, when as many as half a million people marched through central London, with the initiative being seized by fresh-faced, well-networked young people, either in the property damage of the 1500-odd black bloc or the Fortnum & Mason occupation by UK Uncut.  And, it seemed, the movement could only continue to grow.  By the beginning of June, activist assemblies were being held in London to plan support for the J30 public sector strike of over 750,000 workers.  Exactly five months later, upwards of 1.5 million workers in over 20 different unions struck.

However, despite the plethora of activity that emerged from the momentum of the student movement, UK Uncut, local anti-cuts groups and the tokenistic TUC march – and indeed despite the two one day coordinated strikes – Cameron, Cable et al have reiterated their commitment to cuts on a number of occasions, and many of the newly sliced budgets are now in full effect.  In fact, the Coalition is currently pursuing a neoliberal, anti-worker course that is far more ambitious than deficit reduction (as if that ever were their goal in the first place).  Far from rescinding their assault, they have actually intensified it, as the ground being cleared by the budget deficit propaganda campaign in the NHS, education and so on, is now being sown by so called efficiency machines, profit-manufacturers and other assertions of the ruling class’ dominance of capital.

For many, the explanation for the hitherto unsuccessful nature of this movement will relate to tactics, and it is certainly true to say that most anti-cuts activists never really moved beyond consciousness-raising exercises (also known as public relations stunts): ineffective protests outside council offices, theatre performances inside banks, symbolic demonstrations within view of Parliament (but on a Sunday!), and so on.  Despite the direct action rhetoric which may have prefixed many of these events, they were all typified by the quasi-evangelist mission of spreading the word, telling the good (or bad) news to the world, etc, rather than engendering the actual prevention of the implementation of austerity – or indeed, the interruption of the flow of capital as a means of blackmailing the hatchet (wo)men into abandonment.  Even when economic disruption was attempted – such as by a number of local radicals and students in south east London, blocking the A2 road to Dover in support of the mooted (but largely phantom) EAN FE student walkout in January, and then again in conjunction with the J30 public sector strike – they found themselves isolated and quickly outnumbered and neutralised by the police.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a deeper fault within the self-styled anti-austerity movement, in its distance from the worst victims of the cuts, and – by extension – the working class as a whole.  This became most apparent in during two months of the Social Centre Plus on Deptford High Street.  After an encouraging opening meeting, in which a large number of attendees voted unanimously to ignore the a local business owner’s claim to the building and instead convert the occupied space in an anti-cuts organising hub, the Centre quickly found itself struggling to access many of the people’s whose struggle it wished to adopt.  Repeated open days, cafés and flyering sessions on a bustling market day failed to pierce the isolation of the local wider working class (with a few notable exceptions, of course), with the space instead becoming populated by the usual suspects from London’s activist and squatter scenes.  This, in turn, set in motion the predictable cycle of inwardly focused, unapproachable anarcho-squatter behaviour and the space’s fate as yet another redundant activist hangout seemed set, even as it resisted one eviction and successfully occupied the adjacent building.  Eventually, as the ragtag group of local anarchists, squatters and leftists struggled to agree how to progress, both buildings suffered rapid evictions and the project died.

In SCP, we had not only failed to acknowledge the sheer difficulty of integrating most of the victims of government cuts into the anti-cuts movement, but also the problems inherent within the desire to act on their behalf.  If the cuts are an attack on the most vulnerable members of our society (single parents, the elderly, domestic abuse victims, etc), then it is because these demographics compose some of the most marginalised and alienated individuals in the land, individuals who – self-evidently – are some of the least disposed towards political activity.  Yet without their participation and insight, any sort of campaign against the cuts cannot represent their needs and a path towards their emancipation.  Instead of offering solidarity with those acting in their own interests, we could only conceive of speculative charity on their behalf.  This is the circle that SCP – and, by extension, the anti-cuts movement as a whole – cannot seem to square.

Moreover, in the aftermath of SCP, J30, N30 and so many ‘anti-cuts’ events, I find myself questioning the relevance of austerity to our lives.  Undoubtedly, cuts in public spending have adversely affected almost all of us in one way or another, but – as I have already said – austerity is not the only political/economic phenomenon in progress on a national and international level, and my experience at SCP would seem to indicate that austerity is not at the forefront of many people’s minds (perhaps not even the plans of the ruling class).  In many ways, the anti-austerity movement has become a futile activist talking shop in which radicals convince each other that they’re part of something larger, all the while mistaking their own reflections for strangers, like a contemporary Narcissus.

This is true even of the two coordinated strikes we’ve seen, both of which were – ostensibly – over the curbs on public sector pensions, a measure that uses the budget cuts as a pretext.  However, most of the radical milieu reject this causality.  After all, to accept the link between pension cuts and the deficit is not only to assume that the ruling class acts in good faith (indeed, in our interests), but it also complies with the non-sequitur of the necessity of deficit reduction.  The arguments presented by the Labour Party, the TUC, the SWP, and even UK Uncut – which essentially cheerlead alternative forms of fiscal fundraising for the state (be it through reductions in bankers’ pay, ‘progressive’ taxes or indeed, the tightening of existent taxation legislation) – all serve this purpose.

Clearly, austerity shouldn’t be understood as an attempt to reduce the budget deficit (although it may well have that effect), but as the seizure of an opportunity to restructure capital and the balance of power in their favour (as indicated by Lord Mandelson shortly before the last elections).  Indeed, it is interesting to note that many European economists (such as the German economist Holger Schmeding) are now emphasising that austerity is useless without accompanying “labour reform” (ie the Thatcherite model of breaking of the workers’ movement in order to facilitate increased flexibility and worsening conditions).  The strikes, therefore, must not be viewed as the result of austerity, but rather, the desperate efforts of workers to maintain their scant conditions in the face of a ruling class attack.  The public sector workforce must now be more concerned with the sudden and intransigent collusion of their union heads with the DWP en route to a ‘deal’ than the progression (or lack thereof!) of the anti-cuts movement.

However, the irony is that despite the wayward, confused, ineffective lurches of committed would be anti-cuts campaigners on the ground, 2011 has been an incredibly difficult year for the British ruling class.  Not only has the economy continued to stutter as it stumbles ever closer to the edge of the precipice overlooking the Eurozone, but the state’s institutions have been rocked by a series of events, shaking the fatalist assumptions of even the most fervent advocate of the status quo.  The Coalition is weak, depending – as it does – on the mutual acquiescence of the Lib Dems, who look as discredited and implausible as ever (despite Clegg’s desperate attempts to disentangle himself from the tangled web of student fees deceit by breaking consensus on the issue of Europe), and the anti-EU Tory right, bullishly confident thanks to their benefactors in the CBI and the Square Mile, but too elitist and detached to generate a genuine popular base (whatever the right-on liberal scaremongering about Mail headlines may say).  Labour, for their part, are fraught by their own identity crisis and the stains of the Brown years.  On top of this, the entire Westminster, Whitehall and even Fleet Street elites have been undermined by the seemingly never-ending Hackgate scandal, which illustrates the almost breathtaking extent of collusion between the different factions of the ruling class, simultaneously chipping away at the notion of an independent press replete with journalists of integrity.

However, possibly the most important political event of the year came in early August with the sudden, unexpected spate of riots and looting across the country’s major cities.  Without meaning to add to the already gargantuan amount of analysis and commentary on the brief few days of social unrest (itself a testimony to their significance), two initial observations seem prevalent: firstly, that the riots represented the most serious base-level threat to the British state’s authority in 2011, and that secondly – partially because of this, but also due to the socio-economic faultlines that they exposed and then promptly saw exacerbated – they seem likely to recur in some shape or form in the near future.

Moreover, the answer of one participant who was interviewed in The Guardian and the LSE’s joint investigation is of interest.  Daniel implies that his motivation for looting and arson was a desire to make resistance to austerity more expensive than the savings implied in austerity itself (“do a lot of damage to the point where, forget all the benefits they cut off, they’ll have to pay 20 times worse than that”), or – in our parlance – to ‘make the country ungovernable’.  This is noteworthy – not because it implies that the riots were caused by austerity (such a reading would be a poor attempt to reap political capital out of a complex social phenomenon, a trap that some of us unfortunately fell into) – but rather because it illustrates the effectiveness of economic disruption as a tactic, when it has sufficient numbers and self-belief.   Perhaps even more crucially though, it depicts the disorder as will for social change, and an opening that emerged not from a movement of political activists advocating political reform (whose sheer remoteness from the events only serves to demonstrate their own redundancy), but the disenfranchised and angry, acting against politics.  Inasmuch as the riots represented a breach with the normal order of capital – jeopardising its control, distribution and hegemony – they were a situation which could have evolved in any number of directions, irrespective of the socio-political assumptions of its actors.

This should not be understood as an attempt to ‘justify’ or condone last August’s events, but rather, to place them in a national and social context.  Indeed, the perspective offered by Socialism and/or Barbarism – that riots are neither fair nor unfair, good nor bad; rather, they are an inevitability, a reality under capitalism – seems, to me, to be a pretty accurate analysis. Instead of moralising therefore, we should try to understand the significance of threats to (the inherently pro-ruling class) notion of public order, and the possibilities therein.  Events in Egypt in January last year, for example, have – and will continue to – reverberate far beyond the immediate removal of Mubarak, as they have imbued in the Egyptian – and wider Arabic, even global – working class the potential of popular revolt as a force for achieving their material interests.  Similarly, the UK riots showed us the fallibility of a ruling class that was struggling to control its own citizens, highlighting the disruption of the everyday as a more effective route towards social change than the condescending public performance of political activism.

It is for this reason that in 2012, I hope for the victory of the real movement for the propagation of our material interests over the imitation of action inherent in political lobbying and evangelistic self-promotion.  As long as the activist continues to try to steer and influence political discourse from above, then it seems probable that this real movement will almost certainly have to surface from outside of the entrenched activist community, and therefore be drenched in the contradictions inherent within our own existences.  I can only hope that those revolutionaries who are genuinely interested in social change choose re-immersion within their class over the hobbyism of subcultural high jinx, and insodoing, appeal to immediate concerns and the desire for self-betterment in the arenas of everyday life (work, housing, education, etc), over a bitpart role in the simulacra of the manipulated, elitist, faux-populist political discourse (austerity).  The tendency should be towards the dismantlement of the walls that the activist constructs around him/herself, becoming an active participant in the process of his/her class’ social change, rather than the volunteer, the charitable donor, the Ubermensch, the Messiah, the “external detonator”.

I also hope that in 2012 we being to truly envisage the working class as the agent of its own change, using direct action, self-organisation and solidarity in their – our – own interests, not because of prior political conviction or contact with an abstracted political campaign, but because of intuition and common sense.  Social unrest should be understood as apertures – gateways towards another world – platforms upon which we should climb, while political movements which concern themselves with the grandiose and the abstract should be disregarded. That is when I believe we will start to gain relevance as part of an authentic movement for working class control against capital.

Time to Re-Occupy Our Own Lives

Even forgetting the problems with the 99% mantra that this banner exposes, the apparent tolerance of her - and, by extension, her wealth and privilege - at #OWS demonstrates de-politicisation at its height.

As the “Occupy” fad goes global, I find it hard to combat my cynicism. And yes, I have observed how it’s affected the bourgeois political discourse on the recession and subsequent austerity package, and indeed I have listened, once again, to the latest parade of millenarian post-modern declarations of how it represents a “new” this and a “new” that, with the implicit rejection therein of all the lessons learnt from centuries of popular political struggle (and isn’t it ironic how talk of “new politics” is actually an exercise in de-politicisation that is as old as the hills?), yet I still feel cynical.

Now, as I see you rolling your eyes at the back there, let me clarify: it’s not the comfortable or pleasant sort of cynicism that prefigures inactivity; rather, it is a bitter sense of frustration at the conscious decision of hundreds (?) of thousands of (predominantly young) people to uproot themselves from their own homes and camp within the cracking, plate-glass bowl of finance capitalism, far away from the very real conflicts that the individual – or the decentralised group of individuals – undertakes against capital on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, none of the discussions and statements I’ve seen emerge from the various Occupys (with the possible exception of Occupy Oakland) communicate to me as an individual about my personal problems.  When I overheard one friend ask another if he’d been down to St Pauls recently, his quipped riposte rather struck me: “I do pay rent y’know!” It was a flippant comment, but one which neatly serves to make my next point.   After all, I do have a room – with a bed, furniture and so on in it – but I only manage to retain it thanks to the sweat of my brow (my rent and bills accounts for approximately half of my monthly pay cheque), and I am loath to waste that in order to withstand the cold, the discomfort and the insecurity of an open air camp.  More fundamentally though, I can’t agree with them, and neither can I empathise with them on a human level, since – in this age in which I flip-flop from one crap job to another – I struggle to think of a more consistently undermining and undignifying relationship than the one I have with my landlady.

Those of us who are private tenants are living in a misanthrope’s wet dream; a sort of Wild West in which landlords are the biggest names in town: the gun-toting cowboys kicking open the swing doors of our measly, damp flats or terraced houses, fully aware that the diktats of the housing market, the recession and – more than anything else – the crushing isolation of residency in London in 2011 will, more often than not, trump even the most fundamental of tenants’ rights.  We are almost powerless against their assaults on multiple fronts: rent hikes, illegal or unjust conditions on our tenancies, illegal and unjust intrusions into our homes and lives, deposit thefts – the list is almost endless.  And these tales of landlord abuse are not exceptional: it is a unifying feature amongst friends and family, regardless of background and political perspective.

Private tenancies maybe the Wild West but there's no Clint Eastwood to save us

Personally, I seem to have spent the majority of the second half of 2011 in the laborious and exasperating business of room-hunting.   My last long-term contract expired at the end of July and, after a brief stay of execution round the better half’s (she’s not ready for me as a room mate, would you believe it?), I became bored of the interminable internet searches, the wild goose chases to the darkest corners of Deptford, and the toe-curlingly awkward smalltalk with prospective housemates in a sort of mock job interview for a new faux-friend, and I settled on the first house which, rather than – as they say – ticking all my boxes, merely didn’t place an X in either of them.  Now, just seven weeks after completing the exhausting and draining process of moving in, I find myself once again scrawling Gumtree for something that – again – doesn’t look shit.  Except now, my understanding of an ‘acceptable’ place has been considerably tightened.

Maybe I should have seen the signs: my landlady’s cold aversion of eye contact with my prospective housemates when I came to see the room, her subsequent threat to remove the room off me when I mistyped her card digits on my deposit down payment, and then the torrent of abuse my tragically docile Scottish housemate received for the supposed infraction (using an unoccupied room) of someone else.  Within an hour of her departure, and as a direct result of our landlady’s tantrum, my housemates were screaming at each other in the kitchen, a row which even entered my own room at one point.  Another housemate later called her to complain about smoke emanating from my room, a mere 20 minutes after informing me that smoking in our rooms was fine.  Bear in mind, dear reader, all this happened within the first night of my arrival!

"Home Improvement". Trust me, it's much less funny when it happens in real life.

As days turned into weeks and then months, I rapidly became exposed to the rampantly arrogant existentialism of contemporary houseshares between strangers.  For my housemates, hell truly is other people.  Living in single-person tenancy alongside strangers causes a sort of micro level cabin fever, which manifests itself in an irrational, paranoid mistrust of your immediate neighbours. Conversation is weak and insincere, mostly limited to enquiries as to the health of the internet connection, or – worse – chance kitchen encounters which often encompass passive aggressive commentaries on specks of dirt or food on work surfaces, the floor or – one time – the sink.  Shared space is heavily contested, with bitchy notes on the bathroom door and contemptuous sighs around the electricity and gas meters.  Ultimately, everyone much prefers the meagre comforts of their own bedrooms, leaving the corridors resembling a cheap hotel in their sad anonymity, while our rooms look like storage spaces for our lives, a sort of train station waiting room piled high with opened suitcases, papers and other such signifiers of temporality.

However, in case there is any doubt, I don’t mean to merely deride some selfish housemates (after all, such an asinine complaint would scarcely merit mention…right?).  Rather, I write this because following an altercation with my landlady and her husband, I realised that the mutual disdain and resentment between us tenants was as much a product of their hostility as anything else.  For my landlady, the every action of the five tenants is an imposition: I have been chastised for using the pots and pans, threatened for going to the ‘wrong’ bathroom, and insulted for owning a bike.  Repairing my blinds was equated to martyrdom, while demanding notice of their intentions to ‘visit’ (as they do regularly on Sundays, usually to try their hand at Tim Allen-esque DIY ventures – cf: the kitchen shelf that lasted a grand total of four days before crashing down in the dead of night) was seen as beyond the pale, and grounds for my eviction.

I came to understand how property ownership and social conservatism are natural bedfellows, and how the urge to protect one’s property leads to attempts to restrict any sort of activity therein, thereby inevitably creating direct conflict with those semi-permanently sheltered inside.  However, conversely, there are possibilities for betterment here: collective discussion between housemates could lead to a decision to confront the couple over their abuses with the threat of further action should our demands be disrespected.  More longterm, we could contact other tenants with the same proprietor or estate agent, or even on our same street, and we could share information and tips, or even present a united front against the cowboys.  We could organise a mass rent strike in order against above-inflation rate hikes, and start to dictate our own terms of engagement with the private property sector.

Yet, this potential was never realised, in my case at least – my landlady’s campaign of intimidation and harassment instead being internalised by the tenants and regurgitated as fear and self-absorption, creating an ugly atmosphere of suspicion and disregard in the process.  As a result, the aching discomfort I feel in my house is matched only by my desperate sense of impotence.

The Occupy LSX camp has chosen high profile media spectacle over concrete organising

If we are to accept the profile of an Occupy LSX-er (or, indeed, those who passively or actively support it) as an educated, internet -savvy twenty- or thirty-somethings, then their wilful desertion of their own homes (which are, probably in their majority, private rents within Greater London) indicates a continuation of the worrying trend within political “activism” which sees politics and economics as things which happen externally to the mundane rhythm of everyday life (in a bank, a financial sector, or a summit meeting), rather than the two shards of broken glass through which our every experience is refracted.  The notion of the Occupiers leaving behind all the unhappiness and indignity of their ‘own’ rooms as a metaphor for them abandoning the project of improving their own lives is so strong that it goes beyond the figurative.  And indeed, as things stand, Occupy can be compared to a music festival, or a gap yah gallivant, in its cocksure rejection of ‘normality’ (the crushing alienation of wage labour, the diminishing returns it grants us and, increasingly, the atomised habitation of a glorified washing machine) in favour of the romantic, the grand, the spectacular.  It is only when talk of re-occupying our own existences, in all their tedious, fragmented glory, becomes as popular as talk of occupying a town square that we will start to see the quantum shifts in social power for which we so lust.

Too mad to be insane: looting, marches and the reaction in Deptford High Street

In what has been an extraordinary week for Londoners, I can’t help but reflect on the significance of events in Deptford.

On the night of Monday (7th), Deptford High Street was hit several times by looters from local gangs.  Fortunately, the damage was relatively minor, as they focused on lucrative targets such as the bookmakers, banks and Tesco, before gathering outside of a pawnbrokers and jewellers.  Word is that they couldn’t crack the safe in the jewellers and thus only made off with cheap rings, but the pawnbrokers was emptied.  Residents – including those living in the flats above the targeted businesses – looked on in disbelief, some jamming 999 incessantly into their phones.  While not many folk shed tears for the economic losses sustained by the shops, the fact that these recognised gang kids had free reign of the High Street struck fear into the heart of normal people, acutely aware – as they were -of the risk of fire on the narrow, cramped street.  Eventually, after around two hours, a sole TSG van arrived and six cops jumped out to chase the looters off.

The following day, with intense paranoia on the streets of all London, a group of residents decided to act.  We’d found ourselves shakily preparing emergency bags and water buckets the night before, but we realised we had no hoses or foam extinguishers.  An impromptu fire safety meeting was organised on a street corner between around 30 people, who then agreed to meet again in the evening to reclaim the streets from fear and misinformation.  We were all sick of barricading ourselves in and relying on the false rumours and hysteria of mainstream news and social media.  At 8.30pm, almost 100 people met outside and started chatting about what had happened and why, while a banner was painted with the slogan “DEPTFORD UNITED, YOU’RE INVITED”.

As the night wore on, it quickly became apparent that London had become a mini-police state, with Deptford High Street – usually something of a no go area for cops – witnessing patrol after patrol of imported, provincial men stopping to stare suspiciously at us from the windows of rental vans.  The abundance of police served to empty Deptford’s streets, with only the hardiest of street drinkers daring to surface.  At one point, six cops encircled two black lads walking nonchalantly up the High Street. The street assembly in turn surrounded them, in scenes similar to those seen in Hackney before the anti-police riot the previous day.  The cops, drunk on their own sense of power, mumbled something about a report of “kids starting petrol bombs”.  So where’s the petrol then?  A tense situation was defused by them giving up and letting the youths walk on.  “Is it any wonder they hate you, officer?”

We crossed the road and detached the banner from the front of a Ladbrokes, because we weren’t interested in defending them or any other business from looting.  As we did so, a discussion began about the motives of the riots and the problems we find ourselves in.  It quickly became clear that most people understood the youth’s rage and desperation: no EMA, no accessible university education, no real jobs, no future.  What we questioned was their response: we needed to work together to really change our society, to really fuck power up, but for good.

It was at this point that divisions started to occur amongst the assembled.  The “#riotcleanup” wannabes seemed to resent the ‘politicisation’ of the assembly, although they largely rejected the opportunity to argue their case.  Did they consider themselves above debating with the motley crue, which included a number of dishevelled, dysfunctional High Street regulars?  Either way, their refusal to participate meant that their arrogantly-muttered complaints were quickly lost in the wind as they returned to their trendy flats and impotent fear, their Twittering consumption of mainstream news hysteria and misinformation being every bit as vacuously materialist and shallow as the looters they so avidly derided.  For its part, the assembly missed their exits, distracted as it was by rumours of an imminent EDL march on Lewisham (they were stopped in Eltham in the end).

The prospect of an emergency demonstration reared its head amongst the assembly.  It would be an attempt to highlight the social and political causes of the riots, as well as the despair that the current working class feels.  A vote of all the assembly produced a near-unanimous result in favour, with just one person against. “But what if it turns violent?” the sole detractor insisted. “So what? At least then it’ll be for something!” was the response from the floor.  But the frankly bizarre gathering of residents, activists and local drunks suddenly descended into a plethora of individual discussions, with participants unable to agree on whether the threat of violence (from that great big Other, the rioters!) was sufficient cause with which to cancel a public demonstration.  During the confusion, two more votes were called, with the same result each time: all in favour bar one.  Eventually, the individual was silenced, the march ratified, and we all went to bed, drunk and exhausted.

The demonstration itself was an unbelievably tense affair, flanked by an inordinate number of police and attended by a disproportionate number of left-wing activists.  I had to keep reminding myself that the idea had arisen out of a neighbourhood assembly the night before, and that despite its last minute nature, it had been promoted avidly during the High Street market on the day itself.  However, in the end, local residents were outnumbered by bandwagon jumpers from the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Socialist Party, and so on, who patronised young people (chanting about “THE KIDS”) and Muslims (the vintage “FREE PALESTINE” slogan coinciding with us passing a mosque), while attempting to amass political capital out of genuine social discord.  The handful of concerned residents who did come (including a crew of rollerblading lads from Brookmill Road) were swamped and neutralised by the hyper-organised PR machines of the contemporary parliamentary left, jostling to get their banners at the march’s front, inviting themselves onto TV news interviews and distributing their crap, didactic leaflets, which offered comfortingly simplistic ‘explanations’ for the complex social phenomenon which we were facing.

Indeed, talking to the local residents on Deptford High Street in the hours leading up to the demonstration, it had become evident that the High Street was not about to revolt, not over poverty nor insecurity.  The High Street has long been targeted by leafletters, so the sort of chugger etiquette – where you either stare into middle distance and ignore the leafletter in order to indicate refusal, or alternatively, you choose the path of least resistance and accept the slip of paper, only to then ignore it yourself – reigns supreme.  The minority of individuals who we were able to engage in conversation tended to begin with rapid, irate condemnation, only to pause and then accept the deeper-lying social problems behind the week’s disturbances, before finally underlining their non-attendance, usually on the grounds of trepidation.  One man anxiously shouted at us about the threat of the EDL in Lewisham; our insistence that the best way of driving out the racist filth was by standing shoulder to shoulder, rather than retreating indoors and awaiting the apocalypse, fell on deaf ears (in the end, other black men chose to mobilise for him).  Another ejected us from his shop, claiming that all “the kids” needed was “a good kicking”, as if they weren’t already sufficiently brutalised and angry!

Afterwards, sat in a shit hipster pub which had unbelievably survived unscathed, I could only rue the atomised, fragmented city, and the contradictory, confused nature of our young rioters.  We had seen anti-police riots evolve into mass looting and then brazen, misanthropic criminality.  The experience had been at once liberatory and terrifying before becoming depressing, as the government, the state, the police force and the self-obsessed middle class slowly start to clamber to their feet and dust themselves off.  They’re talking tough now, fist-banging soundbites, I’ll show you who’s boss, and so on.  For their part, the rioters have also talked tough, offering two fingers to law, order, wealth and routine in a crazed orgy of conspicuous consumption and unfettered excess.

But now, as the hangover – the post-coital shame and discomfort – begins, Deptford High Street stutters back into reality, weaving its tangled web of multiple, coexistent realities, realities which have denied themselves the chance to converge.  The individual, immediate problems of its residents still hold court here, and the brief window in which our chief concerns could be seen to coalesce (as illustrated by the neighbourhood assembly) was smashed through, not by a rioter, but by the aching weight of our own isolation. Just as the white, employed middle class abandoned the assembly in order to service their own consumption habits in front of mass media and the political mainstream, so did the chorus of street drinker depressives, gambling addicts and wizen-faced crackheads leave it to drift back into their own lives of street corner high jinx, miserable shop door rows and pained screams which we all try to ignore while we lie in our beds.

Jamie Redknapp and the Project of Youth De-proletarianisation

Jamie himself. I couldn't find the original billboard but this will do.

There’s a billboard that crosses my eyeline as I sit on the Tube on the way to work. It’s for Marks & Spencers, and it depicts Jamie Redknapp, with his plain white shirt (top button open, obviously) and a casual blazer on top. A champagne flute hangs over his crossed arms in an authentically manipulated pose: a self-conscious projection of an image of matured success, of satisfaction, of a chatter party in some ample Chelsea garden, the sort of place where people just seem to glow with affluent smugness. When the mid-morning sun hits the board, his fashioned stubble proffers a sort of smile; but in the sun’s absence, his forced brow – burdened with the effort of manufacturing a relaxed expression – funnels a rather apprehensive, untrusting glance through the grey and onto the commuter.

Upon catching Jamie’s ambiguous eye, I tend to then hurriedly swivel around to shovel my lesson preparation – a pile of crinkled papers, ripped books and beaten folders – into my rucksack. I teach EFL (English as a Foreign Language) at a private, independent language school, three streets’ walk from the station. Some people may view teaching as a comfortable dedication, practiced by skilled, comfortable individuals, but my school is every bit as much of a facade as the relaxed, nouveau riche aspirations conveyed by Redknapp’s face.

As the billboard implies, the area it finds itself in is picture perfect West London, full of £1.5million plus houses in which the banal phone conversations of double-barrelled Sloanes echo between large bay windows, themselves illuminated by chandeliers and adorned with Port Merrion. The school itself is housed in a vintage building, which they say used to be some sort of hostel. But while its oak-panelled stairways and narrow corridors may make for a charmingly English backdrop on a Facebook snap for any one of the 700 odd students that arrive from Colombia, South Korea, Thailand, Mongolia, Turkey – almost any country you can think of – the novelty must start to erode when they’re stuck alongside 15 fidgeting, frowning adults hunched over an all-in-one chair and desk in a small attic single room, the sloped roof being considerably larger than the sole window.

At any one time, I can hope to hold down two daily classes of three hours each, although such is the air of uncertainty around young, qualified TEFLs that I’m constantly sweating about low intakes, Home Office legislation, the strict hierarchy over classes, the threat of a split shift (14 hours/day out of the house for maybe £55 a pop, fuck that), a British Council spot inspection (we’re not popular over there), etc, etc. “With things the way they are right now,” my Director of Studies – another bleach blonde, friendly, apologetic, but reluctant to really chat – keeps on saying to the sympathetic but miserable nods of hourless twentysomethings in ballet pumps in the miniscule staffroom, “y’know how it is…”.

My contract runs for a term at a time, that’s three to four months. Currently it only guarantees me one class, meaning that I’m technically working 50% overtime every damn day, which they could take away whenever they want. And that’s not counting the unpaid overtime that every teacher does, whether it’s by photocopying during our quick breaks, or coming into work early to plan a class, or even redacting our own exercises at home. Every second that we aren’t physically in the classroom is unpaid.

Still, at least I have a contract. As many as half of my 40 or so colleagues took the DOS’ recommendation and registered as self-employed (“it’s easy and the only difference is that I have to sort my own taxes”), denying themselves any sort of protection from summary dismissal. They seem pretty unconcerned though, being – as most of the teachers my age are – out of work actors, or part-time models, or opera workers. Once again the swindle of the grand walls fools them, inducing the snobbery that comes with the great myth of ‘Best’ West, Portobello London that M&S et al present to us. Much like them, I’m supposed to see TEFL as a fallback option, another string to the bow, a temporary indignity. No real need to worry oneself about the contract or conditions really, is there now? I’m alright, Jack.

Noone here has ever been in a union, and it seems improbable that any of them have ever seen any kind of industrial action. The ESOL teachers in the public sector, the FE tutors with their comparatively handsome pay packets relative to our McWages, with their salaries, union branches, and so on, are bitterly reviled – amongst a couple of the older workers at least – for being spoilt, overvalued brats. Most of the younger teachers won’t even concern themselves with the comparison though, since the wages and conditions are a fait accompli. And besides, it’s not like it’s a real job, is it?

Of course, I shouldn’t complain. Undignifying and insulting as my wages and conditions are, they’re hardly atypical for my generation. In fact, in many ways, the under-30s find themselves in the land that the left forgot, spending their waking hours sipping instant coffee in figurative, litter-strewn favelas behind the shiny great white elephant developments that the union movement so jealously guards (the public sector pension plan, the below-inflation payrise, the welfare state, etc), and neglected by those who would assimilate the working class with the thin slither of union members bothered enough to attend meetings. To the run of the mill union activist, the young graduate worker is an irrelevant déclassé, an anonymous, nebulous mass. We don’t have the free time, energy or networking potential of a good student footsoldier activist – for whom they usually mistake us anyway – and neither are we mature enough to have found a proper job, one with a union branch, one where we can pass their facile, self-perpetuating motions about Palestine and Libya.

Perhaps we’re merely a product of our environment. Reality shows offer us banality as a raison d’être – nay, a route to success – while high culture, finance and politics expect us to sacrifice ourselves as interned slaves, polishing brass in the corridors of power for a meal ticket. Meanwhile, MTV – with its constant stream of garish colours and white noise – has given us all ADHD, neatly preparing us for the Buddhist truth of all life being temporary. Indeed, it could well take Buddha himself to explain why so many of us aimlessly drift through temp positions, throwing Gallic shrugs to the wind and snorting, burning or pissing our payslips into overdrafts. The work-leisure binary that the Situationists so ruthlessly critiqued has had its laces untied by the Smartphone, which intertwines job searches, interviews and actual paid work with social calls and friendly conversation, all done while eating lunch on public transport. Fuck being on the clock, do we even know the time anymore?

So is it any wonder that the politicised pro-working class minority won’t touch us then? At times, it almost seems like we’re some sort of Other to them, the marginalised pseudo-peasantry, hovering nervously on the cusp of proletarianisation. We can’t – and won’t – join a union, and most of us won’t ever join a political party, so what’s the point of ‘organising’ us? Many left groups will make much fuss about recruiting young people, partially as window candy (youth evokes dynamism and makes them look exciting, y’see) but also because of our greater banks of energy and lack of familial commitments. But when we are enlisted to The Cause, it’s as hobbyist activists in the mould of a pompous gap yah volunteer, relinquishing our free time and moral fortitude to support issues which, while they don’t directly concern us, definitely twinge at our heartstrings. In this context, our jobs are merely regarded as unwelcome embarrassments, temporary interferences of our passionately-undertaken meeting and leafleting slots.

However, the more that the entrenched power structures ignore the young, the stronger they become. The last 12 months has seen the emergence of the new narrative – that of the kid riled up to the point of recklessness (oh, how youthful!)- splashed all over our TVs and Youtubes: smashed windows on Millbank, self-immolation for change in Sidi Bouzid, Molotovs confronting tanks in Misrata, and so on. These are the expressions of a politically disenfranchised youth, of people who are systematically disadvantaged in the labour market, the housing ladder and in the political arena. Of course, contrary to the mock jubilation of mainstream discourse about the self-fulfilling frenzies around Tahrir Square and whatnot, victory is still a long way away, and the youth won’t do it by themselves. This moment isn’t “our 1960s” (for a start, 21st century popular culture is far too fleeting and intangibly vague to form the spine of a youth movement) and neither are we revolting just because we’re young.

You have to admit that our folks had it better though, right? Our middle-class parents’ emphasis on education – coupled with the creeping saturation of the media-borne record of the recent past – have granted the young person a memory that is older than the bones in his/her body. As we are pushed into the abyss by austerity, authority, conservatism and the landslide that is capital, it may seem as if our only recourse is to grasp at the stalks that have cautiously emerged from the rockface above our heads. However, much like Homer in one of the early Simpsons episodes, our efforts at self-preservation serve only to bruise and graze us while we hurtle towards our end.

I am not satisfied with the mere retention of my parents’ lifestyle. In its inimitable fashion, the left calls on us to save the NHS, defend social benefits, and campaign for “the right to work”. It is but one small stitch in the tapestry of self-deceit, where we are expected to deny that we spend our hours in modern workhouses, sniffing posies against the plague while our Hi-Tops gingerly tiptoe around corpses (and not only that, but that we want the ‘right’ to be able to do so!). We are angry, confident and self-righteous, so my question is: how audacious is our collective sense of entitlement?