I was looking today at photographs of "Hooverville," one of the many settlements that sprung up in America during the great Depression of the 1930s. A scattering of tents and small shacks sharing the most basic of facilities, they clustered around the impromptu soup kitchens and provided an invaluable sense of community and camaraderie for those whose lives had unexpectedly imploded. After a decade of amazing prosperity, the American bubble had burst in 1929 leaving many destitute as the result of unemployment and damaging the global market. In England, a fifth of all workers were unemployed by the end of 1930 and exports had reduced by fifty percent. It was a cycle that has parallels with the global recession of 2007-2009, but more frightening still is the callous response of the Conservative Government: severe spending cuts to essential services, deepening child poverty, the terrifying list of UK welfare reform deaths and now, the impending threat to human liberties.
Eighty years on, it is not too fanciful to imagine modern day Cameronvilles appearing across England's green and pleasant land. They're already happening on a small scale in most large towns and cities. Last month's landslide victory eradicated all voices of opposition to the Conservative vision, leaving the most vulnerable in our society living in fear regarding the things that have long stood as bastions of a civilised society. Thousands of families in the UK, even those in full-time employment, are only one payment away from losing their homes, one step away from bankruptcy. Recent statistics from the Trussell Trust expose the shocking truth that over a million people received emergency assistance from foodbanks in the last twelve months, while the Child Poverty Action Group reports that currently 3.5 million children are living in poverty in the UK. The situation is becoming more desperate and anger is deepening. Are we going to return to the shadowy world depicted in Orwell's essays or Greenwood's "Love on the Dole?" We must listen to the lessons of history; the hunger marchers of 1927, 1930, 1931 and 1934, the voices of thousands who converged on Hyde Park in 1932 and the Jarrow marchers of 1936. Those voices were heard again this weekend outside the Bank of England and Houses of Parliament. The numbers of the modern dispossessed are rising and will continue to do so while those cushioned by wealth lack the empathy to appreciate their predicament.
The poverty myth is a conflation of fictions and denial. In 2015, the "have-nots" no longer fit the lingering stereotype of the Dickensian poor. They rarely wear rags or stand at lit windows looking in at the rich feast, hoping to have their innate nobility recognised by some long-lost benefactor. The poor don't fit comfortably into a box, they're spilling all over its sides. TV shows like Benefits Street pander to the worst stereotypes, editing the lives of real people into caricatures at which a voyeuristic audience can shake their head in disbelief. The myth that hard work will reap its own rewards has been disproved by the current economic situation; many of us were brought up to believe that if you behaved yourself and worked hard enough you would be able to enjoy a decent standard of living. That may have been true for our parents' generation but the world has changed. We no longer live in the meritocracy they invested in but yet it is still considered morally reprehensible to be poor. Social media and our material culture promote certain appearances, lifestyles and possessions. They offer a compelling portrait of Britain where the majority enjoy holidays, cars and home ownership and where poverty is the result of laziness. This is a fallacious and disingenuous fiction perpetrated by the advantaged.
This lack of feeling is a metamodern malaise which is only deepening. It is currently dividing our society in a deeper, more damaging way than any other factor. Poverty is not a lifestyle choice. It is not the just deserts of a sector of society who are morally inferior, it is frequently the result of bad luck, of one bad decision, unexpected illness or the breakdown of a relationship. Because of that, it could happen to anyone and that is a frightening prospect. The London riots of August 2011 demonstrated just how much resentment burns under the surface of those who feel disenfranchised by a culture whose estimations of worth are measured on a material scale. The readiness of those lacking a voice to exploit the temporary anarchy has not gone away and societal failure to recognise the very real privations of a significant demographic is a grave error.
There is only one answer to the divisive rift at the heart of our society. That is empathy. Empathy for the physically and mentally unwell, for people of all ages and all classes from all countries, cultures, religions and backgrounds, for victims and criminals, for those who make mistakes and also those who have never erred. It should know no limits. Empathy isn't weakness. It doesn't mean someone is being exploited or taken advantage of. It is inclusive. It is a robust, practical compassion, requiring courage, pragmatism and maturity. It is about recognising that the similarities matter more than the differences. The only way we can repair our world is by seeing our neighbour as a fellow human being. This won't be a popular conclusion. The acquisitive will always be reluctant to share, the judgemental will always seek refuge in moral censure and the insecure will fear diminishment by association. But it is the only humane conclusion for a country that calls itself civilised.