Pauperland

Issue section: 
(388)

Jeremy Seabrook, Hurst, £20.00

This book is a strange mix. By looking at how Britain's rulers have tried to manage the poor over centuries, and relating this to current official and popular attitudes, Pauperland does a real service.

Seabrook shows how fear of poverty has been used to keep the working poor in their place, the shifts back and forth between charitable concern and vicious demonising, and how the rich fear the angry and not the passive poor.

He describes current welfare debates as a "cosmic seance" with voices from beyond the grave, as every ministerial proposal has "already been tested and tried and usually failed in the past, even the distant past".

The book includes real gems, such as how the "mad" label has been used used to lock up the poor over centuries; and how attacks on the "idle and undeserving", as opposed to widows and orphans, were used in power struggles against the monasteries in the 16th century.

I even found the 19th century source of current myths about families having "three generations of workless" - no longer true, as Joseph Rowntree research showed last year. But if you're a government minister, facts don't stop you recycling old arguments as ideological cover.

The book makes it clear that our rulers create and need poverty, and their wealth comes at our expense. It lashes the rich and rages against capitalism and its dehumanising, planet-wrecking impact.

Pauperland provides good insights about riots, and how capitalism tries to redefine life as "consuming". There are some great turns of phrase and thought-provoking ideas.

So I was surprised by the book's sudden shift in stance.

Seabrook believes that in the advanced capitalist countries poverty is mainly social and cultural. The poor today live in a "a world of surviving and scavenging, for affection as well as for material things...an existence nourished by cheap alcohol, drugs, speed, dreams of escape, heroism and an iconography of luxury borrowed from a different class".

He seems to regard today's working class only in comparison to a mythologised version of our great-grandparents who knew how to "make do". That people in Britain today are hungry, their homes unheated, is not to do with lack of means, but due to dependency and a "failure of community spirit".

Seabrook says, with no facts or references in support, that the post-1945 welfare state undermined our "self-reliance", and that the "death of socialism", sometime in the 20th century, means the end of any collective ability to fight back.

As it progresses the book becomes more muddled. Seabrook says the potential of working class people to change society is an "illusion". If you think workers and the poor cannot organise, and have no power, then you end up talking about us, not with us. If you don't think we can organise to change things, you are left with moral arguments alone.

Rejecting what capitalism has become, Seabrook seems to reject economic development altogether. His conclusion is that we need a change of perception, so that wealth and exploitation are seen as shameful. By "rejecting" capitalism we can make it "wither away".

Seabrook has written some great articles nailing government welfare policies. But this book is not any kind of call to action.