Sunday, 23 March 2008

The C Word, Seconds Away, Round 2: Class

The Workhouse, the Slum, the Slum Landlord and the Eternal Waiting-Room.

Some people are saying ‘the white working class’ has disappeared, some that class as a political issue has ‘got away,’ it has even been said that ‘we are all middle class now,’ but whichever way you look at it, you could hardly fail to notice that Britain is still infested with class structures of numerous sorts which blight lives and stifle minds.
For a while I thought we were just reinventing class; that we’d put the fences up in different places. Now I suspect we may be reintroducing some much older structures.The next six posts were written as one over the last few days and divided up to make it a bit more blog-friendly.

The Loathsome Peasant

My first candidate for reintroduction is the character of ‘The Loathsome Peasant.’ I noticed the return of this character, dragged back from the mid Eighteenth Century, when I lived in Yorkshire, in a village impoverished almost beyond retrieve. Surrounding this character was a motley crowd of influential others. Step forward: The Countryside Alliance, The (pro) Hunting Lobby, The (anti) Hunting Lobby, The Old Aristocracy, or what remains of them, and The New Aristocracy (‘media types,’ newspaper owners, their editors, some of their journalists, and most of the BBC).

‘The Loathsome Peasant,’ as constructed by the NAs, in particular, and their various stooges, is working class, or possibly lower middle class, lives in the country and isn’t very cultured. They might also live in a small town. They’re always racist, even if they’re black, which of course they never are because only white people live in the country. They’re probably not that well educated because the schools aren’t much good. The area is poor and these areas are concentrated in – well everywhere that isn’t a large thriving metropolitan centre and isn’t London or The South, or rather the ‘Home Counties’ with some other bits added on. In other words this character is probably the very same white working class who’s ‘disappeared.’ While the NAs would cheerfully execute the lot of them, which could be why they’ve disappeared, what really confuses the issue is that all those influential others, above named, also despise them. You see, they’re not Proper Peasants. They’re just a bit common.

A Yorkshire Village and the Urban Peasant

That Yorkshire village I mentioned provides a fine example of what I’m talking about. I was organising a community project which involved repairing the railings of the local community centre. Ah ha, thought I, let’s get the ‘Young Offenders Team’ in to do it, local participation and involvement and all that. The YOT were in fact part of social services, not, as the name suggests, a team of obliging local hooligans. The point is that the YOT worked with YOs, and supervised them doing good works around the county, in particular good works of the sort that ‘made reparation’ for the bad deeds they’d done before. So, along they come with their very sweet supervisor from Halifax and set to with the railings. Good reports of the day’s activities proliferated. ‘It can’t have been that exciting, surely,’ I thought, suspicious. Further enquiries revealed that the YOs, had indeed been having a whale of time: while they’d been working at the front of the community centre, the centre ‘workers’ had been cheerfully selling class A drugs out the back. It was only a matter of time before the too sweet supervisor had her back turned and a nice little circuit was set up.

This was how most people in the village were making their daily bread. They’d long given up on jobs. It’s not just that there weren’t any, there were never going to be any. Thus I decided to return to London to seek my fortune. Much as I loved that place, it really didn’t have a future. To my surprise, I found that the ‘Loathsome Peasant’ also lived in London. It took me a while to recognise him/her at first, because everyone, even the poor people, looked fantastically rich by comparison to the village. What I hadn’t grasped was that the rich-looking poor people were in fact just living on the never-never. The NAs despise the Urban Peasants in slightly different ways. Sometimes they use ‘social exclusion’ language, sometimes it’s about ‘under achievement,’ and much of the time its about ‘culture,’ which is the acceptable face of class, but contempt is contempt, whichever way you wrap it up.

The Workhouse

Next in line for reintroduction, also with a nice flavour of the mid Eighteenth Century is the Workhouse.
I live in Tottenham, an unlovely part of the North London Borough of Haringey. I love it, because I like my neighbours. But it is bleak. It has no centre and little soul and fairly bristles with workhouses. People migrate here from numerous different countries, but in the lattice of streets where I live, the population is mainly Kurdish, from Central Turkey. They are not PKK and need asylum as much to escape unwelcome and violent attention from that organisation as from the equally violent and unwelcome interference from the Turkish Gendarma, the military police. A mixture of studied ignorance and institutional brutality from the Home Office has resulted in large numbers of what can only be called Ignored Asylum Seekers. These are the ones who cannot be deported because their case for asylum is too good. So the HO has instead adopted a policy of first ignoring them and then criminalising them by refusing to allow them either to work or to claim benefit. They have to survive, so they work illegally and are exploited to the limits of their endurance.
So we have in Tottenham a critical mass of criminalised workers, who, as my friend Jamal did, work standing up for at least 14 hours a day with no break, (stop and think about that for a second), no day off and no holiday. He worked like this, without a single day off, for six years, rarely seeing the light of day, because mostly he worked nights. He is one of hundreds, possibly thousands. Jamal worked at the front of the shop, he met the customers; we all knew him. Most of the women, however, especially in the kebab and pizza shops, are at the back, in the kitchens. You wont see them. Our local economy is more or less dependent on these people. Remove them and we lose our entire local community. Welcome to Britain’s workhouses.

The Slum Landlord

Hogarth would be proud of our next candidate: The Slum and its cohort, The Slum Landlord. This comes complete with Gin Lane, or, more accurately, Cider Close.
Our local newspaper, ‘The Haringey Independent,’ excelled itself on Friday march 7th, ‘Migrant workers’ slum cleared out,’ it howled. Turned out a bunch of Polish men had set up camp under the arches next to the car park near Seven Sisters Tube station. The paper said about thirty people had been there for four weeks, but a small number have been there for some months, certainly since last summer. Directly related to this is the reintroduction of Lord Land-Scumbag, or The Slum Landlord. These are the buy-to-let vermin who bought up properties on the cheap, and let them to ‘asylums’ and migrant workers at extortionate prices. In order to pay the COLLOSSAL rent, a two bedroom flat, such as the one next door to me, will house anything up to twelve people. Two in each room including the living room, sleeping the day shift, and another two in each for the night shift. The charmless Goksun Guest House on the corner of my street also does this. After he’d finished his shift at the shop opposite, Jamal went to his bed which had just been vacated by Mehmet, only minutes before. Mehmet would then come downstairs to do the day shift.

The Servant Class and The Criminal Class

So we have the peasant, the slum dweller, the pitiful immigrant and the pitiless landlord. We are carefully reconstructing a labouring class from the people who have migrated here from the EU, and who work under restrictions. Romanians and Bulgarians can do only labouring work, no matter what their qualifications. ‘You keep the good jobs for the people from the rich countries,’ scowls Tavi, ‘You want people from the poor countries to do your shit work for you.’ We seem to have created a whole new ‘servant class’ from the Eastern European countries. These are the ‘respectable working class’ now. Those from outside the EU, with slightly darker skins and dodgy religious practices, like Jamal and Mehmet are the criminal classes. They’re the lucky ones though, relatively speaking. They have family here, and can avoid the worst excesses of Home Office Enforcement.

Consider Hasan, 20 years old, from Uzbekistan, here on his own, and without proper legal representation. Now electronically tagged, (a form of post modern leg-iron), he and his housemates are subject to relentless ‘visits’ from the Home Office at strange times of the night. Yet they wont deport him, or Samira, from Iran, who has so far managed to avoid the tagging, but only because she does have a good lawyer and a very politically aware brother to defend her. They both work the endless hours, and they’re both stuck forever in the Eternal Waiting Room while the HO also waits- to see who’ll blink first. Utterly guileless, Jamal is mystified by the refusal of his asylum claim: ‘I think the Home Office just don’t understand,’ he puzzles, trying to defend this institution of the democracy he loves. They understand alright, that’s why they make no active attempt to detain or deport him. They’re just trying to starve him out along with the others. I do sometimes wonder if ‘the workhouse’ is really the right word for this, in bleaker moments it seems more like a ghastly parody of the Gulag.

Strangers in Citizens

The obscene spectacle of a LABOUR GOVERNMENT adopting a policy of restricting some workers, criminalising others, recreating a ‘servant class’ and a ‘criminal class,’all to stop those frightful foreigners from coming to England to do the jobs no one else wants to do, was adopted to please the editor of the Daily Mail, who apparently, oh, you’re going to love this, REPRESENTS THE REST OF US AND OUR INTERESTS. Do you feel represented? Thought not. Taking action starts
Here. Strangers into Citizens has a pathway to citizenship proposal which would enable the Ignored Asylum Seekers to work legally and pay taxes and eventually to apply for citizenship given good references and so forth. S to C are working on a shoe string at the moment, and need help with their website among other things... if anyone has a few hours to the summer perhaps, that would be the business and The C Word will love you forever.