SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 186 March 2015

Recession and division

Hard Times: the divisive toll of the economic slump

By Tom Clark with Anthony Heath

Published by Yale University Press, 2014, £18.99

Reviewed by Becci Heagney

Most people will not have to read this book to understand how six years of austerity mount up to ‘hard times’. However, Tom Clark, Guardian writer and former Labour adviser, and Anthony Heath, sociology professor, have produced a useful resource based on research, opinion polls and interviews. There are plenty of statistics to showcase how cuts hit the poorest.

To name but a few: 64% of Americans and 57% of Britons said in 2013 that their lives had been significantly affected by economic problems; 48 million Americans rely on food stamps; in Britain, the real (inflation adjusted) value of the minimum wage dropped 6% between 2009-12. Unsurprisingly, you are more likely to be unemployed if you are young, black and without qualifications. Surprisingly, a British child in poverty is almost twice as likely to come from a working home than a workless one.

Perhaps more powerful are the interviews with people at the sharp end – the human cost of the economic crisis. ‘Denise’, a single mother from London, "spoke of arranging to go shopping with a friend so that they could share two-for-one offers". Kate, from Mansfield, who works in the public sector and has four children, has only £30 a month after bills are paid. A woman who has a congenital bone disease – in constant pain and her fingers at risk of breaking just from driving – was found fit for work by Atos because she could pick up a pen. Zahera, aged 30, describes the reality of a zero-hours contract: "If you happen to fall out of line, or your manager thinks you have not done very well that week… your hours just get cut – you feel like you are just at the beck and call of the people above you".

These kinds of stories and statistics are not always given in the mainstream media. But reading pages and pages of them begins to become repetitive – despite the horror they detail. The more interesting aspects refer to the book’s subtitle, ‘the divisive toll of the economic slump’. Clark and Heath use examples of the ‘workers and shirkers’ rhetoric to show that this propaganda has had an impact.

When Mick Philpott killed his children by setting fire to his house in Derby, chancellor George Osborne wasted no time in linking this horrific act to the fact that Philpott was a benefit claimant – 48% of people surveyed approved of his comments. In 1993, 55% rejected the idea that benefits were too high. In 2011, 62% thought they were too generous, despite the real value of benefits falling during this time.

It is not a straightforward divide between those in work and the unemployed. All those interviewed were of the opinion that other people were ‘getting a better deal’. Moira, unemployed, said: "I think you get more help now if you are in work… than if you are unemployed". Jamal, also unemployed, said: "The only people that I can say are getting a good deal at this time are all those claiming disability that are not disabled". Martin, on disability benefits, thought of the unemployed that, "the government should have put their foot down. There’s work there, you do it or you lose your money".

The idea of blaming the person down the street has a divisive impact. During recessions there is a decrease in volunteering and participation in community groups. This is in both formal and ‘informal’ volunteering, such as a neighbour or family member babysitting. Communities fracture as people turn inwards. Refreshingly, this is not put down to a stupid or ignorant population, but something rooted in the material conditions that people find themselves in. It is not just the recent years of austerity that has pitted one person against another but decades of falling wages and lack of funding in services.

Clark and Heath ask: "Are our own hard times splintering opinion into a thousand varieties of resentment – pitting victims against one another, leaving them not only despairing, but also ripe to be divided and ruled?" The political situation – namely, the lack of a working-class political voice – also adds to this resentment. Correctly, the authors comment that myths about benefit fraud are not being busted because the arguments "are not being made [by the elite]".

Where the book falls short is in providing any solution to these problems. Clark and Heath give a compelling case to show how nothing has changed fundamentally since the 1930s and that it is not just in the bad times that working-class people bear the brunt. The effects of a crisis on society are still apparent long after an economic recovery. But this is put down to ‘unbridled capitalism’ or ‘heartless capitalism’.

It is the ‘brand of capitalism’ that is seen as the problem. Not in causing crises – it is taken for granted that these just happen – but in how we can shelter from the economic storm. More emphasis should be put on "regulating, rewarding or otherwise nudging employers to do more for their staff on security as well as pay". Quantitative easing in the US is held up as an example of how the worst can be avoided.

The authors do not seem to have a problem with the economic situation per se. Their problem lies with "the great social and political lesson of the 1930s warning of the evils of throwing the vulnerable to the dogs, that has been forgotten". For socialists, this cannot be separated from economic crises. Rather, it is the logic of capitalism to attack the working class to defend profits and the system itself.

This is an academic study aimed at advising policy. Clark and Heath call for a ‘curtailing’ of zero-hours contracts and insecure working, the building of affordable homes and for the welfare state to be preserved. However, in the same breath they contend that ‘cuts need to be made’ and that, with an ageing population, the retirement age will need to increase.

Hard Times has been hailed by the Guardian newspaper as "a penetrating study of the divisions created by the recession… The policy and electoral implications, particularly for the centre-left, are enormous". Rather, it is a one-sided analysis of society, presenting the working class as a passive recipient. It talks about the ‘outrage’ of the bedroom tax but gives no details of the huge protests and direct action which took place, causing it to be effectively revoked in Scotland. No mention of the millions of workers who have taken strike action and protested against this government. Even the 1930s and 1980s apparently went by without so much of a whimper from the working class.

The final chapter is a nod to the Labour Party and an appeal for it to take the same route as Barack Obama in the US, and to learn lessons from Roosevelt on compromise. The book ends with: "It is tough even to say with any precision when hard times began… And, with austerity looming for as far as the eye can see, it is outright impossible to offer them any reassurances about when their hard times will end". This is the future if the working class does not act. History is not one-sided. The only way to defeat ‘hard-times’ is for the masses to overcome the divisions and form a united movement determined to change society in a socialist direction.

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