I’m sorry for my recent silence. I’ve been here and there and looking after my kids a lot. But now the summer hols are over and I’m back on it!
There’s only one possible topic to address in this blog – the ‘migrant/refugee’ crisis gripping Europe. I’ve been thrilled to see so many people across Europe getting involved, showing their solidarity and support for people trying to escape conflict zones and impoverishment to make a better life for themselves and their beloved children. We have by now all seen the indescribable horror of migrants and refugees’ ordeals. People say ‘as a father or mother of a child that age’, but that’s unnecessary. You don’t need to be a parent yourself to feel a primordial grief-anger when confronted with a photo like that.
So, I’m heartened to see people wanting to act and demanding that their governments take action. But, for action to be effective and not counter-productive it has to be considered and well informed. So, my goal here is to try to present you with some deeper structural analyses of the current situation to help you make better decisions about how to act. I always try to think praxis – thought/action. Thinking without acting is useless; acting without thinking is dangerous!
Thinking in this way necessarily means confronting ourselves with challenging questions and that’s what we need to do here. So, this will be a two-part blog. In this first part, I’ll try to answer that common right-wing refrain that we can’t help these refugees out because ‘charity begins at home’ and we’ve our own house to get in order first. I’ll also challenge the idea that the solution to our problems lies in charity. In the second part, I’ll look at who these migrants/refugees are, where they’re coming from, and why they are risking their lives to enter economically depressed Europe. In both parts, I’ll offer evidence for thinking about the current migrant/refugee crisis as a consequence of capitalism and the current profound crisis of capital.
In this part, I will argue that fears many of us feel are legitimate but mistaken, and that we actually have more in common with newcomers than our ruling class. I will also argue that charity as a human response is understandable, but charity does not address (and even exacerbates) the root structural causes of this crisis. If we want to truly end war, inequality, poverty, and ecological destruction – if we want to help people stay and prosper in their own homelands – we have to confront and overcome capital; we have to go beyond charity and get political.
In this and all my blogs, I am, of course, trying to persuade you of my argument, but, first and foremost, I’m encouraging you to think critically and believe in yourself as someone who totally can understand, and help to change, the world around them.
Does charity begin at home?
The right wing media and politicians constantly argue that, if we’ve got our own houses to sort out, and if Britain is an already overcrowded island, why should we be expected to help the world’s waifs and strays? So the first question we need to address is: ‘Doesn’t charity begin at home?’
Last Sunday, in my own town of Oxford, over 1,000 people came out to express their solidarity and support for refugees. It was wonderful to see so many people of all ages coming together as common humanity. I couldn’t get close enough to hear the speeches at the rally. However, the questions that I suspect few if any were addressing were these very domestic concerns: ‘In a city in which houses and rents are the most expensive in the whole country, where local people themselves are desperate for new and better housing, where are these newcomers supposed to live? Which of the already overcrowded schools will their kids go to? What about the overrun hospitals and depleted and run down social services? What about the already clogged roads?’ Unsurprisingly, in his speech, the City Council leader Bob Price apparently expressed an acute awareness of these practicalities.
There were people from all parts of Oxford society at the rally. But it was undeniably dominated by the middle class. It’s wonderful that these people – people like me – with more social, economic, and cultural security and resources want to welcome thousands of new refugees to Oxford, but we’re not the ones who will be most affected by their arrival and integration. We might even open our own doors to new refugees, but these new folk can’t stay forever. They won’t want to. They will want and need their own homes. And there’s the rub! If we’re serious about opening our borders we need to confront the practical question of where these people will live, work, learn, and the resources they will consume. When people raise real concerns like these, when people ask about those in need who are already here, they are often attacked as ignorant, prejudiced, or racist. That’s not constructive. Their feelings are valid. Their concerns are legitimate. Let’s address them.
So, if you want to argue that charity begins at home, you do need to answer whose home you’re talking about. Is this nation really a home to us all equally? You also need to answer why we might need charity in a wealthy country like this. The answers to these questions are political: they concern the ownership and control of land, property, finance and overall political control.
Whose home is it anyway?
Land and property
Regarding land ownership, just 6,000 owners – made up of aristocratic families, billionaires, the royal family, the Church of England, and Oxford and Cambridge colleges – own two-thirds (40 million acres) of all the land. In Scotland, the situation is even worse. The concentration of landownership is one major factor suppressing housebuilding. If you own the land, you will hold it and let it out slowly to ensure land prices keep rising. So, right away, we can seriously dispute the claim that Britain is full. More than fullness, it’s about extreme population concentration in small urban pockets, and actually less of Britain is built on than most other developed countries.
Property ownership has also become far more unequal in recent decades. Landlords now own hundreds, even thousands of houses and flats, renting them out at exorbitant rents and often neglecting the conditions of these properties. In the press, benefit-scrounging tenants get the blame, but they don’t see the money at all. Last year, local councils in the UK forked out £9.3 billion in housing benefits to private landlords. The 311 (out of 380) councils which released information showed that the top twenty company landlords in all areas receive housing benefit direct from councils. These landlords use tax loopholes and the UK government’s own generous tax provisions to avoid and minimise their tax contributions. And they often leave their properties in awful and dangerous conditions.1 Some of the biggest landlords are from the same aristocratic families representing themselves in the House of Lords and even Members of Parliament.
Since the Conservative Party introduced the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme in the 1980s, which allowed council housing tenants to buy their own homes at discount prices, almost half of all former council housing has ended up concentrated in the hands of ‘buy-to’let’ landlords. So, where there used to be social housing with life-long leases, there are now landlord barons milking desperate tenants on short and fragile contracts who compete with each other to be exploited!
Then we have the more dispersed problem of people owning multiple homes. In many coastal and scenic parts of Britain, local people on very low wages cannot remotely afford to buy a flat or house because (often London-based) outsiders’ demands for holiday homes have inflated prices out of reach. A similar dynamic is at work in Oxford where nearly half the houses are bought by the UK and global elite who buy up property as either investments or to house their kids for their education. And its not just the one percent. In depressed economic conditions with low growth, high debt, and privatised pensions, burgeoning numbers of pensioners depend on rising house prices and rents to supplement their pensions.
Any government knows that its political survival and success is pegged to the housing market, so they keep reflating the bubble and helping politically influential land-owners and landlords. Also, it’s no coincidence that, whereas only 1% of the British population are landlords, nearly 25% of MPs are!
Finally, we have, of course, the issue of homelessness. Because of varying definitions and categories, it’s hard to say how many people are homeless in the UK. In England alone last year, however, over 112,000 households applied to their local authority for homelessness assistance. Compare that with the government’s own statistic showing over 600,000 empty homes.
In any civilised society, in which a house performed solely a social function and satisfied a basic human need, homelessness would simply not exist. In our capitalist society, in which the house is a commodity to trade and an asset to generate rental income, and in which house prices boom and bust, homelessness is a structural constant. This is perverse.
In the UK, social housing is sold off cheap to landlords who then enrich themselves on rental incomes and tax benefits from taxpayers; poorer people are ‘socially cleansed’ from prosperous areas and cannot buy homes in their own neighbourhoods; rich people own multiple homes and leave good homes empty while others sleep rough or in hostels or temporary housing; and 2/3 of the land is owned by 0.1% of the population. In conclusion, if you want to argue against accepting newcomers to the UK by asserting that charity begins at home, the argument that the UK is all ‘our home’ does not stand up to scrutiny.
Why do we need charity?
Economic and financial power
If you want to argue seriously for ensuring that our own people are looked after first, you need also to look at the political economy (power & money) of the UK. You need to explain why this wealthy society still (and increasingly desperately) needs charity. Over one million people received emergency food and support from foodbanks in 2014-15! That’s up from 26,000 since the economic crisis began in 2008!
The globalisation arguments are well rehearsed. Since the 1970s, we’ve seen a sustained and hugely successful attack on working class people. Trade unions are now far smaller and weaker and we’ve had 40 years of wage stagnation. In the UK, we’ve seen a particularly dramatic shift in the structure of our economy away from manufacturing (jobs and industries exported primarily to China) towards services and finance. This has definitely intensified the imbalance in our economy, not just in terms of trade (export/import) or budget (deficit/surplus), or even just in terms of production/consumption. The promotion of finance above all else has also exacerbated the London-centric nature of our economy. Foreign and internal ‘migrants’ flood into London and huge swathes of the rest of the country languish in stagnation. Not that life for most is prosperous and easy in London either!
The combination of wage stagnation with a hyper-consumerism has led societies like ours to ridiculous levels of private debt – loans, credit cards, etc. The nature of this debt has become more usurious as the economy has faltered and people’s situations have become more desperate. Legalised, parasitic loan sharks enjoy near free reign to exploit the desperate.
At the same time, austerity constitutes a political strategy and economic policy to make the poorest and most vulnerable pay for a crisis that originated in the crash of the combined US housing and financial markets caused by rapacious speculation. The main beneficiaries of these financial markets are seeing their wealth soar in recent years as the trillions printed to keep the system afloat finds its way into their accounts as new bubbles in asset markets form. As the recent Chinese stock market crash shows, it’s only a matter of time till the next collapse.
So, again, if we’re serious about getting our own house in order, let’s take a look at why we still supposedly need charity: why our country’s economy is so unbalanced; why we depend on banks and financial firms that steal from us and financial markets that explode in our faces; why our wages are so low; and why people remain in ever greater levels of debt.
The class war: the war in our ‘home’
There has never been more money in the world. It has rarely if ever been concentrated more unequally. Those who run our economies also control that wealth. Their wealth and power are totally tied up with the current system and maintaining the status quo. We cannot expect them to ‘get our own house in order’. Indeed, even that phrase still suggests that, as the Tories like to say, ‘we’re all in it together’. We’re clearly not. When we begin to recognise this, we begin to see that there is actually a war in this country, in every country right now, in which people are dying, suffering ill physical and mental health, and losing their homes each day of the year. That is the class war! It is the war prosecuted by the ruling class – the owners of capital – against working people. Austerity is the current economic policy and political strategy used by the ruling class to prosecute this war.
Where this war has been prosecuted most intensively, it has led to millions of deaths. Throughout the Third World, for example, the world’s poorest people were compelled by Western governments, the IMF, World Bank, and complicit, corrupt rulers to pay the cost of the debt crisis of the 1980s and bail out American and European banks. We saw manufacturing collapse. We saw indebtedness soar. We saw unemployment and emigration rise. We saw infant mortality, maternal mortality, life expectancy in these countries drop. Similar trends can be observed across Northern and, to a greater degree, Southern Europe today.
Look up! Look up!
It’s vital not to sneer at those who may seem merely to parrot the alarms rung daily by our media and politicians. It is perfectly understandable and rational to feel and express these fears. If you feel this way right now, your fears are real. Your concerns are genuine. However, what I’d ask you to do is to ask yourself whether our collective economic security and prosperity is threatened more by the people seeking to come here out of political or economic need or by a system that continues to exploit, expropriate, impoverish, and indebt the poorest, and destabilise our communities, society, and ecology. What would affect the prospects of the average UK citizen more, the expropriation of the six thousand biggest landowners and the return of that land to common ownership or the arrival of ten thousand Syrian refugees? What constitutes more of a threat to our economic security, new immigrants or unstable financial markets? Should we be angrier at a system that allows bankers, landlords and payday loan sharks to milk us or at poor people trying to make a better life?
Here’s another way to frame this argument. Imagine you’re on a small volcanic island quite low down near the coast. The sea levels are rising. Other islands have already been swallowed up. Desperate people crowded into unseaworthy boats are trying to land on your island. You yourselves are crammed into densely populated villages by the coast. The rich people on your island live in the beautiful wide expanses of the fields higher up that dominate most of the island. ‘Look down!’, they cry out each day. ‘Look down! Look at the people on the boats! They are outsiders coming to take our land, our homes! They don’t understand our language, our customs, our history! Look down!’
Every day, the newspapers and politicians call us to look down. What I’m suggesting is that it might be more fruitful and just to look up instead and see what we find.
The false friend of charity: Action begins at home
A lot of good, kind people are feeling an almost overwhelming urge to do something right now. Unfortunately, in our society, that drive to act is invariably colonised by charity. Charity is a false friend. Charities seem to offer us what we think we need. Give money, time, and resources and we can make a difference. We can make a difference to individuals’ lives, but we will also invariably sustain the very system that creates the tragedies and injustices that compelled us to act. So, when Bob Geldof invites refugees into two of his homes, that’s very charitable, but why the hell should anyone have so many unused homes! And when the interest rate rise finally comes and the near million UK people on interest-only mortgages find themselves threatened with eviction, will we rally for them and open our doors to them too?
Only structural change can resolve this crisis. So, instead of charity beginning at home, let’s think about action beginning at home, within ourselves. Let’s think about changing ourselves as individuals, communities, and as a society, working towards making the structural changes that won’t just make things a bit better till the next crisis comes, but will actually help us to create a better and more just world. This means making bigger demands of ourselves – of our time and energy – but if we’re serious about social and environmental justice, that’s what we need to be doing.
Thanks for reading. In the second part, I’ll take an external look at the refugee/migrant crisis and try to show how those who run countries like Britain are directly complicit in creating the instability and violence that compels people to leaves their homelands and risk life and limb to get to Europe.
1The Property Ombudsman reported a 37% increase in tenants’ complaints last year. Check out this article that tells of a young man Georges Almond who turned the mould in his bedroom in Manchester into an art exhibit, and his rented home into a community art project!