Capitalism, Culture, Socialism, UK

Comic Relief is a bad joke; Make charity history!

There are many institutions in our culture and society that, for me, highlight the depth of our dysfunctionality and despair. Such institutions express the shocking degree to which a social system of artificially-created human misery has been so successfully naturalised that its universality and ubiquity has been rendered invisible. They also reveal how we are, wittingly or unwittingly, complicit in hiding truth, and how depressingly limited our collective imagination is. One such institution in the UK is the annual national do-something-silly-for-charity-shenanigan. We have two primary charitythons like this: Comic Relief and Children in Need. On both these occasions, Brits come together to dress up, do silly things, bake cakes, etc in order to raise money for the poor and needy at home and abroad. The fact that every year the poor and needy are still with us and that their poverty and need grows is barely questioned and is used merely to justify a redoubling of efforts.


Comic Relief is one of the UK’s largest overseas development charities. Its annual fund-raiser is called ‘Red Nose Day’ after the clown-inspired red noses that people all across the country wear. Alongside the money-raising fun and games of ordinary folk, the event is, inevitably, centred on celebrities and ‘big-hearted’ multi-national corporations. On Red Nose night, on TV, we are alternately entertained and then harrowed by comedians who travel among the world’s poorest to capture both their suffering and, of course, the hope that Comic Relief and our money bring. Big corporations – this year it seems to be PG Tips and Persil (Unilever-owned tea and washing powder brands – get in on the act, showing us how humane and generous they are, by pledging big money in return for us buying their products.

How can something so well-meaning, something that brings people together, something that has raised so many hundreds of millions of pounds for charity stir feelings of such anger and distress in me? I will answer this question by drawing on the work of Oscar Wilde, someone who understood precisely what charity constituted within capitalist society and who explained it with characteristic eloquence. For Wilde, it was quite ‘inevitable’ that people who found themselves ‘surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation’ would be ‘strongly moved by all this’. However, since, unfortunately, ‘the emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence’, ‘with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.’ Thus, Wilde saw charity as an institution that ‘degrades and demoralises’ and ‘creates a multitude of sins’.


I stand with Oscar Wilde. Comic Relief constitutes merely the most degenerate expression of the spectacle-mediated, consumer-driven institution of contemporary charity. I would suggest that not only does today’s ‘spectacle charity’ serve as the eternal plaster over a gaping, festering social wound, it actually functions directly to sustain the system that injures us. First, spectacle charity does this by alleviating social pressure. Legitimate frustration and anger at blatant social injustice is channeled ‘productively’ into charitable activity. Second, spectacle charity serves to appease feelings of guilt among those who are, or at least feel, better off and luckier. It also tells those unlucky ones they should be grateful they’re not far worse off in some Third World urban slum. Third, spectacle charity reinforces capitalist social relations by asking us to help alleviate suffering by acting as consumers – buying cakes, red noses, corporate sponsors’ products. Fourth, spectacle charity serves to maintain the status quo by providing depoliticised depictions of human suffering. The political-economic root causes of, say, child poverty in the UK are not and cannot be confronted. Poverty is portrayed in technical terms as a mere lack of things: money, education, resources. Fifth, in this way, spectacle charity reinforces the status quo by reinforcing general thoughtlessness. ‘Don’t think, do!’ is the general message here. In all these ways Comic Relief, and charity in general, does more harm than good by serving to maintain the status quo economically, socially, and culturally. I shall offer some evidence for these claims.

Yesterday, I tried to find out where Comic Relief’s red noses were manufactured and what they were made from. Unfortunately, I was able to find out very little. With regard to labour, all I could establish was that Comic Relief had signed up, alongside other major charities and companies, to the ‘Ethical Trading Initiative’ (ETI) under which partner NGOs (non-government organisations) monitors the companies (presumably, predominantly in China) that manufacture their orders. I also found a mixed (albeit quite old) report on the ETI’s effects by Sussex University, found out that several major companies, including Boots, had subsequently left the ETI, and that Primark, the company whose Bangladeshi subcontractors were guilty of the Rana Plaza tragedy in which 1,129 people needlessly died, is an ETI member. With regard to the environment, I could find nothing except for the fact that red noses can be recycled at various outlets.

Whether the conditions in these factories had improved under ETI or not is, for me, secondary to the telling fact that I was not able to establish where Comic Relief’s red noses were made. This tells us everything we need to know about the hidden, alienated nature of capitalist social relations and the institutions of commodified, spectacle charity within it. Comic Relief, an organisation dedicated to alleviating poverty, is largely blind to and reliant on the structure of class exploitation that creates this poverty. Thus, even if conditions are somewhat better in red nose factories, they are still exploitative. Why? Because it is the human labour within these factories that generates the surplus value that allows Comic Relief to sell these things for a profit. If this was not the case, these red noses would simply be produced in the UK. In terms of the environment, I am none the wiser, but pessimistic, as to the ecological cost of mass-producing millions of plastic red noses.

Over a century ago, Oscar Wilde was acutely aware of the perversity of charity: ‘It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.’ His ultimate conclusion resounds to this day: ‘The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.‘ The only thing that gives me heart on days like Red Nose Day is that people undoubtedly care. But, no amount of silly tomfoolery or hard, cold cash will end poverty. Capitalism breeds it, capitalism needs it. The goal of socialists like me is to encourage well-meaning, big-hearted folk (i.e. most people) to go beyond doing and take some time to explore and think about the root causes of our bleak situation.

Ten years ago, the major charities in the UK came together under the banner of ‘Make Poverty History‘. Remember the white plastic wristbands? In the UK and beyond, poverty has increased in the past ten years.1 Let us, instead, take an approach that is at once more radical and realistic. To make poverty history means to make charity history, and to make charity history we must make capitalism history. If we don’t, Oscar Wilde’s words will continue to resonate yet another century from now.

Capitalism, Education, Environment, Politics and economics, UK

Part Two of Politicising Transition

Part Two: Politicising Transition

In the first part of this blog, I praised the creativity and energy of the wider environmental movement in the UK, but identified the unwillingness of many groups to identify capitalism as the social system that generates environmental destruction as a profound flaw. I argued that their depoliticised worldview was a combination of the general depoliticisation of neo-liberal Britain and the fact that these groups are invariably dominated by middle-class capital-rich liberals attracted to solutions that seem to promise sustainable living alongside solid investment returns, and preserved social privilege. I argued that, in this light, Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: capitalism versus the climate was of huge importance.

In this blog, I want to highlight the limits of the hugely influential Transition Network’s strategy of localism and resilience, before suggesting how such movements can get political through methods of popular education.

In the previous blog, I summarised the Transition Network’s ‘big idea’ in the face of stagnation and crisis – localism and resilience. I admire the localist element of this strategy greatly. However, both elements of its big idea equally reflect a liberal, depoliticised approach to social change. Localism ignores the role of the state; resilience seeks, in reality, to shelter from rather than struggle against the social injustice of global capitalism.

What localists fail to recognise is that their efforts to create new local organisational and institutional forms are hugely dependent on the state. If it wasn’t for the regulatory, administrative, fiscal, and financial support that the British state gave local environmental and other social enterprise initiatives, they would not be achieving the success they are. The example of the feed-in tariff, addressed in the previous blog, is a case in point. Consequently, if we are seriously interested in changing society we need to be interested in state power.

As for resilience in the face of a crisis-prone ‘hyper-connected’ economic system, should we be content to merely provide shelter for each other? – from speculation in commodity markets that drives up the price of staples; from hyper-exploitative, parasitic finance; from the commodification of the house that enriches the rich and immiserates and expropriates the poor; from the cartels that render access to public transport and warm houses unaffordable? Such a liberal, depoliticised worldview naturalises global capitalism and, whether it be natural or man-made, it is always those with the most resources who are most ‘resilient’ and able to weather such storms. We must organise politically not just to defend ourselves locally or even just to chip away at the edifice from below. We must organise politically to demand and win the public ownership of and universal access to our collective wealth. This is where we return to the struggle for state power as the unavoidable central political objective.

In a recent talk, Naomi Klein laid great emphasis on the vital role that popular education must play in politicising the environmental movement and bringing environmental justice and social justice campaigners together under one united umbrella for systemic change. This means that movements like the Transition Network need to go beyond ‘just doing things’ to develop a consciously theoretical, political dimension that will help it to recognise the already post-capitalist, eco-socialist nature of so much of what its groups do and to heed Klein’s call for a political movement that unifies environmental and social justice. How can this be done? The answer is two-fold: strategy and method. Methodologically, I believe that the methods of democratic popular education are a short leap in the direction that most environmental groups are already heading. These groups tend to be quite non-hierarchical, democratic in their internal structure and practices, and generally have a learning element central to their activities already. The move would require going deeper by collectively asking awkward, critical questions about the relationship between capitalism and the environment, and also hard questions about the group itself – who are its members, who gets to speak, who does not? Second, in response to these discussions, a strategy would be designed to revise policies, positions, or activities deemed problematic in retrospect, and crucially to further democratise the group by opening the space to unheard voices and reaching out to unrepresented groups. This final part is easier said than done, of course, but there are ways and means of doing it.

It is my belief that such an approach is vital if we want to achieve the crucial task that Klein identifies, namely uniting the environmental and social justice movements. This will involve difficult choices for those more privileged elements of our society. With their skills, knowledge, and generosity, such people have huge amounts to contribute to our collective brighter future. Yet, they must also recognise that they can no longer dominate this movement at the cost of poorer, marginalised groups and must seek instead to establish dialogue based on a real faith in others’ ability to articulate their own reality, their own truth, and their own visions for the future. For this, a Freireian approach to popular education sets out most clearly the philosophy behind and practical guide to achieving this objective. To paraphrase Paolo Freire, the revolution must be pedagogical.

Capitalism, Environment, Ideology, Politics and economics, UK

Politicising Transition: uniting environmental and social justice through popular education

In this two-part blog, I critique the depoliticised, liberal nature of a disproportionately middle-class-led environmentalism epitomised by the Transition Network. I argue that these movements’ unwillingness to name capitalism as the social system to be overcome is both unsurprising and fundamentally problematic. I argue that this is why Naomi Klein’s latest book is so important since it does exactly this.

In the second part, I point out the limits of the Transition Network’s strategy of ‘localism and resilience’ and argue instead for the need to organise politically to challenge and win state power. I set out ways in which such encouraging social movements might develop an explicitly political dimension through the use of popular education practices.

My central argument is that, as inspiring as they are, most of these movements are classically liberal, i.e. blind (consciously or not) to the exploitative and oppressive social relations of power that really define capitalism. Unless these power relations are identified, named, and challenged, any movement, however dynamic and progressive, will unwittingly maintain the overall system.

Part One: Environmentalism + Capital = Social Injustice

I recently read ‘The Power of Just Doing Things’ by Rob Hopkins, a key figure behind the Transition Network in the UK. The Transition Network has spread from Totnes, Devon throughout the UK and far beyond. It’s an excellent book, full of both inspiring examples and invaluable practical guidance for those tired of feeling powerless in a scary world and wanting to contribute to positive, sustainable change.

Hopkins describes how, through the Transition Network, people around the world are coming together to create new ways of producing, distributing, and consuming food and energy. He also describes how the very act of co-creation rebuilds and strengthens community bonds, and restores individual and collective self-belief. In short, the pro-actively democratic and communitarian nature of the groups and the projects he describes are an inspiring antidote to the currently hegemonic system of authoritarian, environmentally destructive, and socially unjust and alienating neo-liberal capitalism. And yet, my summary of the nature of the Transition Network differs dramatically from the depoliticised frames that Hopkins himself uses. Reading his book, one might never conceive of Transition as being remotely political. This, I want to argue, is a fundamental flaw that has profound consequences.

Naturally, Hopkins talks (liberal) economics. He critiques the concept of infinite growth and the deafening ecological silence of the ‘Austerity versus the New Deal’ debate, arguing instead that this crisis is the ‘new normal’. Against this backdrop, he posits the ‘new Big Idea’ – economic organisation has to be ‘local and resilient’. Economic activity that is maximally local is environmentally far more sustainable; produces far more economic benefits for local people; and facilitates community-building. Resilience reflects the idea that such localised economic units, rather than being ‘hyper-connected’ to the globalised marketplace, should co-exist in a relationship of ‘modularity’ – co-operation, but ultimate independence. The rest of the book offers both practical and refreshingly non-prescriptive guidance and countless inspiring examples of the Big Idea in action. So far, so good.

My problem, as I say, is the absence of politics. There is not a single mention of the words ‘capitalism’ or ‘neo-liberalism’. This may be intentional: Hopkins may want to avoid seemingly divisive politically-charged vocabulary. Personally, I doubt this is unconscious. Clearly, Hopkins and the Transitions Network see a system. They just don’t want to name it. Does this matter? Very much.

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, sports an unequivocal title. Though I have not read it yet, I have heard her speak about the book. She argues that since capitalism is the driver of both environmental catastrophe andsocio-economic poverty and inequality, we need to bring the struggle for environmental and social justice together within one integrated frame, behind one united movement that advocates ‘system change not climate change’. I wholeheartedly agree. We all have to recognise capital as the fundamental obstacle between us and environmental and social justice. It is vital to make this explicit because capital is a chameleon, a shapeshifter. It finds infinite ways to make itself amenable to progressive causes. I offer an example from my own neighbourhood.

Low Carbon West Oxford (LWCO) has pioneered Transition-style actions that bring people together to drastically reduce carbon-burning activities and to generate renewable energy. LCWO recently launched an attractive campaign to raise investment funds for more solar-panel installations on local buildings. On the front page of its prospectus are ringing endorsements from prominent localcapitalists including Richard Branson. Investors are offered a very healthy return: 5% per annum from the government-imposed feed-in tariff and a further 3% tax break.

Where does this money come from? I tried for an hour in vain to find research on the government’s feed-in tariff (beyond George Monbiot’s work), but I can’t help concluding, on mainly logical grounds, that it is socially regressive. The energy firms clearly don’t pay it out of profits. They pass it on. This additional cost must hit the poorest hardest because energy costs as a percentage of expenditure are higher the poorer you are. Poorer households also pay more per unit of energy because they don’t have the creditworthiness or income guarantees needed for better, longer-term deals. The feed-in tariff must also be regressive because is is disproportionately those with capital who are able to directly install or invest in installations that generate energy that feeds into the grid.

In this LCWO scheme, investors get a third of generated revenue, but the risk they take on is neglible. The government backs the feed-in tariff and also provides the tax break. This must also have another socio-economically regressive effect because it effectively offers a tax break for people with surplus capital to invest, i.e. richer people, and that tax break must be balanced by cuts in public spending elsewhere. Overall, then, we see a prime example of how the incorporation of capital into environmental projects generates socially unjust outcomes. It is great that a further third of the LWCO scheme’s generated revenue is distributed for projects in low income neighbourhoods, but this looks like a classic case of charity: the capitalist class (often via the state) takes away with one hand and gives a little back with the other. Environmentalism + capital = social injustice.

With its greater access to capital, time, space, skills, resources, and networks, the middle class dominates much of the environmental movement, including, I would suggest, the Transition Network. Like anyone, members of the middle class are keen to have their cake and eat it, i.e. contribute to renewable energy generation while enjoying bumper returns on their savings. Incidentally, another example of this cake-and-eat-it phenomenon is Fair Trade. Persuasive recent research has shown that, on average, Fair Trade workers actuallyreceive lower wages than their ‘unfair trade’ counterparts. In reality, wealthier consumers pay a premium to do little more than appease their conscience. Again, ethics + capital = social injustice.

Clearly, the neo-liberal project has been all about ‘depoliticitisation’, i.e. relentlessly attacking the working-class and putting much of economic policy into ‘independent’ technocratic hands beyond democratic control. I think that a combination of the general depoliticisation of British societyand this middle-class capital-rich environmentalism explains the absence of politics in Hopkins’ book and much of this wider liberal environmentalist movement. It is unsurprising to find far more politically conscious and explicit groups in areas with larger student and working-class populations such as Bristol and Brixton.

I finish by re-emphasising the crucial importance of Naomi Klein’s new book in this light. Please buy a copy for any middle-class environmentalist you know!

Please go on to read Part Two of this blog here…

Capitalism, Palestine, Politics and economics, Socialism, UK

The Choice

The Second Coming by W B Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

On Jewish Communists

I am the only socialist in my family. My granddad might still call himself one, but, in reality, his own material struggles and money fetish have left him a socialist of the heart and capitalist of the head. There is no doubt about where his heart lies, however. He met his own beloved wife at a British Communist Party social event in the East End in the late 1940s.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Jewish East End was solidly communist. Jews were at the vanguard of the struggle against fascism both at home (against Mosley’s ‘Blackshirts’) and abroad (both in Spain and then, of course, in the Allied fight against Nazi Germany).

For many Jews, the ideological commitment to communism ran deep – deep enough to give their lives. For many others, communist affiliation was primarily a strategic position to take in the face of fascism. According to the historians, most Jews at that time seemed to have identified themselves more as ‘Jewish Communists’ rather than ‘Communist Jews’. For them, communism constituted not a means to reach out to the world beyond, but to protect themselves from a threatening world outside.

The dilemma

Seventy years on, and, whilst socio-economic developments have dispersed and diluted Jewish communities and cohesion, a core of religious and/or culturally conservative Jews remain, understandably proud of their traditions and heritage. For them, the parochial East End world remains internalised. Their friends are all fellow Jews, the media and culture they consume reinforce their worldview. However, now a similar combination of capitalist crisis and fascism threatens their world, and, unlike their parents and grandparents before them, the choice they face is not straight-forward.

This past Saturday, the English Defence League held a march in Bournemouth. In response, the anti-fascists, led by trade union Unite, held a counter-demonstration to stop their progress. Ahead of their march, the EDL produced this hate-filled, intentionally provocative video ahead of their march.

The march was planned to go past or near the local synagogue. I suspect that the vast majority of the congregation did nothing other than hurry straight home. However, whilst in the 1930s and 1940s, their affinities would have been anti-fascist, paradoxically, their instinctive self-interest today lies not with the anti-fascists, but with the fascists of the EDL!

The EDL is staunchly pro-Israel. In contrast, the anti-fascists clearly stand in solidarity with the long-suffering Palestinian people against the Israeli state. This amazing video vividly captures this remarkable political dilemma. 3 minutes in, we see a religious Jew making a speech at an EDL rally. 6 minutes in, we see Hassidic Jews standing against the EDL, with the anti-fascists, and denouncing the fascism of the Israeli state!!

‘Dilemma? What dilemma!?’ would be the predictable response of most conservative British Jews, ‘We are in support of Israel, not of the EDL! We can’t help it if these thugs support Israel too!’ That may be true. Yet, as the EDL-aligned Jewish man in this video shows, capitalist crisis can bring together strange bedfellows…

The ‘centre cannot hold’

The British capitalist state, indeed global capitalism, is in profound crisis. While the richest prosper, most people are suffering from historic falls in living standards. Real wages have already fallen around 15% from 2008 levels. Most of the government’s austerity cuts are yet to be implemented. When the next market crash hits, there is the real possibility for a further huge drop in living standards, even for economic collapse.

Graph taken from Michael Robert’s blogpost entitled ‘UK: cost of living crisis continues’

The recent rapid rise of extremist parties and politicians across Europe shows again that during capitalist crisis ‘the centre cannot hold’, and that the supposed ‘best’ indeed ‘lack all conviction’.

The choice

Whether they like it or not, the Jews of Europe face a choice. They can endeavour to maintain ever more abstracted ideological, cognitive constructions in an effort to preserve their current worldview and sense of self. These false cognitive constructions are founded on deep-rooted myths about the Jewish people: as a pure race; as ‘chosen’ by God; as the ‘light of the world’; as perennial victims of jealous, godless enemies. Maintaining such constructions will necessitate ‘the worst’ thoughts and acts of ever-increasing ‘passionate intensity’ that will inevitably lead them into alliance with fascists against the supposed enemies of Islam and, ultimately, socialism.

The alternative – one being embraced by ever-growing numbers of Jewish people – begins with challenging and reconstructing one’s ideology, one’s identity, one’s very self. This is a difficult and painful process, but it is one not just of deconstruction, but of ultimate reconstruction. There is an alternative heritage to claim – one of radical, ‘other-regarding’ Jewish history; of the proud and important role that Jewish people have played in human history in the struggle for freedom and justice for all people. What we might call Yad Vashem’s ‘Righteous Among Nation’s in reverse is an awe-inspiring list indeed! It would include such luminaries as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Naomi Klein, Albert Einstein, Frances Fox Piven…and my new hero, Hedy Epstein!

The Second Coming

We are all born into random places, times, and social groups. We are all told that our god is the true god, that our food is the best food, that our culture is the richest culture. We are all right. We are all wrong.

E F Schumacher once said that ‘everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see’. The violence of genocide is only possible through dehumanisation of the other, and dehumanisation of the other is only possible through uncritical eyes.

The ‘Second Coming’ is nigh! The ‘rough beast’ in his twenty-first century guise crashes through Bethlehem and on to Gaza. Once more, propelled by capitalist crisis, barbarism looms large.

My call is in no way for any Jewish person to give up their cultural or religious practices. Yet, all Jewish people do now face a choice. We can choose to remain uncritical and, according to a logic of self-regarding self-preservation, ally with the fascists. Alternatively, we can, via a process of self-discovery and reconstruction, proudly recognise the vital role that other-regarding Jewish people have made to the struggle for universal freedom and justice, and to ally with those groups who have always fought, and continue to fight, against anti-Semitism but also against prejudice, oppression, and hate of any kind. In this way, Jewish people can continue to make a major contribution toward building peaceful and equitable multi-religious/ethnic and, therefore, truly socialist societies.

This article was published on the Column F website here

Education, Politics and economics, UK


I felt compelled to write about this. No thanks to the BBC whose website seems silent on this one (correct me if I’m wrong), but I’ve learned that, since November, the UK government’s (In)Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has stopped prisoners from receiving any parcels that are not urgently needed. Consequently, prisoners are no longer allowed to receive things like new clothes, underwear or books. I want to focus here on books – on education, knowledge, and power. I just want to say that this decision commits an act of true violence on our incarcerated fellow citizens – people who already disproportionately represent the poorest, weakest, and most oppressed sections of our society.

Let’s first take a look at exactly who is languishing in our prisons. I’ve taken all these statistics from the House of Commons Library Prison Population Statistics from July 2013. It’s free to read here. What I found there shocked me. It may not shock the more knowledgeable and cynical amongst you.
The Report’s authors, Gavin Berman and Aliyah Dar, find that England and Wales have the second highest incarceration rate in Western Europe behind Spain. Our prison population has been growing for over a century, but has taken off since 1993, growing at an average of 3.6% since then.

uk prison pop

This chart doesn’t show the sharp increase in 2011, caused partially by the arrest of over 900 (primarily young) people on offences related to that summer’s inner-city riots.
80% of the 88,000-strong prison population are adult men. 40% are under 30 years old. Almost a quarter are under 25. The prison population is disproportionately made up of ethnic minorities.
As you can clearly see, although black people make up just 2.8% of our population, they comprise 13% of our prison population!

prison pop by ethnic group

The number of Muslim prisoners has been growing rapidly over recent years too.

muslim prison pop

Already shocking stuff, but here comes the really, desperately sad and shocking reality of who is living in our prisons. Check these stats out…

  • 24% of prisoners had lived with foster parents or in an institution or were taken into care at some stage when a child.
  • 29% have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. For women, this figure is 53%!
  • 41% have observed violence at home as a child.
  • 59% regularly played truant. 63% were temporarily excluded from school. 42% were permanently excluded.
  • Just a third of prisoners were in a job before arrest. 13% never had a job.
  • 47% had no academic qualifications. In 2003, this was 15%!
  • 35% of our prison population are registered disabled!

So, what can we conclude? It’s pretty straight-forward. We are sending to prison those who have come into this world with the least opportunities, those who have suffered most during their tender, formative years – in short, our prison population is made up in large part of those with physical or mental disabilities; abused and vulnerable children and the adults that these abused and vulnerable children become. There’s no starker example of this I can think of than the incredibly powerful film ‘Stuart – a life backwards’ about the life of an amazing, intelligent, articulate man who suffered so very much. You can watch it here.
Such desperate childhoods create destabilising behaviours and other barriers to learning that deprive sufferers of an education and decent prospects. In the current long depression, with youth unemployment rates at around 20% and vicious cuts being wielded to social services, the prospects of current prisoners are even gloomier.
The cuts are, of course, affecting life within prisons too: overcrowding is rife; resources are cut; programmes designed to educate, retrain, counsel are scaled back or removed. Despite European legal judgments against it, the UK government also remains determined to take away prisoners’ right to vote. And now this…

The decision to ban prisoners from receiving books is an act of violence and fear. It is an act of violence because it sends out a clear message that we should dispense of any lingering hope or belief that prison is meant to rehabilitate. The recent rise in punitive laws and government policies, and the crackdown on those involved in the 2011 riots, reflects the timeless need by the ruling class to maintain order through coercion during times of capitalist crisis. The growing prison population reflects a longer-term trend of deindustrialisation, disinvestment, the demonisation and criminalisation of the poor, and democratic decline. Prof Danny Dorling sums this up when he describes how the UK government’s only investment in social housing seems to be the building of ever more prison cells.
The decision is also an expression of fear. Throughout the five millennia of human civilisation, maintaining control over access to learning and knowledge has been a crucial element in the designs of those in positions of political and economic power. Very often, since political and economic power has been mediated by, and often centred around, religion, religious institutions and the figure of the priest has been central here. We see examples of this throughout human history as far back as the first recorded post-Agricultural Revolution civilisation in ancient Sumer (Mesopotamia). We see this in Hindu India (Brahmans), ancient Israel (Cohanim), and in the Catholic Church. Though far more meritocratic, we see it in the Confucian bureaucratic system of China. Be it justified by religious or political ideology, we see in every society expressions of the natural, innate inferiority of the unwashed masses articulated by ruling elites. Today in the UK we see it in the Etonian-Oxonians who dominate the heights of government of our country and capital city.

The fact that prisons have libraries is important, yet also incidental. The significance of the ban is far more symbolic than practical. It tells us more fortunate ones what young disadvantaged people have known for years – those that rule over us couldn’t care less about us. All they care about is that we produce for the businesses they own and manage, and if, for whatever reason, we can’t do that, they will lock us up, suppress, and, yes, even kill us.

Every post I write will finish on a positive note, a note designed to try to inspire, resist and create. To anyone out there reading this in a prison or excluded for whatever reasons from school or university, it’s not game over. If you can get access to books or to the internet, you can get an education. And I’m not talking about getting  a ‘schooling’. I’m talking about learning about our shared history, about things going on in the world today they don’t report, about learning how to think critically and act ethically – about history, politics, economics, and philosophy. Now that’s a real education – an education that can truly liberate our minds. How did Mandela and so many others in the ANC survive decades in jail? How has Mumia Abu Jamal survived and stayed mentally healthy and free? Education, knowledge, and understanding of self, history, and society – the only way to our individual and collective freedom. We have to resist and come together to educate ourselves and each other. Let’s get educated! I can’t say it better than Akala so just listen to this, but before (or while) you do, just sign this