I met a man in the street who was cold and broke and could not find the place he thought he had a bed. Bitter cold, we were inspecting a scribbled address when a large black SUV pulled up. A man wound down the window and barked, quite pleasantly, his need for directions. The homeless man and I blinked stupidly at him, stuck, our cognition momentarily jammed.
Some have confidence and privilege; some do not. This, surely, is a class divide, a society ‘broken’ in which a minority live on a glass surface, safe and bright, while others suffer terribly in a seemingly hidden world. Academics have long noted that we can no longer easily distinguish between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Now there are managers, lowly bank workers, shareholders and all manner of blurred boundaries and analytic exceptions. Yet something is broken, and there is a separation. The top of our society has arrested the controls and now ignores the ‘have-nots’. The tragedy is that perhaps a third of our citizenry live lives of extraordinary desperation. The comedy is that our elites can’t control anything, and will sacrifice others to further their own self-interest.
A dungeon with screaming at first nauseates and then outrages. The refusal to accept becomes a flash of revulsion, and indeed, the sheer level of suffering in our society is physically disgusting. In the UK today, citizens face being terrified, maimed and killed by draconian cuts in public services (which barely worked anyway), the collective punishment of those damaged by poverty and the abandonment of any orientation to their wellbeing. Human intention reveals itself in action and its effects. We will go to war to improve the ‘security of our citizens.’ We will bail out the banks because a growing economy is ‘good for citizens.’ Yet it seems acceptable, even normal, to at the same time deny citizens health care, jobs, community services, education and hope. Evidently, it does not matter that disabled children no longer have swimming lessons, that mental health services are a national disgrace, that schools and hospitals are failing and our cities are clogged with cars and drugs and gangs. It is ‘normal that so many lives are chaotic, desperate and systematically abused by institutions. We need to understand this, lest we get fooled again. The actions and the effects of government/corporations reveal that they do not care whether citizens live or die. The separation is in this way a dumb repetition of history, as it entails concurrent and mutual dehumanisation. The gang cannot perceive the reality of their victim’s pain, (they laugh at his screaming and film it). Similarly, policy-makers cannot see the suffering of the mental health patient, discharged into a cold night clutching little more than a ‘Care Plan’, (they pretend they have a policy and that it’s working).
First nausea. It’s physical. Then outrage. What the hell is going on?! Is this normal? If the need to cut 30 minutes off the train journey between London and Birmingham is a problem of such magnitude as to require HS2, what is being done about the rather more pressing problem of widespread avoidable suffering and wasted human potential that characterises the lives of so many? Illegitimate foreign wars, the Olympic Games and the Mesmerised Michael Gove don’t really sort it. The captains, drunk on privilege, are steering the ship onto the rocks. When it sinks, they will be suddenly gone.
We could use some of (our) public funds to hold an (at least) national debate to explore, make decisions and act, but we won’t, and so will watch the deepening of class hatred, more riots and more police mistakes. As it rains outside, we can admit to our adult children that we did not realise the consequences of our actions and simply ‘had to do it that way’. Yes, we heard the screaming, but you have to understand, back then such suffering was normal. At that time, we did not know what to do with our outrage. Only later did we learn to imitate the citizens of ancient Republics and walk, en masse, out of the city until the ‘haves’ pleaded with us to return. Such acts of public disgust were, after all, how the Romans got their ‘Tribune of the People,’ with their power to veto life-threatening elitist policies. By then, of course, everything had changed.