Sunday, October 23, 2011

Occupy the World

The Justice of the Peace

by Hilaire Belloc

Distinguish carefully between these two,
This thing is yours, that other thing is mine.
You have a shirt, a brimless hat, a shoe
And half a coat. I am the Lord benign
Of fifty hundred acres of fat land
To which I have a right. You understand?

I have a right because I have, because,
Because I have, because I have a right.
Now be quite calm and good, obey the laws,
Remember your low station, do not fight
Against the goad, because, you know, it pricks
Whenever the uncleanly demos kicks.

I do not envy you your hat, your shoe.
Why should you envy me my small estate?
It’s fearfully illogical of you
To fight with economic force and fate.
Moreover, I have got the upper hand,
And mean to keep it. Do you understand?

I think about this poem quite a lot; it's one of my favourites. It's only posted a few places online. And I can't really find any commentary of it, except for this one little blurb where someone said that they really liked it because it's a little sarcastic.

And - a little sarcastic? Yeah, just a little.

It's exactly this kind of thinking that people are protesting about at the moment: a complete and fervent belief that property rights are handed down from on high and that it's a natural right that the state will protect your possessions, let you keep your squillion dollars and your penthouse and your yacht.

And how dare anybody question your right to that squillion dollars, question your assertion that you earned it by working hard, as though the things that other people do to keep a roof over their head and food in their belly and shoes on their feet (and books on their shelves and wine in the fridge and the heating as high as they want and a trip to the beach in the summer if they feel like it) aren't hard work and don't have value.

We sneer at Working For Families and middle-class welfare and do not question the underlying reason behind it: that, actually, people who are on the average wage in New Zealand would have difficulty supporting a family on that and paying the usual rates of tax. We judge beneficiaries for still having cars; for having cellphones and computers in their home; for faithfully buying a lotto ticket once a week; for having a beer with dinner, or two, or three - as though our society thinks being poor should mean suffering all the time, not spending your money on anything you want, not having choices and not having the opportunity to make short-sighted ones from time to time because, fuck it, it's a lovely day - doesn't a glass of wine on the patio sound nice?

And we don't question that, that earning the minimum wage if you're working full-time in New Zealand means you probably can't afford to rent a whole house if you're living in a city, not without extra government assistance. We talk instead about how jobs might be lost, as though employers hire people out of the goodness of their hearts and would pay more if only they could afford to, by gum. We talk about that fucking microeconomic graph, the one that says that labour is price elastic and assumes that's true both ways or that it's in any way realistic to talk about a labour market as a whole, as though demand for checkout chicks at the local New World is in any way comparable with the hiring of neurosurgeons, as though the negotiating process works the same way when you're a sixteen year old girl as it does for a sixty-year old grey-haired businessman in a suit worth a month's wages.

We let the entire conversation be overtaken by smirking fools talking earnestly about how hard they worked to get where they are, and who let the subtext run through the conversation like a lead-weighted punch to the face: if you're poor it's because you deserve it. If you're breaking your back cleaning other people's floors and bagging their groceries and typing their memos and organising their offices and driving their taxis and educating their children and - and you're not wearing thousand-dollar shoes and driving a late-model import, it's because you don't deserve any better. Because of course New Zealand is a fucking meritocracy, of course we're a classless society, we left all that behind in England don't you know?

Or the other one: they've got it way worse in those third-world countries where people still die of cholera and little kiddies go hungry and hardly anyone can read. And here we are, in New Zealand, with our public healthcare system and our public education system and our welfare state; why would anyone complain? Nobody is truly poor here after all -- except maybe the people who live in overcrowded state houses or boarding houses with cockroach infestations and dodgy plumbing, the students who have food budgets of $25 a week and who get irate on messageboards when anyone suggests that maybe they should expect better.

Except that they of course are poor because they made poor choices, and they're staying poor because they -- because -- because New Zealand is a land of milk and honey and what's with all the pessimism anyway?

Can't we just all relax, take a chill-pill, get our knickers out of that bunch they're in and take the stick out of our asses.

Nothing to see here.

Did you hear the All Blacks have a game on tonight?