Opinion

Forget Big Brother – the real enemy is poverty

If we are to have big worries, I suggest they should be about the possible repeat of a very nasty piece of history

Extreme reaction: History tells us that the growth of tyranny results from the loss of our prosperity. Image: Alamy

Probably because of George Orwell’s novel 1984, a mass of people who might have never read the book would expect that any fascist takeover of our lives would come from the state. A litany of a loss of freedom in a mind-controlling world, 1984 was so bleak I had to give it a miss.

Of course the mind control, as is witnessed by the obsessive presence of the mobile phone in people’s lives, has come not from the state but from rampant appetite-pleasing capitalism. The mobile has become the most subversive tool for lulling us into a sleep full of mind-numbing film and data.

The state is not busy winning control of our dependency on phones. Or if it is, we are still encouraged by the consumer marketplace of the world to ‘desire and buy’.

If we are to have big worries, I suggest they should be about the possible repeat of a very nasty piece of history which, if it befalls us, will have catastrophic effects. And that is the loss of security and home that may come if the government does not protect the millions of people who may be evicted because of pandemic-created poverty. Hence our creation of the Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA), which is trying to stop mass homelessness by creating work. And encouraging government to avoid mass evictions.

One of the clearest demonstrations of the alarms that would ring if people lost their prosperity permanently is what happened in Germany after the First World War. Up until 1914, Germany was a prosperous place for the many. After the war, so wretched became many from the formerly prosperous middle class that they became the backbone of the Nazi and other extreme right-wing parties. If you cannot feed yourself and your family you may well lose all of the niceties of concern for others.

I probably subscribe to the idea that poverty itself is more worrying and more of a threat than any government trying to control demonstrations and other parts of life. That the mobilisation of thousands of people against unpopular government actions will not be stopped
simply because no one’s been issued with a certificate of permission.

I am more interested in preventing poverty among those who have not yet tasted it. I don’t want to see a rerun of bad history

Most of the demos I went to through the 60s, 70s and 80s were far from legally agreed on.

No, to me the fear is coming from the growth of insecurity which can change people’s thinking. And the arrival of a depression amongst people who have lost everything to Covid-19.

That does not mean one should not oppose the government’s attempt to rush through laws conducive to gaining more control over us. But let’s not forget that having a home and a job is a prerequisite to a liberal and prosperous life. If you are worried about a possible arrival of fascism, look to our prosperity rather than any form of state intervention. For it is there, amid the daily life of our society, that goodness grows and is nurtured. The destruction of wellbeing means the initiation of suffering and reaction.

As I said, I could not finish 1984 because it was so depressing. But also because I could see how limited its view of the state was. It was based on the triumph of an imaginary standoff between two superpowers, based on a sketchy view of the Cold War of the time. That war took the form of two societies divided over what people could buy as much as over the freedoms of the self. The Soviet Union fell apart in the end mainly because of consumerism faced with state-produced shortages. And the loss of wages and pensions being provided by the state.

Of course we might also see a kind of Marxist movement if mass homelessness does rear its head due to the government losing concentration. And then the parallels with postwar Germany will be complete. A battle of ideological opposites that the government would be powerless to do anything about. Maybe the government will fail in its wish to head off the clash of opposites fighting in uncontrolled demos and anti-demos.

That’s why I am more interested in preventing poverty among those who have not yet tasted it. I don’t want to see a rerun of bad history.

John Bird is the founder of The Big Issue

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