Thursday, 15 December 2011

Penniless Poets Unite

Across the UK, voluntary societies, including churches, are being given Government money to open soup kitchens to feed individuals who fall out of the benefits system. It is now government policy to turn away penniless any individual who does not ‘qualify’ for some form of assistance, benefit or income. The feckless who refuse to work, the mentally and physically sick who cannot work, asylum seekers, victims of domestic violence, can be quite literally thrown onto the streets, even whilst their application for assistance is under review or appeal. It is a fact, not fiction, that, if grand parents cannot or do not step in, the children of these men and women are removed from them into the care of the local authority. And they are powerless to prevent it. That is happening right now in England, and elsewhere in these islands.

“A woman must have a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” The words of the famous woman writer of the 1920s are meaningless today. We live in the machine age’, where bureaucrats are paid to administer a centralised system of laws and regulations which are designed to reduce the individual human being to a mere cog or cipher, to be used by the productive and consumerist machine, and spewed out when no longer of use. Already the remaining smaller hospitals are turning away casualties if the patient is over 65. Both parents are forced into paid employment, so that chronic illness of a child, parent or other close family member can spell homelessness in the long term. The notion of having a room that is one’s own by right, and a sufficiency of income by legal right of citizenship, so that one can be in control of one’s own life-choices, has become a whimsical idea of a long-forgotten past.  

A century ago people from all walks of life took a keen interest in matters of political, economic and constitutional rights. Quite ordinary people took it upon themselves to read the original works of leading thinkers in the field (see ). Many read Marx’s predictions that capitalism would so oppress the workers that they would rise in revolution to create the centralised communist Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Some went on to read Thorstein Veblen’s argument that Marx could be wrong. If the workers became better off materially under capitalism they would remain contented slaves of a centralised system which would supply them with all their needs so long as they followed orders from above. And so it was: the ‘brave new world’ of the centralised welfare state provided jobs for the workers, training to fulfil those jobs through the ‘education’ services, ‘health’ services to produce healthy workers, and a massive leisure industry to keep the workers entertained in their ‘time off’. The notion of an autonomous citizen, with rights but with corresponding duties freely to give service to others, went clean out of the window.

As a result, the mass of the workers are inculcated with the notion that their responsibilities in adult life are limited to earning enough money to keep a roof over their own heads, and caring for their immediate family. They pay taxes so that the government can pay other workers to provide the infra-structure necessary to keep the economy supplying the consumer goods and services necessary to – keep the economy going. The underlying philosophy is that human beings are nothing more than advanced animals, capable of developing a highly sophisticated technology which will sustain human life in some form of artificial intelligence. Bereft of spiritual considerations, a degraded human nature emerges. Programmed to obey automatically, to be good because there is no other choice, the human being becomes an automaton, incapable of taking the needs, feelings or wishes of another as their prior consideration in selecting a course of action.

As Forster’s story, The Machine Stops, demonstrates, the industrial age has transformed the relationship between humanity’s understanding of the natural, spiritual and cultural worlds out of all recognition. For most people throughout most of history, the creation of life’s necessities gave meaning to life. The arts of agriculture and of the kitchen involved in the production of food developed skills, challenges and satisfactions in co-operation with others. As long ago as 1936 Eric Gill wrote:

“It may sound sentimental to our town and factory populations, but it is true to say that even bread may be holy or unholy, and therefore human or inhuman. And when we consider the high art of architecture, it seems obvious that the house is only a machine to live in, if the word ‘machine’ be used as a purely fanciful and literary conceit.” ( Eric Gill “The Leisure State: A Criticism” The Fig Tree, June 1936.)

Whilst Corbusier observed that “A house is a machine to live in”, Eric Gill raises the much broader question as to whether the products of the machine age, the food, clothing, furniture and shelter produced mechanically, are really appropriate for man and women’s use. With Gill, we can follow the argument that reduced hours of work might enable human beings to pursue “higher things” in their leisure time. But with Gill we can observe that “when we consider man’s history”, until the evolution of the Machine Age, it is precisely “the things necessary to him upon which he has expended all his love and imagination and tenderness”. And we can further agree “tenderness is of all his virtues the most characteristically human. And it has been upon the making of what he needed that man has chiefly shown his nature.”

The Machine Age has no use for artists, poets, playwrights, musicians and literary figures, save to provide leisured entertainment for the ruling Davos Class.

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