Comic modified from original by Harry Grant Dart (1909): "In the coming age of socialism".

A horrible film that I highly recommend: Or, incomes are too low, prices too high, and social services failing

I, Daniel Blake, is a horrible film. You should watch it.

The film is a story of friendship, of rather ordinary people who are sometimes kind, sometimes cruel, often worried, occasionally proud, increasingly desperate, with humble aspirations. The characters are constricted by poverty as well as by institutional rules and rationalised corporate policy. This is a story that’s relevant to the present narrative of increasing insecurity for working people: Western societies are now typically stricken by general insecurity, austerity and the shadow of scarcity.

In short, the film provokes horror at the condition of life there depicted.

The film, directed by Ken Loach, takes place in the United Kingdom’s city of Newcastle. There are two protagonists: one a veteran worker who has suffered a heart attack at work, the other a single mother. The first needs to not work at the risk of serious injury or death, the other needs work to cover the costs of life for her and two children. Neither has adequate savings to make ends meet. So, they need help, or risk hunger and loss of home. This is an altogether typical story, after all, how many people have enough saved up to cover a long period of joblessness?

Private and social scarcity

Individuals, families, and private households are growing increasingly indebted as incomes fail to keep pace with the basic costs of life. Simply put, people are borrowing more to pay for daily life: housing, education, heating, food, clothing, and so on. This is true for the majority of people in Western countries, with real gains in incomes and wealth reserved for the richest class in society. The total household debt in the United Kingdom is higher than net disposable income, and was sitting at 153% of the net disposable income in 2016. This heavy load of debt to after tax incomes is not exclusive to the UK, as is clear in the chart below (these numbers are from the OECD, accessed on 22 February 2018).

Chart: household debt as a percentage of net income

If you must take on debt to cover the costs of a car, to afford education, to mortgage a house, or to make sure the home has heating during the cold months then you’re bound by this financial obligation. You must pay interest and pay back the loan in steps. Since you likely lack savings and adequate income to cover your costs in bad and good times, then you’re made more vulnerable to changing times, broad economic conditions, and the demands of your employer. This situation impacts more than the individual or household, it affects the social forces that collectives of people can or cannot bring to bear in their efforts to improve or maintain a certain quality of life, or even go further and transform the political economic structures that underpin it. As professor David Harvey puts it in regards to mortgages, “Debt-encumbered homeowners, it was argued, were less likely to go on strike”. So this restriction of options has the potential to serve as a form of ‘social stability’ in that a people’s weakened economic position limits the political possibility of those affected to take the time, effort, and risk of mobilising for a change in their workplace, neighbourhood, or society.

In the United State, the share of aggregate income for all sectors of the population has been steadily dropping from 1967 to 2016, except for the richest 20% of the population. In 1967, the top 5% of income earners made 17.6 times more than the lowest 20% of the population. This divide has grown to 29 times in 2016.

The growing sum of debt relative to incomes is one of the indicators of growing hardship. There’s increasing risk of failing to make debt payments on time, or even defaulting entirely the greater its burden. This means that people are made more vulnerable to job loss, wage cuts, and illness. They’re also more readily impacted by changes to insurances, or to government social programmes. That’s why so-called government austerity can cut so deep; when your pocket book is thin or even in the minus due to loans, new fees for social services may effectively bar them from use or force a person to choose between basic needs such as between adequate heating or sufficient food.

If a mortgage or other form of credit drifts according to a variable interest rate, then the highly indebted household’s budgetary well being is affected by any change in interest rates. Therefore, monetary policy and the setting of interest rates become a matter of real concern and care for indebted households. Under such a scenario, monetary policy is not a subject that matters only to finance capitalists: it can directly impact the lives of indebted households. However, maintaining monetary policy as a top priority for the purpose of social security here assumes the very condition that should have been avoided in the first place. There should be no such desperate need to manage the burden of private household loans in order to diminish social disaster. If such a situation exists, then it should be done away with and not maintained with its burden simply tinkered with via monetary policy.

Often, a household must be under a great deal of suffering before they fail to make their loan payments on time. People tend to live in smaller and unsafe homes, cut out healthy and adequate foods, forgo educational opportunities, work despite illness, and take on more hours of work.

A 2016 article by the Guardian cites a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and reports the following:

More than a million people in the UK are so poor they cannot afford to eat properly, keep clean or stay warm and dry[…]

[…] More than three-quarters of destitute people reported going without meals, while more than half were unable to heat their home. Destitution affected their mental health, left them socially isolated and prone to acute feelings of shame and humiliation.

[…] In 2015, there were 668,000 destitute households containing 1,252,000 people, including 312,000 children. The study said this was an underestimate because the data did not capture poor households who eschewed charity handouts or used only state-funded welfare services.

In the US, nearly one in five people have at some point received government food aide, also known as food stamps or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In Canada’s largest city, Toronto, an average household that wants to own an average house would have to spend 72% of their total income to cover the costs of maintaining ownership (2017, from a Royal Bank of Canada report). They would have had to pay out about 40% of their income in 1985.

A new normal

I, Daniel Blake, is a fine representation of a stereotype of destitution that is real. The film is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ terrible books: those accounts of typical pauperism in a political and economic system that produces such bare life in the run of its normal processes. The threat is double: that hard times are here and that they remain in perpetuity as a normal condition of life for many. Born into poverty, live in poverty, die in poverty, pass on poverty. Born into wealth, live a life with power conditioned by said wealth such that you can command the labour of others to your ends, then pass on that wealth to the next generation. This is an old story, actually.

Power of the few over the many has been persistent. It’s just that there may be a rare period when those who must employ their own bodies and minds (rather than regularly employ those of others) as means to livelihood could be in a time and society where they are better off than before. Better off, but not secure. It was the best of times… Such times are remembered fondly once inequality accelerates. A time when housing cost but 15% of income instead of the half of income that it may do today. Oh but those grandparents or parents had it good, didn’t they? That’s the sort of security I could get behind.

Certainly, but there’s another type of security yet. The security inherent in a system that reproduces a people’s condition of life as richly adequate. This opposed to the one we have: that a better life for the labouring majority is predicated on a competition. You have to fight to earn your share of wealth in wages, social programmes, and social insurances. Then, you have to fight yet again to keep them, generation after generation, episode after episode. It’s a tiring process and you certainly don’t hold the best cards in hand; you must simply hope that you play your hand well while your opponent fails to adequately take advantage of their superior position.

It’s a tragedy for a society to clamber toward mass destitution as a norm. It’s a worse tragedy to teeter back and forth between worse, better, less worse, worst yet, hopefully better.

A new normal is required where this competition is not the dominant and socially constructed circumstance. A life that engenders power and wealth in common. A system that prefigures equality and takes exception to disparity. This bold desire has multiple requirements: conviction, an understanding of how our current political and economic systems reproduce things as they are, and a map charting future routes to substantive change. This is a strategic objective that requires a strategic approach to concrete conditions.

A new normal is required to turn the content of Loach’s film into a thing of the past. The shadow of the contemporary life of millions of employed and unemployed people who must rely on meager wages and inadequate social services is a sombre actuality that should be wholly rejected. Here it is, plainly depicted in a film that is beautifully ugly.

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