Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Queen is Dead. The Queen of England is Dead.

Genitals, ladymen, rabid fans, frothing trolls, music-lovers everywhere: glory at the wonder that is Withiel finally getting his attractive posterior in gear to put his fabulous music (self-produced in our living-room, so if you listen really closely you can probably hear me cackling in the background) on the interwebs.

I said, glory at it!

And make sure you listen to the Smiths cover first. Although Ashtray is my most favourite song of this year. Right, I'm going to cough up my own pancreas. Be seeing you.


So. My whole head is pounding full of rotting green goo and it feels like someone's shoving a tiny scalpel into my larynx every time I cough. Which is fairly often. I'm home from work sick, and not for the first time I find myself trawling websites dedicated to skinny porn - the reams and reams of bollocks about dieting, eating disorders and (ugh) thinspiration out there on the web.

This is the equivalent of the recovered alcoholic's bottle of gin in the desk drawer - something between a temptation and a safety valve, a reminder that I could always go back there if things got bad enough. And oddly, one of the few times it strikes hard is when I'm really godawfully ill or exhausted, when the desire to control my leakily misbehaving body somehow seems more prescient.

I think that in my most fragile times I will never truly be free of the desire to control myself, to diminish myself - an impulse which, even for the many male sufferers from eating disorders, is always acutely feminised. The first aim is to escape gender, the second - paradoxically - to exaggerate it, by becoming the ultimate self-denying, self-diminishing, passive, body-oriented good girl, but such a very very good girl that you end up being a bad girl. Everyone I've ever met who’s been there- and that's a lot of people, you come to recognise a certain look in the eyes - in some way has elements of both, and even for me, a frantic crew-cut teen androgyne who desperately didn't want to be a 'proper' girl, there was a playful element of paradoxical rebellion in the not-eating, the excessive exercising, that pleased me. Being a real girl meant dieting, exercising, focusing on your appearance, not talking back, not shouting too loud, being submissive, caring less about your grades than how you looked. Anorexia proved to me that I could take on that game, and I could win - I could be the thinnest, the most obsessive, the sickest of all, and I could do all that and throw it all back in their faces, show them how sick it was, how wrong it all was, how it gnawed away at the very brain and bone of me.

Sasha Garwood – professional expert, former sufferer and personal friend– explains that 'any woman starving herself is simply manifesting the dictates inherent in conventional cultural concepts of acceptable femininity that she's been absorbing almost since birth and taking them to their logical extreme. There's a perverse and often defiant logic involved - to be good enough I must be thin, quiet, accommodating, not take from the world - well, I'm so much worse than everyone knows, so if I take it further than anybody else, will I be good enough? Ever?’

Did you know that in circumstances of prolonged starvation, the human brain actually shrinks? It is a fact far from universally acknowledged that dieting makes you stupid. For three years of a literature degree, I couldn't concentrate enough even to read a goddamn book, I fretted about my schoolwork to the extent of handing in meticulously checked, book-long essays about once every couple of months. Unless you've been very hungry for a long time yourself, you can't imagine what prolonged malnutrition does to your mind - never mind how obsessive you started off, you'll soon start thinking in tiny repetitive circles about everything. You’ll become anxious, tearful, constantly on edge, and this is an evolved reaction - in response to what it perceives as famine, the lizard-brain becomes hyper-focused, wanting you to stay awake searching for something, anything, to eat. Little habits, distractions - smoking, gum-chewing, booze, caffeine, uppers- become addictions. You can't sit still, you can't concentrate. You become angry, irrational, paranoid, fearful. In betweentimes, you feel hopeless – like nothing good will ever happen again. You can feel your thoughts moving more slowly, like in those dreams when you’re running through thick sludge away from some nameless terror. And all of this has nothing to do with being an actual crazy lady – these are the physiological effects of prolonged starvation.

Don’t just take my word for it. The Keys Study, also known as the Minnesota Semi-Starvation Study – carried out in 1944, it’d almost certainly be illegal now – found that a group of thirty robust, mentally well male volunteers all displayed these exact symptoms when systematically deprived of nutrition – from depression, to paranoia, to obsession with weight and appearance and hoarding behaviours, to psychosis and suicide attempts in the most extreme cases. Some of the volunteers never fully recovered from the experience.

What bites – figuratively speaking - is that millions of women, as well as some men, are putting themselves through this every day. Hating and wanting to contain your own femaleness isn’t enough – the campaign of weight against the female body across the developed and developing world actually does make us stupid, and disturbed, and obsessive, and small-minded. It’s personally and politically deadening in every sense of the world. And we’re taught to do it from an extremely early age, if not by our parents and guardians then by our classmates, by our culture. As ever, Naomi Wolf says it best:

"The ideology of semistarvation undoes feminism; what happens to women's bodies happens to our minds. If women's bodies are and have always been wrong whereas men's are right, then women are wrong and men are right. Where feminism taught woman to put higher value on ourselves, hunger teaches us how to erode our self-esteem. If a woman can be made to say, 'I hate my fat thighs,' it is a way she has been made to hate femaleness. A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but about female obedience.” (‘The Beauty Myth’, 1991).

And from Susan Bordo’s ‘Unbearable Weight’ (1993):

"female hunger-for public power, for independence, for sexual gratification- must be contained, and the public space that women be allowed to take up be circumscribed, limited... On the body of the anorexic woman such rules are grimly and deeply etched"

For me, feminism has been the hammer with which I’ve smashed my way to wellness. Forcing myself to understand my own self-worth as a person even if I didn’t really believe in it was not just a passing political fad, it was a survival skill. It was absolutely essential, if I were ever to stop being stunned and stupefied by my own terror of loss of control, my terror at the raw fact of my messy, imperfect body, that I regain the feminism I’d lost as a teenager. Make no mistake, I cut my teeth on Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan; not because anyone told me to, but because I was drawn to the power and iconoclasm of their thought. The only point in my life when I haven’t been a feminist has been in the depths of my eating disorder, when I truly hated everything that wasn’t masculine and regimented and tamed, myself most of all.

I am not suggesting that eating disorders, body obsession, dysmorphic disorders and the colossal, dulling time-wastage we are forced to put into ‘grooming’ is the very worst thing that happens to women anywhere in the world. I am not suggesting that we have it as bad as women in cultures where females are forcibly circumcised, married off young and denied education and medical treatment. But the perverse and pervasive rhetoric of thinness, personal beauty and self-control is a point on the same spectrum for women in the west. It is an enforced surrendering of personal power – shame and obedience forcibly enacted on the body in the cruellest and most insulting of ways. (Follow the link to TheFWord for more of me theorising about 'the invisible corset')

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Sold out: an end to whataboutery.

The Policing and Crime Bill 2008 is, as Fiona McTaggart MP admitted to me on Wednesday, 'a rag-tag bill.' Everyone has come to the table determined to force their own agenda through, and spurious amendments have been twatted onto every clause of the final document. There are some extremely dodgy new rules on kerbcrawling in there (similar, in fact, to those introduced in Ipswich in 2006, just before the tragic murders of six women who sold sex on the street) and some even dodgier ones giving the police powers to close brothels, and to take a cut of any takings found on the premises. Taken together, these two new rules make even less sense. You're still allowed to sell sex - just not indoors. And by the way, it's now more dangerous for you to do it outdoors. Speaking on behalf of the IUSW, Stephen Paterson pointed out that 'Lewis Carrol could have written these laws. They come from political cowardice and a herd instinct to assume the safety of the moral high ground.'

Somehow, though, the main bit of the new prostitution legislation has been pushed and pulled and wrangled into a shape that makes no one entirely happy but that somehow - maybe - just might bring us closer to social justice than any of the hard-liners would advocate.

The new law will make it a criminal offence - punishable by a fine of up to £1,000 and a criminal record - to pay to have sex with someone who is "controlled for another person's gain". This would target the market for abuse within prostutution - making it an offence to buy sex with a trafficked person or with a person who is forced into prostutition by pimps, drug-dealers or violent gang leaders.

Paying to sleep with a single mum who happens to have moved into prostitution because there's no other way for her to see her kids and pay for her prescriptions at the same time would not be illegal under the terms of this law, if it works the way I've been told. Paying to sleep with a young girl coerced into drug-taking by her pusher pimp who forces her to sell herself for her next fix would be illegal - and I've been twisting this round in my head, talking to the MPs making the laws and the sex workers affected by it, and whichever angle I look at it from, I can't see anything too terribly wrong there.

Do I think that all prostitution is rape? No. Do I think any prostitution might be rape? Well, let's think about that one. Let's think about the hundreds of young women being prostituted right now on the streets of our cities who don't want to have sex tonight but are being forced to service strangers by their pimps, drug-dealers, traffickers or violent partners, who have sex not for personal pleasure, gain or fulfilment but out of fear - fear of violence, of withdrawal, of exposure or even murder. Is paying for sex with these women rape? Yes, I think so. Yes, I'd say it's rape.

The abolitionist MPs backing these clauses prefer the Swedish Model, which draws no distinctions between paying for sex with a sex slave and paying for sex full stop. The compromise that has been reached, provided it stays in the bill in its current form, is a far more sensible solution. Not only does the 'controlled for gain' compromise set out to target abuse within the industry, rather than the industry itself - not only does it make it no less legal to have sex with a woman who is selling her body of her own free will - but this is the first piece of legislation ever, in over two hundred years of criminal legislation against hookers, which puts the blame for the 'social ill' of prostitution anywhere other than squarely between the legs of those who sell themselves.

McTaggart told me that part of the point of this law was to 'make a statement'. Is that important? Yes it is, vitally so, although I'd argue whether a new criminal law is the best, first place to be making that statement. But someone, somewhere, finally, needs to stand up and put the blame for abuse within prostitution where it's due: on the men who buy sex without a thought for the consequences. On the men who consume others' bodies for their own pleasure, who don't care where it comes from as long as they come. By making sex with women forced into prostitution a strict liability offence - one where it doesn't matter if you thought or hoped she wasn't a sex slave - this law might make prostitution what it so desperately needs to be: a seller's market.

Because currently, all the power within the sex industry lies with those who spend the money - overwhelmingly men. One in ten men in this country, in fact - mostly single men under forty. The balance of power and money is still in the hands of a patriarchy that treats abused women in the way that people who wear Nike trainers treat foreign sweatshop workers - as an unfortunate side-effect that we can make go away if we're very careful not ever to think about it, unless of course we happen to like the idea. And I think that's so wrong.

The English Collective of Prostitutes says it sees no reason why consenting sex between adults should be criminalised just because one party pays. They are entirely right - but 'consenting' is the most important word there.

Now, I'm not, as a rule, in favour of any new law that doesn't do away with the laws it's trying to update - and miraculously, at least in part, this looks like it's going to happen, too. To whit, they're going to take away the right of magistrates to impose fines for sex work. Let me repeat that. No more slapping a fifty quid fine on any poor streetwalker the fuzz happen to pick up. All they can now make orders for are 'meetings' - and according to McTaggart, this will include sessions with drugs counsellors.

This is fantastic. In anyone's book, this is fantastic. Questioning McTaggart over why the government isn't being braver and taking the logical, sane next step - making the selling of sex entirely legal - she replied that she and many of her colleagues in government would support such a move, but that it was being blocked from within. Blocked by whom, she wouldn't say, but I'm guessing that at least one of the blockifiers is very unhappy with women being allowed to sell sex and get away with it - unhappy with any suggestion that it might be the tricks and the pimps who bear responsibility for any abuse that happens, rather than the women's fault for opening their legs in the first place.

Is this bill, with all of its amendments, entirely sound? Absolutely not. Does this new piece of legislation go far enough in making life easier for prostitutes who choose their profession and harder for pimps and tricks who rape and abuse? No, it doesn't. But it's a step, a tiny step, in the right direction. If it were me, I'd make the selling of sex entirely legal to boot, and insitute a programme of advertising and a sex education curriculum where boys can learn from an early age what life is like for women in the sex industry. But hey, it's a start. To help you sort out your thoughts on this one, I've compiled a handy checklisty type of wotsit, inspired by Liberal Conspiracy's recent Gaza mythbusting efforts. Enjoy.

Prostitution - an end to whataboutery.

  • If you think that all women who work in the sex industry do so of their own free will, in full knowledge of the consequences and not coerced by anyone, you are wrong.
  • If you think that no women who work in the sex industry do so of their own free will, you are also wrong.
  • If you think that sexual slavery doesn't exist - or if you think that it doesn't matter - you're an idiot.
  • If you think that no woman involved in the sex industry has any agency or autonomy - you're fooling yourself.
  • If you think that your human right to a cheap, consequence-free fuck trumps a coerced woman's right to decide what happens to her own body, you're an arsehole.
  • If you think that the fact that IUSW union members might lose a bit of business or have to change their working practices trumps a coerced woman's right to decide what happens to her own body, you may need a knife and fork - you're going to choke on that party line.
  • If you think that making prostitution more illegal or totally illegal is going to stop it happening, you're a fool.
  • If you're worried that you might sleep with a sex slave by accident - you may want to look again at how and where and why you buy sex.
  • If you think that no significant part of the sex industry is currently a)unsafe or b) underground, you're either lying, ignorant or extremely lucky.
  • If you think that the ultimate culpability for abuse within prostitution lies with the women who turn to vice and let themselves be abused, you're a wanker.
  • If you want to be able to buy sex legally, but would be apalled if your own daughter/sister/friend sold it - you're a hypocrite.
  • If you think that prostitution is universally easy, fun and profitable and that all the girls doing it have a great time, you're so wrong.
  • If you think that all prostitution is rape, you're also wrong.
  • If you think that prostutition prevents rape - that the more whores we have, the fewer sad lonely fuckers will attack and rape women - you've entirely missed the point.
  • If you think that prostitution should be a buyer's market like any other - you're a libertarian.
  • If you think that prostitutes should be locked up and that we're living in a world of sexual slavery and should learn to like it - you're the wanker I met in the pub last week, you still owe me a pound fifty, and rest assured, I know where you live.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Re-drawing the line - in conjunction with Compass Youth

This all started when I was invited to Compass Youth's conference, 'Young London for a Progressive Future.' Their star voice, representing Young Labour, is 'Matty', and I urge you to read his article, here, before you go on to the rest of this post, because it'll give you a good sense of just what we're up against. It made me want to puke blood, but instead I contacted Compass and questioned whether this was really the message they wanted to be sending. They challenged me to write a response for the conference, and here it is.
Matty C Roche's latest offering, 'Materialism, Youth, Apathy and Art,' is not a progressive youth voice. It's not even centrist. It reads like the semi-restrained frothings of a 1930s Anglican priest from the Home Counties, peppering contradictory moral pronouncements with a bizarre, tripped out segue into the story of the Giant Spider of Integration that Walked Through Liverpool and united the working class. With the result, apparently, that 'Liverpool is on the improve'. This pseudo-appropriation of anti-youth reasoning is something that urgently needs a response, and here, I'm going to attempt to offer one.

The funny thing is that whenever people accuse members of their own generation of greed, a lack of empathy and a culture that has been bred of materialism that promotes instant gratification, they normally aren't talking about themselves. Unless Matty, self-proclaimed voice of progressive young London, is prepared to put his hand up and say yes, I, too am one of the degenerate, uncultured, polymanaical masses, he is implicitly suggesting that he himself - as a 'cultural activist' and arts affiliate - represents a gleaming exception to this selfish, sordid stereotype. If he were prepared to look outside his tiny box of self-satisfaction, he would see what an amazing bunch of people 'the youth' actually are - in spite of everything.

I'm sick of people getting down on Generation Y. We are, in general, good kids doing our damn best to adapt to a world whose social parameters are changing month on month and which doesn't seem to want to allow us any foothold unless we happen to be rich, white, male, middle class, well-connected and talented. We are struggling with a culture which is more drenched in violence, inequality, sexual exploitation, vicious materialism and dangerous chemicals than any age-group before us has had to cope with.

Our parents' generation brought us the sexual revolution, legal emancipation of women and ethnic minorities, the death of religion and small-town community, the tearing down of the cruel old orthodoxies. Their job was comparatively easy. It is our task, now, to live in the rubble and try, block by block, to build something new, something better, whilst wrestling the lingering dregs of prejudice, hatred, poverty, social exclusion and intolerance - and we have noone to look to for guidance on how the world should work, because our mums and dads had no bloody idea either, and still don't.

The elephant in the room remains that rampant materialism is the problem with our parents' generation, not ours. This sort of young Labour reasoning represents a hideously self-loathing internalisation of a lie that not even our parents even really believed, that greed, lack of empathy and material exclusion are somehow our fault, not theirs.

So don't parrot the old guys and tell us we're lazy, and spoilt, and degenerate. Don't tell 'the youth' that they're useless, undisciplined criminals who merit more police powers, more power to teachers, heavier penal sentences and punishments that reflect the crime and so there is fear of recrimination, even conscription for national service - we don't need to be brought into line. We are, in fact, in the process of re-drawing the line.

And no, 'The Arts' are not going to save us. Not even if they involve magical giant walking spiders. We've got some arts already, thank you very much. We may not have the kind of arts you want us to have, but this generation is creating more art, more music, writing, performance and brilliant new ideas than ever before, most of it cooked up with pirated equipment in the privacy of our own bedrooms and disseminated over the internet. We have the technology. We are creating. What most of us want now is a chance to combine creativity with real social progress, a chance to turn our imaginative brilliance to dreaming up a new world for ourselves, where our arts and our ideals have real relevance. To do that on any scale, we need fiscal emancipation and we need proper education, although some of us seem to be managing perfectly well without either - look at London's anti kinfe-crime initiative. Look at the new feminist groups, driven by young men and women from across the social spectrum. Look at the voluntary sector, with almost 2 million young people putting in their time for free for one social cause or another.

Poverty still exists now, but for many of us, poverty is a relative concept....people had to work hard and fight to earn things in the past - I've heard this argument before, the 'nobody's really poor anymore' argument, and it's almost universally put out by people who a) have never been poor, b) have never met anyone poor, or c) are fortunate enough to be slightly richer than their parents were and not have caring duties or dependents. Suck it up, Matty: poverty happens, it happens in this country, it happens in every city, now, every day, and millions of young people all over the country are affected by it - more every day, as the recession bites down and school leavers are refused the jobs in the promise of which they have indebted themselves. Deprivation relates both to material poverty and relative poverty, which creates emotional deprivation, social exclusion and ghettoisation. Relative poverty is, in itself, a serious issue, and just because most of the poorest of Britain's poor normally have more to eat than their African equivalents doesn't mean that it's lots of fun to have to decide between school shoes and keeping the house warm over the winter, as so many families still do.

Today's young people have grown up in a society polarised between rich and poor, those who will and will not inherit, with the illusion of opportunity for all dangled hopelessly above our heads - and the orthodoxy with which this status quo has been enforced has left us with fewer visible progressive options than any generation in a hundred years. Many of us have grown up without the supportive, secure family structure that every child needs, however many live-in parents she happens to have. Many of us have grown up without a real sense of community, or in communities riddled with violence, deprivation, drugs and alcohol abuse. A decent, supportive welfare state with efficient schools, healthcare and social security would be a place to start - but the Welfare Bill going through the Commons as I write represents another slice off the dwindling support structure that Britain's disenfranchised youth once relied upon. The Welfare Bill is yet another sign that the government is not listening to the voices of the young, the poor and the socially excluded, and instead taking another turn in that modish cross-party party game, Pin The Blame On The Working Class.

Matty then launches into a rootless romanticisation of the early 1908s as a time when 'unemployment was at an all-time high. People had little or nothing – but they all had nothing together. Few prospects, poverty, and dead-end jobs made people want to fight for a better existence. Workers would be politicized and made aware of issues by their trade unions and there would be a cohesive and constructive vent for their anger and, the youth choose hedonism, drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, violence and escapism as their vents.'

This is a truly odd piece of rhetoric. Bizzarre New Labour appropriation of the 'best' parts of Thatcherite free-marketeering and individuation along with a weird fetishisation of the deprivation that they caused is a strange trait that's cropped up in centrist thought over the past few years - New Labour bears a great deal of responsibility for the demise of the trade union movement, and yet its orthodoxy remains that 'things were better back then - we were miserable, sure, but we had each other'. All of which sounds a little too much like a certain Monty Python sketch to be taken entirely seriously, especially if you actually talk to any of the actual people who actually had to live it at the time. The early 80s was nobody's utopia.

One thing the early 80s didn’t have, however, was the hypocrisy of today’s youth-oriented politics. As the bloody teeth of this recession clamp down, we’re realising we’ve been had. The exams we martyred ourselves for, the university education – free to our parents, but not to us – that we indebted ourselves for, the better life that we were promised if we worked hard and played the game whose rules were constantly being rewritten under the table, all of that has been exposed as so much lies and hot air. A million of us are unemployed, and that figure is growing, and when a million of us marched on London in 2003, the voice of young Britain was not listened to then as it is not listened to now. So don’t point the finger and tell us we have too little faith in the political process before you look at how this administration has treated its young people.

The latent class terror that runs in sticky rills under the surface of this article peels away one of its veils when Matty states that the problem is 'a lack of discipline, morals and understanding of where you've come from,' combined with apparent failure to respect our elders. Well, when our elders show us something to respect, maybe we'll listen, but not when what they offer us is insistent othering, othering of the kind that is horribly internalised in this syntactically woeful article. The extent of Matty's direct and wholly undeserved primitivisation of the deprived and/or disrespectful younguns he so vilifies is grotesquely exposed in the final paragraph: 'people can't be changed by pushing them form the back, nor can you drag along an unwilling dog and expect him not to dig in his heels.' Unwilling dogs. That's what we are. Apparently.

This is like sticking a giant 'kick me' sign on the back of young Labour. This is appalling. The youth of today are better than this - yes, for all our booze and drugs and sexual freedoms and music that goes beep. I'll tell you what we have going for us that our parents' generation didn't. We have the temerity to have grown up in the cruellest, most hypocritical and most politically disenfranchising of callous capitalist societies for a hundred years and not be cowed. We have the technology, and we’ve taught ourselves to use it. We have the courage to adapt to this constantly-changing world, however repeatedly it keeps kicking us in the teeth. Most importantly, as my housemate reminds me, we have much better hair. Suck it up, Matty. It’s politics that are going to have to change for us.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

The time has come to put away childish things.


Did you see Bush's face? Told!

Let's, let's, alright. Alright then. I declare today a half-holiday from all fretting about the state of the world, all political despair, all cynicism and depression and running up the down escalator of cultural history. Today, no bile, no rage, no casting about for the exit. Today, I think we can allow ourselves a break from the job of growing up and sorting the fuck out of our own mad little country.

Are you enjoying it? Good, because tomorrow we've got work to do. Now be of great grinning and go about your business.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Redistribute this: Fabian NYC report *1

I've just got back from stewarding at the Fabian Society Conference, 'Fairness doesn't happen by chance', tickets fairly priced at £30, which is why I was stewarding. As soon as I saw the title of Secretary James Purnell's keynote debate - 'SOLIDARITY LOST? Reviving the will to re-distribute' - I got an intense and heady craving for a sausage roll. A cigarette. A hard slap in the face. Anything, actually, to reassure me that the life I'm living has some connection to reality. The Welfare Reform Bill may be a hundred and nine pages' worth of suspicious gibberish and the debate that followed was vaguer and more dubious still, but you always know where you are with a sausage roll.

After some initial platitudes - 'What is solidarity? Well, I'd say it's kindness transformed into political reality...' - the Work and Pensions Secretary got down to the meat and bone of what he has in mind for the nation's poor. Apparently, 'passive redistribution' - the worn, outdated notion of actually transferring money from one group of people to another - simply isn't 'modern' any more. 'We need to move from the concept of passive redistribution to one of active redistribution-increasing aspiration, education and opportunities'. Not thirty seconds before, Purnell himself had noted that aspiration, education and opportunities are accurately predicted by parental and personal income - but apparently financial redistribution is still just a bit too last century, not to mention expensive.

Onto welfare reform. Purnell's new Welfare Reform Bill contains nothing whatsoever about actually spreading wealth around (I've read it. Twice) and a great deal of sops to an imagined Daily Mail readership - and this is cheerily deliberate. 'I think politicians need to respond to public opinion,' Purnell said. And yes, that's commendable, and that would be fine if there were real research into public opinion behind this Bill, but trouble is that the Mail does not, in fact, reflect public opinion so much as create it - which begs the question of why it's this particular piece of 'public opinion' to which the Brown administration has decided to buck a ten-year trend and pay some attention, a question which was left dissolutely dangling.

The rest of the debate meandered over issues of what the left really mean, what they really mean by the concept of fairness, and was ultimately hijacked by a worthy but somewhat off-topic immigration conversation between Trevor Philips of the ECHRC and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, much to Purnell's beaming relief. Brown was right, but the extent and detail of her rightness conveniently allowed the entire discussion to abandon all hope of actually addressing actual redistribution actually at all, which nobody had seemed very keen to do in the first place anyway.

So I put up my little ink-blotted hand and flapped ineffectually at the air for twenty minutes, until I realised that no, the chair was not going to take my question, because he'd met me. And after realising this, I waited for a pause in the proceedings, and stood up and said it.

''So, Mr Purnell, is there actually going to be any increase in financial redistribution, or not?''

Purnell flustered for a split second, and then he asked the chair, ''do I have to answer that question?'' The chair (not his fault) shook his head. ''I'm not going to answer that question,'' declared the Secretary.

So when the legitimate questions had finished, I stood in front of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and said,

''Mr Purnell. In this Welfare Reform Bill, a copy of which I have here *brandish*, you have this week suggested that you're going to impel long-term benefits claimants to work for large companies, which you're going to sub-contract at public expense, and you're going to pay those workers under half the minimum wage, and pay the difference to the companies, companies that include the US mega-firm Wal-Mart. Is that correct? And is it just?''

''Well, Ms Penny, *grin wearing thin*, I think the question we need to ask is, 'does it work?, isn't it?''

No, James. No, that's not the question at all.

A lot of things work, and a lot more things work for a little while. Fascist regimes, for example. Or cleaning your teeth with bleach. Or crash-dieting. The question is, is it fair? Is it right? And is it going to create a stabler and more functional society, as opposed to a dazzlingly unequal corporate archipelago? Unless the answer to all of these questions is 'yes', does it work doesn't come into it - not before you know precisely what it is you're trying to acheive.

''A lot of people would be happy to stack shelves for Wal-Mart, if they were given the opportunity to do it for a living wage. What do you say to that?''

''Well - yes, but we couldn't do that for everyone who was unemployed for even a day, could we?''

Purnell glared at me, and put on his long, black, expensive-looking coat in a looming-looking way. I, however, am under five feet tall. I'm used to looming. I was not impressed. I remain unimpressed. And as the Bill proceeds through the House in the teeth of a recession, we can only hope that a few stalwart Westminster souls still believe in redistribution - because the Labour's figureheads certainly don't.

If you're feeling a little chilly inside right now, you might want to take a look at this reassuring picture of a very tasty and wholly predictable sausage roll, and possibly go and eat one. I know I shall. There, don't say I never have any practical solutions.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Police State economy claims its first casualty

You remember how just before Christmas, they put into force that scary fucking law that gave baliffs the power to use 'reasonable force' against debtors?

You know, the law whereby it's okay to break down old ladies' doors if they have unpaid parking fines but not okay to use similar force on billionaire tax-dodgers on the Isle of Man?

Well, that law has just claimed its first life.

Andy Miller, 78, a retired pub landlord and father who had recently returned from hospital after a stroke, collapsed and died from a heart attack whilst being forced to a cashpoint by baliffs 'under duress'.

The father-of-five collapsed last week on his way to a cash machine in Accrington, while the bailiff parked and waited for the money.

The death is not being treated as suspicious.

Well, actually, I think it's pretty damn suspicious when baliffs are allowed to pursue frail old men to the point of physical collapse, whilst billions of pounds of unclaimed tax is ignored as long as it's the wealthy committing fraud on a massive scale. I think it's suspicious, when the poor and sick are hounded quite literally to death whilst Brown tries to persuade us that the economic crisis is a 'test of character', that we need to need to show 'wartime spirit'. There's a war going on here, that's clear enough now, but I'm not sure who the bad guys are meant to be anymore. I'm furious, and I'm frightened. This isn't the freer and fairer world I was promised in 1997, when my mum told me that everything was going to be alright now that Labour were in power. This is an economic crisis forced on us by the rich, and now the poor are paying the ultimate price.

Is it me, or did it just get colder in here?

Whipping boys: a post for International Fetish Day

Before I start, I'd like to say that this seems like such a small thing to write about compared with what's happening in Gaza right now. With blood and butchery and human grief being unleashed by the most hypocritical nation on the planet, whether or not a few Brit spank-fetishists get to enjoy their pornography of choice seems worse than trivial. Spoilt, even. But I'm going to write about it anyway, because right now the big things to care about are so big and heartbreaking that even considering that I might have anything to say makes me feel like a small and ignorant child. Until I'm good enough and strong enough to be reporting on the ground, I'm going to put my head down and keep on caring about the small losses, the small outrages, because hell knows somebody's got to, and because it's about responsibility, and choices, and how we deal with the violence of our own hearts. If you want to hear about the other thing, go and read Ewa's columns at Red Pepper, because they are wise and fantastic.


On the 25th of January, a bill to outlaw certain types of violent pornography will finally come into force, and a batallion of British fetish-fanatics are going to demonstrate in parliament square. I will be there, but not for the reasons you might think, and no, not because I fancy my chances of being handcuffed to a fence by Ben Westwood.

I met Jane Longhurst, once. I grew up in Brighton, and Jane was a music teacher with my youth orchestra. I remember the sense of shock that infected everyone in the weeks after her body was discovered; I remember standing on Waterloo road with my friends who lived in the area, watching the police search Coutts' house; I remember the tribute concert, I remember her former pupils crying and clutching each other in the string section. Good kids, who couldn't understand why this lovely, bright young woman had been so foully murdered, just like I couldn't, just like I still can't.

But I can tell you one thing: a collection of dirty pictures can't explain the deep brutalities of the human psyche. I'm grown now, and I know the difference between desire and action, and I've read and watched and researched a great deal of feminist and criminologist thought on violent pornography and I'm still convinced that we're looking for the root of evil in the wrong place.

Just to make my own position clear here: I do not indulge in kinky photography and films, although some of my best friends are spankers I have a dear clutch of friends and adopted family who variously watch, make and model for the stuff. And they enjoy it. I know they enjoy it, because I share a bedroom wall with one of them. I've been to fetish clubs, and had an averagely agreeable time; I've done voluntary shifts at the (now sadly disbanded) Coffee, Cake and Kink establishment in central London. Some of this particular pornography turns me on; some of it I can appreciate on an artistic level; some of it makes me giggle, and some of it leaves me baffled. But I can understand why some people like it - why some people need it - and, in fact, I have much more respect for those people who explore their weird fetishes gently, who bring them out into the light where they are harmless, than I do for people who torture themselves and nurse their violent desires in darkness and in shame. For that reason if for no other, I'm going to be at the demo on the 25th.

The point is that, as human beings, we all have dark and violent fantasies - whether we admit them to ourselves or not. Have you ever woken from a wet dream, sticky and muggy and consumed with bewilderment at the violence of your own subconscious? Have you ever received a parking ticket at a particularly awkward moment and imagined - however briefly - beating the attendant's face to a bloody pulp? Maybe? Yes? But did you actually do it? No, because if you did you'd be rightly condemned as a violent thug,like this chap, and you'd probably go to prison. Have you ever become incredibly angry, or violently turned on, and wanted to do damage to somebody, or wanted someone to do damage to you? Then you should be able to understand that what makes us decent human beings, what makes us able to live in society, isn't the desires that we have but the way we respond to them.

And it's that aspect of the new law that worries me most. Are we really naive enough to think that Graham Coutts murdered Jane Longhurst and defiled her body because some pictures made him do it? Are we naive enough to think that it was violent pornography by itself that allowed him to realise his fantasies? If so, then we'd have an epidemic of murderers stalking the streets of this country. What makes the difference between someone who enjoys pain-play and someone who enjoys abusing and killing people is the capacity to distinguish between fantasy and reality, desire and action, that is one of the basic categories of adult humanity. We need to be adult about our own dark desires, if we are ever to overcome them. That's why I'm disgusted by the very idea of a law which tries to outlaw normal outlets for normal, horrible desires. I'm disgusted by the idea of a government which wants it to be illegal to have naughty thoughts. There's a word for that.

Of course, this is about sex, and we are weird about sex, particularly in the UK, so it's not ever ever ever going to be clear cut. And we need to pay very close attention to Andrea Dworkin's porn philosophy: specifically, to her reminder that filmed and photographed pornography happens in real time, to real people. It's not just fantasy: those whippings and beatings happened. What this moves us onto is the issue of consent, which is another thing that we haven't even approached being adult about as a society.

The fantastic Pandora Blake is one professional porn model with a very incisive outlook on the issue.

'The actual wording of the legislation is dangerously vague. Spanking and CP material isn't necessarily illegal, but given an unsympathetic judge armed with waffly, imprecise language, it could be... If I'm arrested, I'll defend my sexuality in court.'

In fact, the spanking and fetish porn industry has, in general, much better safeguards against industry abuse than any other branch of the porn world, partly because it needs to. Thomas Cameron, another fetish porn actor, told me that 'yes, there have been a couple of cases where producers have been abusive. And you wouldn't believe how quickly they've been run out of town. There are measures in place to protect our own.'

I have written before
on the fact that the nastiest, most misogynistic pornography out there isn't even addressed by the act. I will repeat: the really nasty scenes, the sick low-level fetishisation of male dominance isn't going to be banned, not now, not soon, probably not ever. Not only is banning ordinary misogynistic porn not the answer, it isn't even the question yet. As I said one year ago:

The question of whether pornography directly causes or does not cause sexual violence somewhat evades the real issue. The reason that pornography is such a sticky problem, the reason that many feminists hate and fear pornography, is the same reason that many in the pro-patriarchal sphere are willing to go to the wire to defend it: mainstream, heterosexual pornography as it is mass-produced by western society holds up an accurate mirror to the violently misogynist world in which we are living.

Let me repeat that for the confused or post-orgasmic: the fact of pornography itself, however ‘extreme’, is not socially harmful, but the messages inherent in most western pornography, never mind the ‘extreme’ end, re-enforce social paradigms of sexual inequality, male sexual subjectivity and violence against women. When I say that ‘the quality of most porn is dreadful’, this is what I’m talking about.

By contrast, I have never encountered an erotic culture with as much respect for women, with as much respect for humanity in general, as the fetish industry and scene. Because the true nature of the perversion is accepted for what it is, the necessity of drawing a distinction between fantasy and reality, the importance of empowering and looking after the models and actors, is very much insisted upon. That's what gets me about this bill. I'm against censorship, but if I had to pick one type of pornography to ban, I would come to the fetish and BDSM scene last of all. Because we are what we jerk off to: fetishists are merely honest about it.

The BDSM scene is the only erotic scene I have ever encountered where I have ever felt that if I said the word 'no', it would be respected. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the BDSM scene is the only forum in the country where people are actually adult about sex and aware of what does and doesn't imply consent. And this is why I find the upcoming bill baffling - particularly as amendments which would have put in place a defence if the consent of the performers is provable (say, if they are willing to provide personal or written statements) was rejected out of hand. This proves that the point of the bill isn't to protect the women involved, but to police the sexual habits of the nation.

Liz Longhurst is a perfect public face for the anti-kink campaign, as her legitimate grief for her daughter makes it incredibly hard to put forward counter-arguments without seeming callous. The fact remains, however, that the linking of violent pornography to violent sex crime is a logical fallacy - and legislation against the former is an extremely fucking worrying move indeed.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Public service announcement!

Genitals, ladymen, devoted followers and other rubber-necking squinters at the car-crash that is this blog: a public service announcement follows.

1.If you aren't currently following alright tit, the massively well-written story of a 29-year-old battling breast cancer, you bloody well should be. Entirely worksafe, providing that your work tolerates sudden crying jags and bursts of laughter, sometimes simultaneously.

Another thing that you all need to be reading right now, this very instant is John Q Publican's new blog. JQP is an old friend of mine and something of a mentor, too, and he has been more than tangentially involved in some of the processing behind Penny Red over the past 18 months, and I can confirm that he is a real live barman in real life. We often disagree, but I have huge respect for him as a systemic thinker, and I'm deeply excited to see how the new blog develops. The latest post is a response to this blog's Welfare Reform howzits and ponderings, and is joyous. Go, join the debate.

2. I am toying with the idea of moving Penny Red over to Wordpress. It's in every way a better system, and I'm in the process of constructing a site over there just in case, although I've not even half finished fiddling with the HTML yet after importing all the posts and comments. How would you people feel about this? If there are strong objections I'm happy to keep the Blogger format.

3. Talking of Welfare Reform, the Bill itself had its first reading precisely two and a half hours ago, and since I happened to be in the area I may just have sneaked into the votes office, sneaked in with my public pass on small and sneaky feet to get a copy of the document - hot off the press in all its thick, stinking manila glory. I'm reading it right now. If this blog doesn't update again it's because I've choked on this gingernut trying to comprehend how a Labour government can possibly justify abolishing Income Support - point 7 in an extensive contents page dripping with ominous portent.

Watch this space.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

In other Fuck The Pope news...

Vatican releases official statement saying that women's wee is unholy.

The president of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, Pedro Jose Maria Simon Castellvi, said the pill "has for some years had devastating effects on the environment by releasing tonnes of hormones into nature" through female urine.

"We have sufficient evidence to state that a non-negligible cause of male infertility in the West is the environmental pollution caused by the pill," he said, without elaborating further.

Another day, another scare story designed to misinform the public about the dangers of oral contraception when the real problem here is that the forces of conservatism just don't dig female reproductive self-determination.

Let's set this straight: in every sip of tap water you imbibe very tiny traces of mood stabilisers, heart medication, hormones that are added to fast-food and packaged meat in significantly higher doses than the hormones left over from the contraceptive pill in waste, factory run-off, tranquilisers, fluorine, and hundreds of other chemicals – almost all of them in doses too small to make any medical difference. Oestrogens are present in drinking water from a host of sources, most notably from the by-products of plastics production, and studies have shown that most oestrogens in drinking water are natural – not the synthetic oestrogens present in oral contraception. Oestrogens and xeno-oestrogens in water are a by-product of: petro-chemicals such as car emissions, vaseline based skin creams, many common detergents, wax floor polish and paints; synthetic hormones and oestrogenic compounds found in meat, pesticides such as DDT,DDE which are still used all over the developing world, dieldrin, toxaphene, mirex, heptachlor and kepone as well as hundreds of other herbicides and pesticides, all of which have an ability to mimic natural oestrogen, polycarbonated plastics found in baby bottles and water jugs, cling wrap and polystyrene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) used in the manufacture of electronic devices, and - minimally - from hormonal contraception in human waste.

Apparently, though, it's only the oestrogen from contraceptive pills which is evil, at least as far as the Pope is concerned. Even though the dilution still isn't enough to be an effective dose unless you were to drink, just for instance, the Thames.

Furthermore, contemporary causes of male infertility are infinite: traffic pollution, laptops, mobile phones, tight trousers and hot tubs, nappies, smoking, overeating, seafood, fast food and driving. In fact, being overweight actually increases levels of oestrogen in the bloodstream anyway, especially if you eat a lot of non-organic meat- meaning that if you've got moobs and want to shift them, back away from the cheesburger and stop pointing the finger at us self-sterilising ladies.

I don't see the Pope asking us to stop eating so much junk in order to protect some sacred ideation of male potency. I don't see that increasingly unfunny former Hitler Youth dresswearing cunt and his friends asking us all to wear looser trousers and stop smoking. Why would they, when they've already decided that by daring to decide for ourselves whether we want to have kids, we've symbolically castrated men?

Fuck you, Ratzinger, you terrible little cunt. The contraceptive pill is one of the most important inventions of the last three centuries, and doesn't damage the environment so much as the status quo. I'm not a Christian, but if I were I'd get down on my knees every night to thank your God for the long-awaited miracle of contraception. We have the right to determine when and if we conceive as far as is technologically plausible, and if that makes you want to clutch your balls, then go right ahead - just don't claim that there's any scientific basis for it.

In order to make this point more fully, and because I have not been able to find a picture of the contraceptive pill anywhere that does not feature an artfully blurred, anonymous feminine hand tentatively reaching for a blister pack, here I am nomming my tasty tasty oral contraceptives. Om nom nom (Graphics by the ever-lovely Twitch, who is also a fan of the No Babies For Us plan).

Gender anti-fascism and the fourth wave.

People have been asking to write about men and feminism, and for weeks I have been trying to put my thoughts down in something approaching a logical and consistent order. Then, today, I read Cath Elliot’s latest piece for Comment is Free – on sexual bullying of girls at school – and it all clicked into place.

Because of course, Cath is right. School is where it all starts. School is where girls learn to be sexually frightened of men. School is where girls learn that their bodies are objects of desire over which they do not automatically get sovereignty. And the fact that people are sitting up and taking this seriously can only be applauded.

But Cath’s article only tells a part of the truth, and sometimes a half-truth can be cripplingly misleading. I don’t remember school as an environment where the boys lorded it around without a care in the world and the girls squeaked in corners hoping not to be felt up. In fact, as I recall, bloody all of us were terrified nearly all of the time. Most pupils of both sexes were learning what violence meant, which was power, and what power meant, which was sex. And everyone, whatever their sex, gender and orientation, lived with the fear of being declared not quite right – not girly enough, not manly enough, gay. School is where those rules of gender, power and violence were laid down, and it was a game ultimately won by nobody.

Sexual bullying in particular happens across the board in schools, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with romance. It’s perpetrated by boys against girls, but also against other boys, and in rare cases girls are even the aggressors themselves, and in every case it’s about asserting power over the victim, about laying down rules of dominance and submission. Moreover, male violence is a more constant and immediate threat for boys at school than it is for girls, as a recent study by shows: 90% of school-age boys reported being bullied mostly or mainly by other boys, compared to 29% of girls. In Brighton and Hove, attacks on boys account for 75% of violent incidents in school. So, in a childhood world where sexual and physical violence profoundly affect children of all sexes in school, is violent bullying still a gender issue?

Of course it is. Violence– whether sexual, physical or both – is almost always gendered, and remains gendered throughout adulthood, because it is about power, and gender as constructed by patriarchal society has always been about power. That’s why rape is always a violent act, the opposite of romance. Sexual and physical violence has been ingrained as a method of asserting a primitive idea of ‘masculinity’ and of patriarchal might for as long as nations have relied on having expendable, damaged, violent young men to send off to war at a moment’s notice. For all our talk of civilisation, we remain an intensely divided, primitive and warlike society – and we will continue to do so as long as our young men grow up learning that every other punch goes unpunished, every other verbal assault unremarked, as long as they grow up learning that instead of becoming whole human beings, they have to learn to fight. We will continue to be uncivilised whilst the schoolyard remains the place where, as their parents and teachers look on, a violent policing of gender, sexual and power norms is beaten into every child with fists and words, a message handed down through the generations that this is the way it goes and the proper reaction is to be a big girl/ be a man and suck it up.

Most men are not violent, but when violence happens, it is mostly perpetrated by men. That is not a statement about the inherent character of half the people on the planet, any more than it is to say: most women are not designed by nature to be domestic slaves, but when domestic slavery happens, it usually happens to women. These things are not native to us. The statement that we were not put on this planet to be either passive homemaking childcare-dispensers or vicious inhumane soldiers is a simple one, but one which runs counter to at least two thousand years’ worth of socio-cultural indoctrination.

This culture has been achingly slow to even begin to let go of the archetype of masculinity bred from the archaic notion that whilst the female body is sacrosanct or profane- to be used and controlled – the male body is fundamentally dispensible. Women across the world remain unaware of the extent to which the Western model of masculinity is damaging – partly because we ourselves have spent way too long trying to emulate it.

In reacting against the artificial prison of Western womanhood, liberated women have turned against their former masters with all the righteous rage of escaping slaves, not realising that they too are indentured. A crucial mistake that continues to be made is the fallacy that the fact that men are also worked over by their gender somehow invalidates the whole concept behind feminism. It does not. Pointing out that the slavemaster is a slave too does not excuse the fact that he used the whip, but it does explain it – and it does not mean that he deserves his freedom any less. However, across the debate sphere for decades the cry ‘but men don’t have it easy either’ has been assumed as a direct attack on feminism – and sometimes it has even been meant as one. Otherwise perfectly intelligent commentators descend into petty fights over whose gender oppression trumps whose, not realising that everyone’s gender oppression is equally valid, not understanding that the expression of someone’s struggle is not an attack on everyone else’s.

Recent decades have seen the dissolution of the gender liberation movement into in-fighting, with men and women attacking each other as if each were somehow to blame for the other’s lot in life. Men have remained unreconstructed, in the truest sense of that term, whilst women have gone on to socially evolve beyond recognition in the space of thirty years. Instead of claiming their own reconstruction in tandem, men have reacted at the shock of having the ability to define themselves against women taken away. Feminists have reacted against that backlash in turn, and the whole thing has descended to wary stalemate, neither side trusting the other enough to put their weapons down and start drawing up a peace treaty.

If we are truly to leave gender fascism behind, we cannot allow ourselves to think in binaries - men and women, boys and girls, us and them. If we are to be liberated, then we must all be liberated, together: there can be noone left behind. Fortunately or unfortunately, the world is already moving to force us to the negotiating table, as the information age makes division of work by gender less and less logical and traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity belong increasingly to the past.

So what I hope for is a new kind of feminism - one that recognises that it is not only about liberating biological women from the constraints and indignities associated with their sex, but about liberating all human people from the cruelties and limitations imposed on them by their gender. It is still because it is about the exaltation and expression of 'femininity', but equally about re-imagining what masculinity and femininity signify. Women's battles are at the heart of the movement, but they are part of the gender struggles of all human beings. We have to recognise that the spectrum of gender prejudice extends into everyone's lives and places limitations on all of us. We must see that when a young boy in boarding school faces daily sexual and physical violence for not being 'masculine' enough, when a girl on a sink estate finds herself on the wrong end of the postcode lottery when she tries to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, when a woman is fired from a senior boardroom position after her maternity leave, when a young man is sentenced to years in prison for membership of a violent street gang whose excesses provide the only positive enforcement he has ever known, those cruelties stem from the same source, and they must be considered together.

The best term for what is perpetrated by patriarchal cultural mores is not misogyny nor even organised sexism, but gender fascism. Fascism in its most literal sense, in its etymological notion of the fasces, the ordered bundle, everything in its proper, pre-ordained and rigidly socially determined place. Ladies, gentlemen and everyone else in attendance: gender fascism is what we need to set ourselves against. And that is why – yes, Julie – we are all feminists are queer allies, every drag queen and transman and every nightclub queer and every straight conformist male living a life of quiet desperation and every person trying to live their live as a complete human being is a feminist ally who sets themselves against gender feminism, or if they aren’t, they bloody should be. Who’s with me?

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Mental health and welfare: a stamping manifesto

The tendency not to want to believe in mental illness festers across the Western world, and particularly in Britain, the nation that gave us Shakespeare, concentration camps and the stiff upper lip. From the friends and families of sufferers to the upper echelons of government, the suspicion that mental health difficulties are forms of weakness – simple personality flaws that could be eradicated if more of these mentalists would jolly well buck up – informs policy and influences behaviour. We need to look this institutional prejudice in the face and call it what it is: outdated, destructive and desperately unhelpful.

Over the past few months, I have interviewed a great many people suffering from mental health difficulties in the course of my work for the Independent and for One in Four magazine, and none of them are feeling optimistic about the New Year. All of them fear being forced back into work that they will not be able to cope with even if they find it; they fear government interference with benefits that they rely on for survival, and they are disappointed at the lack of positive changes the much-touted Welfare Reform Bill has brought.

In the face of what appear to be across-the-board rises in cases of serious depression, anxiety and other debilitating disorders, the response of our government in boom times has been to quietly shunt the sick onto a government poverty package and tell us to be grateful. However, as incapacity levels continue to rise, the DWP’s new Work to Welfare policy threatens to shunt us just as quickly back to the jobcentre, telling us that we’re scroungers who were actually making it up all along. This comes just as the little glut of crap menial jobs available before the stock market crash has disappeared. Nice timing, Purnell.

Many of the 40% of Britain’s 2 million IB claimants who are unable to work due to mental health difficulties already have a few problems with paranoia. But, as the noted social theorist Kurt Cobain observed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not after you. Because when any major political party talks about moving people off Incapacity Benefit, when they talk about instituting a system of interviews to ‘weed out’ benefit ‘scroungers’, we know that they’re talking about the mentally ill – those whose disabilities and challenges are most difficult to see and to quantify, often the poorest and most vulnerable members of society who have since Thatcher’s day been the first in the firing like when budget cuts needed to be made. I am, indeed, talking about Care in the Community, the policy decision also known as 'chuck the nutter in the gutter'.

Yes, there are more people receiving IB now than there were a generation ago. No, this does not mean that all of the extra people are skivers who’d rather sit around watching Trisha and drinking milkshakes. The sweeping social change that has transformed society in the past fifty years has led to an increase in the numbers of those deemed unable to work due to mental illness for many reasons. Not only has society become more treacherous and unpredictable and the working world more stressful (especially in stonkingly pro-market, anti-worker countries which exempt themselves from working time directives) but more men and women are expected to hold down full-time jobs which are increasingly focused in the service, information and fourth-sector industries, meaning that it’s more important for these employees to be entirely mentally and emotionally on the ball. Simply put: as the labour market is changing and becoming more mentally and physically stressful, the mentally ill, whose care has been successively eroded by government after neoliberal government, are being left out in the cold.

Mental illness is perhaps the subtlest and most frightening of all forms of social difference, because of its invisibility, because of the difficulty in quantifying it, and because it is not a binary condition: you’re not either mad or sane, there’s a whole spectrum involved. But the hatred and fear that the mentally ill face on a daily basis, the lack of understanding shown to them by the welfare state and criminal justice system, and the fact that they are perpetually the first targets of punitive budget cuts, adds up to a sum of institutional bias which belongs in a previous century.

Just look at Mind's recent report on mental illness within parliament itself. Twenty-seven percent of MPs, Peers and their staff have personal experience of mental health difficulty, and one in three said work-based stigma and the expectation of a hostile reaction from the media and public prevented them from being open about mental health issues. This is a problem that touches everyone, and it isn't going to go away if we collectively stick our fingers in our ears and sing a little song.

Employment law is another area where the Disability Discrimination Act has so far failed to translate into action when it comes to the mentally ill. The argument goes something like this: it’s more risky and more costly for company x to hire person y if they suffer from a mental illness – after all, how is company x to know that that employee y won’t fall behind on their work, start slicing themselves up by the water-cooler or march into the office one day spraying slugs of hot lead death into co-workers and clients? Simple ignorance is the first obstacle to greater understanding here: in fact, the mentally ill are statistically less likely to perpetrate violent crime, and far more likely to become victims of it. But a subtler prejudice against minorities is inherent to the hypercapitalist machine – because yes, it is technically less costly for a firm to hire an individual who is entirely mentally well. By the same logic, it is also better business sense to hire someone who is neither physically disabled nor a female of childbearing age. Yes, these people represent a financial risk to the company; no, this doesn’t mean that discrimination is a logical and acceptable consequence of that risk.

What happens when companies are allowed to set their own hiring policies purely on the basis of business sense is that a large amount of the nation’s talent remains untapped, and swathes of people who need to be in work more than almost anybody become dependent on the state. Individuals suffer, and the entire economic community suffers. Anti-discrimination legislation and hiring standards are not only essential for the advancement of true equality; they advance free nations both spirituality and economically.

The market, by itself, cannot deliver health, happiness and universal suffrage by treating people as commodity inputs. This is why, especially in a period of social transition like this one when our ideals and our economic and technological mores so often clash, government intervention is one of the only logical temporary solutions.

It is not enough for the Ministry of Plenty Department for Work and Pensions to demand that mentally ill recipients of incapacity benefit find themselves a job in an employment market which was highly suspicious of them in the boom times and which is now rapidly contracting. What we need if we are to avert a genuine crisis both in employment and in public health is a radical restructuring of what it means to be a worker in the information age.

It is also not enough just to whinge about current policy without suggesting viable alternatives. We’re not just holding jobs and having dinner: the point of progressive debate is to work out how to create the better world that we want our descendants to inherit. So, what would a world with fewer stigmas against the mentally ill look like?

It would be a world in which employers and businesses recognise that mental disability, like physical disability, does make it more of a challenge for an employee to carry out a job of work – and that those challenges can be surmounted with understanding and reasonable adjustments Fifty years ago, the idea of having ramps on public transport, in offices and public buildings in order to help the physically disabled participate in normal life would have sounded preposterous and wildly costly – now it is more or less accepted that the physically disabled have just as much drive to work and live as the rest of us, and should be aided in that goal. The same attitude needs to be applied across the board.

It would be a world in which flexible and part-time working is not only available but a respected and well-taken up practice required of all employers, in order to help the mentally disabled, the physically incapacitated and those with caring duties, including parents, to stay in appropriate work. It would be a world in which part-time work is supported by government benefits, allowing the hundreds of thousands of people with mental health difficulties who cannot cope with full-time work to participate more fully in the economic and cultural life of the nation.

It would be a world in which the many laudable grants, higher education places, work schemes and training projects set aside specifically for the physically disabled and other minorities are matched by similar schemes for the mentally and emotionally disadvantaged.

Last but not least, it would be a world in which, for as long as necessary, large businesses were obliged to take on a set quota of people with mental health difficulties – say one in eight, helping to reflect the one in four citizens who will experience mental health difficulty at some point in their life.

This is about socialism, but it isn’t just about socialism. It’s about creating a world that is fairer and more efficient, carrying every citizen with it. If the government really wants to leave no one behind – if it wants to move more of the mentally ill into rewarding, taxpaying work, rather than simply pare more fat from the already scrawny welfare state – we need to dare to dream of a society in which everyone can participate.


And with that, I'm going to go and excercise another of my dysfunctional coping mechanisms and have a little cigarette. I'd offer, but you wouldn't want one. It's fucking menthol *cackles*.