From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: The New British Social Underclass in 2019: a new book from Gary Knapton
Love in a blue time
Why are robots replacing humans at so many jobs? Because they can. Ergo sum, humans, until the point of singularity, have wasted, are wasting and will continue to waste their lives usurping the function of machines. Doh! Small wonder that nobody in the globalised “western” world stops to appreciate the value of their eyesight or the sweet sound of rainfall on tree leaves. The sheer wonder of the anti-gravity nature of muscular architecture in bipedal hominids. You know, a viscous dense liquid, thick as fortified wine, pumping vertically upward from the toes of your feet to the neocortex of your brain continuously, successfully, subconsciously, for billions of heartbeats without one single incidence of failure. Bloody marvellous. No surprise too that people rarely reflect upon my point of machine reductionism. Afterall, robots don’t reflect. It’s only a short jump from here to the glum admission that we have turned ourselves into little balls of energy for productive material and tertiary output. We have commoditised everything and even objectified our own bodies to the extent that we can’t extract meaning or self-value without looking at our property or in the mirrors. But the mirrors present only a reflection of our view of the external from the same inner perspective. We are lost. The collective noun? Losers.
Can I speak, then, of an experience of what would classically be termed “poverty” in a hopeful way and with gratitude? Can I talk about Universal Credit and, by implication, its armoury of adverse qualities whilst standing resolutely outside that weary, weatherworn arena of modern day politics and personal egocentricity?
Can I reflect upon and narrate and address my own journey without falling easily into the wide avenues of blame and the cul-de-sacs of despair that have come to own this debate and have succeeded too often in all but drowning out the humanity and the humility which, stripped of its harpies of anger and bitterness, rings out in an altogether different tone to that which the mainstream media and half of my Universal Credit collecting brethren are singing in? From the midst of a world organised neatly into exclusive ownership, the glitzy temptress of “stuff” shelved, penned and caged. Exclusive sirens. Each new commodity: a dancer twisting like a flame in a slow dance – while the sleepwalking masses learn the attachments of need, desire and fear – can I summon the grace to walk from the erstwhile call of these Orwellian silos of “success” and induce instead, from my own personal bell-tower of human embodiment, a new campanology of gratitude, wonder and joy? The joy of witness. The wonder of question. The gratitude of this living, breathing, beating heart experience. Can I just do this if nothing else?
I doubt it. We’ll see.
There is a crisis of agency. Not just in the high castles of power and privilege. It’s easy and accurate to feel like a victim and play the victim. There is a crisis of agency within all of us.
We find ourselves paralysed within the polemics of superficial debate, held in the magnetic fields of partisanship, tribal loyalties, the pride of reputation, the appetite of ego and the neurosis-papered prison walls of political correctness. The echo chambers of our self-constructed feedback loops resonate our righteousness high into the cavernous rafters of our own organised groups – digital and non-digital. It is not good enough to blame social media for robbing us of the ability to be open minded and to take personal responsibility. We are social media. We are doing it.
Universal Credit went “live” in November of last year for many of us. This upgrade to the service-end of the benefits system manifests as an online interface that gives the recipient of the welfare payment more control over information in a bilateral manner.
This enables me to show you how Universal Credit “looks” when it turns up as money on the ATM screen and how it breaks down. There are only two components of it, for me, and the millions who receive this type of UC in Britain today – formerly a triumvirate of Job Seekers Allowance, Housing Benefit and Council Tax Exemption.
The single sum payment which justifies the adjective “Universal” is contained in the blue box at the top of the Payments screen when I log into my account. This is cut into two: one bit to pay my rent and one bit to live off.
Now, as opposed to in times gone by, I get to see what next months payment looks like a good seven days before it arrives, without having to call the hotline and ask. This is a good thing. At the breadline end of society people get jumpy and antsy about the short term future. There is often no need to, but we do.
“You said that your rent is £455.00 per month” is written in text in the Housing box. It’s not quite accurate. I didn’t “say” my rent was that amount. I was obliged to provide, in person, the original copy of the tenancy agreement as proof of rent. That’s fair enough.
And you can see that despite this acknowledgement, the Housing sum dispatched is actually lower than my rent – so the bit to live on takes a hit before it starts. Council Tax is no longer a duty from which I am exempt.
Yet I am housed. I have privacy and exclusive possession. I enjoy running water and electricity. I have a roof over my head and food in the kitchen. I am typing on a high-spec desktop computer supported by a pretty awesome fibre connection. I have a wardrobe of clothes. I am educated. I am blessed with both my physical and mental health. And unlike many of you, I am not interrupted by the busyness of business with its dollar sign attritional glare and its stealth drug of need and attachment that hovers just above the neon clouds of consumerism like a high precision drone. Out of sight – even though it owns you.
If you are working, ostensibly all is well. You possess free will and, even though you are a little time poor – and even cash strapped – you are in employment and as such you are rinsed in a wholesome sheen of worthiness, purpose and engagement.
And I agree. You are.
And yet you are not. Let’s just say “it’s complicated”. Such an existential line is a lie you have been fed. Deep down you long since began to intuit the con.
Agency – the will to power up our minds and bodies and actually do something – not necessarily to change anything on a physical plane but rather to play the cards we are dealt and make optimal use of the here and now – starts with clarity and perspective. And that starts with raw honesty.
My situation, although seen as a plight by my immediate peers – the guys I graduated with and my former colleagues in low to mid-earning salaried jobs with company cars and expense accounts – puts me way out ahead of billions of people on the planet who would literally give anything to be in my position. So I consider it my duty, in the name of raw honesty and authentic perspective, to compare myself to them and to them only.
I have friends out in the refugee camps just beyond the Syrian border working hard to pioneer a version of monetary Blockchain technology to replace food vouchers in the cardboard cities of 100,000 wretched souls where professional gangs are stealing and forging the paper coupons. This will enable everyone to eat. My friends have walked away from their lives of Western privilege to contribute, heal and serve, compromising their personal safety to do so. Doing it anyway.
Closer to home, in the soup kitchens, hostels, food banks and social supermarkets that line the streets of my neighbourhood, the biggest hearts – the people most dedicated to the ultimate charitable cause of feeding starving mouths and dishing out hot bowls of empathy and generous servings of compassion with a smile and a listening ear – are precisely the people in most need. The homeless, the hostelry registered, the sofa-surfers, the injured ex-military, the liberated ex-convicts, and all other constituents of the sour end of the social underclass – are the first on their feet to give every waking minute to help feed others in even greater need.
Last night a friend hosted the opening night of his new business development networker in Manchester – focused not so much on business as on personal growth and emotional intelligence. I went along. It was a mild evening on the edge of the British spring season so, living in the city, I walked through the urban bustle to the venue, feeling lucky for being a city dweller, always having chosen to live in the heart of the din. Not knowing anyone but the host, I made friends with six or seven new people and enjoyed an instructive and inspiring talk from the guest speaker who demonstrated the technique of resilience and the courage of vulnerability right in front of me. For free. No charge. She was kind enough to share and I drank it up.
In the course of the evening I met a lawyer, a couple of psychologists, a recruitment HR head, an asset manager, an organisational developer, people in construction, people in tech. Many of these people had enjoyed successful careers and were financially independent. They were wealthy. Rich. In their thirties, forties, fifties and sixties. But they wanted more out of life. Somehow, somewhere along the way, they had decided to address the incessant nagging that haunted them so often that there had to be more than this material idiocy. And when their careers and dreams were interrupted through either personal tragedy or personal epiphany, their own crises of agency had died right there and each had taken huge steps, replete with risk and discomfort – to at least try and make the world a better place for others. A kinder, more patient and more compassionate place.
Away from the numbers
My point is that many of us who score “poverty” by all the standard metrics are actually wealthy. And many of us who score “wealthy” by the same are actually turned by an acute sense of poverty of the soul. Away from the numbers. In the currencies of focus and direction and resilience. On the abacus of creativity and connectivity. In the bank of authenticity and agency. Of meaning and purpose and value. My account is healthy. Of lung capacity and brain oxygenation and blood iron and the strength of my immunity system and a nutritious diet and my wholly attentional use of a gym and a psychotherapist. Of my basal metabolic rate. Of time to reflect and pause and to simply be in the moment. Of meditation and spirit. Of charity and hope and faith. Of vainglory and ego checked each and every time they rise up. Of all these things I am in credit by some distance.
People of all circumstance. It’s up to you how you live. You have the power to choose and the requisite duty to accept, like it or not, that the downsides – the costs – are the trade-off elements of the choices that you, alone, made, make and will make again freely. If you are sunken low in some deep-spun narrative of how, in your exceptional circumstances, free choice in the way that I mean it has somehow been stripped away, then you are in denial and your refusal to address the denial by seeking fresh perspectives from professional, independent, objectively qualified third parties is just another choice you are making right now as you read. Making the best of the cards you are dealt is no one else’s job. Being self-aware enough to realise that, in fact you and you alone, most of the time, are the card dealer is nobody else’s concern.
I threw my television set, freezer, toaster, facebook account and microwave owen away years ago and I read and write and run all day as it sets my heart on fire.
You have a choice and every day you wake to make that choice afresh. Even if you think you do not. You do.
I cannot presently speak to those of us with careers and private sector realised ambition, nor to those of us with assets to conserve nor those struck low by acute mental illness or shackled with onerous glee to the responsibilities of joyful, difficult parenthood. Clearly, it is apparent that within each demographic and within each circumstance there are opportunities. Agency, like deprivation, is relative. It is pointless to attempt to create qualitative leaps by destroying the concept of categories. It is better to see, truly, where we are and better to endeavour to work with, rather than against that position from a mindset of genuine acceptance. My socio-economic status and immediate financial situation right now might align neatly with the new social underclass of Britain in 2019. The underclass is dynamic. People move in and out of it in a fluidity that is not reported or computed. The underclass is not static. It contains a shifting sequence of personal journeys. It is there to catch you when you fall or need a while to regather. It is a compassionate support mechanism. It is not terminal. Nor dormant. Nor the final resting place of degenerates and sociopaths. For those, see most workplaces. And for the archangels at the severe end of the sociopathic spectrum, you’ll need access to the boardrooms and all such corridors of raw power. Follow the money to locate the malady, which like the waters of any mighty river are sourced in the seemingly innocuous springs of higher altitudes, where rarely trodden mountain paths give onto exclusive summer gardens and lush artificial meadows – their wholesome, beguiling properties a cunning, cosmetic camouflage of venomous evocations and dark energies. Orangeries in the desert. California love.
Whether you are an artist dedicated to following your creative path, the victim of a personal trauma, a recent immigrant to this island – and there are a million different reasons why my fellow brothers and sisters claim Universal Credit today – you can make the most of your life. You can turn ostensible negatives into positives in a flash. You can flip the script.
Ask for help. Take responsibility. Speak openly of your vulnerabilities and flaws. Throw open your closet and out yourself. Detach from your reputation. Change the game. Don’t be scared of the losers. Who are the losers? Refer to the opening paragraph.
For when I am weak, then I am strong
From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: The New British Social Underclass in 2019: a new book by Gary Knapton.