As the daylight increases and the Omicron recedes, forgive me if I don’t share the upbeat mood that is created when ‘restrictions’ are lifted. Freedom Day 2.0 anyone?
The pandemic has both revealed and served as a cover for larger endemic social problems and the populism of the rhetoric about “defeating” it will tempt us to abandon all lessons learned about collective public action and solidarity and rush towards hyper-individualism.
It’s already there in the narrative about mask-wearing, ‘hospitality’, travel and the urgent need to get back to ‘normal’.
A report released three days ago reinforces what many of us are going through, which is that the perfect Corona-Brexit storm, supply chain collapse and the dire consequences of conservative social and economic policy at term have left millions of people in “deep poverty”. For many, “returning to normal” means what the media has plaintively called “the cost of living” and the stark choice: “heat or eat”.
READ MORE: What food prices are rising in the UK due to inflation?
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report found that 1.8 million children are growing up in “deep poverty”, with 500,000 more children living in significant poverty in 2019/20 compared to 2011/12. It’s a damning indictment of a decade of conservative failure.
But it’s about to get significantly worse. Soaring energy bills, tax increases and inflation are pushing families across the country into dire straits. The amount that energy companies can charge customers on certain tariffs under the government’s energy price cap is expected to increase by around 51% in April.
This spring, energy prices could hit £2,000 a year, pushing around six million households into energy poverty.
Joseph Rowntree’s report details this. Katie Schmuecker of the foundation said: “The reality for many families is that too many children experience the constant struggle against poverty. The fact that more children are living in poverty and sinking further into poverty should put us all to shame.
“The case for targeted support to help those on the lowest incomes could not be clearer. But this must go hand in hand with urgent action to strengthen our social security system, which was woefully inadequate even before the cost of living started to rise.
“Our basic benefit rate is at its lowest real rate in 30 years and this is causing avoidable hardship. The government must do the right thing and strengthen this vital public service.
Although Schmuecker says so, oil and gas companies are expected to make record profits thanks to the crisis. BP CEO Bernard Looney described the company as a “cash machine”.
READ MORE: ‘Crisis year’: UK households face ‘£1,200 hit’ as cost of living rises
As charities and opposition parties call for a ‘windfall tax’ on the obscene profits of North Sea oil and gas companies like BP and Shell, (re)directing funds to people who are struggling to pay their bills, that does not seem to be enough. It may be the only act politically possible, but it also seems inadequate. Heating and energy cost issues are systemic. A one-time windfall changes none of the relationships at stake. It would only erase the most politically embarrassing visual signs of deep poverty for a news cycle.
The problem is gross social inequality, massively inadequate and exploited housing, and energy seen as a source of profit rather than a basic need.
We are so sunk into the abyss of capitalist realism and privatization that basic simple solutions are shut out of public debate. Energy and heating as a human right and a public service must be enshrined as a social norm.
The same can be said of food.
Writer and food activist Jack Monroe has used his considerable social media platform to point out that the debate over the 5% “cost of living” increase is a gross understatement of reality. She specifies:
- At this time last year, the cheapest Pasta in my local supermarket (one of the Big Four), was 29p for 500g. Today it’s 70p. This is a price increase of 141% as it affects the poorest and most vulnerable households.
- At this time last year, the cheapest rice in the same supermarket was 45p for a one kilogram bag. Today it’s £1 for 500g. This is a price increase of 344% as it affects the poorest and most vulnerable households.
- Beans with bacon : Were 22p, now 32p. A price increase of 45% year on year.
- Canned spaghetti: Was 13p, now 35p. A price increase of 169%.
- Bread: Was 45p, now 58p. A price increase of 29%.
These are just indicative examples – but you can see it in the real world. Monroe points out that in addition to the phenomenon of price gouging, there is also the practice of shrinking the size of products while keeping them at the same price, known in the retail industry as “shrinkflation.”
Monroe says, “The system by which we measure the impact of inflation is fundamentally flawed – it completely ignores reality and REAL price increases for people on minimum wage, zero hour contracts, food bank customers and millions more.”
It is in this broader context of precariousness – in which everything has become “precarious” – that the debate on energy and food must take place.
The proletariat was replaced by the precariat and this class widened and deepened. If the proletariat was held together by the workplace, class consciousness, and politically articulated ideology, the precariat is divided by social isolation, the gig economy, and an overpowering moron culture.
Work has already been done to move beyond the short-term, ameliorative solutions that characterize progressive political debate. Nourish Scotland has been advocating for a ‘right to food’ in Scotland for some time. The charity advocates for “a Scotland where everyone can afford the food that keeps them healthy and healthy”.
They state that: “Everyone should be able to afford the food that keeps them healthy and healthy, but that doesn’t mean food has to be cheap. This means wages and benefits must be high enough so that people can afford the food that helps all family members lead healthy lives, without having to sacrifice other basic needs like heating.
There’s no doubt that the new Scottish Child Payment is a great start, meaning eligible families can access £40 every four weeks to help raise a child under six, and the Best Start prepaid cards Foods helps eligible families purchase healthy foods for children under three.
But these are just the broad outlines – barely a glimpse – of what a decent society would look like.
READ MORE: Boris Johnson accused of missing out on millions due to cost of living crisis
We have normalized greed and inequality so much that we are blinded to the real solutions before us. Energy and basic food for housing as state controlled and owned assets is the larger vision we need to reclaim.
If we are to move away from growing ‘deep poverty’ and energy as a ‘slot machine’ for BP, we need to radically change the nature of the debate and the one-dimensional, short-term discussion of social policy that we we’re bogged down.
Instead, we need to have a debate about what kind of society we want to share when we really come out of this. That would be really optimistic. It would truly be a freedom day worth celebrating.