Fighting back against ‘poverty porn’

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Today I was back at Lerryn’s but had the pleasure of meeting a fellow freelance for coffee and a chat about work, ideas etc, which was really welcome… While I was waiting I had a chance to read a piece by Dr Imogen Tyler called “Being poor is not entertainment” – class struggles against poverty porn.

Dr Tyler focuses on Channel 4’s Benefits Street, identifying a process that might also be applicable to the current situation in Greece – and Spain and Italy, ie in addition to “desolate and abandoned enclaves of decaying cities and neighbourhoods” we can add “countries”.

Henry Giroux argues that the contemporary life is characterised by a `biopolitics of disposability` in which `poor minorities of color and class, unable to contribute to the prevailing consumerist ethic, are vanishing into the sinkhole of poverty in desolate and abandoned enclaves of decaying cities [and] neighborhoods’ (Giroux, 2007, p. 309). In the UK, politicians have diagnosed this condition as ‘Broken Britain’:  an ‘ideological displacement’ which as Emma Dowling and Davie Harvie argue, enables ‘structural conditions of a deep social, political and economic crises’ to be imagined as problems of ‘individual behaviours’ (Dowling, et al., 2014 p. 872) . Through this ‘rhetorical device’ the actual deepening precarity of the working classes is narrativised as a ‘moral crises’ (Dowling, et al., 2014 p. 872).

Benefits Street “powerfully demonstrates the pivotal role of media culture in naturalising the ideology of Broken Britain, argues Tyler, adding that “the formation of ‘national abjects’ in the public sphere, are technologies of social control through which the transition from welfare to postwelfare states is effected”.

Earlier I had read How did the first world war actually end? in which Paul Mason argues that it came about when the working class refused to fight each other any more. The role of the German workers in preventing the war – and their opposition to it starting, Mason says

…do not fit easily into the narrative the mass media has been feeding us about the 1914-18 war. We’ve had TV presenters telling us most soldiers “actually enjoyed the war”; we’ve had the former education secretary declaring Britain’s most famous anti-war play – Oh What A Lovely War – to be full of left-wing myths.

But the termination of war by working-class action fits uneasily at a deeper level: for most of history the existence of a workforce with its own consciousness and organisations is an afterthought, or an anomaly.

It was heartening afterwards to read again about the protest staged by Middlesborough football club supporters called ‘Red Faction’ who unfurled the banner pictured above at the club’s Riverside Stadium.

Red Faction had identified that it is ‘no longer possible […] to conduct social struggles without having a specific programme for fighting with and against television’ (Bourdieu, 1998 p.57). The chants of Red Faction on the football terraces that day were a retort to the chant of ‘unemployed, unemployed, unemployed’, with which Benefits Street opens. Under the glare of television cameras, their protest was an imaginative dissent against `the politics of disposability’ (Giroux, 2007). Indeed, the ‘F**k Benefits Street Protest’ is indicative of ongoing class struggles against the symbolic violence and material dispossession of ‘neoliberal capitalist domination’ (Bourdieu, 1998 p. 10).

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