Despite everything workers’ daily experience might tell them to the contrary, there is a concerted effort by our rulers to tell us that ‘the economy’ is recovering, chronic unemployment is being reversed, austerity is ending and we have ‘never had it so good’ – or at least, not since the financial crash of 2008.
We are told by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in its latest gross domestic product (GDP) figures that Britain’s economy grew by 0.5 percent in the first quarter of 2019, and that manufacturing is at its highest level since April 2008.
The British government claims that there are 3.3 million more people in work than there were in 2010 and that one million fewer people are living in absolute poverty than in 2010, including 300,000 fewer children.
The Economist, meanwhile, tells us that even though the universally-despised and dreaded universal credit system got off to a “disastrous” start, it “could still succeed. In fact, Britain might end up with a world-class welfare system.” (Britain’s universal credit could yet be a success, 27 October 2018)
One could be forgiven for thinking that the British economy, the fifth-richest in the world thanks to the looting by British corporations
of much of the globe, is in a strong position and that there is fundamentally nothing to worry about.
The truth, however, is very different, for these figures tell us nothing about the suffering of millions of people in Britain today, which is growing, not declining, despite the increase in available work.
It is abundantly clear that what is ‘good for the economy’ (ie, for the big corporations in whose interest the country is run) is not good for the average worker.
Ten years of paying for the economic crisis of the capitalist system through austerity (ie, cuts to jobs, pay, pensions, job security, benefits and public services) has led to a situation where there may now be jobs available, but they are not what workers might formerly have thought of as proper jobs – ie, with reasonable hours, secure conditions, and pay that covers the cost of living and bringing up a family.
The rise of in-work poverty, especially noticeable among single-parent families but even affecting families where two parents are working full-time, is testament to just how the ‘economic recovery’ has been effected, and who has paid the price of the 2008 bank bailouts.
Hunger on the rise
Recent statistics released by the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank charity, show that 1.6m food bank parcels were given to people by the trust in the past year, an increase of 19 percent from the previous year.
The number of food banks run by the trust has grown to 420, an increase of 75 percent in the last five years. And given that Trussell does not provide all the food banks in Britain, the true figures will be much higher.
According to the trust, the top three reasons for referral to a food bank in its network in 2017-18 were income not covering essential costs (33.11 percent), benefit delays (20.34 percent) and benefit changes (17.36 percent). Figures show that in areas where universal credit has been in effect for at least one year, there has been a 52 percent average increase in food bank use compared to a 13 percent increase in other areas.
According to the trust, delay in the payment of universal credit is the main reason for food bank referrals, as all claimants must wait a minimum of five weeks to receive any money, and this wait can often extend up to twelve weeks (three months).
Just how bad things have become in Britain was highlighted in 2018 by a visit from the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Professor Philip Alston, who came to investigate the government’s efforts to eradicate poverty. Prof Alston will present his report to the UN human rights council in Geneva in June 2019.
In the official statement immediately following his visit, Alston severely criticised the government’s record on tackling poverty, noting that the level of child poverty in Britain was “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”.
Responding to what he had seen during his visit, Professor Alston noted: “This is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in food banks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the government to appoint a minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard of levels of loneliness and isolation.”
It is indicative of the ruling class’s contempt for the poor that only 14 MPs attended a parliamentary debate discussing the problem of extreme poverty and responding to Professor Alston’s findings. Notably absent were prime minister Theresa May and work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd, who sent a junior minister in her place.
Merely looking at the number of people using food banks does not give a complete picture of what is known as ‘food insecurity’ in Britain. According to a report released by the Food Foundation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN reports:
“The data show that 10.1 percent of people aged 15 or over in the UK were food insecure in 2014. This means they reported experiencing a struggle to get enough food to eat. Among these people, 4.5 percent experienced a severe level of food insecurity, typically having gone a whole day without eating at times during the year because they could not afford enough food.
“On the basis of these figures, FAO estimates that 3.7 million people in the UK were living in moderately food insecure homes and 4.7 million people were living in severely food insecure homes in 2014, totalling 8.4 million. There are no comparable sources to determine if and how the situation has changed over recent years.” (Anna Taylor and Rachel Loopstra, Too Poor to Eat, Food Foundation, 2016)
Capitalism can’t feed the world
The fact that people are going hungry does not mean that there is a shortage of food, however. Quite the reverse; huge quantities of food are thrown away untouched every day in Britain. The problem is therefore not one of production but of distribution.
The capitalist system produces food as a commodity to be sold – not because it is vital necessity that human beings cannot do without, but merely as one of many ways to make a profit. And while increasing numbers of pensioners, unemployed and low-paid workers in Britain simply cannot afford to eat properly, figures show that, despite well-intentioned efforts to reduce it, the amount of food waste in our society is extremely high – and rising.
Recycling and sustainability charity WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) estimates that annual food waste in Britain is around 10m tonnes, with a value of over £20bn a year – and this shocking situation is not confined to Britain but is repeated on a global level wherever food production is run on capitalist lines. (Food surplus and waste in the UK – key facts)
Despite growing public awareness of the scale of food waste, and despite all kinds of initiatives by charities and NGOs to try to address this glaring failure of the capitalist food industry, a 2018 report by the US-based Boston Consulting Group warned that food waste is rising at an alarming rate. One-third of the food produced every year is wasted, even as ten percent of the world’s population suffers from chronic malnutrition. (Food waste: alarming rise will see 66 tonnes thrown away every second by Rebecca Ratcliffe, The Guardian, 20 August 2018)
The simple fact that evades all the well-meaning problem-solvers is that neither inequality nor waste can be abolished while capitalism remains as the system of production. It is simply not possible to put in place the relatively simple measures that would address those problems without a centrally-planned economy, or while the requirement to create profit for billionaire business owners stands in the way of producing what people need and making sure they get it.
Neither technology nor knowhow is missing, only the ability of workers to use society’s productive forces in a sane and rational way.