Why you shouldn’t get Cancer under the coalition.

I found out about the cancer when I opened the mystery envelope – “Survey on your cancer care”, it said. I laughed at the strange mistake until the point when I googled the acronym the consultant had used in his letter to my GP.  TCC did mean cancer – and I hadn’t been told.

It would be a lie to say I wasn’t sent reeling at the news – though google said the cancer was very early stage and would more likely than not never come back.  Plans for the summer went out the window as I waited to see a consultant, and among those plans went finishing my degree that year. I was assured that I could get a student loan the next year, so I deferred the assessments.

I sent my application to Student Loans, including what letters I had about the cancer, and quickly got a letter back saying the loan was granted in full.

When the date came for the loan to come in nothing came through, so I called Student Loans. A cheery woman on the end of the ‘phone said the problem was on my university’s end, and gave me instructions to give to them so it would be paid.

I called university countless times but was always unable to speak to someone in the department I needed. Once I went in and after waiting an hour was told the department I needed was closed. A couple of days later I went in at 9am, woozy and sore after my first checkup under general anaesthetic. The woman I spoke to said she followed all the instructions given by Student Loans, and I just had to wait.

Student Loans said nothing had been changed after a few days, and again after the weekend. So off I went to university again. By this time I was living on my credit card and borrowing the rent. I decided to be incredibly firm, rehearsing telling them that I wasn’t going to leave without some sort of explanation.

In the end the manager of that department came down, explaining that that office had had to take all their telephones permanently off the hook in order to get anything done. He explained the Catch-22 which I had already suspected I had fallen into.

Student Loans would not pay the loan without the university confirming my attendance. The university’s Welfare Advisor had told me that the university only had to confirm my registration (as a deferred student) and that the money would be paid.

The sticking point is that the university would not confirm my registration, as they could not legally do so without proof, from SLC, that they had properly processed my application under the special rules to do with health. Due to previous study I did not have a years’ grace in the system, so my application had to be by those rules.

I desperately e-mailed student welfare and got to see the same welfare advisor as last year. He helped me with an appeal and found out that many students around the country had fallen foul of a new policy by SLC – the real reason they wouldn’t release the money.

Though my application, and those of many other sick, resitting students, should be accepted under the SLC’s own rules, this year the SLC appeared, to welfare advisors up and down the country, to have been operating an undisclosed, blanket policy of refusals of loans to those resitting due to health. Welfare advisors suspected, as did I, that this was done under grounds of austerity.

I fail to see the logic that I am worth saving from cancer but not worth a £7000 loan of “taxpayer’s money”. The only person for a moment who thought I don’t was a family member snapping under pressure of finding a NHS cancer consultant that would properly treat my 88 year old grandmother. Is this how things are now?

In an ideal world I should be looking for a job, or working one already, but I had to leave my last job due to the time and energy pressures of commuting in London while studying full time. I just couldn’t do both. I enjoy my degree and have the next essay lined up to go. Topic, research, all in a neat pile. Just right now I’ve been too drained by all of this to do more than reading in the past month.

The specialist who has been checking my bladder has just left the NHS. I had to chase my second checkup appointment, and a third hasn’t yet arrived. I’m sure that either one will come with a different doctor, or a few ‘phone calls will sort it out. But I’m tired. I’m drained and I’m poor and I’m scared.

Two Key Points for 21st Century Marxism

1) Planning for “after the revolution”.

Systemic change is by no means certain, although the twin spectres of war and global environmental damage make it seem more necessary than ever.

It is clear that after any social revolution, as indeed after any great societal upheaval, that it would be vital to maintain, so far as possible, the mean standard of living; food, necessities, material goods, infrastructure, and especially the electronic devices and infrastructure that allow us to communicate and maintain, systemically, access to those others.

Often, particularly in theory-heavy circles, the question is then asked: how do we plan in order to be able to do this?

This question casts a hard light on what we mean by revolution.

If we mean either Marx’s dictum, that is, permanent seizure of the means of production by the proletariat, or that influenced by anarchism and feminism, viaz the dissolving of oppressions which are reproduced globally and through violence through the structure of social relations itself – with particular attention to racism and sexism.

If we mean either of these things, then planning for any future structure of social relations – one not shaped by exchange value and/or one which acts to dissolve oppressions – is fraught by the utmost difficulty.

Which utopian vision would we plan around? The dystopias of Plato or More? The more recent science-fictional visions of Banks, Le Guin, Delany? Frankly, what social relations would look like outside current circumstances is indeterminate. There are too many heterogeneous possibilities to ever account for.

Above all we must keep in mind the words of Marx: all that is solid shall melt into air.

Only then might we think then of what after a revolution might entail – and even so, through a glass, darkly. Organising ourselves after a revolution is a problem which we do not yet have the social tools to solve.

First, we must develop these tools, together.

 

2) The meaning of social class.

Class at present is used in two, mutually contradictory ways.

The former is that used both by big-name, crepuscular newspaper columnists and by some on the “left” to vilify people they don’t like. By this usage, and in approximate order of importance, “working class” means manner of speech, accent, origins, bearing, clothing, and lifestyle. It rarely means precisely manner or amount of income, it usually doesn’t account for any other factors whatsoever, and it is increasingly often used as a stick to beat anyone queer on the “left” who doesn’t behave like a character in a “chav porn” film.

This is why we can see supposed feminist columnists berating women with revolutionary politics who do survival sex work as “bourgeois”, while boasting of their consumption of lobsters and champagne.

This is why we see men and women of the “left” in expensive suits damn revolutionary feminists, as liars and “slaves to bourgeois morality” and overly educated – particularly if they are black – sometimes all in the same breath.

What people are referring to here is sociological class. It is sociological class that people look at when determining how to treat one another. It is the endless gradiations of middle-classness that half of England is obsessed with – the hilarious linguistic divide between those who say lounge, living room and, in the upper-middle class fashion, sitting room is only one example. The issue of professional aspiration is another, as is type of car, and so on, and so on.

For a long time – for over a century in the UK – “working class” meant not only this. It was an identity based around disparate working ways of life: mining, hauling, dockworking, and so on, with solidarity organised not only through trade unions but through shared language, lives, and struggle. It was aspirational, as in it aspired to knowledge and art, leaving philistinism to the lower-middle classes.

Indeed, for a long time “working class” solidly overlapped with the second definition of “class”, that by Marx, who looked on humanity as broadly divisible into two classes – the proletariat, those who have to exchange their labour for the means of subsistence, and the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production.

For a long time “working class” meant “proletariat” and there was a great deal of overlap between those sociologically middle-class and economically bourgeois. The division between proletariat and bourgeois was not something thought up out of air by nineteenth century socialists. It was something that you could see in the street, and feel in every social interaction.

Now, in the early 21st century, under post-Fordism and connected by the internet, this correspondence no longer holds true. A university lecturer is as likely to be proletarian – having no control over their labour or redeemable credit for their work – as a factory worker.

Gone with the 20th century, too, is the plainly perceptible hard physical toil of the working class, and the ample leisure time of the bourgeoisie. Now those at the top, in the City or in politics, must work long hours, or be seen to do so. Margaret Thatcher’s claim to have survived on four hours sleep is exemplary of this. Those at the bottom must be “flexible”, and are simultaneously damned for being lazy. Many kinds of proletarian work are hidden: coping with stress of precarity, gendered labour, the stress of being damned as failures under a supposed “meritocracy”.

The correspondence between the grubby-faced miner and the working class has gone, just as the correspondence between physically beefy “fat cats” and the lazy bourgeoisie has also vanished.

This has an implication that Marxism as a whole still has not grasped. Material means shape history. Yet the means of production are not all that constitutes Marx’s base. Social relations do, too. Social relations are intertwined with the means of societal production. And both together determine the course of history.

In practice, this means that the means by which underlying economic and structural truth can be exposed is a multifaceted one. Talking about class has a key role. Feminism and anti-racism are indispensable. Talking about and unpicking the social intersections of all of these factors is utterly vital.

Though 21st century capitalism radically splinters our subjectivities we are all “working class” together.

 

What is to be done?

We must talk about this.

Occupy’s “99%” slogan is plainly not the entire truth. Yet it did not become popular out of thin air, either. Now the vast majority of us on earth are proletarian. As the rentier class hunkers down, as company ownership becomes ever more concentrated, and as fear of falling out of the sociological middle-class grows in Guardian and Daily Mail reading circles alike, Marx’s imperative for change holds stronger than ever.

Let’s put aside illusions that we can have solidarity with the police because they talk like the grandad from Steptoe and Son. Speaking mockney together is not a political program. The police do not act in the interests of the working class, and never have.

Nor shall “Left unity” save us.

All that unites us is that we are proletarian together.

Before we can build a social movement – and this is vital, and crucially roadmapped here  – and before we can make ourselves visible, we must accurately perceive the social reality that two centuries of capitalism have left us.

Let us first see our chains. Only then can we split them asunder.

Aside

 Over the past few months I have had a number of disagreements over the intersection of feminism and new post-financial crash communism. As those attempts at a conversation were ultimately deeply frustrating and destructive, I’m going to make an attempt to address several in conjunction here in the hope of driving forward mutual understanding.

I don’t agree with “privilege theory” as it implies individual rather than communal action

This implies that intersectional feminism is an individualist project, which it most certainly is not – it is one which relies utterly upon community, not only in all writing about addressing privilege, but in effective action in challenging its omnipresent, largely unconscious effects.

“Privilege theory” is an invasive construct from upper-middle class US campuses. The term was coined by a professor.

The term “privilege”, as used by intersectional feminism, antedates Kimberlé Crenshaw’s coining of “intersectionality theory” in 1989. The Combahee River Collective articulated many of the same ideas in 1979 while using the term “simultaneity”. This period of black feminism is poorly documented. It seems clear to me that Kimberlé did not coin this term in a vacuum, but as part of an ongoing, decades-long discourse around the failings of second-wave radical feminism.

Lack of documentation of both theory and statistical information, such as murder rates or detransition rates, is often used to attack trans women and trans feminism, the area of feminism of which I perhaps have most experience. It is generally used as part of a tactic of manufacturing uncertainty and silencing precarious communities in order to take legal and organisational action against them. I therefore am extremely skeptical of it as a tactic unless specific citations are used.

While many in the UK over the past few years have came into contact with intersectional feminism via Twitter and blogs, my first contacts came a number of years earlier. I did not first learn to “unpack privilege” via trust-funded campus activists, but from street queers, sex workers, and trans people in the mid- 2000s. All I can do is attest that while the terms and thought behind intersectional feminism have long had currency in grassroots organising outside the academy. I cannot link to much of this material, as it is both sensitive and lost in internet time. I can, however, if utterly required to do so, produce testimony from a number of friends asserting the same. I hope that this point will not be again dismissed, and that I will be given the good faith presumption that I am telling the truth.

This is all abstract theorising.

I am happy to talk in good faith about a great number of experiences I and others have had that would lead to indicate that it very much isn’t.

There is a vast amount of evidence that men overwhelm women in mixed-sex discussion. The conclusion to this paper is telling, and it references a great deal of other research. Research on gender and talk time lends to support the conception of privilege as an explanatory hypothesis.

Many studies on race also reveal different patterns of often-invisible discrimination.

There is a good deal of sound scientific evidence that indicates that the mechanics underlying “privilege theory” are real.

To reject a hypothesis with confirming evidence, you need evidence of your own.

Knowledge of the universe is itself a vast, materialist, communal project. Please don’t just dismiss what we have out of hand.

You’re lying or deluded about your own experiences. Your links are all bullshit.

This is why in some cases I no longer presume good faith.

I don’t agree with all this. Prove me wrong.

I do not have time or energy to devise a seminar series in order to do so. Perhaps if you are so adamant then we can agree to disagree.

Privilege is nonsense used by middle class people to divide and rule the working class, as argued here

This point fails to take into account economic class. The vast majority of post-70s “middle class” people are not meaningfully bourgeoise in any Marxian sense. They do not control their labour. Few of the young will ever own a home. Home ownership does not make someone structurally bourgeoise in any meaningful sense. Neither does working in academia. The academy is subject to controlling neoliberal ideology just as other sectors of society are. Precariously teaching for £15k per year does not make you bourgeoise.

I would contend instead that, since at least the 1980s and likely for quite some time before, “working class” as commonly used has more described a sociological group, not an economic one. Cooking with fresh herbs does not grant one ownership of the means of production. Speaking to one’s employees in a cockney accent does not make one a proletarian.

I would also contend that the very term “working class” needs re-evaluating in order to be useful. We no longer have many factories or mines to organise around, and an accent readily put on by mockney-tongued police spies does not constitute an organising principle.

I will expand on this point about the meaningfulness of class in a later post.

I don’t subscribe to any “party lines”. In this particular context, I refuse to refute the radical feminist line that all trans women are rapists, as doing so is just as bad as embracing it.

There is no “party line”, only people. If you refuse to concede such a basic human point as “all trans women are not inherently rapists”, your politics are both bitterly harmful and deeply absurd.

Communism doesn’t need feminism.

This is true, as far as it goes.

Communism is the only way, in the face of vast resource crises and the crisis of capital itself, to save the majority of the human race. If your group of queers or disabled people or trans people or so on are not among the elect, well, that’s a shame, but on the whole it is unimportant.

This also seems true a lot of the time.

Patriarchy existed before capitalism. There’s no reason to think it won’t outlive it.

This is why I am a communist in spite of my feminism and my own material interest, rather than because of it.

Margaret Thatcher and Mourning; a meditation on loss, historicity, and time.

(TW: mention of cuts and suicide in third-to-last paragraph)

I always associated my grandmother with Margaret Thatcher.

On the face of it, both had similar presentations. Immaculate hair, a fierce demeanour. One read chemistry before working in pharmaceuticals, the other, my gran, moved from running a small shop to owning a small chain of pharmacies. My gran was born in 1933, eight years after Thatcher.

Yet it was only shortly before my gran died that I learned how truly different they were. Thatcher went from a lower-middle class background to Oxford, her subsequent achievements enabled by the post-war settlement that allowed her to go there in the first place.

My grandmother’s story was very different. Her poor Scottish catholic mother abandoned her when she was a baby, and she grew up in a hospital. Her earliest memories revolve around the possibility of adoption by a childless doctor and his wife, a thing that, in the 1930s, would make the economic difference between being decently fed and having the chance at a reasonable life, to having little chance of any good life. We must remember that the old sketch about the classes looking down on one another was literally true until the 1960s, as the height gap – due to malnutrition and disease – was stark.

Thus, when she was reclaimed by her mother and brought home to share a bed with two brothers, and bedbugs, she resented it deeply. She always, I believe, hankered after that middle-class decent life that was denied her at the start; the kind of life that everyone ought to have. As for her, she worked very hard for it, and was lucky, and was additionally lucky to be born at a time which made it, eventually, available to her. She spent a great deal of time in Spain in the 1970s and modelled, to some extent, her femininity on that timeless, dignified bourgeois Spanish femininity, which bought wonderful, beautiful things in Corte Ingles, and was silent about and enabled the horrors of Franco.

She was not an unpolitical woman. I learned it sadly briefly before she died, but she never voted Tory and donated substantially to the Labour party (sadly, mostly at a time when the party has moved completely from soft, strike-breaking socialism to neoliberal complicity). She married a poverty-stricken second-generation Irish man, son of the Irish who came over to work and not starve and break dockyard strikes, and who were viciously persecuted only partially as a result. Her first daughter, my mother, did not go to secondary school in order to work and look after the family, her unpaid but hardly unloved labour making the family achievements possible. Later children all went to university, all those children, and there were many children, and it did not make any “immoral”.

Sadly, it seems likely that some of them voted in Thatcher or for subsequent Tory candidates; as homeowners, and considering the tripling of house prices engineered by Thatcher between 1978 and 1990, it would be in their interests to do so.

I am still mourning my grandmother, who died in January. When Margaret Thatcher died I felt torn as to whether to celebrate. There has been precious little to celebrate recently for anyone poor, for anyone with any belief in society or communality. Yet it feels wrong and petty to celebrate death.

Then I thought to another friend I have lost recently, and another lost long ago. I do not want to stand accused of making political capital from their deaths. Yet I am convinced in my hear that Section 28 and associated shame contributed heavily to the death of one friend, and post-2008 mental health service cuts to another. And more are dying, homeless, hopeless, depoliticised, voiceless, alone.

And so I partied and I drank and I danced for those who are no longer with us; all of those who are no longer with us.

Do not tell me how to mourn.

Sexism and the Left

OwenTweet( https://twitter.com/OwenJones84/status/303679242200293376 )

Another day on twitter, another interminable inward-looking argument. For the sake of context: the discussion is about sexism and language on the left, with a group of feminist women disagreeing strongly with Owen Jones on a point that seems nebulous and petty. Sadly, for the sake of the “left”, and for the sake of the sanity of politically committed women everywhere, this isn’t what is going on here at all.

What is sexism?

Sexism is not a one-off occurence. It is also not best described as a label attached to a person. Someone’s beliefs and actions may be sexist, but they are not irredeemably so. If someone is described as a “sexist”, then it is in the same way that they might be described as a “rape apologist” – they have taken a political position which is irredeemably compromised, and harmful towards women, and they refuse to step away from it.

However this is a very poor way of understanding what sexism is. Sexism is better understood as something systemic. It is a set of behaviours – some of which are verbal, and some of which are not – which enforce a societal power disparity between men and women. It can be understood systemically in terms of male privilege , that is, generally hidden societal advantage given to men over women. It is enforced in a myriad of ways, from physical violence to threat to body policing to subtle nuances of speech and body language. It often harms men too, as it is a key component of a societal heirarchy of power built around constructions of masculinity and femininity, and intersects with many other oppressions.

It’s really easy to fight sexists. You make an in-group, and place all those you consider sexists in the out-group, and you make sure you’re well-positioned in the in-group, so that no-one ever successfully labels you as a sexist.

It’s really hard to fight sexism. It requires frequent self-examination, and a willingness both to have your own understanding and actions questioned by others, and to have their understanding subject to doubt, too. There are no certainties. It’s a constantly ongoing process, guided by both anger and compassion, to unpick societal certainties that have been present from decades to millennia.

It’s terrifying.

It’s also one that’s absolutely crucial to understand and enact, if left unity, solidarity, mass action, full communism, or those unformed dreams of a new settlement with capital – if any of these things are ever to come into being at all.

What fighting sexism means

Privilege is like wearing blinders. It’s very hard, when in a privileged category – male, white, and so on – to perceive how many actions might affect those not in the privileged category. That’s why it’s one of the key features of intersectional feminism that language and behaviour can be challenged or examined publically. It’s not because feminists want to embarrass men, or because people of color want to make white people feel bad. It’s because it’s really hard to know whether an action or a political position, something embedded in the complexities of language and the heirarchies of privilege and the messy realities of social life, is in fact harmful, does perpetuate privilege. It’s best to involve as many people’s points of view as possible when doing so, especially a variety of those in the oppressed category – in the case of sexism, women- so that we, as a group, can figure out what’s right, what we should do from here.

It takes a lot before someone speaks up, before someone breaks peaceable silence to say that something is hurtful or harmful. Occasionally people might decide, after talking, that something isn’t harmful at all. Most things fall into that category in the middle, something that is probably harmful, nigglingly sexist or subtly racist, but not worth spending the energy on fighting right now. Its in a minority of cases where something is challenged and carried through and behaviour is changed.

Usually what happens is that the person challenged objects to the process – objects to the openness or horizontality of it, confuses it with “policing” and the implicit superior power that anything involving “policing” must have, or takes the “free speech” position that what they’re saying might be wrong or harmful, but they don’t care.

It’s sad when this happens. An opportunity to make things better has been missed, and that’s because this intersectional process of challenging isn’t about policing or exerting power, it’s about crowd-sourcing truth.

Crowd-sourcing truth

The key thing about intersectional feminism is that it’s intersectional, that is, it considers not just women as a category, but other kinds of oppression that aren’t just additive – black women are not simply oppressed as black people and as women, but differently under both categories; and not all black women have the same experience, and so on.

This is why it intersects so crucially with socialism, with communism, with anarchism, with any attempts at any left project.

What intersectional feminism does is allows us, through the mechanic of the group, through giving more attention to those who are oppressed in any particular category, the means to examine one’s subjectivity in society, in a hierarchy of power relations, as a subject under capital.

These power relations can’t be simply set aside, to be “sorted after the revolution”. We saw how that went with the poor doomed utopian project that was Soviet Russia – gay rights were rolled back, the gains made by women slipped away, and there was rather a lot of mass slaughter along the way.

If there is one thing to  be learned from the Soviet project it should be that theory does not trump reality, that no matter the brilliance of Lenin’s pamphleteering it still allowed him very limited, flawed knowledge of the world, limited knowledge that categorically prevented the Soviet project from leading to world revolution. He had little way to know whether his proclamations and his thinking were correct. Perhaps if he’d had Rosa Luxemburg angrily tweeting him every day things might have went differently. Who can know.

What we can know, is that in all seriousness any attempt to change society must include the subjectivities of all people in it when change is made. If we do something in ignorance of a group of people, it will cause harm beyond our knowledge and lead to our political projects giving undesired results – one could look at New Labour here, or a million other slightly depressing things.

We have the means to stop doing things in a flawed, autocratic way. Let’s start using them.

Language and Elitism

So are these “rules on language completely elitist”?

If you’ve read this far, you’ve hopefully come to understand the crucial point, that there are no rules, there is simply a disparate bunch of intersectional feminists trying their best as part of an ongoing process to try to make things better for all those affected by sexism, for all those affected by all oppressions.

This is not “elitist”. It’s part of the same process that first led so many of us to cry out, inwards or outwardly, against a fist raised to a woman or one of those now-better-hidden blatant manifestations of societal sexism, or homophobia, or ablism, or so many other things. “That’s not fair!” or “That’s wrong!”

We all know that language is a kind of action. You can’t separate both out. If someone uses a slur, or more subtly marginalises someone, that has real and painful effects, that justifies more concrete forms of violence.

So you speak up, “that’s not fair!” Then if someone disagrees with you saying that, you talk it out with them, in a big huddle if necessary.

I really don’t think there’s anything less elitist than that.

The Utopian Urge and the Structure of Social Relations

Now here’s the part with the theory. What intersectional feminism is is an ontological project, to transform the means of knowing from some ceremonial speaking stick, given to the person with the most smoothly stated argument – or the best public school speaking voice – and genuinely democratise them, in order to harness the structure of social relations to genuinely examine and transform itself, in order to break down a societal order that relies on hidden power disparities.

Social relations – and thus Marx’s “base”, the reproduction of labour relations and capitalist society – are utterly reliant on gendered labour and the reproduction of other forms of privilege. They can only be effectively transformed when combating privilege is part and parcel of any movement to abolish the present state of things.

We can only change the present by ceasing to imagine glorious shining futures, by ceasing to write self-indulgent books in the vein of More where we imagine how things might be after the revolution, and in turning that utopian urge towards our own lives and social interactions to imagine not how things might be “after the revolution”, but how things might be better for others in five minutes time, once I’ve had a think, and decided that I might have been wrong.

A Million Caesars: Phillida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar

From the first moments of Phillida Lloyd’s all-woman production of Julius Caesar I knew I was in safe hands. A row of studied female prisoners was marched out, perfectly studied in the peculiar manifestations of gender in institutionalised women: quiffed, buzzed, or tied-back hair; swaggers, struts, and the careful movements of the self-contained ones, the ones with pent-up energy. Still, it was only when when the dialogue of Shakespeare’s play itself burst in and interrupted the cons’ politicking that I become conscious that I was in the presence of something extraordinary.

There is something deeply Shakespearian in the gender reversal employed here, something that became a touch of genius when set in a prison, where, as Caesar struts and Brutus and Cassius plot, screws stroll overhead shining torches and twirling their keys. Once, one conspirator was told to leave by a prison guard, forcibly removed by only a few words backed by systemic violence; her replacement fluffs her lines, and is theatrically beaten by the other inmates.

We are not watching the prisoners stage a play within a play, but a play within a cage; the bars of that cage are composed of gender, discipline and surveilance, and systemic gendered violence.

Nothing I say about the genius of its production can take away from the superb acting that allows it to work. Once immersed in the play itself the four figures around which action revolves take centre-stage: thumb-and-forefinger smoking Brutus, played by Harriet Walter with straightforward butch honesty, Jenny Jules’ loyal Cassius,  agonisedly caught in a situation spiraling outside his control, the luminous charisma and tiger-like sexuality of Cush Jumbo’s  (historically doomed) Marc Antony, and Clare Dunne’s Octavius (historically, later the first emperor Augustus), delivering calculatedly brutal violence with a Belfast accent.

Indeed, there was one stroke that I missed: Clare Dunne also plays the doomed, sacrificial Portia, occupying the dual role of eventual victor and first to die after Caesar; the ghost that Brutus later sees is Portia, and at the play’s end Portia dances nude around Brutus’ dying troops, bringing us back to considering the soldiers as sons and lovers, constituents of the families that can no longer be reproduced after the conspirators unleashing the unstoppable forces of struggle for state power.

Through their machinations the main characters come to embody these forces, and through the gendered habituses – usually unnoticed ways of dress and movement and social interaction – of the cast as well as the deft production touches of other cons spotlighting and filming them, the performativity of gender itself leaps into focus. Still, this isn’t a production about undoing gender, but about reproduction of violence, and the key, forever obscured fact that both are intimately tied in together.

It takes a lot to untie and tease out those links. In the light of recent British media mendacious foolishness around Suzanne Moore, in an era where the most visible manifestations of feminism are iterations of columnar idiocy, it is clearly required to emphasise that gender is both a socially, discursively imposed fact and a performance; something the murderous reaction to the inevitable moment when the first personally privileged, naive trans woman to have a womb surgically implanted will doubtless, sadly show.

As it is, this Caesar manages to shed light on those links too: this is indeed a “play within a cage”, with all action onstage being shaped by the whims of the screws, the reality of offstage power.

What it also does is bring out hidden elements of Shakespeare’s text: with the actors’ genders reversed, the genderedness of Brutus’ pre-battle confrontation with Cassius leaps into focus, and all Brutus’ talk of “heights” and “tides” becomes plainly his outfacing Cassius’ more cautious masculinity with his own. This then, as in the original, segues into Brutus’ surely implied homosexual liasion with the flute-playing Lucius, and it is after this that he sees Portia’s ghost, the ghost of the reproductive family he effectively killed when he murdered Caesar.

With the all-woman nature of the cast, something extraordinary happens to gender. Homosociality between men, with eroticism sublimed or barely visible, becomes outright homoeroticism. Indeed, the entire Roman aristocratic class, bonded through their masculinity, seem instead as though they are in an extended polyamorous relationship, a way of seeing homosociality which has almost certainly not been tried, and which suddenly seems worth trying.

At the play’s conclusion, the Roman soldiers fall dead one by one, danced around by the ghost of Portia, now carrying a baby. She silently asks and answers one question: how is society reproduced? Through violence. Then the screws announce lights out, and darkness falls.

Whatever one’s gender, I’d swear you’ll be left with two things: a lingering longing for the beauty of Cush Jumbo’s Marc Anthony, and a sense of juissance from the new-found ability to sensually trace and unpick the lines of engendering and violence in your own life and retold story.

On Being Working Poor

It’s time to share a story.

I grew up with parents who themselves grew up identifying as “Working Class”, and so I internalised the value of hard work. By the time I was 25 I had had twelve separate jobs, with the only break being a few months while at university and not also working, and a month or two between temping roles. I always performed well and was never sacked; either I had to leave to move, or the role itself simply came to an end. My father considered me lazy due to having had so many jobs. As I said to him then, things have changed since his time.

Living in London I was never rich. When I did have surplus income, it went to pay off student debt. After this, I had enough to stand my round at the pub, and that was about all. My girlfriend at the time used to be homeless, and so due to her experiences I was terrified of being homeless. I stayed in an unhappy and unhealthy relationship for too long out of fear, and in the end she threw me out.

Initially being unemployed was not so bad. I found somewhere to live, which was covered by housing benefit and £10 per week of my JSA. The room was tiny, perhaps 8 feet long by five feet wide, but it was mine. As it was such a poor area, I was able to feed myself for a week for between £8 and £10, mostly eating pasta with a little protein, stew, curries. I volunteered for Citizens Advice, who paid my travel costs, let me snack on food brought in by paid staff, and insisted on not letting me pay for a round at the pub. I had one or two better-off friends who would occasionally treat me to a meal in Soho. Most of the rest of my £50-odd per week went on travel.

This was in 2009. Since then, travel costs in London have soared, rents have increased, housing benefit has decreased, and soon no under-25s will be able to claim housing benefit at all.

When I claimed JSA for the first time, I received a letter stating that the £1000 of tax I was then owed would be taken from the JSA I was paid, on a one-for-one basis. When I researched this at my advice bureau, it appeared to be legitimate.

I was outraged by the unfairness. Yet this isn’t the last unfairness I faced.

(I have to say, in the defence of the DWP, that this is actually not the case, nor is it what happened. Whoever wrote that letter did so in error. One cannot claim tax owed back while on JSA, but neither is it taken from you. Perhaps there is some regulation that allows owed tax to be taken when JSA is paid, but it is not one that is customarily enforced. Several years later I found that this tax was actually not taken from me, and I was able to reclaim some of it.)

Later that year I got a job. I worked part-time for another advice agency. As in every other adult job I had had, I was put on an emergency tax code. This meant that tax was taken at a flat rate of 20%. In theory, the emergency tax code means that you receive your personal allowance of tax-free income over the year. In my case this has never been what actually happened. I did not receive any personal allowance, and was taxed at 20% on all my pay.

That year was a very cold winter. I was only working part-time, and travel costs ate up a huge amount of my pay. I worked extra hours in order to try to make ends meet, but in the end, after bills, rent and council tax, and travel, I had less to live on than when I received JSA. As the weather got colder, I found that I couldn’t afford to heat my room, so, as I had done in Scotland, I wore more and huddled under blankets. Every month I would ask my manager to sort out my wages, and every month she would claim that next month they would be sorted. Nothing ever changed.

With my unheated room and walking to work through the snow, I got sick and was sent home one day as I couldn’t climb stairs. For a short time I could barely walk, and had to rely on flatmates to deliver food. I tried to return to work, but I still was unable to manage the stairs. I was terrified. All I wanted was to get well.

I was lucky to receive ESA. On ESA I had more money than I had ever had in my life. Not only could I afford to heat my room, I could afford to buy clothes that fit me properly, and I could occasionally travel to see friends. As ATOS cracks down on more and more claimants, this will be an opportunity for recovery, for a decent life, open to fewer and fewer people.

I was lucky in being the kind of sick the system is designed for, designed to force people to be. Over time, and with warmer weather, I recovered. Once properly well, I got a discounted gym membership, one of the last group to do so before many London boroughs effectively abolished discounts for those on benefits. (When I became a student, and was offered a bigger discount than ever while those on benefits received limited hours and a tiny discount).

Back to that 20% flat rate of tax. I am certain I am not the only person to be taxed on all of their income. Since returning to university I have talked with far more people, and found my situation was hardly unusual. Activists across Europe, across the world talk of “the Precariat”, of precarious work, short-term contracts, constant insecurity. This was my experience, as part of the new working class. Precarious work, on emergency tax code, thus being taxed at 20% on all my income, and always scraping to get by.

The new working class, same as the old working class.

I also know quite a few people being paid a lot more than I used to be, when I sat below the poverty line.

And I learned one stunning thing: these people are not paying very much tax.

One standard trick now used by both public and private sector employers – indeed, the NHS now employs many contractors this way, although it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between working for the NHS and a private company – is to have people set up their own company, work for it, and receive part of their pay as dividend, thus avoiding paying both higher rate tax and some National Insurance.

I’m not an accountant. Tax and National Insurance are complicated, and change year on year. I welcome comments. Still, it is possible to make some back of the envelope calculations. For those using the employed-by-own-company trick, generally it is better to receive up to around £25k as wages, and the rest as dividend. Knowing this, it is possible to look at the working poor, and at the working rich, and to make some rough calculations on the rate of tax and NI both are paying.

For someone working full-time at minimum wage, their income is around £12k per year. They thus pay just over £500 in national insurance. If they are being taxed on emergency code they will be paying roughly £2000 in tax.

Of course, most people doing precarious work do not work for a full year. If they work for a full year, they have to be treated as employees under employment law, and acquire more rights, though of course David Cameron is trying to change this.

Generally, people doing precarious work will work for most of the year, and have periods on JSA and on Housing Benefit. They will struggle to bridge the gap between work and benefits – there is usually a significant delay before benefit is paid, and housing benefit is paid four weeks in arrears. Of course, this assumes that they were let go, and that they were not held by the DWP as deliberately leaving work – in that case, no benefit for them. Thus, even in the best case scenario of being eligible for benefits they will get into debt and end up paying interest and charges to cover this period. Moving back into work causes a similar delay. There used to be a four week run-on for housing benefit for those unemployed for six months or over, to ensure they could pay the rent while waiting for their first paycheck. This is now being phased out.

In any case, our theoretical (very lucky!) precarious worker is earning £9500 after tax, and paying £2500 as tax and NI, some of which they may, if they understand the system and claim it before three years elapses, get back.

This is a tax rate of 20.8%.

Let us take someone on the UK median wage of £20,800 (2010). Earning this much, it is likely that they have a contract, that they are not a precarious worker. The numbers will vary somewhat for self-employed people, but for an employee they will pay £1584.96 in NI and £2,539 in tax. (http://iknowtax.com/)

Thus, they are being taxed at a rate of 19.8%.

Now, let us take someone earning a fairly reasonable rate of £180/day as a “self-employed” contractor. They work 5 days per week, and 48 weeks a year – bank holidays and all that, and everyone needs a few (unpaid) days off sometime. This works out as £43,200 before tax.

Up to 25k they are a waged employee. They pay £2088.96 in NI and £3379.00 in tax. (http://iknowtax.com/)

Above 25k they take their wages as dividend. So that’s 43200-25000 = 18,200 as dividend. On that dividend, they pay a flat rate of 10% up to 34,370 of total annual income. (http://www.nidirect.gov.uk/tax-on-uk-dividends) After 34,370 they pay 32.5%, up to 150k. So that’s 10% of 34,370-25,000, or 10% of 9,370, so £937. And finally 32.5% on the rest of their income, on 43200-34370, on the remaining £8830. 8830×0.325 is 2869.75, so a not inconsiderable £2869.75.

So they are paying 2088.96+3379+937+2869.75 total, so £9274.71.

Thus, they are being taxed at a rate of 21.5%, only slightly more than the person on £12k per year.

(Someone earning rather more by working in the city or as a management consultant will pay a bit more – earning £100k/pa will cost you £31309.71 in tax, so a rate of 31.3%.)

Still, our people working as consultants have several privileges that precarious workers don’t. They have enough income that they can save a buffer, meaning they won’t be dependent on fickle benefit payments to cover the gaps. They can afford a mortgage rather than rent, bringing their housing costs down. They will pay the same in council tax, or a bit more if they choose to live alone. They will pay the same for heating, probably a bit less, as owners can get grants and ensure their property is properly insulated, and receive monthly bills rather than use more expensive token meters. They can pay less VAT overall. (Compass think-tank produced a fair report on the overall regressiveness of the UK tax system here.) They can choose where they live. Their lives will be lived with far less stress, ensuring they can make good decisions (chronic stress restructures the brain, leading to bad choices). They can escape the feeling of inescapable grinding poverty, and the barrage of newspaper headlines about benefit cheats, entitled scum, and so on. In general, everything will be financially and emotionally much better.

Not so for those doing precarious work. Not so for me. Now while on JSA I might now be instructed to work for free, or lose my benefit. If I can’t afford the rent, if under 25, I will in future have to return home, or, if estranged from my family, like many queer and other youth, become homeless. I would have had to choose between that unhealthy relationship and the street.

At least in prison, you have a heated room and food. At least in prison, your labour is not generally exploited to make others rich, though in moves led by the US this is changing.

It is becoming more and more clear to me and to others that work simply does not pay, or if it does, it pays only the wealthiest. Marx may not have been right about a coming dictatorship of the proletariat, but he was certainly right about the extraction of surplus value from workers to benefit a tiny, wealthy class.

And it’s only getting worse. New Labour’s policies are not significantly different. The TUC march for the right to work, but for the precariat, this amounts to the
right to work oneself into an early grave, to freeze, to starve. The soaring number of food banks in the UK is no coincidence.  It is a taste of things to come.

In 2011, when the riots happened, I felt genuine fear. But then I thought. I thought, what if those young people had not only gone through what I went through, not only absorbed the neoliberal lies I had been told, but experienced racism, experienced endless stop-and-searches too? Can you still blame them? Or can you begin to imagine a world where taking things makes sense, when those things can be exchanged for heating, for food?

What has happened in the UK is that we have become a society divided against ourselves. Left and Right are both weak, and in parliament almost identical. The older hate the younger, seeing them as feckless, when working culture has changed entirely. The working poor suffer, and stew, and grow angrier, and do nothing. Those on moderate incomes despise the poor, who they see as benefit-scrounging cheats. The working rich see their success as down to themselves, and devil take the hindmost, for have they not sacrificed much – as contractors, they can be hired and fired at will, unlike staid long-term-employee types. Almost everyone sees things as a matter of individual choice, rather than systemic failure and historical consequence.

I rather doubt some marxian revolution lies ahead. What I fear lies ahead is some repeat of the darkness of the 20th century: the tearing apart of social relations, but not this time between countries, but between rich and poor, between the political class and everyone else. The 20th century saw brutalisation on a mass scale that led to it becoming the century of industrialised death. Revolutions were armed, counter-revolutions were certainly armed, the systemic problems of Germany, of Russia, and of global capitalism were never resolved, and the result became mass slaughter.

What we are seeing now is a different kind of brutalisation. Under the rhetoric of “individual choice”, antiquated morals evaporate, but so do human structures and human feelings. Every day in London we all walk by a massively increased number of homeless people, barely noticing them. Soon the mass evictions will happen, to force out the “undeserving poor” (http://t.co/K1qr2dWU). It may be, with the soaring numbers of council evictions, that this is happening already. Yet to get by day to day we must be perfect selfish individualists, forcing our way to the front with style and aplomb. I personally feel like a fool for having believed in a social contract or working to directly help others at all. There is only actions, and consequences, and power.

I do, however, fear for our and therefore my future. What individual choice, what “rational incentive” are we offering the working poor, but to kick off? What incentive do the rich have, except to exploit more, except to turn a blind eye to more?

No Future

When I saw this banner on the October TUC march, I felt both thrilled and repulsed. Through writing this, I realised that I agree with it completely. More will feel this way. I only hope that a way can be found, or made, to avoid the coming darkness ahead.

Never has that question “Socialism or Barbarism” seemed more apt than now.