Let Them Eat Cake: It’s not about the horsemeat

This week, I’ve been living through the media storm which was the scandalous discovery that several supermarket chains were retailing cheap frozen beefburgers containing a percentage of horse meat. This being Britain, it’s easy to see why the outrage in the media and in talk on the highstreet so easily slipped into the subject of the hideousness of eating horse (gasp). It is just too damn easy to distract people from a far darker issue.

During the Middle Ages there was always a tension, within Christendom, about how the poor should be perceived, spiritually. On one hand, there were numerous biblical references to the poor as being closer to God, lacking all the material distractions of the wealthy. On the other hand, the Church was acquiring vast wealth, so, as an institution, it had little interest in condemning what it was interested in possessing. The truth is, despite the camel and the eye of the needle, it is easier to get into heaven if you’ve purchased a Papal Bull or the services of a priest who would say mass over your tomb everyday.

For most of our history, an ideological thread has run through our societies: that the poor are poor because they deserve it. If they’re in foreign lands, they are poor because of their godlessness. If they’re poor in your own country, it’s because of their idleness and loose morality. That ‘idle hands do the devil’s work’ was not a phrase meant to scare the leisured aristocracy into productivity, but to encourage the poor to work harder and uncomplainingly for their richer masters.

For a brief, bright period, in certain parts of the world, during the 20th Century, a new ideological model arose. The poor were often poor through no fault of their own, but because of the circumstances into which they were born. Universal education, healthcare, and a more egalitarian legal system could enable upward economic mobility. And the stunning thing is, that compared to a lot of other brilliant but useless social theories, it worked. The 20th century saw a huge improvement in the living conditions of millions of poor people. The middle class grew exponentially. It resulted in unprecedented economic prosperity which powered cultural production and scientific discovery. Agreed, it did not eradicate the class structure, but it meant that a far greater number of people were no longer living in abject misery with no hope of it ever abating.

Somewhere in the 1980s, we decided to abandon this grand project. We decided to publicly proclaim that greed was a virtue. And slowly, but surely, we have been slipping back into a world where the poor are poor and stay poor and make babies, who stay poor. And because we are no longer a particularly religious society, and can’t blame poverty on sin, we produce myths about laziness, complacency, a culture of entitlement and a lack of desire to ‘better oneself’. It is convenient to believe that, perhaps, in an overpopulated world, with limited resources and opportunities, some people will always be poor and miserable. We can pretend that that grand 20th century experiment didn’t happen, and didn’t work.

But the reality is that, since the 1980s, the wealthy have demanded more and more of those limited resources and opportunities for themselves. They have become less and less amenable to paying taxes, less inclined to accept any social obligation to enable the upward economic mobility of those beneath them. See here and here. Because that enabling is done through large social projects, which are funded with taxes.

We are creating new myths about the poor to accommodate and ameliorate what might appear, to a humanitarian, as a new feudalism. Through the media, through public discourse, we work on both ends of the spectrum: by eroding their humanity through countless tales of their apathy and by telling ourselves how lucky they are to get government support and cheap products that they can afford.

But, in truth, the reality is that we have threefold problem: a public discourse which has accepted conspicuous consumption is a positive indicator of value of an individual (which encourages people not to achieve, but to consume),  higher expectations of corporate profits (which creates the motivation for companies to pay less for their materials and charge their consumers more), and a belief that the poor are poor because they choose to be poor –  it’s intentional.

That makes it okay to lie to a poor person about what is in the only beefburgers they can afford to buy. It makes it okay to get outraged by the fact that there are horses in that burger – to obsess about WHICH animal is in the burger instead of the fact that it’s NOT BEEF. It allows us to be smug and say, “Well, what do you expect when you pay a pound for beefburgers?” and “If they were smart, they’d do what I do and get the butcher to grind the beef in front of me,” or the more overt “Nothing wrong with horse meat, what are they complaining about?” The sub-text of both statements is that poor people are stupid for expecting to be treated honourably.

I am, I admit, a modernist. For all the sins of modernism (and they were considerable), it still offered the promise of a society which judged its success by how it treated its least empowered, least endowed citizens.

And for all the sneering at grand narratives, for all the belittling of aspirational ideologies, for all the bureaucratic waste of socialist models (and I agree, there was much and it was not acceptable), this Darwinian social model of “the greediest motherfucker wins” does not do us credit as humans.