In A Real State
Over the last couple of years BBC2’s Newsnight has been compiling monthly features about life on a couple of tough estates in an inner-city area of Salford, Greater Manchester. Last month they followed this up with a four-part special documentary series examining the successes and failures of New Labour’s approach to the problems of social deprivation in the area. It made for compelling viewing.
The series—called Real Estates—took a hard look at life in the Langworthy and Ordsall areas of Salford to examine the progress made there since Blair came to office on education, health, employment and regeneration. Narrated by Jeremy Paxman, it highlighted local examples of the initiatives taken by the Blair government to tackle social deprivation and examined their effectiveness by focussing on how they affected individuals in the community. The answer to whether these initiatives had been successful was entirely predictable of course – as by and large, they clearly haven’t been. So much so that even when a particular problem has been contained in one area or school, it has only been at the cost of it emerging in another.
Running like a thread through the programmes were the major manifestations of the social problems that are rife and seemingly unstoppable amongst the most poverty-stricken elements of the working class in countries like Britain—most obviously unemployment, crime, truancy, drug abuse and ill health. The government agencies and their operatives dealing with these problems were often well-meaning enough (at least when there were cameras present). The social workers, truancy and probation officers, health workers and even the police officers were all attempting to bring some semblance of what passes for “normality” to the rows of terraced streets and partially boarded-up council estates that make up the area. But their struggle was necessarily an uphill one and the overall story one of minor and isolated successes amongst much wider despair and frustration.
Not all those watching Real Estates would have reacted in the same way to it. The typical knee-jerk reaction to the problems identified in the series would have been to say that the people at the centre of them all were just a bad lot, and that it was their “human nature” which made them rob, attack one another and take drugs despite the best efforts of the government and social services. Indeed, some would no doubt even argue that to invest money into tackling the social problems of areas like Salford is just to throw good money after bad. What Real Estates demonstrated to the more open-minded observer was something rather different.
It was that people living in communities such as those in Salford are battling against the elements even more than the agencies and government workers who are apparently trying to set things straight. In most instances they show a genuine care and warmth towards their families and friends but have to contend with a hostile social environment, just as their parents and parents’ parents did before them. Indeed, it was clear that there is nothing intrinsically evil about the dispossessed of the inner-cities like Salford. Unlike the little Coronation Street morality plays of the fictional Salford currently served up week after week by Granada TV in their desire to compete with the increasingly appalling EastEnders, the denizens of the real Salford have more tangible dramas and concerns. These are influenced and determined by the real evil that is all around them and which infects their every thought and move—poverty.
Philosophy of poverty
As each programme in the series demonstrated so visibly and movingly, the best intentions of those deprived of what society deems to be acceptable are just simply not enough. From the schoolboy who wants to avoid the older kids on the estate lest they get him into trouble and wreck his chances of a ‘decent job’ when he leaves school, to the young criminals who want to go straight and get off drugs, a life in poverty is never simple. For the truth is that in capitalism lack of money and the means to effectively get it is the deciding factor in people’s social existence. And even those without money who attempt to play by the official rules of the game will always be influenced or affected by all those around them who won’t or can’t.
In such a situation the Daily Mail and its ilk can bleat away forever about people’s lack of respect for authority and their lack of social responsibility. After all, why should people respect their supposed ‘betters’ when they have nothing and are never remotely likely to have anything unless a huge (and hugely unlikely) stroke of good fortune comes their way? To use the type of language the tabloids would understand, what incentive do they have?
New Labour—like many other governments before it – recognises the existence of this problem and is keen to do something about it, hence the much vaunted talk of “stakeholders”, “social partnership” and of the balance between “rights and responsibilities”. But recognising that a problem exists is not enough—you have to know what keeps causing it before you can seriously do anything constructive in response.
This is Labour’s own particular difficulty and it is the perennial one faced by reformist governments. This is because, as Real Estates showed clearly, poverty is not an individual choice or a curse bestowed from above as a punishment for evil but is instead a product of the way society is organised. Jeremy Paxman didn’t narrate this in quite those terms, but it is the obvious inference from a programme which movingly depicted the daily struggle of people against an economy and social structure which first casts them as victims and then as villains.
If it did anything, Real Estates showed how desperate situations—like in Salford—breed desperate people who think nothing of breaking the “norms” the rest of society may aspire to live by. But it also showed that Tony Blair and his Cabinet can in all probability set up all the task forces and social exclusion units they want. For when it is society itself that creates poverty amongst riches as a matter of course and then pits the poverty-stricken against one another in a desperate fight for survival, there is never going to be any solution in piecemeal reform and cosmetic initiatives.
Indeed, that way lies another century just like the last one. And that was a century where reformist schemes and promises persistently counted for little in the larger scheme of capitalist reality.