Let them eat cupcakes

Dan Hancox opens his new column saying good riddance to Britain’s 2012, as the country, caught in the grip of a return to Victorian levels of wealth inequality, exacts its revenge on time.

Britain’s 2012 was a horrible year, and more than that, it was a stupid year. London and Europe's tallest building, The Shard, is stupid. The Great British Bake-Off was stupid. The shutting down of debate around the Olympics was stupid. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was stupid. The media coverage of both – not least from the BBC – was obsequious to the point of outrageous stupidity. And while its athletes were frequently extraordinary human beings doing extraordinary things, the nomenclature ‘Team GB’ was unutterably stupid. In fact, proof of the Olympics’ ongoing stupidity legacy can be found in Team GB’s official slogan for 2013, which is ‘Better Never Stops'. National identity reimagined in the language of the sportswear billboard.

Demotix/Paul Jerram. All rights reserved.

One 2012 story that tried in vain to make itself heard in the UK above the marching bands and fireworks was the horrifying rise in those using food banks. These charitably-funded organisations feed people who cannot afford to feed themselves, and three of them are now opening in the UK every week. The Trussell Trust said 130,000 Britons had to take their emergency food parcels in 2012, double the previous year’s figure, and they expect it to top 200,000 this year. Another organisation, FareShare, announced in their annual report that demand was “rocketing”, that “more people are suffering hardship and needing food support than ever before.”

A survey for the London Assembly, meanwhile, discovered 61% of the capital’s teachers had fed hungry schoolchildren out of their own pockets, while 41% said they believed it led to fainting or other illnesses. Lest we forget, the slogan of the London Olympics was ‘Inspire a generation’. Inspiring a generation only really becomes a possibility when the generation in question have come around from their poverty-induced dizzy spell.

With the exception of some sterling reporting by The Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman and this oD investigation of the Tories who benefit from food banks, the story has been largely ignored in the mainstream media. Looking through Hansard for 2012, there was virtually no mention of food banks in either the House of Commons or the Lords. Labour MPs Luciana Berger and Fiona O’Donnell tabled written questions to David Cameron and Nick Clegg on several occasions, asking for details of food banks they had visited in the last six months, and ones they planned to visit in the next six months. They received the same standard-issue reply each time:

“I have meetings and discussions with a wide range of organisations and individuals at a variety of locations around the country. My engagements are announced as and when appropriate.”
‘Sod off’, basically. And then, in the last PMQs of the year, Ed Miliband finally chipped in, having neglected to do so at any point previously, and cited them as a damning indictment of Tory policy. Cameron responded that food banks are “part of what I call the big society,” and proceeded to thank the volunteers who make their work possible. This return to Victorian levels of wealth inequality, with more and more people falling outside the safety net of the welfare state, is something I wrote about in Kettled Youth in 2011; I didn’t think we’d see Victorian palliatives like church-run food banks become quite so prominent, quite so quickly. 

Meanwhile, the disconnection between Britain’s political and media elites and these new realities grows ever wider. Sheila Gunn, former advisor to John Major, was on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House just before Christmas, and was confronted with the news that 15,000 people would have to use food banks over the festive period just to survive. People shouldn’t be starving in this country, a fellow panelist said, so what can we do about it? Gunn replied:

“I’m going to sound horribly middle-class here, but I remember living for a week – two weeks, actually – basically on toast – because I miscalculated when I took a new job, that I wasn’t actually going to be paid for the first couple of weeks. And I wonder about maybe, having cookery lessons for people? Making pasta with a bit of something in it, having toast, having mashed potato...”
Mary Antoinette, to her credit, never actually said ‘let them eat cake’.

Appropriately, I recently stumbled across Michael Betancourt’s description of “agnotologic capitalism: a capitalism systemically based on the production and maintenance of ignorance”. He coined it to describe the deceit and self-delusion that was essential in feeding the continued inflation (and spectacular bursting) of the financial bubble. The boom-time capitalism of a decade ago was only possible because the boom’s creators, beneficiaries and subjects allowed themselves to believe in the unbelievable. An economic catastrophe motored by stupidity.

The manufacture and dissemination of ignorance is just as important to the viability of Cameron’s austerity policies, or indeed to all post-crash zombie capitalism; what we might call neoliberalism after the fall. Our prelapsarian faith in the boom was snatched away from us in 2008 – we have grown up and can see this economic system for what it is, at last. And yet it perseveres, sustained by a stupidity which is both intrinsic, and essential.

The media have a key role in this. “The creation of systemic unknowns,” wrote Betancourt, “where any potential "fact" is always already countered by an alternative of apparently equal weight and value renders engagement with the conditions of reality... contentious and a source of confusion, reflected by the inability of participants in bubbles to be aware of the immanent collapse until after it has happened.” Agnotologic capitalism eliminates the potential for widespread dissent, via obfuscation, through the perpetuation of the idea that there is always another explanation, apart from the blindingly obvious one. It relies heavily on a credulous and overstretched mass media to carry out this work.

So, we have a dramatic rise in food banks at a time of a double-dip recession, high unemployment, widespread wage stagnation, and a government intent on butchering the welfare state? There would seem to be little possibility for contention or ambiguity – the causal relationship is obvious. And yet, at the end of this BBC news report on food banks, we see a desperate (and disgraceful) desire to search for other explanations:

BBC REPORTER: "So why aren't you applying for other jobs now then, instead of coming here"
MISERABLE LOOKING FOODBANK CLIENT: "I am applying for other jobs, but no-one is taking on at the moment"
BBC REPORTER: [insistently, mixed with undertone of outrage] "How many jobs?"
MISERABLE LOOKING FOODBANK CLIENT: "about a hundred jobs I've applied for, but not one of them have said yeah"

 

And into the void springs the circus. The circus, the bunting and the desperate need for distraction – and next year, it can continue, with the royal baby. And after that, if you can believe it, we have the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Waterloo to look forward to.

flickr/DG Jones. Some rights reserved.

The Union Jacks that hung in Regent Street for the Diamond Jubilee looked like stills from a counter-factual history of post-war Britain – one in which the sun never set on the empire, and never shone in the capital. Seen from above, against a backdrop of Regent Street’s gloomy grey facades, these flags offer the only colours in the picture – no globalisation, no gaudy brands, and no other country: just Britain. It suggests a revanchist approach to the loss of empire – and a desire to exact revenge on the passage of time in general.

This regression to an imagined national past comes from the same newly-forged mythology as the Keep Calm and Carry On posters (addressed in this landmark essay by Jem Gilbert). The story bears repeating: even though 2.5 million copies were created in 1939, the poster was never displayed publicly during the war, but held back for an invasion that never happened; it entered the national mythology as recently as 2000, when a copy was discovered in a box of second-hand books. The twee detournement of the Imperial Crown into a cupcake tells you all you need to know about our post-colonial melancholia.

Redbubble/Andi Bird.

The British people have no bread? Well then, let them eat cupcakes.

About the author

Dan Hancox is a freelance writer for The Guardian and others, interested in radical politics, protest, and pop culture in Britain, Spain and beyond. His books include Utopia and the Valley of TearsFight Back! and Kettled Youth.