Please note that there is now a supplement to this article including reaction to the response by Jack Monroe. Comments are now closed here but may be made on the new article.
You don’t need me to tell you that everyone on benefits is a money-grasping sponger. Or that every asylum seeker is parachuted directly into the warm atrium of a North London mansion, and not into the hell of hells that is our disgusting excuse for an asylum system. Benefit claimants steal all our money, and we, the good ordinary people, are sick of it. We’re sick of scrounging, sick of stealing and sick of the arrogance of buying trainers and takeaways with our hard-earned tax. We know to be sick of them because the Daily Mail tells us to be. David Cameron tells us to be. And David Cameron, with his beautiful home, ‘staycation’ and Oxbridge education is just like us – or just like the “us” that we want to be.
There is something more insidious than simply bad journalism or party politics at work here. This is nowhere clearer than in the rise to fame of Jack Monroe, whose cause célèbre is catering for herself and her young son on £10 a week. Yet Jack Monroe is only an acceptable benefits claimant because she reminds the middle classes of themselves.
She is a young, conventionally attractive woman whose recipes include things like carrot, cumin and kidney bean burgers and apricot curry. Not a takeaway pizza or can of lager in sight, her version of poverty is the cosy frugality of a Beatrix Potter book. Not the inarticulate grasping of the feral underclass who squeeze in a trip to sign on when they’re not copulating or drinking White Ace.
Monroe was judged lightly because she uses her money to buy things that the middle classes buy. Swapping her chips for chickpeas shows her to be aspirational, and thus worthy of our respect. We read it as a symbol of her desire to claw her way out of the soup of inequity that is “Benefits Britain” and become middle class. The lifestyle enjoyed by the middle classes, scented by Jo Malone and lit by starlight, has become not only desirable, but honourable. To not live the upper middle-class aesthetic ideal is to live a life worthy of that class’s contempt. Taste becomes a moral quality, and the way in which you spend your money reflects your morality.
It is this equation of taste with morality that leads us to be so warm and forgiving to those who evade or avoid tax. At least they’re not using their money to buy crisps and massive televisions, and if they are they’re buying Kettle Chips, and the television for BBC4 and not Loose Women. One estimate puts tax evasion at £70bn a year – 70 times that of benefit fraud.
We’re not angry about this because if we were to make a fuss we would be making an aesthetic judgement as well. We would be standing against the extensive cellars, second homes and other material trappings that we are meant to aspire to. We’d be siding with the scroungers rather than those who we’re meant to look up to. We’d be committing the great sin of a crime against aesthetics.
64 per cent of families claim some sort of benefits, meaning that “Benefit Britain” is not a feral underclass at all, but the country that the majority of us live in. Yet there are many who would rather we did not acknowledge this reality – for it is to expose the warm reassurance that “we are all middle class now” as a lie. The imperative of aspiration is engrained in us to the extent that any complaint against those harbingers of taste, the country’s elite, becomes an act of deliberate self-exclusion and sabotage.
Middle-class aspirations are enforced on the country at every level and the idea of being “working class and bloody proud of it” has been made laughable. Those who were once the salt of the earth are now the scum of it, as Owen Jones demonstrated so forcefully in Chavs. Anyone who would seek to defend them gets headed off with gruesome tales of their aesthetic failings in the press. They’re not like us, they’re the other, they’re chavs and they spend their money on tracksuits and tattoos. Why would you want to align yourself with them when you could have Kate Middleton’s hair and a Barbour jacket?
Those who avoid tax are not our enemies – because we’re meant to want to be like them. This aspiration keeps us lean and hungry, and most of all, occupied. We believe that we can be like those just slightly above us in the social scale, that “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther” and fall headlong into that social set. But the reality is that grasping red-faced proles exist only in Cameron’s fevered cheese dreams, or else in our own mirrors. The majority of us have far more in common with those on benefits than those who seek to cut them.
NOTE: in light of the many responses to this article, the editors wish to clarify that references to the portrayal of Jack Monroe are criticisms of media narratives on the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. In no way are these criticisms of Jack Monroe, or any of her admirable efforts and actions.