Speech for St Mary’s 13 May 2012
This is the text of a speech I plan to give at 4pm this afternoon. I hope it doesn’t flop. Also, I might have gotten a little bit preachy.
Thank you for inviting me. The internet tells me that 1500 words is about right for 10 minutes, so I’ve written around 1200 and hope that I don’t annoy my timekeeper!
Firstly, I am an atheist, but grew up in the church, and recognise it’s goodness, community and energy.
Secondly, I speak for myself, not for Occupy. No-one can speak for such a diverse group.
Since this is a Christian audience, I ought to start with Christ. When I was writing this at 3am this morning, I was wondering what on earth I could say to a church audience. The occupy movement certainly isn’t identified with any particular faith, and in fact pissed off quite a few in the church by camping outside so many cathedrals.
But the church has long been a safe haven for those striving for justice. In my insomnia, I dug out my old confirmation bible, and was drawn to the beatitudes. Let me remind you of a couple:
Blessed are those who mourn…
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness…
There is much to mourn in our public life, and much that we can hunger and thirst to improve. Governments run by our rich elites all over the world are seeking to fix the latest crisis of capitalism on the backs of those who bear the least responsibility, but also can least afford to fix it.
Righteousness here is often translated as justice. Well, I hunger and thirst for justice, and across the world yesterday many who feel the same way were persecuted for fighting for justice.
I don’t want to stand up here and just mouth off about the police and the terrifying developments in policing that the occupy movement has highlighted, although that is both happening and terrifying.
Ordinary people are paying the price for greed and avarice.
Let’s start locally.
Crises don’t start all at once, and the roots of the current crisis go deep. It’s impossible to live in Sheffield without seeing the deep and socially painful shadow cast by the decline in manufacturing in this country. We are often told that this is unavoidable, and simply a consequence of market forces which have been in motion since before I was born. Economic experts and a succession of chancellors have told us that there is nothing they can do. The hard-won expertise in manufacturing in Britain just has to be allowed to die, because living costs here are too high.
If you want an at-length take-down of this argument, I can recommend a couple of books, but suffice it to say that this isn’t so. For a start, we are in urgent need of a green economy and alternatives to fossil fuels, all of which require advanced manufacturing techniques not yet available in less technologically advanced countries. Forgemasters makes a good case study for this. Some time ago, our elites decided to abandon the manufacturing working class of the UK.
We were told that we needed to move to an ‘information economy’ which no one quite seems to understand, but hey, we did what we were told, and trained hard. Throughout my school career, there were 4 years I did not face standardised national testing. The neoliberal government of 1997 under a Labour banner told us that it’s focus was on education, education, education, and we did what we were told – we learnt.
Has it helped?
Looking at my social circle, I don’t think it has. On an individual level, I will always be a fan of educating yourself and learning for the joy of learning. But that’s not the job of government. They should be looking ahead, planning and supporting future industry, and growing the workers of the future, in all fields and at all levels. A plumber has to be trained and supported no less than a doctor. And I’ve tried bricklaying – it’s surprisingly skilled work and I made a complete mess.
The student loan is an insidious beast, and has allowed a further abdication of responsibility on the part of successive governments. Now, rather than the state being responsible for working out training priorities for the country as a whole, and funding those places for those who are best qualified for them, the responsibility is now on the individual, at the age of 17 or 18, to not only decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but to take on a colossal burden of debt for themselves and often their families, in pursuit of dreams which, it turns out, were made of smoke.
I have many friends who went to university to pursue their dreams. I would say in my extended social circle I know over 100 graduates. At least 20% of them are currently unemployed. Most of those who are lucky enough to have jobs are overqualified for them – one is working as a cashier, another as a cleaner. My husband uses his art and philosophy to operate a photocopier. Many are working fewer hours than they want to. Maybe 5 have been able to follow their dreams and now earn a living doing what they love and indebted themselves to study.
And it is all an abdication of responsibility, a casting of student-as-customer that wasn’t there when my parents met at Cambridge in the late 70s.
And this isn’t even starting on the abandonment of trades and apprenticeships.
Elsewhere too, the implicit social contract has been broken. For decades, national insurance, social security and remortgages backed by the FSA have been shoring up the gaps left between ever-growing inflation and ever-stagnant wages for all but those at the top. Out of work benefits are being cut ferociously to ‘make work pay’ with no regard for the fact that there is in most cases no work to be had.
It is worse if you are a woman. It is worse if you have a regional accent. It is worse if your skin is not white. It is worse if your health is unreliable or reliably bad. It is worse if you are old. It is worse if you are queer. It is worse if your family are poor. It is worse if you are young.
The most blessed and privileged of our country have for time immemorial been trying as hard as they can to extract our labour for their pleasure. After the second world war, under the influence of the singular genius of John Maynard Keynes and the blood-won victories of the working classes, the tide started to turn. We got a national health service. There was at least lip service paid to the idea of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’.
The occupy movement has shown that there is energy for change. But how can all this energy be directed? Can we bring together these disparate groups to fight for justice? And what part can or should the church play in this?
I wish I knew the answer. But unless we solve this, those of us who care for those who cannot care for themselves may well be just the ‘stiff opposition’ that historians write about from a corporate neoliberal future. One with no space for the old, the unproductive, the sick or the artist.