When is the last time you were hungry? I don’t mean missing dinner or going on a crash diet, I mean being so desperate for food that your every waking thought involves trying to find any scrap of sustenance, however filthy or rancid it may be.
I mean real hunger. Most people who are poor won’t be in this sort of hunger all the time, but they will be familiar with it. like a wolf waiting at the door. Unless you’ve been on an adventure holiday that went horribly wrong, you and I can only imagine it.
But it isn’t difficult to find real hunger, real poverty. Just go to one of many countries in the world and there it is in all its raw, savage simplicity. It’s as straightforward as this; if you or your family don’t have a secure source of income, if you fall ill, if you get unlucky, or just get born in the wrong bed, you’ll fall into the gutter and nobody will fish you out.
Poverty is ugly. It smells, it’s untreated sores, shit, and children’s infected snot. It’s picking through piles of stinking rubbish, it’s scabby dogs and children together on a dank dirt floor. Poverty is silent and tedious, noisy and public. It’s grindingly hard work. It gives no time to think of anything else; of finding a way out. It’s crushing, it’s humiliating, it’s dehumanising.
You don’t need me to tell you any of this, we all know it. We’ve seen it on TV and we know it’s just a long-haul flight away, or perhaps a short-haul one. But we can sort of forget because it’s sectioned off from us and kept in the ‘developing world’, where we can go and look at it and pity it, if we choose. The people seem to be a bit different to us, anyway, until we see the face of a child who could be our own. Poverty is close enough, but safely in a different world.
But that’s only half the story. Wherever you live in the world, take a step back 200 years and there it all is again, on your doorstep – people as poor as anyone you can see today in a third world country – your own ancestors with your own surname. Here’s your great-great-great-great grandmother starving to death in the poor-house. Of her six children only one survived long enough to pass her genes along in your direction.
We know this too. We’ve read Dickens or seen the TV adaptions; we heard all about it at school. But somehow these are just stories with old-fashioned pictures to go with them. We forget how real it was, and how close to us it is. The stench and disease of being poor in a hot country must be appalling, but how about a winter spent in Sweden without enough money for a lump of coal, a scrap of bread or a coat thicker than a sheet of paper? If you could afford only one of those things, which would you opt for? Much of central Stockholm hasn’t changed so much since 1800, the names of streets and many fine buildings are the same as then. But it’s rather more wholesome nowadays. You find rather fewer emaciated corpses when the winter snow thaws to reveal them.
Of course, some people were well-off and perhaps a majority of the population had enough to eat, a place to live and reasonably stable employment – when times were good. People still laughed and danced and flirted, but they also kept an anxious eye on the sky. Today, continuing bad weather can spoil your holiday; then, the loss of your crops would destroy you, your family and your community. Famine, disease and ruin were only one bad harvest or one looting army away; the four horsemen of the apocalypse were real and terrifying and even the rich weren’t immune from the ravages of war, disease and financial and social upheavals.
Incredibly, we all came through it. Our forebears were the tough ones and the lucky ones. Over and again they lived long enough to have children healthy enough to grow up and have their own children. We are all of us at the end of a long line of hardened survivors. The thread to you remained unbroken, though at times it must have been a very close-run thing.
What misery! Century after century of desperation; struggling to survive another day, too hungry even to fear the future. If you were lucky you could toil for a pittance and survive, burying malnourished children who weren’t tough enough. It doesn’t matter how rich and aristocratic you think your family is, it’s almost certain that most of your ancestors were poor – poor in this very real sense. Most of the rest were in constant dread of becoming poor. There was grinding poverty for the great majority of people from the invention of agriculture onwards; that’s poverty for over 10,000 years.
Then it changed. It changed so quickly and completely it can only be described as a miracle. In Europe, North America and several other parts of the world, poverty like this became almost unimaginable. It was like the sun rising after the longest, darkest night imaginable. Poverty just evaporated.
In the 1930’s, George Orwell described in Down and Out in Paris and London how he joined the army of working men who tramped hopelessly from town to town in search of casual work. A socialist and as intelligent and insightful an observer as you could hope to find, Orwell could see no solution to the endemic poverty he found in Britain. A decade or so later, such scenes just didn’t exist. The welfare state had arrived – universal education, health-care, unemployment benefit, state pensions, housing, legally guaranteed employment rights.
Perhaps I should clarify. When I use the word poverty, I mean real poverty as experienced by our ancestors and people now in the developing world – what is known as ‘absolute’ poverty. What I don’t mean is some statistical artifact. The EU defines the poverty level as ‘60% of the median household income’. Using that definition, you could find a desperate underclass of poor folk among the members of the Royal St George’s Yacht Club. Some of those yachts are pretty small, you know. Social exclusion and having very little disposable income are real problems that need attention but, frankly, labelling someone who can’t afford a new ipod as ‘poor’ is an insult to a family subsisting in a corrugated iron shack without running water or electricity. There may be corners of our society where absolute poverty exists, but it’s the stuff of monstrous local government mismanagement and outraged newspaper headlines.
Of course, the elimination of poverty isn’t some stand-alone achievement, nor is it the result of some benevolent policy decision. In reality, it’s just one result of numerous changes, many of which had been brewing away for centuries or even millennia.
The most obvious are the technical advances, culminating in the Industrial Revolution, then snowballing on the back of cheap energy – coal, then oil and gas. Industrialisation didn’t bring immediate benefit to most people – often quite the reverse, but it did mean that the creation of ‘wealth’ – that is, things that people needed and wanted became increasingly easy to acquire.
Along with this came the fruits of the enlightenment – respect for the individual and the idea of ‘human rights’, freedom of speech, universal suffrage, tolerance for other people’s beliefs and intolerance of unequal treatment on the basis of gender or race, of torture and arbitrary arrest. We take these things for granted; we also expect public servants to behave honestly and to be treated fairly under the law. Education, the availability of information – and the leisure just to think and write blogs, has given us the ability and confidence to express ourselves, to demand our rights and defend them.
Medical advances, sanitation and a good diet probably also deserve a mention all of their own, but there are many other advances such as working conditions and labour laws which could and should be mentioned. The important thing is that all these threads are interconnected and it is no coincidence that they all came together at the same time and in the same places.
The edges of this Bubble of prosperity and good-fortune are fairly blurred, both geographically and historically. Perhaps the most convenient watershed is the Second World War, after which the idea of the Welfare State truly came into being. But long before that things were changing for the better. The very fact that social reformers were highlighting the problem and people were paying attention shows that things were on the move – better by far to be poor in 1900 than in 1800.
Today, many people live in a bubble of security and prosperity even in the poorest of nations. It’s also true that in a large number of countries life for ordinary people is far better than it has been in the past, even if it remains difficult and hazardous. So, the borders of our Bubble are necessarily indistinct and inevitably porous; we also have a tendency to take it for granted, but nonetheless it is manifestly a real phenomenon.
It would be very naive to think that everything in the Bubble is rosy. Things aren’t equal – In fact, things aren’t very fair at all. Often the least deserving or the most aggressive seem to do best. We can’t really claim to live in a democracy in any real sense of the word and we often have the feeling that the rights and benefits we have are being surreptitiously whittled away. Then there are the genuinely unfortunate people around us who have ‘fallen through the net’ for one reason or another.
There’s plenty to think about in our Bubble; plenty of room for improvement and reasons to be wary of the future. Many of the Bubble’s inhabitants are expert navel-gazers and that’s generally a positive thing but some Bubble-nauts make it very clear they actively dislike the cosseted place where they live. Some of these would happily burst the Bubble and expect something better to magically arise, or perhaps they have some romanticised idea of what life is, or was, like outside.
Is our Bubble just a passing ‘golden age’ or is it here to stay and develop? I think we need to consider the matter. When I had the idea of starting this blog, I felt, perhaps wrongly, that it should have some sort of theme. In the end I decided to just start writing to see where I went. Now I think the theme could come down to what I’ve rather flippantly called ‘the Bubble’, but which is also known as Western Civilisation. I realise that it’s something worth defending; it’s something unique and remarkable and precious; something we should be incredibly grateful for; something, for all its faults, that we should love fiercely.