One of the many absurdities of the banking crisis is the way that governments and big business alike are still clinging on to the wreckage of the old system. Even while everyone is being told that the crisis was caused by indiscriminate and greedy lending and spending, the government is trying to persuade the banks to lend more and the people to spend more.
It’s the same in the world of jobs. A 20 year-old wrote to me recently: why was the whole world telling her to get a job, when it is quite clear that there are no jobs and in fact there are going to be far fewer jobs as the months draw on?
In another horrible bit of government-led brutality, the sudden rise in unemployment is coinciding with a crackdown on so-called ‘dole scum’, those lazy, scrounging good-fornothings so beloved of The Daily Mail’s highly paid moralists. In the old days – I’m talking pre-1500 – these people were called ‘the poor’ and it was your charitable duty to look after them.
These days they are called welfare cheats. Recently the Department for Work and Pensions employed a ridiculous academic (read ivory tower, not in touch with reality) to tell it what it wanted to hear when it comes to dealing with the poor: ‘This group, before they are actually ready to actively seek work, would be expected to address debt, confidence or health problems, as well as taking on work and skills training. Young mothers might also be required to make inquiries about access to childcare in their locality.’
So, if they want benefits, they will have to work for them, or suffer. And the government wants something back for its meagre handouts even though these people are not exactly dining on oysters, lobster and fine claret. Have the six-figure salary, Ivy-dining tabloid writers who attack the single mothers on benefits tried living on £40 a week?
The authoritarian language used reminds me very much of another pro-work government which issued the following order, on ‘dole scum’: ‘Work-shy elements within the meaning of this order are men who are old enough to work and who have recently been certified fit and who can be proved to have rejected offers of work on two occasions without just cause or have accepted work only to abandon it again shortly afterwards without adequate reason.’ The author was Heinrich Himmler, in 1936.
No, the answer is not to get a job, get a loan or spend more money. The answer is to retreat as far as possible from the system that created this mess. Retreat from capitalism. and paradoxically, you are far more secure than if you depend on it for your sustenance, entertainment and creative fulfillment. When you don’t have a job, you can’t be sacked.
I’ve done it myself. You must quit your job. You must embark on a strenuous round of cost-cutting. You must get rid of cars, cancel holidays. Did you know that your biggest annual cost is your job? Think about it. Add up the costs of your job. First there is tax and national insurance. Then there are the coffees, sandwiches, drinks after work, retail therapy costs, holidays, commuting costs, clothing costs and all the rest of the sorry palaver.
If you earn £30,000 a year, then about £20,000 of that is actually pure cost. This makes very bad business sense. Quit your job and save £20,000. Then rip up your credit cards. Switch all your suppliers to cooperatives: the Co-operative bank, the Phone Co-op. Avoid any shareholder-owned business like the plague. They are evil because they exist only to make profits for their shareholders. They are fuelled by greed. So that means no supermarkets. Instead buy food from small local shops or order wholesale from a Workers’ Co-op like Suma.
The further you retreat from capitalism, the happier you will grow. Work part-time. Start a small business from home. And before a smart-Alec sixth-former writes in to say anti-capitalists do not start small businesses: yes they do. There is a difference between cooperative trade and competitive capitalism.
When you start to retreat from capitalism, other means of exchange start to open up. You swap your eggs for someone else’ marmalade. You give people things and they give to you. You share things and buy in small groups. You have the time to help out on local committees.
The old system may or may not be dying. Either way it makes sense to escape from it as far as possible and create your own life.
Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of The Idler and author of How to be Free (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99)
Illustration: David Humphries
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2009