"In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;For Satan finds some mischief stillFor idle hands to do."
One would be forgiven for thinking that, in our age of equality, we have transcended the Victorian idea that poverty was the result of idleness. After all, that idea was repudiated with the closure of the workhouses, was it not? Yet, we find British PM David Cameron echoing those sentiments in a statement made in 2008. “We talk about people being 'at risk of obesity' instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it's as if these things - obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction - are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.” So, just as people are fat because they eat too much, people are poor because they're lazy.
If we in Ireland are tempted to think that might be a British irregularity, we need only look to our very recent history. Are we not currently suffering the aftermath of a boom founded on the inflation of property prices and on borrowing money to attain the illusion of having greater wealth than people actually had? And despite the crash of that train-wreck, we still find banks in this country charging people for lodging too little money into their accounts. To cover their costs, of course: running a bank is expensive.
And yet, in the new Ireland of fallen fortunes and tightened purse-strings, would one not expect the banks who were complicit in the destruction of an entire generation to look with favour on the meek and lowly? Why not charge customers lodging in excess of €3000 per quarter, since those people are more likely to be able to afford fees? Alas, it seems that that would have required a total paradigm shift in the way society is set up. Our western society values wealth, and becoming wealthy is, whether we like to admit it or not, something to which we attach a high degree of value. If you become wealthy, it ought to be rewarded; and, almost in a throwback to the deliberate squalor of the Victorian workhouse, if you are not wealthy (or if you become poor), you are a burden on society. The idle and profligate poor are tolerated, but not loved.
Despite all we speak of the equalities of modern society, underneath the ever-soaring heights of modernity run an unseen and unacknowledged Victorian sewer. Those who are wealthy are successful and respectable models of industriousness and self-improvement, whilst those who are not are, at best, tolerated.
Instead of confronting the undesirable systems of the past, we have built our new ideas right on top of the old. Perhaps that is why banks decide to charge people for having too little. Perhaps that is why, despite the efforts of generations of feminists, men still earn more than women in many fields. Perhaps that is why, 19 years after decriminalising homosexuality, civil partnership is the best we can do.
There's still a Victorian undercurrent running through the modern system of high-octane capitalism, and until we deal with the foundations of the old system, the new can never be really different. Until then, this is no place to be poor: and it's up to my generation to seek our wealth or avoid our satanic idleness in foreign shores.
Against Idleness and Mischief: the musings of a defeated generation.
Blog entry posted by Irishmaestro, Jul 4, 2012.