I recently received a letter from the government. The letter began:
“I am writing to ask your help with an important study about living in Britain. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is the government department responsible for collecting information and publishing statistics on all aspects of life in the UK.”
My home had apparently been selected at random and the letter explained how my participation in the study was “very important to us in ensuring that all groups in the community are properly represented”. Well that all sounded reasonable enough and so when the man from the ONS turned up a week ago last Monday, and politely knocked on my front-door, I invited him inside and we began.
Afterwards, my housemate and friend, who had also agreed to complete the ONS survey, said: “Do you know what that was all about?” I hesitated. “Work”, he continued, “It was all about work.” And then he paused, before adding, “Well, I’m fed up with being treated as a resource…”
Of course, the survey wasn’t literally all about work; perhaps only around ninety percent was directly or indirectly work-related. For instance, one question on the survey was this: “How happy did you feel on Sunday?” Yes, quite specifically “on Sunday” meaning the day before – and so, obligingly, I attempted to score my previous day’s mood on the government designated scale from zero to ten. And then the following question was this: “How anxious did you feel on Sunday?” So I scored that one too. “I wonder what would they do with all the numbers?” I said to my friend later. “They plot them on a chart and then pat themselves on the back”, he told me assuredly.
As it happens, the Sunday in question was not exactly a typical day for either myself or my friend. Indeed, I can honestly say that it was one of the strangest of days in any month of Sundays, and coming at the end of a somewhat peculiar weekend…
It was on the Sunday in question that we’d been exercising our right to free speech – an event which occasional followers of my blog may recall was part of the “Retake the Streets!” day of action (non-regulars can just scroll down to a previous post for further information). But no action was actually scheduled to take place in Sheffield, and so with big day for the Spanish protesters rapidly approaching, we’d decided to bite the bullet and take our own initiative.
I’d typed up a quick post for the blog, sent emails out to everyone who might be interested, and then fired off a round of early morning text-messages just for good measure (my apologies if I woke anyone, but I was on a roll that weekend). Thus it was set, and with others potentially ready to join us, we were suddenly very deeply committed to making the best of a rather exceptional Sunday —
All this was something of a rush, of course (in both senses of the word). It was already Friday evening before any vague plan of action had even been agreed upon, still later before writing the post, the emails and the last ditch texts. Then, the following morning, we’d made haste to a local charity shop in a quest to gather useful materials, and, as luck would have it, quickly laid hands on a perfect canvass for our banner – a sheet almost too narrow for any bed, but ideal for stretching across some railings.
Now if this was to be our spontaneous response to the demonstrations in Spain and Greece, then it needed to be in keeping with the street campaign of los indignados, so just what should we write across our banner? No to cuts. Stop the wars. Tax the bankers. Diverse yet interconnected issues that reflected the wide-reaching grievances felt by those on the streets of Spain and Greece, as well as reflecting our own outrage. Or, as we finally decided, something simpler…
And then, upon arriving at our rallying point, having unfurled our banner and strung it out across the railings next to Town Hall, just what would happen next? Would people come over and grill us on our understanding of fiscal policy? Would our carefully considered banner be promptly taken down by police or council services? Would anyone turn up in response to our messages or else join us spontaneously? Or maybe nothing would happen at all… We simply had no idea what to expect because this was completely uncharted territory for everyone concerned. Back to the government survey then, and in answer to the question from the man working for the ONS, was I anxious? Well, yes, but I wasn’t alone —
On past occasions when I’ve lent my support to political demonstrations, there’s always been a bit of a discrepancy between estimates of the numbers of protesters: with the organisers’ estimates in the general order of one hundred or more percent higher than the official police numbers. On this occasion, however, and as events unfolded, there would be no need of a police estimate and so you simply have my word regarding the size of our protest… let’s just say then, that at its height, our impromptu gathering wasn’t the largest demo I’ve ever been on, nor quite the smallest either.
Did this make our little protest a failure? Well yes, if protesting is nothing besides a numbers game. But if so, then what are we to make of the late and sadly missed Brian Haw’s relentless one-man campaign against the wars? That his life is now referenced on wikipedia is surely a little evidence that the quiet dissent of one person can ring as loud, if not louder, than the gathering of thousands. Not that Brian’s defiance changed the government policies much, aside from bringing in new protest restrictions to stop people like Brian Haw. But then even a march of two million across the streets of London had no effect. The fact is that successive governments have had their fingers in their ears, and so it will take more than huge marches and street protests to change their minds on anything significant. Nevertheless, marches and street protests have a part to play, if only in embarrassing the powers that be and galvanising the protesters. History shows that real and necessary changes only come when a critical mass is ready to make their demands heard, however, in the meantime, those who already feel outraged should speak up, which is precisely what we were doing.
Of course, our happy band were but one tiny outpost, and we also knew that we’d been a part of something momentous: a popular uprising that began in Greece and Spain and one that is now set to continue for just as long as it takes:
According to a survey conducted by the Athens University of Economics statistics department, unveiled on Friday, more than two thirds of Greeks are supportive of the indignant citizens’ movement that has now been protesting virtually non-stop outside the Greek Parliament since May 25. […]
The majority, or 69.8 percent, have a positive assessment of the movement and more than half of the unemployed have a very positive assessment of the movement.
In the meantime, more than six in 10 of those asked (66.3 percent) agree with the movement’s actions and eight in 10 believe the movement expresses the discontent felt by a large proportion of citizens with all the political parties.1
Click here to read the full article published on June 24th in Athens News.
So when the man from the ONS asked me to score my happiness and anxiety for a week last Sunday, I’d provided him with numbers between zero and ten for both, just as required, which he could then pass along the line to others who will put those numbers into their charts and then pat one another’s backs. They might learn that one person (me) was very anxious on the Sunday in question, yet also relatively happy (once the main event was over), but in crunching the numbers they will dilute my existence into an ocean of averages. And whatever the stats eventually show in terms of correlations or trends, they will reveal nothing whatsoever about the reasons, nor about real concerns and deeper experiences of the people in the survey. That isn’t the point, of course. They’re not interested in discovering our real concerns and deeper experiences, because they’re not actually exploring “all aspects of life”, and if they were then they’d ask us directly – instead, the government is more comfortable dealing with tightly controlled tick-box surveys that provide little more than a haphazard assessment of “productive usefulness”, since this is all that they really value.
And working on the basis of my own scores, the people in the government might plausibly use their clever charts to prove that everyone is perfectly happy, if also deeply anxious. If, that is, by some strange coincidence, my own answers are paralleled by others in a statistically significant way. And then they might very well, and very promptly, conclude that we all just thrive in a state of heightened anxiety. Which is a good result, of course, for the government. It would mean that the savage cuts to public services will help us in an unforeseen way. That worries about repaying our debts and mortgages will leave us inwardly smiling. It would encourage them to redouble their efforts to relieve as many of us as possible from the dreariness of having too much cash in the bank. Do you think I jest…?
“Being crushed under a mountain of debt is typically frowned upon.
“Not being able to pay for goods outright, and then being hit by extortionate interest rates which spiral out of control, is the stuff of financial nightmares.
“But new research has suggested this could actually be a dream scenario for many young adults.”
The article, which is based on research carried out by assistant sociology professor at Ohio State University, Rachel Dwyer, claims that “those saddling themselves with credit card debt will feel empowered and have better self-esteem”:
“[Dwyer told the Mail]: ‘Debt can be a positive resource for young adults, but it comes with some significant dangers. Young people seem to view debt mostly in just positive terms rather than as a potential burden.’
“But how debt affected young people depended on what other financial resources they had available, the study found.
“Results showed that those in the bottom 25 per cent in total family income got the largest boost from holding debt.”
From which we should learn, if nothing else, that statistical surveys are frequently barmy. But okay, let’s say the numbers in the ONS survey finally average out, and then the men with the charts conclude, as they ought to, that people feel happier when they have fewer worries. What if the stats prove that we prefer greater financial security and more time with our friends and families? What then…?
On the back of their latest study, would the government suddenly change course, and begin searching for solutions that didn’t deprive the poor and undermine the middle class, pushing all but the super rich into ever deeper debt with low wages and higher taxes delivering a skeleton of public services? Would they start looking for alternatives if only because they want us to be happier? Well, yes, now I am joking of course.
As the passers-by had passed by, glancing on our banner or more awkwardly averting their eyes, one of our friends explained the lack of public interest in one word: TINA.
“There is no alternative”, she told me, decoding the acronym, and explaining how this dismal attitude traces right back to the Thatcher years. Her own response then, is to propose alternatives – remedies for paying off the deficit that rob the robber barons rather than the weak and the poor. And she is quite correct to say that a detailed package of alternative proposals needs to be thought out and presented. We urgently need an answer to TINA, and so, if no-one else is forthcoming then I shall attempt to put together a manifesto in the near future, with the further intention to publish the proposals in the form of a leaflet – so watch this cyberspace! (Any kind of help with this project would be greatly appreciated.)
In the meantime, we can also try to tilt TINA on her stupid, defeatist head. How? By endlessly repeating the simple but essential truth, which is that the supposed economic remedies offered by the government, and cheered on by the IMF, are actually nothing of the kind. Bleeding us dry cannot help, it is economic suicide, and “austerity measures” will no more rescue us financially than it has saved the people of Greece and Spain.
The people of Britain will gradually see that there is only one alternative, and then, what is now happening in Spain and Greece must inevitably arrive here in one form or another. We may not see our city centres occupied by tents but when the “austerity measures” begin to bite at home, we will undoubtedly witness a fight no less dogged and determined than the fights already taking place abroad. And when these battles are finally won, aside from re-establishing our living standards and economic rights (vital as it is to do so), we will have also salvaged our collective dignity. Indeed we might ultimately decide that future governments must take a genuine interest in “all aspects of life”.
So it may sound corny, and stabbing at the truth often does come across that way, but looking back to a week last Sunday, I have no doubt it would have been much more of a failure had we done nothing at all. Staying home and watching the five-minute report on the news. In any case, taking the plunge, as it were, had genuinely felt good – I’d even recommend it.
And there was also another smaller reason for us to be cheerful. It was the very first thing that had happened, in fact, after we’d unfurled our banner. An older gentlemen suddenly appearing as if from nowhere, and asking us, almost apologetically, which group we were part of. There’s no group as such, we’d told him, it’s “just us”. And he looked pleased: “well at least someone’s got some backbone”, he said.
1 From an article entitled “Study shows strong support for indignants’ movement” published June 24th in Athens News. www.athensnews.gr/portal/8/43732
2 From an article by Lee Moran entitled “Want better self-esteem? Saddle yourself with mountains of credit card debt, new study claims”, published by the Daily Mail on 8th June. www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2000681/Want-better-self-esteem-Saddle-mountains-credit-card-debt-new-study-claims.html