Friday, June 02, 2006

Victorian Underworld

The great Henry Mayhew’s inventory of the Victorian underworld was noted for being both an intrepid and exhaustive account of the poor: he shied away from nothing, left no stone unturned. A steadfast, ideological contribution to the “pauperization of the poor”, Mayhew the crusading journalist rendered this taxonomy with relish. There is a whole section dedicated to “Those That Will Not Work,” the Fourth Volume of the 1862, “London Labour and The London Poor”. It comes under the heading: “Beggars and Cheats”; the introduction to, “A Compendium of Thieves, Cheats, Beggers, Scoundrals [sic] etc., Their Methods Revealed, Socital [sic] Causes Examined, and Preventive Measures Explained.”
Transgression between the poor and those above them, so popular a theme in the novels of Dickens, is made unthinkable as Mayhew reinforces the “otherness” of an entire thriving biomass within the rookeries and lays of the city of London. Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” attributes the same untouchable status at the edges of society, where liberal humanism posits the beginnings of an Enlightenment: the civilization necessary for capital markets to keep control.
Mayhew has become cannon fodder for new left cultural theorists. His account of the poor keeps them at a safe distance from classed society; he creates ‘them’ in relation to us which is a strong un-transgressible ‘otherness’ to society. Mayhew’s voyeuristic observations subjectfy and subalternate the poor so that ultimately there can no case against keeping them stripped of any assets and their oppression.
Philanthropy, directed at home and abroad, reached a fever pitch during the Victorian era. Utilitarianism: the promotion of the largest net amount of good within society, was mercilessly applied to issues such as the problem of begging by philosophers; in particular John Stuart Mill. Giving alms directly to beggars makes us feel better, as well as them. We enjoy the ‘John Stuart Mill effect”. The good we create is driven in part by selfish notions and it remains to be seen how much it contributes to the overall good. We have not moved on so much. Today the moral question surrounding begging must be balanced against the self-harm done though alcohol and drugs. There is a well-organised, government-backed campaign called “Killing with Kindness” which discourages the public from giving money to beggars, and appears to have sprung from the borough of Camden. The facts and statistics are overwhelming: about 80 per cent of the money given to beggars goes on alcohol or drugs; over half of those who ask for it are not homeless. Shelter, the main homeless charity, hit back anti-begging campaigns, claiming that this targets the most vulnerable people within society, people who really don’t need negative publicity generated about them. Chris Holmes, director of Shelter said: "However carefully communicated, this initiative could increase the stigma of homelessness and make life even worse for people who are already subject to high levels of abuse and violence." Quotes on the website begin by trumpeting the commonsense ideal of the scheme but then begin to betray a subtext of straightforward revulsion. Jane Roberts, leader of Camden Council says: “giving directly to beggars only makes the problem worse. Street beggars are not necessarily homeless.” A representative of the University of London, then voices an opinion: “ULU are firm supporters of the Anti-begging campaign . . . For the local business community and the student population in Bloomsbury begging affects our trade income and detracts visitors from out facilities.” How inconvenient for blessed Bloomsbury.

There is more of the same; more malicious, further from a sentiment which is ostensibly to care for people. It seems that a beggar can “single-handedly clear a shop or restaurant” and “provide a disincentive to customers especially at those al fresco establishments which give our area so much of its character.” These are the words of Kim Gordon of the Covent Garden Business Forum. She continues: “Known begging areas are actively avoided making business an unattractive proposition in those areas – it is especially galling for smaller businesses when beggars can earn more than they do by their honest endeavour.” Miss Gordon obviously knows what she’s talking about; she states that, “Begging is an affront in a society where genuine hardship is an extreme rarity and in an area where so many agencies for its elevation operate.” This woman should be made to suck a tramp’s cock. Out of sight and out of mind would no doubt suit many of the upstanding voices who have thrown their weight behind this campaign.
The London Poor accepts that beggars will not go away. We set out our stall to help them with a cheap, easy to access and sell on, alternative to the Big Issue. We believe there is room for such a paper: for a start there is a shortage of suitable pitches. It makes not sense for more than one vendor to sell the Big Issue outside the Tesco on Bethnal Green road, for instance, and yet it is a place begged by at least three individuals. The London Poor also takes issue with the generous donation of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOS) dolled out to beggars. These are a waste magistrate’s time and public money. We will look at the continuing disenfranchisement of the homeless, destitute and addicted because they are unable to attain bank accounts, they have no identity, they are powerless apparently valueless within our accelerated culture. This is not necessarily the case. Consider for instance the idea currently slated for a reading in parliament about carbon emission vouchers. These will have to be purchased b y those who choose to emit more harmful gases into the atmosphere by gas-guzzling vehicles. These could be traded.
Homeless people may be guilty of harming themselves, but what other damage do they do to the environment. They should be allowed to trade their allocated quota of non-harm to those who need so badly just to get around. We think there is a prevalent belief that individuals across society are powerless to make changes, but you are not. In addition to the donation you made to the needy when you bought this paper, you can take par in the Starbucks campaign and in doing so return some money to homeless charities, and help get more beds, hostels and help directed to them. A new conception of trading and philanthropy is needed. The John Stuart Mill effect can still dive a utilitarian agenda, but from all sides, benefiting everyone. Perhaps, with the sad exception of Starbucks, but in this case, we sincerely believe, your kindness will not be misplaced.
Ian Allison

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