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Dropping out won’t fix the world: It is possible to drink a Starbucks latte with your politics intact?

The guilt of complicity is a red herring.

I have a confession to make: I have spent money in Starbucks. Not every day, but yes, on occasion I have ventured into the temple of mediocre coffee and smooth jazz and emerged with my politics intact. According to Louise Mensch, Theresa May and tedious hordes of free market apologists, this is impossible. The second one sickly drop of cinnamon latte passes your lips, you forfeit your right to comment upon the abuses of capitalism. Like Persephone in the underworld, who ate the food of the dead and was forced to live amongst them, you are doomed to remain a silent drone in a corporate wasteland, forever regretting your moment of caffeine-deprived weakness.

We have been hearing versions of this argument ever since protest became a regular feature of contemporary politics. The notion peddled by right-wing commentators is that you cannot have any serious, sustained objections to fiscal feudalism and its discontents if you happen to have grown up in a detached house, or attended an elite university, or if you once, in a moment of weakness late at night, found yourself walking out of a well-known conglomerate with a box of suspicious chicken pieces coated in unmentionable sauce and wondering what your life had become. Anyone who engages left-wing politics in a serious way faces this idiotic charge. I've lost count of the number of times I've been told that because I have a smartphone and went to a private school, I have no business speaking about social justice.

At root, this argument is about a fear of ideology: a terror of real political and economic alternatives in a society that would still rather group people into warring tribes based on income and lifestyle. The left is not entirely immune from this sort of lazy reasoning. It is, of course, indicative that the vast majority of the British cabinet are millionaires, but even if they all lived together in a skip in Southend, it would hardly make their permissive stance on corporate tax avoidance morally tenable.

The trouble with that logic is that it cuts both ways. There are plenty of decent, politically right-on people who believe that buying an overpriced macchiato, or a pair of shoes they don't need, or whatever it is that alleviates, for a moment, the numbing exhaustion of daily life in a post-Fordist society in some way excludes them from the debate. A guilty little smile of complicity accompanies this thought process, as they hand over money at the cash register. We've had our imperialist latte, it says, so we're already fifth columnists, it says -- there's nothing we can do to make a difference, much as we'd like to.

I, for one, am sick of that excuse. If capitalism is a disease, everything and everyone is infected. Look around the room you're in and tell me with absolute certainty that there's nothing in it that was stitched by child-slaves in the developing world, or sold to you by exploited workers from the kind of company that thinks "sick pay" is the name of a minor 90s grunge band. There is almost no way to exist in this society without being contaminated by capitalism, unless you spend your whole life lying down in the dark, in a recycled rattan coffin, being drip-fed organic vegan mulch by a succession of fairly paid assistants, and if you do, I'm sure you'll feel great about yourself, but people will still make fun of you, and you won't be a step closer to changing the world.

Quarantining yourself from capitalism is not going to create a cure, and those who mock protesters and radicals for owning iPhones and buying burgers know that extremely well. Left, right and vacillating in the middle, we all need to decide if there is still room in this age of austerity for ideas and ideals, or if we truly want a world where we're just lined up into suspicious rival camps according to how much we earn. American libertarians call that sort of thuggish, annihilating excuse for politics "class war". Class warriors call it "missing the point".

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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