Rejoice! John Redwood has discovered the root cause of poverty

Tory MP's comments on gambling show why casting poverty as the result of individual spiritual failure is seductive - because it gets the government off the hook.

Clear your desk, economics. Sociology, your services are no longer required. One man, working alone, has solved a problem which decades of study in these academic fields could not touch: John Redwood MP has uncovered the root cause of poverty. And, in the casual style of the true intellectual radical, he didn't announce this revelatory finding in a research paper or at a press conference, but with a simple comment on a news story.

Asked about the proliferation of bookmakers in poorer areas, Redwood said,

"I put it down to the fact that poor people believe there's one shot to get rich. They put getting rich down to luck and think they can take a gamble . . . They also have time on their hands. My voters are too busy working hard to make a reasonable income."

There it is, the Redwood explanation of inequality. It's simple, it's comprehensive, it's devoid of empathy and it's seething with contempt for those struggling to get by: if you're poor, it's because you just don't understand that you have to work hard to succeed. You think wealth can just be chanced on as you faff about with betting slips, while the well-off just get out there and strive for their fortunes.

And as a former employee of N. M. Rothschild investment bank, Redwood has had ample opportunity to observe meritocracy in action. Sorry, not meritocracy. I meant to say he's had ample opportunity to observe the assumption of vast riches through the dumb accident of inheritance. That's the one.

Casting poverty as the result of individual spiritual failure is seductive because it gets the government off the hook. It's not George Osborne's catastrophe economics that mean people are left struggling to stretch a shrinking income over an ever-increasing cost of living, it's just in their nature to be poor. Nothing to be done about it.

And Redwood's not the only Conservative to grasp at essentialist explanations for poverty. Iain Duncan Smith loves this stuff, spouting neuroscience-ish guff about how deprived children grow up to have "small brains" (the researcher IDS quoted said the politician had distorted his work), and offering sweeping psychological judgements about unemployed people's reluctance to take risks.

In Redwood's version the original sin of the poor is that they're too willing to gamble, creating a weird composite figure of the Tory version of a poor person: someone who's too cautious to move for a new job, but happy to take the odds of beating the bookies. The idea of a correlation between gambling and unemployment is, of course, nonsense: in 2000, the Gambling Commission found [pdf] that "people in paid work were by far the most likely to have gambled in the past year".

Bookmakers don't appear in deprived areas because the jobless are compulsive gamblers, but because empty shops on ailing high streets mean cheap premises. Your social class does influence the sort of gambling you're likely to take up, though: John Redwood's constituents in Wokingham might be too busy to make bets, but perhaps some of them will squeeze in a visit across the boundary to Reading where they'll soon have a choice of two super casinos.

When it comes to gambling, the house always wins, and there's a similar dreary inevitability in Conservative attitudes to poverty: if you're poor, it doesn't matter whether you take your chances or play it safe: the Tories will find a way to hate and blame you for your circumstances either way.

John Redwood, in happier times. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

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 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era