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John Pilger: War and shopping – the extremism that never speaks its name

The Westfield Stratford centre, backed by a former Israeli commando and touted as the future face of London by the likes of Boris Johnson, makes a mockery of the East End’s history of productive work.

Looking for a bookshop that was no longer there, I walked instead into a labyrinth designed as a trap. Leaving became an illusion, rather like Alice once she had stepped through the Looking Glass. Walls of glass curved into concentric circles as one "store" merged into another: Armani Exchange with Dinky-Di Pies. Exits led to gauntlets of more "offers". Seeking a guide, I bought a lousy pair of sunglasses. Anything to get out. It was a vision of hell. It was a Westfield mega mall.

This happened in Sydney - where the Westfield empire began - in a "mall" not half as mega as the one that opened in Stratford, east London on 13 September. "Everything" is here, the architectural critic Jonathan Glancey reported, from Apple to Primark, McDonald's and KFC to Krispy Kreme. There is a cinema with 17 screens and "luxurious VIP seats", and a mega "luxury" bowling alley. Tracey Emin and Mary Portas lead the Westfield "cultural team". A "24-hour lifestyle street" called the Arcade leads to the biggest casino in the land. This will be the only way into the 2012 Olympic Games for seven million people attending the athletics. The simple, grotesque message "buy me, buy me" will be London's welcome to the world.

Beacons for the indebted

“If you've seen the Disney film Wall-E," wrote Glancey in 2008, "you'll certainly recognise Westfield and malls like it. In the film, humans who long ago abandoned the Earth they messed up through greed live a supremely sedentary life shopping and eating. They are very tubby and have lost the use of their legs. Is this how we'll end up? Or will we plunge into the depths of some mammoth recession . . . with nothing and nowhere to spend?" In the less apocalyptic short term, Westfield is "a step towards our collective desire to undermine the life and culture of the traditional city, along with its architecture, and to shop and shop some more".

The original development plan for Stratford City evoked Barcelona: a grid of defined streets of shops and places to live. Modern, civilised. Then the Olympics loomed and so did Westfield, a major corporate sponsor. The mega mall, the biggest in urban Europe, has been built amid grey tower blocks not far from where last month's riots occurred; its "designer" products, made mostly with cheap, regimented labour, beckon the indebted and insult the past. That it stands on a site where London workers made trains - thousands of locomotives, carriages and goods wagons - in what was once called manufacturing is of melancholy interest only. The mega mall's jobs produce nothing and are mostly low-paid. It is an emblem of extreme times.

The co-founder of Westfield is Frank Lowy, an Australian-Israeli billionaire who is to shopping what Rupert Murdoch is to media. Westfield owns or has an interest in more than 120 malls worldwide. Lowy, a former Israeli commando, gives millions to Israel, and in 2003 set up the "independent" Lowy Institute for International Affairs which promotes Israel and US foreign policy.

On the day after the Stratford mall opened, Unicef reported that British parents "feel trapped in a materialistic culture" in which they bought off their children with "branded goods". Low-income parents felt "tremendous pressure from society" to buy trainers, "gadgets" and "branded clothes" for their children. TV advertising and other seductions of the "consumer culture", together with low pay and long working hours, were responsible. Children told the researchers that they preferred to spend time with their families and to have "plenty to do outdoors", but this was often no longer possible. As "welfare" has become a dirty word, basic facilities for the young such as youth clubs are being eliminated by local authorities. I predict more riots.

Four years ago, Unicef published a league table of children's well-being across 20 industrialised nations. The UK was bottom. A fifth of British children live in poverty; the figure is forecast to rise in the Olympic year. The priority of Britain's political class, regardless of party, is repayment by ordinary people of "the deficit", a specious and cynical term for epic handouts to crooked banks, and the simultaneous waging of squalid colonial wars for the theft of other countries' resources. This is extremism that never speaks its name.

It is an extremism that has emasculated the social democracies that were Europe's redemption following the Second World War. The forced impoverishment of Greece with exorbitant returns demanded by German and French central bankers is likely to produce another fascist military coup. The forced impoverishment of millions of Britons by David Cameron's ancien régime, with its growing police state and compliant bourgeoisie, especially in the media, will produce more riots; nothing is surer.

One can count on the extremism of apartheid in any form to trigger such a result, no matter its consumerist gloss hermetically sealed in a mega mall. The prospect is democracy for the rich and totalitarianism not only for the poor; and "liberal intervention", as the Guardian calls it approvingly, for those useful foreign parts too weak to resist our "precision" Brimstone missiles.

I went to Parliament Square the other day. The graphic display of state crimes mounted by the peace and justice campaigner Brian Haw had been removed by the Metropolitan Police, knowing that finally he could no longer stand up to them, bodily and in the courts, as he did for a decade. Brian died in June. Visiting him one freezing Christmas, I was moved by the way he persuaded so many passers-by and the power of his courage. We now need millions like him. Urgently.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.

For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.

IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.

Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.

Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.

Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.

The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.

His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.

He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.

I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.