Laurie Penny on the worth of our representatives and the cost of democracy

How hard a person works is not and never has been proportional to a person’s salary.

How much is a politician worth? According to MPs, the answer is “about four times as much as the average worker”. This month, an anonymous parliamentary survey found that most MPs wanted to see their £65,738 salary rise to roughly £86,250 – an increase of 32 per cent, putting them squarely in the top 5 per cent of earners. That’s before you include the second homes, travel, subsidised meals, perks and entertainment that continue to cost the rest of us millions every year. As most of us struggle with plummeting wages and living standards, the more interesting question is: “Why aren’t there riots in the streets?”

In case you’ve been out of the country or washing your socks for the past four years, here’s some context: in 2009 every major political party in Britain was rocked by an expenses scandal that led to a nationwide crisis and helped kick off a series of street protests. Here we are in 2013, and not only are the same politicians still milking the system and getting away with it, they’re actually asking for a large pay rise.

Meanwhile, as social security is cut to starvation levels, the very rich will be enjoying a 5 per cent tax cut from April. By this point, people like me who point and squawk at social injustice for a living have repeated phrases such as “it’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us” until the words begin to lose all meaning. By this point, nobody’s pretending any more.

There may, in recent memory, have been a time when it was modish to pretend that Britain was a land of opportunity where class was an outdated concept and poverty merely relative, but that time is over. Most of us know far too well that we’re living in a staggeringly unequal society, one where the gulf between rich and poor is growing wider year on year. Parents have begun to resign themselves to the idea that their children will grow up to be poorer than them; young people leaving school are gently abandoning the idea of a stable home, a secure job and a decent wage. Why do we continue to accept this situation? Why – let’s be frank – isn’t Parliament Square on fire?

We put up with it in part for the same reason that our politicians feel it entirely appropriate to request a 32 per cent pay rise in the middle of a double-dip recession: because of a new morality of money and power that justifies inequality. Since this government was elected in 2010, the right-wing press has pumped out a torrent of propaganda declaring that those on benefits are “shirkers”, whereas those who are rich and powerful deserve their wealth, because of their “hard work”.

Most people defending a salary rise for MPs and large bonuses for City workers do so using the disclaimer that bankers and politicians “work hard”. The test that has decided that a banker works 20 times as hard as a teaching assistant has not been identified, because it doesn’t exist.

Undoubtedly, our members of parliament work extremely hard. So do nurses, teachers and call-centre workers. So do the police officers who this week are having their starting salaries cut by £4,000 to £19,000 a year. And so do the single parents and tax-credit recipients whose vital social security payments MPs have voted to slash. How hard a person works is not and never has been proportional to a person’s salary: it is, as today’s politicians understand very well, proportional to their power and privilege. We don’t like to talk about power in this country, though; instead, we talk about “hard work”.

You don’t need an in-depth grasp of post-Fordist economics to get this. The single mum sobbing in the benefits office may or may not have had the time to read Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom but she has internalised its logic, and so have the rest of us: the idea that the free market, despite all evidence to the contrary, rewards everyone justly and therefore we all deserve what we end up with.

Right now, when politicians speak of “workers” and “shirkers”, they mean “rich” and “poor” – and they know which side they’re on. The logic of work and power is turned on its head. Our leaders and the superrich are praised as “hard workers” but if someone else is poor and powerless, they are told it’s their fault because they didn’t work hard enough, even if they are manifestly pulling double shifts and raising a family alone.

The logic of this might not hold for much longer. Eighteen months ago, when riots raged in England, the kids in hoods smashing up the high street listed bankers’ bonuses and MPs’ expenses among the reasons for their disaffection, though it was said that these young people just really, really wanted a new pair of trainers.

This year, the desperation is deeper and there are no Olympics to distract us. How long can the logic of inequality, the logic of “workers” and “shirkers”, withstand public rage?

Editor's Note: The print version of this column contained an incorrect reference to a 1996 UN report. This has been removed.

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 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.