A, B and C: A parable for our (neo-liberal) times

A was born shortly after the establishment of the state of Israel to a middle-class Ashkenazi Jewish family. He was an independent child who rebelled against authority – school and exam regimes were not for him. Like most Jewish (but also Palestinian-Bedouin and Palestinian-Druze) men, he joined the IDF, but once his military service was over, realizing he would not get a university place in Israel, his independence of spirit moved him to study engineering in a small US town. Since graduation he has worked on and off in a variety of managerial jobs in the armaments and construction industries. His American-born children were settled in the US so A and his wife, after one inconclusive attempt to return, and despite the longing for home, did what most migrants do and became settled in America, but socialized mostly with other Israelis.

B was born to a Catholic working class north city centre Dublin family. One of nine siblings, she was a rebel, struggling against her family’s and her own disadvantage. Forced to leave school at 14, B worked in a cut-make-and-trim workshop, got married early and had five children, one of them with autism. Her husband was violent and when she had too much, she threw him out, bringing up her family single handed but she was never comfortably off until very recently. There were problems with placing her autistic son, for whom the state would not provide when he became 18.  B staged a public campaign and managed to get a good facility for him, where he is to this day. Over the years, B was part of a women’s writing and literacy programme, and wrote a trail-blazing account about the poverty of the women in her neighbourhood, published in 1982. In recent years, after completing a Masters in Equality Studies and working for several years in a women’s drug rehabilitation project, B headed a community development project in her neighbourhood. The project provided much needed literacy and other courses for unemployed women, childcare, after school care, summer school and elder care facilities. B was also a public voice for disadvantaged Dubliners and often appeared on radio and television. But after the onset of the recession, her community development project was one of the projects discontinued by Ireland’s corrupt neo-liberal Fianna Fail-Greens coalition government. However, B’s project refused to be incorporated into the area partnership, which comprises business interests, and B is now receiving unemployment benefit and in the new year will be employed only part time, though she continues to run the project, now staffed mostly by volulnteers.

C was born in London to a middle-class Jewish family and, although her parents separated, she had what can be described as a ‘normal’ London upbringing complete with ballet and music lessons. She too is independent and a born rebel, who nonetheless pursued her studies with great success. She travelled widely and in recent years has worked for a public sector heritage body, heading its outreach department, aiming to extend the access to Britain’s wonderful history and heritage to people outside its usual public: residents of disadvantaged neighbourhoods, members of ethnic minorities, people with disabilities. She was great at her job and the national conference she organized received wide coverage and esteem. After she had her first child she worked part time, but the cuts in public service funding implemented by the Lib-Con coalition led to the closure of her outreach department and now C, who is expecting her second child, is looking forward to a year of unemployment, after which she hopes to be able to find another job.

Over the years I had several arguments with A. Not, surprisingly (given my many books and articles on the topic), about the Palestinians, who he thinks should ‘grow up and stop being so demanding’, but rather about the pros and cons of capitalism. When I lauded Obama’s attempts to install universal healthcare, he wrote that it benefits only lazy layabouts who don’t want to work and immigrants who come to America to take advantage of its generosity. When I pointed out that we too are immigrants, as were our parents who migrated to Palestine in 1925 (father) and 1941 (mother), he responded that he never took anything from the US government and that our parents were not really immigrants, but rather ‘olim’ – the name given to Jewish immigrants who ‘ascend’ to ‘the land’. When I pointed out that unequal societies (as argued by The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resource/the-spirit-level) are worse off on all scores, he quipped that all I have to go by is ‘anecdotal evidence’ despite the statistical base of the study.

When I told him about C being made redundant, his answer was: ‘Sorry to hear about C losing her job. Despite the personal impact, it seems that the British government is finally taking the right steps to right the unsustainable socialist economy that the UK and most of western Europe have grown accustomed to in the last few decades…’

In A’s opinion, socialism is apparently the mother of all evils. Is socialism  to blame for disenfranchising disadvantaged communities, like B’s, for forcing mothers in B’s neighbourhood to mix milk with water to have enough for all their children, for not providing proper education for children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods, for forcing talented women such as B to leave school at 14 and go to the local bread factory to beg for ‘second hand bread’?  Is socialism to blame for the lack of access of disadvantaged and ethnic minority Britons to Britain’s heritage and for the decreasing funding for universities both in Britain and in Ireland? Is socialism to blame for inadequate healthcare and closure of hospital wards and for increasing pupil-teacher ratios in primary and secondary schools?

And forget not the role of immigrants who, according to neo-liberal governments and their supporters, are to blame for overcrowded hospitals and schools, for the decreasing levels of literacy among Irish schoolchildren (even though it has been proven that immigrant children are ambitious and better learners), and for increasing crime levels (even though the level of crime among immigrants is lower than that among the indigenous). The French sociologist Etienne Balibar called blaming the incomers for the inadequacies of the system ‘crisis racism’. And blaming ‘socialism’ shifts the blame from the misdeeds of successive neo-liberal governments who did not look after the disadvantaged in times of plenty.

Meanwhile B is struggling to maintain her community project and continue providing essential services despite the axing of funding. And C is hoping for better days.