I had a valuable learning experience this week and, as with all important learning experiences, I get to display the full scale of my ignorance in explaining it.
You see, a few years ago a feminist very dear to me explained the concept of patriarchy and, with a few false starts, it really made sense. I guess I’ll cover the problems I had to grapple with to ‘get patriarchy’ somewhere else – maybe it could help someone also on that journey – but for the purposes of this article you need to understand that I had to realise that the patriarchy was a power system that oppressed pretty much everybody and that it was sustained not just by middle aged white guys (although they’re right up there) but by everybody who buys into the current neo-liberal, consumerist, judgemental culture in which every individual is taught that to climb high they must climb upon the bodies of their fellows. In short I realised that all the shit i’ve ever taken for not being sporting, liking ‘girly’ hobbies, and being an aficionado of ‘chick flicks’; all the times i’ve been unable to release the tears or screams that welled up inside me and the times I’ve cut my flesh in desperation at being unable to find a place for me in this world was patriarchy in action. I realised it oppressed me too.
So I learned. Slowly. I cannot remember how many times the feminists (mostly women) rolled their eyes or got annoyed because I had genuinely (if innocently) been oppressive or insulting. It’s a long walk to even begin to understand your own privilege and I’m not yet far along my path (and no, I don’t want a medal). I joined a feminist organisation, one that adopted a wonderful and actively inclusive policy, one that preached intersectionality and tried to learn from its mistakes. Somewhere that I, as a man with mental illness issues, felt safe.
Well, recently I’ve felt slightly disquieted in this group. The language can be very gendered “the sisterhood. Sisters unite. I need sisters to protest this…” I find myself contacting event coordinators to ask if men are welcome or if their call for sisters is for women only (or more often, for any gender except mine) and this language makes me feel excluded.
I didn’t want to repeat my mistakes. This time, I thought, I’d ask for advice in private before speaking in public. I broached the subject with a friend and considering the number of self-defensive clauses I used whilst asking it’s a miracle she understood me. Her response?
Use it as a way to reflect upon your own feminism and the way you experience society. What you’re feeling for a second is what the women of the group experience every moment in the world.
I was shocked, I was irate, how could she be saying we should condone sexism of any kind? After a little spluttering I think I got it. We shouldn’t fight oppression wherever we encounter it because that sort of random lashing out against patriarchy isn’t going to deliver change.
We need to understand that, for good reason, others have been fighting for this cause far longer than we have and have earned their right to a little leeway. The gendered language in the group will be dealt with one day, but not until we’ve used our energy to tackle the areas where we might make meaningful societal change. I’ll hold the feminist movement to its promises of equality, as will many others, but only when the time is right and bigger problems have been solved. Until that time I will continue to write to organisers to check if I am welcome and I will continue to flinch when it seems that any gender but mine is welcome at a march or event because the level of oppression I am experiencing is nothing compared to that which my allies face daily and, moreover, I am using it to learn and grow.
It’s fifteen years since I wrote a poem, so imagine my surprise when Mr Cameron provided the long missing inspiration. I don’t pretend its great, but it carries my feeling well.
Crisis in the Balkans!
Imperial proxy wars aflame.
Whilst bullets fly a dynasty is overthrown.
supported by Austro-Hungarians.
The Balkans need the Russians now, a new entente
A crown falls away from the three
The double eagle eyes the bear and prepares for war.
War in the Balkans
The Bears nose is bloodied and Serbia
left alone. The Prussian Eagle brings peace to guard its nest.
The Cock crows
The Prussians sit uneasy in Alsace-Lorraine
The Bear goes home, begins to build and build and build for war
Bulldogs want peace
Trading empires need calm to grow
Bulldogs tries to balance every ounce whilst Eagles laugh.
Franz Ferdinand dead,
The Archduke of Eagles undone
By bomb wielding, Serb trained, Bosnian student assassins!
The Eagles demand,
The Bulldog bays for profitable peace
Demands cannot be met without Serb death. Back to war in the Balkans
If not now, when?
Two empires threatened
With time the Bear will be unstoppable, Prussian Eagles soar to war.
Austro-Hungarian Eagles war on Serbia
Prussian Eagle wars with Bear
The Cock won’t promise neutrality, the Prussian Eagle swoops
Trading Empires live and die on contracts. The Bulldog sides with the Cock.
The Rising Sun, long allied to the Bulldog, takes aim at the Prussian Eagle
Austro-Hungarian Eagles face the Bear
The zoo is revolting
Imperial powers like dominoes
Stacking their young men into rows to fight for Empire
Six weeks at most,
Of all the learned men that send
their young to war. Only Kitchener says three years.
Billy Smith stands,
With shit in his pants, his mate dismembered
A Boro bakers boy six months ago. A Bulldog’s soldier now.
Is celebrating animals that through
their own stupidity get others maimed and killed.
Commemorate the dead,
whichever animal sent them there,
Those bakers’ boys, train drivers, ferrymen and more
Keep respectful silence,
As you mourn the idiocy of their fate,
And shout, shout loud when some new animal calls for war.
People never seem to understand that social situations are so difficult for me. Yes I can banter, I can be witty even, but when that person stands in front of me and starts to talk every fibre of my being is rebelling against the situation.
It’s bad enough when they’re friendly, but when its thinly veiled hatred the shields that protect my mind are melted into slag and NO ONE can see it.
For the majority of my life I have been one of those strange and otherworldly people who struggle to adapt to the nature of reality. I have laughed through the maelstrom and shuddered as I cut my own veins to achieve some calm. I am ‘mentally ill’.
For the majority of my life I have looked out at the world around me and felt disgust at the way we have created systems of oppression seemingly designed to twist peoples perceptions of the truth. Whether active or raging all alone I am an activist.
My first real taste of what it was to be mentally ill came with the stress of my A levels and the sudden crushing moment when my body said enough and of a sudden I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t do anything but suffer pain within my body and a spiraling out of control vortex that sucked me away from my family and down to a place where every ache portended the worst of diseases. I suffered from malaria, hebephrenia, kidney failure and meningitis – especially meningitis as the stress headaches and the muscular tautness caused me constant pain. I could hold a coin upright between the protuberant double tendons of my wrist, when relaxed. I was physically and mentally collapsing and my parents could only watch.
My first real taste of activism came when as a child the Woodcraft Folk (or hippy scouts as others chose to call them) took me an others on a march through London to highlight the killing of animals around the world that were being made extinct by human ‘progress’. We dressed as animals, I was a lynx, my friend a bear. Someone was a black rhino, the black rhino’s are all dead now.
In the following years I discovered mania. I ran wild across Bristol chasing dragons that consumed the earth and basked in the stench of the grass that they spewed behind them. I did chin ups where my muscles never could before. I delighted in breathing – the feelings of ecstasy brought about by breathing and nothing more. I read and read, partied, danced and smoked a lot of resin. A lot of resin to keep my feet on the earth and my head in the books. When the bong was not enough I cut my flesh and lied to my friends. They must have thought we had a lot of accidents in my lab.
In the following years I joined Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, CND. I wrote letters and marched and shouted beautiful dreams. I spoke to survivors of Nagasaki who told me that the nuclear blast that killed their world was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen. They stood transfixed as the sky was filled with every colour and even colours they could not name. They were the ones behind hills, behind concrete or steel. They were the ones who survived the death of everything and the sickness that followed. The survivors of Nagasaki are all dead now. We staged a die in whilst St Martins chimed thirteen. Not even Google remembers this now.
I got a job, got married, to a good woman whose own mental illness meant she hardly left the house. There was so much to do just earning enough to survive. Each day she’d do the laundry in the bathtub – we couldn’t afford a washing machine. Each night she’d put me back together, hugging me as I shook and feared to face a boss whose stature had grown to that of a firey giant. Many years later, when we were almost equals, he said to me that he deliberately humiliated staff – it was a good way to teach them not to do a thing again. I didn’t pity hum after that, there was only hate.
I got a job, got married, to a good woman who’s own mental illness meant there was no time for activism any more. There was only time for work and indignation at the state of society – time for reaction but not for action. As the years passed things became a little easier but never easy enough.
My first wife died and stayed alive. When the blood first started to pool in her brain and the pressure twisted it out of shape she shit herself and could no longer speak except with random words. She came to the bedroom and tried to let me know but I didn’t understand and went back to sleep. I will carry that guilt until I die, and so I should. Ten minutes later she was more insistent and ten minutes after that it was blues and toos racing for the hospital. Three days she was in and out of consciousness whilst I never slept or left her bed. I would not allow her to awake confused and alone in that place. Three days with my mind in a place stranger than any I’d seen where all I remember is her face and the most caring Irish nurse and apologizing to God for still not believing in him but asking, promising, anything if she lived. Three days and then for the first time in my adult life I cried. I could not stop, I sobbed my mind collapsed in upon itself but still I wouldn’t leave her until my mother swore to stay the night beside the bed and then I went and found oblivion. Neither of us was the same after that and I never cried again or talked so openly about my feelings. After a time our marriage was dead but I found solace with the homeless of London who taught me ‘there but for the grace of god’ and ‘every human has their worth’.
My first wife died and stayed alive. A stroke in her early thirties and partial paralysis. She showed her strength, the strength of her activist past when she’d been local secretary of the Welsh language society and had gone out nights to fight for her countries freedom. It took a long long time but she won it all back – the mobility, the speech, the fire. No, she never lost the fire. She was no longer her; we agreed her personality had changed and that we no longer loved and so we went our ways. She’s with another man now and I like him. They have children and I wish them everything. My activism started to stir in that time and I gave my Christmases to Crisis and spent them with the homeless of London. They taught me so much more than I helped them.
I met a woman and I loved her with all my being. I loved her more than she loved me but that was of no consequence. I should not have loved her because my mind was black and twisted but that love enabled me to spy the light glinting through the tangled steel that filled me. We lost each other on the climb out but I would not have made it without her.
I met a woman who taught me to live again. She suffered much as me but as with all these things her pain was different. I threw out all the accumulated rubbish of a lifetime. I smashed my marital bed into smithereens and slept on the floor, I took up running, boxing and basketball. She buoyed me, travelled Europe and watched me run marathons. She watched the activist within me start to uncurl, start to bitch and complain about the world but not yet understand that maybe it could change things, maybe it could act. Complaint without action killed what love we had but I will always treasure the seed she planted that later began to grow.
I promised myself to live alone. I threw myself into art and alcohol. I burned with the fires of creation and bled into the darkness of nothing. I lived behind a camera lens because the world was shielded from me by its abstraction and all the anger and pain I saw were reduced to pictures on a screen. I doused my fire in computer games, art and writing – anything that took me away from me and doused the flames that flicked about my fingers. I met a woman. An amazing woman that burned like a thermal lance, organising, campaigning, cutting through the armour of oppression like the most beautiful blast in history. I stood close to her and where she needed support I gave it. I held her up and basked in her causes even as my skin began to bubble and my brain began to boil.
I promised myself to live alone. I joined the old organisations, I went to protest marches – this time with Camera at the ready. The Mothers March on Parliament, the War in Iraq. I listened to Tony Benn and groaned as ancient lefties called each other comrade and wondered where the youth had gone. I met a woman. An amazing woman from my past who was a thousand times the activist I had ever dreamed of being. Her disabilities, physical, mental, they did not seem to slow her down and aside from that I felt my soul meet hers and never want to leave. I learned from her, I exalted in the discovery that causes could be won and that fights worth fighting were not always doomed. Not always.
I live with a searing angel. I live with a fragile human determined to make change for the better. I revel in the activism, standing tall against the EDL, Pro-lifers, the ableism and sexism inherent in our culture. I revel in the feeling of action even as every antagonistic interaction feeds the mania or depression within me and threatens to trip me back down the slope and into hell. I cannot live in such an unfair world and need to fight to make it better. I cannot live in such an unfair world.
My life contains measures of activism and mental illness. Both must be there for me to survive but in concert both threaten to destroy me.
I am learning to walk a middle path and my step still feels very shakey.
My oldest conception of depression and the mixed state. In depression the ball is brown and amorphous, smothering the buildings around it, in the mixed state it burns like a malevolent sun, scorching the earth.
Todays mood. I feel extremely washed out, as if all the energy in my body has drained away. I know why. I spent a lovely weekend away with friends and any socialising – even good socialising has a mental health hangover.I can feel the darkness ahead of me and wonder if I have the drive to avoid it.
There are many theories of government and many viewpoints on the role that government should fill. Except for the basest conceptions these theories agree that the provision of food, shelter and healthcare to the people of the state is a basic part of the government role and every ‘western’ government addresses these needs in some way (even the US government now provides something, although it lags behind the rest of the world).
It is an ongoing debate within most ‘western’ countries as to how much resource should be put into the provision of these basics, especially in this neo-liberal age in which the government is envisaged as corporation and many individuals receiving these basics are portrayed as non-producers. Non-producers such as some of the disabled, the unemployed, the elderly and those who have a wish to personally guide the upbringing of their children have minimal value in the neo-liberal conciousness.
Many modern governments, being run along the lines of corporations, seek to reduce the expenditure on these provisions and thus maximize governmental profits (or more precisely the profits of the corporations that largely control them). The maxim being that if an individual chooses to live off ‘benefits’ then their standard of living should be kept low or productive members of the workforce will become jealous and may well cease to produce and choose to live off ‘benefits’ as well. Of course this rationale does not apply to the disabled (do many able bodied people choose to become disabled?), the elderly or to parents raising children (who are conducting work that benefits the long-term economy by creating functional and well rounded workers) but that is glossed over and the benefits afforded each group are typically similar and low. What matters is short term productivity for short term gains.
The payment of these ‘benefits’ (although they would be better termed basic rights or, perhaps, brights) is typically handled by multifarious agencies each separately charged with assessing a mass of individuals that have been carefully divided and subdivided into different groups. Therefore, one group handles housing, another unemployment yet another disability and so on. Each group is charged with the provision of the minimum amount of resource necessary to provide food, shelter and healthcare to their target group and are, at least in theory, equipped with sufficient expertise to make those decisions. In the case of disability in the UK this is openly farcical as the system refuses to accept diagnoses or input from specialists that have been treating the individual for some time and instead follow the recommendation of a privately employed and less qualified practitioner who has seen the individual for as little as one hour. Individuals with intersectional issues (for example, disabled parents who are unemployed) face a near impossible struggle in receiving their basic rights. We must constantly bear In mind that these are rights all civilised governments are mandated to provide.
The system is dysfunctional, it is inefficient and it relies on the demonisation of those who are forced to access their basic rights as citizens that we have all voted into existence and which 95% of us will need to access in our lifetimes.
Here is a proposal to repair the system.
On housing. Because every government is mandated to ensure food, shelter and healthcare to its citizens it should cease to devolve these responsibilities to multiple agencies and instead create a single centrally administered provision that is capable of offering a house or similar abode to every citizen regardless of ability, wealth, age, status or any other factor. The houses shall be provided free of rent and shall be of sufficient size and construction to hold that individual and their family (including extended family if that is their choice). The houses shall have basic amenities such as hot and cold running water, heating, cooking facilities and a communal area. Maintenance shall be included free of charge and be provided by government employed maintenance teams that do not pass on their costs to the home dweller.
On Sustenance: Every member of the population shall have made available to them the resources to buy sufficient food to fully provide for their needs. This provision shall be in the form of food vouchers, issued to every citizen regardless of their situation (as housing, above) and will have a cash value redeemable at any food outlet and not restricted to any particular foodstuff. It will be illegal for a shop to refuse to accept vouchers or to discriminate against any individual redeeming them. The shop will be able to treat these vouchers as cash with regarding to banking so that no additional overhead is placed upon the business.
On Healthcare: The evidence is absolutely clear that the state provided healthcare provisions provided by many European countries massively outperform fully privatised systems wherever they exist (you only need to compare outcomes and cost per head in the US and the UK to have this illustrated). Therefore the state should look to the creation of a public or public/private healthcare system, free at the point of need for all its citizens.
Agencies will continue to exist for the administration of aid to specific target groups but the bureaucratic and emotional overheads, and governmental pressures currently suffered by these agencies will be reduced as they are ‘wasting’ less profit and as their actions can more directly be tied to specific individual needs. No longer forced to worry about basic subsistence and administration of payments the agencies will be required to solely look at support such as assistance in getting employment or for reasonable adaptations required by disabled individuals.
What of those who do not wish to live in a government provided house or who wish to buy expensive foodstuffs on a regular basis? These individuals can continue as they always have. The state provided houses do not have to be taken and such a house will always be present in the future when the individual chooses to retire or needs to cut back on expenditure. The food shops will still sell food to those with money, they do not only have to take food vouchers. Indeed if an individual is so socially affected that they do not wish to use a food voucher then they can dispose of them and spend cash instead. They can even pay for healthcare if they so choose, the free alternative shall be no worse, although perhaps the room wont have cable TV, it is their choice.
We must, of course, address the costs of such a scheme. In the first instance the large scale social housing projects that will be required to create homes for those who want them will require the undertaking of additional debt on the part of the government. This will be somewhat balanced by the massive boom that will occur in the construction industry and the concomitant lowering of unemployment as additional labourers are employed and trained. Additionally some savings will be made through the reduction in the inefficiencies of the current provisions (as the new provision will be universal no assessment will be needed for individuals). However, a debt increase will be required.
The government will recoup the expenditure through increased taxation on industry and through the long term advantages that it will bring to the economy. The nature of this tax can be discussed separately (I favour a simplification of the taxation system by reverting to a sales tax levied on all transactions in which the buyer is in the country, combined with an import tax on foreign goods, and a Pigovian addition for industries that have identified long term issues – this simplification in itself would save huge amounts in overheads and make prosecution of avoiders easier). Industry itself will adjust by lowering the wages of some – after all individuals have shelter, food and healthcare for free and we may have done away with income tax (see previous sentence) – but they wont be able to lower them too far or it wont be worth someone working at all (therefore real terms pay for minimum wage jobs may well have to increase).
What of criminals who take advantage of this system? Well firstly, every system has it’s criminals and their existence should not be sufficient to discount it out of hand. Criminals within this system would be treated as in any other with the advantage that this system is simpler and therefore detection will also be simpler. Except in the worst of cases individuals should be punished financially (clearly their drive to financial gain is important to them, so significant financial loss should be a good initial punishment). Only repeat offenders would face incarceration (we want our citizens to be able to work, unlike the near 1% of the US population currently incarcerated).
There is one final concern that I feel needs to be met. What of those individuals who are happy to live their life in a government provided house eating government provided food? Surely this system will engender a race of humans that are content to be provided for until such a time as the system collapses under its own weight?
The first question I would ask is would you, personally, do no work if offered basic housing, food and healthcare? If you would work then why do you have such a negative conception of your fellow humans that you assume they would have no drive or interest in bettering themselves? Is your assumption based on evidence or prejudice? I would still work, although I would be pickier about where I worked and what I was prepared to put up with from an employer. At the moment if I have a boss who singles me out and makes my life hell I have to put up with it, at least in the short term, if I knew I would survive I could leave. If a company noticed that the turnover for a certain manager or division was high then they sure as hell better find out why and fix the problem. Lose the bad manager or lose the staff and the productivity. A basic provision of food, shelter and healthcare provides the freedom that allows the workforce to move and with that freedom comes an impetus for employers to provide good working conditions and for staff to no longer be satisfied with mediocre treatment.
Secondly, if modern society has taught us anything it is the power of advertising and consumer demand. If you want the latest phone, games console or car then you will need an income, not just home, sustenance and healthcare. The drive to get a job is still their if you want to possess nice things and the evidence suggests that most people do.
Finally, there will always be some who choose not to work. Perhaps an artist who chooses to live so simply to focus on their art, or an individual who really doesn’t want anything but the basics (a monk, perhaps?), maybe even someone who just doesn’t care. These individuals will be the extreme minority and as a society we should be prepared to carry them.