A downturn in moral values?

Watch out: the recession could turn you into a fat fascist wife-beater with anger-control issues. Allegedly.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Remember when the recession was supposed to be a good thing? Not long ago, the great and the good were sending Mac-written missives from their unrepossessed homes about how the economic downturn would help us – the little people – to rediscover ‘long-forgotten, old-fashioned values’, like thriftiness, rationing, community spirit, hunger. Well, now the G&G have gone and changed their minds. It turns out the recession will not bring out the best in people, but the very, very worst, threatening to turn us into fascist wife-beaters with vastly expanding waistlines and a whole host of mental health problems.

First the recession will make us fat. You would think, in a time of economic downturn, that any start-up, business expansion or other form of job creation would be warmly welcomed. In fact, the news that Domino’s Pizza has boosted its profits by 25 per cent over the past year, and now plans to open 50 stores and create hundreds of new jobs in the coming year, was treated as an Hieronymus Bosch-style warning of a hellish future of fat-limbed, jobless people eating themselves into an early grave. The recession is ‘ruining our health’, declared one newspaper headline. A food writer said it is ‘utterly, utterly depressing’ that people are ‘slobbing out on the sofa at home, not with a bowl of hearty, homemade soup, but with a whopping great bucket of fried chicken or a calorie-laden pizza’.

Food critic Jay Rayner dry-heaved upon hearing that KFC plans to open 300 new outlets and create 9,000 new jobs in the next 12 months. The recession has further exposed the ‘deeply chronic divide’, he said, ‘between those who give a toss about what they eat and those who, frankly, do not, and who see lectures about what they have for dinner as little more than that: a hectoring irrelevance for lives lived at the bottom of the economic heap’. Hmm, I wonder why people might see ‘food advice’ as a ‘hectoring lecture’ from poshos? Expanding on who it is that ‘doesn’t give a toss about what they eat’, one medical expert used that deliciously Dickensian phrase ‘the poor’ to describe those people who ‘cannot cook’ and who in a recession ‘are increasingly likely to eat poorly nutritious fast food’.

The celebrity chef and government adviser, Jamie Oliver, who with his use of the term ‘white trash’ has been far more honest about who these ‘slobs’ are who eat buckets of chickens that are a ‘killer combination of cheap protein, even cheaper carbs and tongue-coating fats’, told the House of Commons Health Select Committee (yes, he was invited) that the recession will make our ‘obesity epidemic’ even worse.

This discussion of recession-induced lardiness, especially amongst The Poor and white trash who according to Oliver suffer from the ‘new poverty’ of not knowing how to cook, perfectly sums up what fuels the obesity panic today: not hard scientific evidence that the uneducated hordes are waddling towards early death with a family-sized bucket of boneless chicken under each arm, but a voyeuristic, vicarious obsession with slipping standards of health and morality amongst the lower orders. Obesity is a metaphor for the old sins of gluttony and sloth, and celebrity chefs are the new priests who want to save The Poor from their own worst (eating) habits. The less well-off are seen as a peculiar, unknowable blob, who might be pushed further down the road to hydrogenated hell by the uncertainty of the recession.

Once you have been made more rotund by the economic downturn, you will be the perfect size and shape for the next expected impact of job losses and money worries: fascism. The G&G are positively (one might even say pornographically) convinced that the recession will make neo-Nazis of us all. Well, not all of us; just those who ‘don’t give a toss about what they eat’ or about foreigners. One UK government minister, Jim Murphy, has warned of ‘credit crunch racism’. Trevor Phillips of the Equality and Human Rights Commission says Britain could become more racist as the recession bites, giving rise to ‘an angry, embittered permanent underclass looking for targets on whom to vent its rage’.

The Labour left is gripped by fascist fantasies. Some old-style Labourites warn that this global downturn, likes its 1930s cousin, could facilitate ‘a rise in fascism’. Only they don’t mean the emergence of an elite jackboot movement such as that which emerged in one of the most powerful countries in Europe in the 1930s (which would be an ahistorical prediction anyway); they mean that ‘racist workers’ and the ‘permanent underclass’ might start attacking anyone who looks or smells foreign in an attempt jealously to guard their own jobs and dole money. Commenting on the recent wildcat strikes – slogan: ‘British jobs for British workers’ – Tribune magazine whined about how New Labour’s promises to protect British jobs sound like a ‘dog whistle to working-class Labour supporters toying with the idea of voting for the British National Party’.

Here, too, it is not any evidence of a recession-linked upsurge in Johnny Foreigner hatred that fuels the fascist predictions, but rather an elite view of the little people as volatile, unpredictable, given to outbursts of irrationality. At a time when the old politics of left and right is a thing of the past, and the workers v bosses divide looks like a distant memory, the working classes and The Poor are seen as unreadable, and as easily swayed by what one Labour commentator describes as the ‘leeches of the far right’. It is the aloofness and disconnection of commentators and quango heads that generates fascism fears.

This is clear from Tribune’s use of the ‘dog whistle’ metaphor: the working classes are seen as automatons, the human equivalent of attack dogs, who speak in their own shrill, high-pitched lingo that is not readily audible to the more sensible, leeches-immune Labour commentariat who sit above them.

And once you are fat and a fascist, what is the next logical step? Wife-beating, of course. Last week’s news was rife with predictions that the ‘recession will prompt a rise in domestic violence’ and that women will be ‘worst hit’ (literally) by the economic downturn. The UK attorney general, Lady Scotland, warned that ‘domestic violence will rise with increased financial worries’. What has triggered this fear of male-on-female violence in downturn-whacked Britain? The arrival of hundreds of badly beaten wives of newly unemployed men at police stations across the UK? No. It springs from a government report, titled Real Help Now for Women, which casually and unscientifically predicts that during the recession ‘women may face threats from violent or abusive partners’.

The Metropolitan Police says there had been a ‘slight increase’ in domestic violence over the past year, but there was no evidence yet that it was linked to ‘stress in terms of lost jobs’. Yet that didn’t stop the government from focusing its ‘real help’ for women during the recession, not on creating jobs for them or on ensuring that they can remain active, productive citizens despite the downturn, but on protecting them from their own allegedly violent families. The wife-beating panic is fuelled by elite porno-fears about what takes place Behind Closed Doors, and a view of the family as a dangerous place rather than a sanctuary, a means of pooling resources and pulling through during tough economic times.

What all of these recession predictions have in common is a view of the public as an amorphous mass that will be pushed, prodded, twisted and reshaped – for the worse – by the economic downturn. Any view of us as resourceful, tough individuals, who together with our friends, families and social networks can get through the economic downturn in one piece, has given way to fears that we will become dog-like haters of foreigners and women with chicken-blocked arteries to boot. Even worse, the relentless focus on managing the masses’ foul and violent reaction to the recession – by giving more food lectures, censoring those ‘dog whistles’ tempting us to become fascists, encouraging women to be suspicious of their husbands, or offering free therapy to counter the ‘epidemic of anxiety’ – lets off the hook those who are largely responsible for this mess in the first place: the authorities. Unable to manage the economic fallout, far less have an honest debate about what needs to be done to improve productivity and living standards, the powers-that-be focus on micro-managing wayward individuals instead.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Diseasing the recession, by Frank Furedi

Whatever happened to ‘affluenza’?, by Tim Black

Read more at spiked issue: Financial Crisis.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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