Blaming the Poor for Poverty is as Old as Capitalism
Thirty years ago, at the height of Thatcher’s monetarist induced recession, Brighton Unemployed Centre was formed by unemployed activists, the Trades Council and Workers Educational Association, as a voice and weapon of the unemployed. It was based in a small building in Coalbrook Road, long since demolished to make way for a bingo hall. In 1985 it moved nearer the centre of Brighton into larger premises, Prior House, after we had successfully brought pressure to bear on the then Tory Council.
Faced with the accusation from the rich and the gutter press that the poor are either 'deserving' or 'undeserving' of help, that it is individual fecklnessness and sin rather than capitalism which causes unemployment, we have been at the forefront of fighting those who seek to demonise the unemployed and reduce the social wage whilst dividing us on the lines of race and ethnicity.
The Centre had always been a radical place, a centre of organising against the fascists in the early 1980’s and a base for the oppressed and campaigning groups. The Centre always gave support to organised labour and the unions supporting for example the strike of the Ambulance workers in the late 1980’s, when Ken Clarke was Health Secretary, and the 1984-5 Miners Strike. Brighton Unemployed Centre provided facilities and support for all those taking industrial action and likewise supported the Poll Tax campaign, which helped bring down Thatcher, when millions of people refused to pay the hated poll tax.
It was not surprising therefore that when the Labour Party under Kinnock abandoned socialist politics and started on the road to New Labour, that the Centre came under fire. In 1992 a Council Grant, which enabled us to employ 3 workers was frozen and then cut. The newly ennobled Steve Bassam, someone I’d squatted with when I first came to Brighton in 1974, and who had been a vocal supporter of the Labour Left [see my pamphlet ‘The Noble Sayings of Lord Bassam’ led the attack on the Centre.
In 1996-7 civil war broke out at the Centre with between those who wanted the Centre to be just a charity and those of us who saw unemployment not as a matter of charity but an inevitable consequence of how capitalism operates. With the use of the dark arts, freezing its grant and threatening bankruptchy, the Council carved out a shaky majority.
In 1997 after a prolonged civil war, the Centre split and the political wing departed. However we took with us over £20,000 from the political wing, which the charity had been unable to get their hands on, despite the Charity Commission at one stage freezing it, to set up a new Centre.
In 1999 we set up a new Centre in Hollingdean. New Labour’s 3 sitting councillors greeted us with a petition complaining that we would bring in our wake, druggies, drunks and all-night parties. The Chair of the Planning Committee, Jean Lepper, wife of the local Labour MP, was one of these councillors and she and the Planning Committee (including its Green member, Pete West) blocked the grant of planning permission, despite the recommendation of planning officers in our favour. We ignored the committee and met Lepper’s petition of 125 people with one of over 200. About 8 months later, under the chairmanship of an old left-winger Chris Morley, the Planning Committee reversed itself unanimously and granted us both change of use and permission for our shutters! The new Centre itself was opened on May 1st 1999 by the late Ernie Trory, an old communist and one of the original hunger strikers of the 1930’s. And the icing on the cake of our 30th Birthday? Two of the three New Labour councillors – Pat Hawkes and Christine Simpson – lost their seats to the Greens in Hollingdean at the local elections this year!
It is therefore entirely appropriate that we put on a gig at the Latest Music Bar in central Brighton to celebrate our first 30 years. Will Kaufman, an academic at the University of Central Lancashire, who is bringing out a book Woody Guthrie: Hard Times and Hard Travellin' this week , was our star and only performer!
Guthrie, was the musical genius who portrayed the American dustbowl of the 1930’s, who stood alongside those fighting fascism, the Okies who migrated to escape unemployment, workers fighting the bosses hired goon squads sent in to destroy trade unions. Dylan paid homage to him as he was dying of Huntington’s Chorea, before going on to betray everything he stood for. Guthrie’s literary equivalent John Steinbeck, in his Grapes of Wrath also captured the flavour of the times.
Kaufman is both a performer in his own right as well as an excellent interpreter of Guthrie’s music, which he has studied in depth. He performed a number of songs – Pretty Boy Floyd, This Land is Your Land, Do Re Mi - from Guthrie’s repertoire (some of which are captured below) including two of over 3,000 unpublished lyrics, which have been set to music by Billy Bragg. Kaufman interspersed his renditions of Guthrie’s songs with commentary on the context – the mass migration of the ‘Okies’ from Oklahoma to California. Attracted by false promises of good wages, only a tiny minority were employed in the fruit picking industry but the availability of thousands more hands ready to work ensured that the price of labour would be kept low.
The Los Angeles Police Department, a byword for corruption, brutality and racism, set up illegal roadblocks on the highways into California to stop the influx of Okies. Although LA is situated by the Pacific Oceon, LAPD sent its men to the borders of California to mount these roadblocks against fellow Americans. Patriotism has never extended, of course, to the poor! Signs in bars would often say ‘No niggers, no dogs, no Okies’. Racism against Black people and hatred of the poor would inevitably combine in the eyes of the American state.
Below are a few videos of the evening.
At The Green Note this week, Will Kaufman will be launching his book ‘Hard Times & Hard Travellin’.
Dr Will Kaufman presented 'Woody Guthrie: Hard Times and Hard Travellin' event on 8 March 2007.The hour-long musical programme was delivered by Dr Will Kaufman as part of the American Studies Resources Centre 20th Anniversary Guest Lecture programme at Liverpool John Moores University.
During the event Dr Kaufman set the songs of Woody Guthrie in the context of the American 1930s: the Dust Bowl, the Depression, the New Deal and the state of popular music itself.
He performed such hard-hitting Guthrie songs as 'Vigilante Man', 'Pretty Boy Floyd' and 'I Ain't Got No Home' and was in conversation with other songs of the Depression Era, such as Joe Hill's 'The Preacher and the Slave' and 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?'. These renditions, buttressed by detailed historical commentary, exemplified the blending of music and radical politics that marks Guthrie's most powerful and evocative work.
Originally from New Jersey, Dr Kaufman is Reader in English and American Studies at the University of Central Lancashire. He has published widely on many aspects of American culture and has been a semi-professional folksinger and musician for over 30 years. He comes from a musical family (his brother, Steve Kaufman, is one of America's most celebrated bluegrass guitarists) and he is equally at home on the guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and piano.