How a Hollywood B-movie sent shivers down my spine over demonisation of the poor

Burning down the house. Lewis Whyld/PA Wire

As part of a concerted effort to disengage my brain from work over Christmas, I decided to watch the recently released DVD of The Purge, which Santa had brought me. Heavily criticised as mindless and inane, I assumed it would provide a couple of hours’ light relief. But while its plot was certainly two-dimensional, its premise posed a pertinent question that goes to the heart of current British politics – how far will the present demonisation of the poor go?

In a country where the government is permitted to make changes so that liberty comes down to the ability to pay for legal representation, the mentally ill can be forced to work and parents are reduced to begging for charity to feed their children, it seems relevant to gauge the limits of public tolerance for the state’s mistreatment of the less fortunate.

The Purge offers a dystopian vision of a near-future United States. In 2022, the problems of rising crime rates, overcrowded prisons and large-scale unemployment have been solved by the introduction of an annual purge; a 12-hour period wherein all criminal activity becomes legal. This purge was introduced as collective catharsis – citizens are free to vent negative emotions and repressed urges that would otherwise lead to all manner of neuroses and unhappiness.

Dystopian vision: The Purge. Daily Billboard

In practice, the purge entails the widespread persecution of the poor: the vulnerable are fodder for the privileged. The homeless have no means to escape the violence of brutal attacks on the streets. Those who have the means invest heavily in home security that turns their houses into veritable fortresses, protecting affluent families from the baser instincts of those who surround them.

The purge’s advocates claim it works by cleansing individuals of their mental afflictions and unhealthy impulses, but its real impact is to cleanse the nation of undesirables. Premised upon social Darwinism, the lower social classes deemed to hold society back are eradicated. These are the people who commit most crime, fill the prisons and who most struggle to find work; reducing their number allows everyone else to progress.

The underclass

While such a state sanctioned free-for-all might seem preposterous to most, I found it chillingly prescient. There is a growing antipathy toward the poorer elements of our society, which the government actively encourages as a scapegoat for the policies of austerity. As Ruth Lister has suggested, the emphasising of social distance between the poor and the rest of society allows us to imagine that people who find themselves in poverty are somehow qualitatively different from us.

In large part, the lower classes have been conceived of as a subspecies. A quarter of a century ago, Charles Murray introduced the idea of the underclass to British society. Murray had studied American social policy since the end of World War II, particularly the relationship between increased poverty and rising crime rates. He claimed that this correlation was explained by the fact that the “underclass” were allowed to survive.

Under capitalism, normal citizens work to fund their lives. By getting jobs, they can purchase food, housing, consumer goods. However, in Murray’s view, there also exists an “abnormal” underclass that chooses not to work and, rather, opts to be funded by society through the welfare system. That this social segment is able to exist on state funding means that their alternative lifestyles are sustained. There is, then, an ever-growing cadre of scroungers to sponge off the backs of hardworking citizens – the distinction that David Cameron has sought to draw between strivers and skivers.

The precariat

The British public are spectacularly ill-informed on the state of welfare provision in the UK, their awareness shaped by government-encouraged scaremongering rather than hard facts. This was revealed by a YouGov poll conducted last year. On average, people believed 41% of the welfare budget went to unemployed people, while the true figure was 3%. They also thought 48% of those who claim Jobseeker’s Allowance go on to do so for more than a year, instead of the 27.8% reality.

Today’s reality: Camden, New Jersey. Phillies1Fan777

Nearly half of those polled, at 42%, saw benefits as too generous. Almost two thirds, 59%, suggested the current welfare system has created a culture of dependency. However, dividing the sample based upon respondents’ knowledge of the benefits system, those who knew the least about welfare were the most hostile. More than half (53%) of those in the least accurate group considered benefits too generous, compared to less than a third (31%) in the most accurate group.

As a result of this sort of thing – and despite the facts – large swaths of the population are coming to resent the poorer in society – and this is well explained in Guy Standing’s notion of the precariat. The precariat presents an emerging class with an identity constructed on an awareness of common vulnerability. It includes those working in insecure jobs – temps, part-timers, zero-hour contracts. This precariat is dangerous because desperate people look for others to blame; job insecurity challenges public spirit, community consciousness and altruism. When a member of the precariat suffers the stress of their family falling apart because they cannot hold down regular, meaningful work, they will want a hate figure to take their frustrations out on.

The coalition government is playing a neat trick in deflecting this ire away from them and their cuts and onto weaker sections of society less able to defend themselves, such as benefit claimants; the opposition is keen to do the same in a pre-emptive strike. And so a coroner finds that a blind man committed suicide because the government-backed ATOS agency found him fit to work and took his benefits, just as a recent Ipsos Mori survey finds enduring public support for the coalition’s welfare restrictions.

There’s no knowing where this process will end. But, if a week is a long time in politics, we should at least pause to consider how resentments like these might grow in the next decade, particularly if the economy’s problems persist. Given the data explored here, the extent to which an increasingly downtrodden and despairing public might accept the persecution of the poor scarcely bears thinking about.

The public reaction to the new Channel 4 series, Benefits Street, which started this week, offers but a glimpse of the potential hatred that may accompany this demonising of the poor. The show focused on a Birmingham street with a supposedly large proportion of social security claimants (though the station’s own news correspondent Ciaran Jenkins found otherwise in his subsequent interviewing).

In true tabloid style, the programme depicted benefit claimants (who claim they were tricked into appearing) as lazy scroungers, stigmatising the local population as an exploitative detritus choosing to live off the taxes of others. The Twitter response was phenomenal, with the show trending for the whole of the next day, carrying with it a torrent of abuse aimed at residents on the street. This went beyond mere vitriol and onto inciting violence, even including death threats, or as one charming Tweeter professed; “I want to walk down #BenefitsStreet with a baseball bat and brain a few of these scumbags”.

Reassuringly, there was also comment to the contrary, decrying the exploitative nature of the show, led by, Chavs author, Owen Jones who condemned “well-off TV producers trying to further their career by turning the poor against the poor”. That said, the anger and disdain displayed by so many at what was so clearly a sensationalised narrative exaggerating specific examples to suit a ratings-driven agenda, highlights how readily ordinary people will be persuaded to turn on their peers in times of austerity.

The gap between what those with money were willing to do to their less fortunate neighbours in the Purge and the response of large swaths of British TV viewers on watching Benefit Street was really not as large as I would like to have supposed it would be.

Become a friend of The Conversation with a tax-deductible contribution today.