Joyce McMillan: Money can’t be wasted on the poor

Some of the cast from Why Do You Stand There in the Rain?
Some of the cast from Why Do You Stand There in the Rain?
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A POWERFUL Fringe drama highlights how our politicians effectively ignore the lessons of the past.

IN AN improvised theatre space at Adam House in Chambers Street – known during the Fringe as C Venue – a group of students from Pepperdine University in the United States are sitting in line on stage, staring at the audience with expressions that range from despair to defiance.

They are dressed in clothes not much better than rags, in the pale, washed-out denim colours of Depression America; and with the help of songs by Woody Guthrie and others – and a new script by Scottish playwright Peter Arnott – they’re telling the story of the Bonus Army, the movement of tens of thousands of First World War US army veterans who, back in 1932, marched on Washington in the depths of the Depression, to demand payment in full of the cash bonuses they had been promised, when they returned from the trenches.

Despite support in the House of Representatives, though, their demand was rejected by the US Congress; the senators who defeated the proposal talked of the need for “sound money”, and the danger of printing cash simply to hand it out to ordinary working people down on their luck, even if many of them were war heroes, with distinguished service medals pinned on their shabby shirts. And of course, the longer the protest continued, the easier it became for the political right to dismiss the Bonus Army as a bunch of idlers and troublemakers, who needed to be cleared out of the capital by force; although the brutality of their eventual expulsion was so great that it contributed to the fall of President Herbert Hoover, and the rise – after the 1932 presidential election – of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

And you might think – 80 years on – that we in the West might have learned something from the story of the 1930s, and the shocking human and political consequences of the economic crash that shaped that decade, from Berlin to the US dustbowl. Yet astonishingly, far too many of our governments seem intent – in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash – on repeating the same mistake; happy to pour money into rash foreign wars, or to print cash to ease the balance-sheets of the banks that caused the crash, but almost pathologically hostile to the idea of spreading that money where it would actually do some social and economic good – that is, into the pockets of the poor, and particularly the pay-packets of the growing millions of low-paid families currently living just one pay-cheque, or less, from financial disaster.

It’s not, after all, as if the case for that kind of switch in strategy is difficult to make. Money redistributed to poor households, after all – through tax-breaks, or a minimum wage hike, or increased benefits – tends to be spent instantly, in the local economy; and if kick-starting grassroots domestic economic activity is your concern, it is clearly far more efficient than giving money to the rich – who will probably invest it offshore – or to the banks, who, in their present mood, simply use it to improve their balance-sheets. History also teaches us that forcing millions into poverty and insecurity is a policy not only cruel and indefensible in itself, but hopelessly expensive in the longer term; it destroys families and communities, trashes social capital built up over generations, and creates colossal social tensions and costs.

Yet do many of our most influential policy-makers care about these self-evident truths? Apparently not. Their religion is 1980’s-style neoliberalism: and it tells them that spending money on ordinary people is a bad, weak, and dangerous thing to do; whereas laying out billions of public money on dodgy foreign wars, or bailouts for the bankers who run the global financial system is only common sense. As a result, whole swathes of the western economy – in Britain, in the eurozone, and even in President Obama’s United States – are being held to ransom by a belief-system that has already been condemned by history once within living memory, and is based on greed-driven theory of human nature so negative, so limited, and so obviously flawed, that it gradually destroys the quality of life of everyone who comes into contact with it, both winners and losers.

Well, enough; it’s difficult to feel too depressed by the UK’s flat-lining economy when the Edinburgh Fringe in full swing, performing its great trick of allowing thousands of silly rich folks to do silly things, in order to yield up the odd nugget of terrific theatre, which uses the stage for the best of all its purposes, to give a voice to the voiceless, and to those forgotten by history.

This morning at the David Hume Tower – an apt enough venue, if we’re talking about an enlightened and a balanced society – we’ll be presenting one of our first 2012 Scotsman Fringe First Awards to the Pepperdine students, for the sheer quality and intensity of their performance; perhaps they’ll sing a chorus of the song that gives the show its title, Woody Guthrie’s Why Do You Stand There In The Rain?

Something tells me, though, that if we are ever going to turn the tide of history, and restore human wellbeing and dignity to the heart of the political agenda, then we are going to have to start listening to the answers to that question at a deeper level than ever before.

Today – after a generation of free-market grandstanding – we know all that we need to know about human greed, lust, venality, and self-serving lies. What we need instead is a fresh, subtle and growing recognition of the counter-forces to all that moral squalor, and how to strengthen them; the sense of dignity, solidarity, fairness, humour, creativity and love that holds people together in the toughest times, and which will be essential to any sustainable future on our crowded planet.

And it’s because it begins to search – both in recent history and in the present – for some tentative answers to those questions, that Peter Arnott’s play for Pepperdine wins an award today; not for reaching conclusions, but for setting out on the political journey I think we will all finally need to make, if indeed we want a future worth living in.