Sunday 24 June 2012

Attachment, Security and Conservative Policy

The Conservative government in the UK is producing some eye-watering policy statements at the moment, the most striking one of which appeared today in the form of a proposal to prevent under 25 year-olds from accessing housing benefit. The press speculation is that this is a political move within the Conservative party designed to appeal to hard-core Tory voters (the ones who bemoan scrounging youths who have babies to get council housing).

I don't want to criticise the policy in this post. I want to think how something which appears so oblivious and cavalier regarding the stresses bearing on young people, can be considered by the Conservative party and their supporters as a good idea. I think that in explaining this, we might get a clearer picture on the  real effects of the policy, rather than simply mud-slinging at the government.

Family attachments are complicated. Whether you are wealthy or whether you are poor, the meaningfulness of your life depends on the well-being and success of those closest to you.  Consider that you are a banker, Peter, with two children (Jonathan, 10 and Rebecca, 12) living in a large house in the suburbs (say Harpenden). You have about £1m in investments, some of it in property which you have purchased in London. Your children are at private school, because you passionately believe that anything less will damage their chances of doing well in life. Your wife looks after the children and doesn't work (her zero income is useful for balancing out the tax burden of property income!). You love your children, and your marriage ticks along in a orderly manner without too much undue stress (of course, the healthy financial situation helps with that). You work very hard, rarely getting home before 9 or 10pm.

You are obviously worried about the economic situation. The government being broke and the ensuing recession will threaten your business. Losing your job (which is highly paid) is a possibility. If that happened, then those you love will be affected. The children will have to leave their schools, the houses may have to be sold, the children will not inherit them and get that precious foot-on-the-ladder in the property market. And your marriage, whilst ticking along fine in times of abundance, will be much heavier-going if times are hard ("did she really only marry me for my money?" you think). In short, there is a dark fear lurking in the background. How to avert this?

With the same clarity that  you apply in your professional dealings, the answer is obvious. The government cannot continue to go overdrawn by an additional £2bn a month. The country must live within its means. Where does the money get spent? Housing benefit? For the young? Why can't they live with their parents (everyone should do their bit)?

But the motivation is a fear for security. In fact, the security which has been built up, and which now is protected probably has its roots deep in the childhoods of the bankers themselves. The fears of loss, the memories of their own parents' struggles, of the desire "not to repeat their mistakes" all play in the minds of those who would gladly rip into the public sector in a cleansing ritual of 'financial responsibility'. Jonathan and Rebecca themselves are only the latest in the production-line of this kind of biological programming.

But Brian,21, is the butt of this particular social experiment. He's not worked for 6 months (an apprenticeship in a local garage finished recently - badly). He grew up with a mother who was barely in control of her life. Numerous men passed through the family, some nice, others not. She herself struggled to give Brian her attention - there was too much to deal with; she was too tired. Brian has struggled to maintain relationships, either romantically or socially.

He still sleeps at home. Although he doesn't really sleep - it's unbearable. He longs to get out. But he can't. There is nothing he can do. If he is thrown out, he will be on the streets (he has spent a few nights on the streets in the past). Nobody seems able to help him.

With damaged attachments like this, it is hard to see what is meaningful in Brian's life. Yet there are things which cheer him up. He sees pretty girls - they cheer him up; he watches the football in the pub; and a packet of cigarettes or a spliff will do the trick. He dreams, as anyone else dreams, of love and security. Yet when he wakes, the dream only feeds the frustration of the disconnect between fantasy and reality. There used to be people to help him (that's where the apprenticeship came from). But those support programmes have been cut. Everyone around him, like his mother, has no time, is too tired.

The point about this is that the malaise the Brian suffers from is the same as the malaise that drives Peter to want to make Brian's life even less bearable. Peter's worries have led to the  cuts to the services that might have helped Brian. Yet the similarity between the situations is lost in the political rhetoric.

What it is to be human is precisely what it is to live together. We know this from our own families and those we love. The question about government expenditure and Conservative policy is a question about where we draw the line between those we care for immediately near us, and those whose fates have a causal bearing on our own. David Cameron, and Peter, would like to draw the line around their immediate family. Yet the security they crave cannot arise from exacerbating cruel circumstances of those who are not in the immediate circle. Seeing the connected attachment situation makes this clear.

The £2bn deficit is a sign of a regulatory problem. But in order to identify the causal relations that underly this  regulatory problem, the deeper mechanisms of human living and loving must be inspected. Greater realism about attachments at all levels of society may shed a new light on these problems. 

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