Survival of the fittest?
Under the UK austerity measures of the past 18 months I have watched the welfare state crumble; disabled people in particular are suffering considerably as cuts to their care plans are putting them collectively below the poverty line. Don’t believe the ‘protect the most vulnerable’ hype – in 2011 alone over 1,600 people who were told they were ‘fit for work’ (and therefore lost all benefits) died before they were able to appeal; it works out to approximately 32 people per week.
The disabled and the elderly have been thrown onto the scrap heap by the current contraction, and the lack of empathy from the rest of Britain has been staggering – hate crime is up 75%, and for the first time since I’ve been in the UK I feel uncomfortable stepping out of my house with my cane. Invariably in debates online, when disabled people have tried to advocate for a return of dignity and independence, someone will quote ‘survival of the fittest’ as a reason to discard disabled people, children, and pensioners who are unable to care for themselves. But is discarding the ‘useless eater’ (as Germany put it in propaganda posters during the 30’s) a true sign of survival, or is it a further symptom of socio-collapse?
I would argue that a society abandoning those who appear less fortunate is a society well on its way to destruction. The ‘fittest’ in our day and age usually means someone with a career and a hefty bank balance. We have been trained to worship the fiscal system. Anyone who cannot succeed in making money and paying taxes to the State is considered a waste of space and time. For the first time in history, the West has built care homes for the elderly and placed them outside the family unit to die rather than keep their elders close. We just don’t have the time to raise children, have careers, and take care of elderly people at the same time. We need the money that two-incomes-per-household can give us, and if there is a stay-at-home in the house, they’re merely being indulgent.
Many indigenous tribes treasure their elders, not because they continue to work (although some do) but because of the knowledge which they can impart to younger generations when harsh times threaten to overcome the tribe. The elders remember former droughts and where water could be found. They remember old skills others had nearly forgotten and re-teach these during hungry periods when the herds are overdue to return. Here in the UK, our elders remember the days before we had an NHS and a Welfare State – when their brothers and sisters died before they reached the age of five - and therefore can tell us exactly why such systems have to stay in place. They remember how to make preserves, to knit, to grow subsistence food, to churn butter: skills which many people don’t remember how to do anymore in their nine-to-five lives.
These are skills we are losing, and continue to lose every day we leave our elders to be cared for (and often neglected) by total strangers as they wait for their final release. We have forgotten why elders were valued in former days as we feel those days no longer apply to us. I grew up next door to a woman who was long forgotten by her family. I think she was just glad for the company, and we would go over regularly and be taught how to use her massive loom. We ate bread fresh from the oven with homemade jam and she told us stories about how she had worked her mother’s sewing machine by pushing the pedals by hand when her mother was paralysed by scarlet fever. For some reason, our parents forbade us eventually to go over to her home as they felt she ‘wanted peace’ from our visits. I can see now the visits from two young girls may have been the only thing she truly enjoyed during her later years. Eventually her own son (who, rumour had it, wanted to be able to make money selling the house) put her in a care home and she died, forgotten, in a bed that wasn’t hers.
That experience gave me impetus to learn forgotten arts – to learn to bake bread, to sew, to weave and spin, to make candles. I travelled across the country and learned from whomever could teach me a skill; smithing, welding, cheesemaking, soapmaking, hunting and trapping, brewing, milking and animal care. Most of the time people were just happy that I seemed to care. I would listen to the stories of their younger days and they gratefully passed their knowledge on to someone, as it was obvious their own children couldn’t be bothered.
A primary disabled campaigner says ‘We are all potentially disabled. Your life-changing moment just hasn’t happened yet.’ It’s a grim truth, but I grew up in the country and farm accidents are more common than many people care to admit. Every year a teenager in my high school would die in an agricultural or industrial accident. Several farmers would end up disabled when machinery malfunctioned. It happened. It was practically expected. So when my own life-changing moment came, I recognised it; I also ignored it. It happened. The fatigue and fevers I just ignored; society’s view of ‘survival of the fittest’ means you work until you drop – when you are no longer useful, society abandons you. Eventually, I dropped. I moved to the UK with my then-spouse and was actually grateful that here was a system which wouldn’t penalise me for being such a failure at living and contributing.
All this made the adjustment to being a stay-at-home easier, and even helped when the marriage dissolved. However, the almost constant stories recently about disabled fakers and people on benefits with mansions and ‘free’ cars have made walking around on the street as a disabled person not merely unpleasant, but downright dangerous. People in wheelchairs are being attacked in the street. I’ve had people sneer at my cane, claiming I’m too young to need one, and am therefore a liar. People have literally grabbed and physically assaulted my son for ‘misbehaving’ – he’s autistic, but there are still people who think there’s no such thing.
I suppose if I was truly unfit to live I’d have died of starvation and homelessness a few years ago. And it does seem our current government is trying to put disabled people out of our misery quietly to save a few pounds. But while other people struggle trying to feed a family on £20 a week, I have been able to do rather well for myself. I attribute this to my own brand of ‘survival of the fittest’ – using what I have learned to provide for myself and my son. I know how to brew. I can fill a pantry with my produce and plan ahead, and I can wildcraft and stockpike as needed. I can make my own clothes. I can hoard the money I do get due to contributing to National Insurance and use it to buy things because I know where the bargains are and how to make the most of it. It could be argued if it came down to real ‘survival’ I’d be the one who would win out, not the middle-class housewife who has to take a course to learn how to make stock. I have learned too many skills over the years to not manage to live quite comfortably and save a fortune at the same time. My garden is a mini-orchard of seven different kinds of fruit, the pantry is full to the brim, and I know who the local butchers are. Would other people know how to do this? Would they be able to survive if the banks crashed tomorrow? I do wonder.
This is a lesson which the eco movement still doesn’t seem to get, however. For all my knowledge, I am not considered the right ‘sort’ of downscaling person for many of the intentional communities out there. Even these groups of people who are looking to step away from the common crowd are still following the same pattern; one must be in one’s 30s, able-bodied and with large amounts of savings or income to bring into the fold. It has always baffled me why an intentional community would spend hundreds of pounds to have someone with a degree come and hold talks on how to raise pigs when they could instead bring in a former pig-farmer pensioner and care for them in exchange for their knowledge. I have a fair bit of know-how to share, but unfortunately my hands don’t work so well, nor my legs, and I certainly don’t have a huge nest-egg to add to the communal pot. I’ve had to give up on the eco-community dream and just do my bit alone.
Disabled people are seen as expensive wastes of time and funding. We seem to have ascribed to the myth that disabled people were killed by tribes or exposed to cold if they ever became problematic. However, there is more and more evidence through archaeological digs which seem to point out that the opposite was the case – a remarkable number of people with disabilities seem to have become the shamans or spiritual elders of their tribes. We keep digging up bodies laden with gifts and fetishes which also have skeletal abnormalities. I have spent a lot of time with the Lakotah in the US, and the old stories told by elders state very clearly that any child who had a physical disability (or was homosexual – called ‘two-souls’) was automatically trained to be the medicine person of the tribe. The myth of throwing disabled or elderly out in a blizzard during starving times was usually the elder’s personal decision to wander out to save the family. I never heard from one elder who could remember their tribe forcefully doing such a thing. Such occurrences only happened during extremely desperate times – and it was thought of as a huge tragedy, as the knowledge lost by losing an elder was a great blow to the tribe.
But why would a near-starving tribe cling to those our society is so quick to discard? I am reminded of the Captives in the book Hothouse: ’Because we cannot move well, we can think.’ Having the ‘leisure’ to think and come up with solutions to problems which plague us is where I’ve found the disabled excel. Over the past 18 months I became an advocate against the Welfare Reforms, and I have been blessed to meet staggeringly intelligent people who just happen to have a disability. In many cases they already possessed doctorates before their disabilities finally overcame them; in others they have pursued their degrees recently. Some have been disabled for life and have been unable to function in current civilisation, yet have nothing but time to apply their intellect to think tank-level problems. I am amazed at what a handful of disabled people can do, as the recent release of the Spartacus Report – a document which shook the government to the core – attests. This put more than half of the authors into hospital, but it was an amazing effort – an effort many have to hire committees to undertake.
I can say my working days as per current society’s ideas of “work” are over. There is no chance I’ll be able to work even a part time job again; the strain on my system is too heavy and society doesn’t care if the effort makes me ill. In an ideal world, I would be given food and shelter in exchange for stories and fables, for my knowledge of when to scrape the old yeast off the beer, and the difference between pitch-wood and knot-wood. My son (who has autism) may never be able to tend for himself, but his boundless enthusiasm and willingness to help would see him as a definite benefit to a community rather than a hindrance, if only a community could be convinced. I live in a very rural area now, and while the village is very wary of us “strangers” they’re starting to come round. I suspect a few batches of homebrew and a fresh baskets of redcurrants will help.
If we are to talk about the change required to survive coming days, then we must change our attitude to what “usefulness” truly means, and recognising that it may not be a completely physical ability. Of course, swinging a hammer is worthwhile and necessary – but so is knowing exactly where to hit.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.