The US humourist Tom Lehrer famously greeted the news that Henry Kissinger had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 by declaring that satire was dead. The sponsorship of the 2012 Paralympic Games by Atos provokes a similar sentiment. For this is the very corporation that has been responsible for throwing hundreds of thousands of people with physical and mental impairments into the trauma of a compulsory ‘work capability assessment’ with the clearly political objective of slashing the benefits bill.
Terminally ill? What kind of excuse is that? Get to work. Tragically, the callous and frequently incompetent assessments have resulted in a spate of suicides. Welcome to the Paralympics, in association with the people who are making the lives of disabled people a living hell.
No doubt the Games will see a chorus of fatuous right-wing commentators saying that it shows what the disabled are capable of doing when they put their minds to something (with the pig-ignorant implication that most disabled people are just too lazy to work or live independently). Competitors from across the world will be coming to a country where disabled people are facing a media-fuelled climate of hostility that has seen disability hate crime reach record levels and an unprecedented series of government attacks, the latest of which include the plan to scrap the disability living allowance and the closure of at least half the Remploy factories, throwing thousands of disabled people out of work.
While the rich reward themselves with tax cuts and the banks carry on as normal, the people most in need of assistance from the state are punished for a crisis they had nothing to do with creating. It really is enough to make you scream. (Ironically, a version of Munch’s iconic painting parodied on our cover has just been sold for $119.9 million to a billionaire New York financier.)
But the scream is only the beginning. Because although they might be in a vulnerable position, the role played by disabled groups, far from being one of passive victims, is exemplary for the forceful and innovative forms of activism – both online and offline – and for the ability to lead collective resistance and direct action against the cuts. As we go to press, plans are in preparation to make the experience of disabled people in Britain visible to the international media coming over to cover the Paralympics. So, too, disabled activists will be an important constituency in mobilising for the TUC‑organised demonstration in October. This will be a key opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of popular opposition to the policies of a government that is failing so manifestly, even on its own terms.
David Cameron and George Osborne will be praying that a ‘good’ Olympics distracts everyone’s attention from the incompetence and divisions of the coalition government, which, following the defeat of the Lib Dems’ timetable for Lords reform, appears to be fracturing. Another satirist, Juvenal, mocked the politics of his day for consisting of little more than ‘bread and circuses’. Well, we’ve certainly had our share of circuses in 2012, starting with the queen’s diamond jubilee.
With the likes of Boris Johnson centre stage, all the world can see that Britain is a gold medallist at putting posh buffoons into positions of power. But beneath the fake union-jack-and-beefeaters image of Britishness beloved of the tourist industry (and how much ownership will Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and even the English regions feel towards the Olympics?), the reality of life in many parts of 21st-century Britain is grim. How many tourists will make it to those parts of the capital that saw an eruption of rioting, arson and looting this time last year? And how many people from the estates that border on the Olympic Park will have been able to afford a ticket to get inside? This corporate circus clearly isn’t meant for the likes of them.
This is the London the world isn’t meant to see. Families on housing benefit in the capital are being forced out of their homes, some of them out of the city entirely, to places where they have no connections whatsoever. Others are dependent on food parcels to feed themselves. Unemployed young people are forced to work without pay for corporations with turnovers running into billions just to retain their benefits. Cheek-by-jowl with child poverty, unemployment and homelessness sits the extreme affluence of city traders and mega-rich Russian oligarchs. And let’s not forget the Square Mile, international home of corrupt banking and the ‘wild west’ of deregulated financial services.
Of course, Britain is far from alone in experiencing the brutal effects of austerity. If things are bad here, how much worse is it for the Greek people, many of whom can’t even get vital medicines on prescription, while fascists openly threaten violence to immigrant communities? Despite the election of the conservative New Democracy party, the rise of Syriza shows that it is possible to build popular support for an alternative to austerity through active community organising and practical solidarity initiatives. It means challenging assumptions and self-consciously seeking to empower and involve groups who lie beyond the reach of traditional structures of workplace representation, just as the Unite union is tentatively attempting in the UK. As the example of disability activism shows, what at first sight might seem like barriers to effective action can in fact provide the stimuli for creative and innovative forms of resistance.
Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.