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On Wednesday, thousands of Londoners marched in the streets against the government’s budget cuts to benefits for disabled people.

More than £9,000,000,000 of welfare cuts are planned over the next five years. Many people with serious health problems are going to be at risk of losing the support that makes life liveable, and even that which would help some of them get back to work.

The government are making the usual assurances, that those most in need will still be cared for. I’m not sure how this is going to be plausible, given how much is being cut – over 10% of the treasury’s entire deficit reduction plan is coming from these benefits alone.

And there are the usual objections being raised from the more cynical corners, about if all these people really need all that free money, and whether plenty of them wouldn’t be fine going back to work if the government weren’t letting them getting so complacent.

It’s not like there should be no oversight at all against those who are claiming what they don’t deserve, but it’s upsetting how much emphasis some people want to put on not letting benefit cheats get away with it, how quickly they’re inclined to rush to indignation, and how little of the conversation tends to focus on the thousands whose lives are dominated by debilitating conditions.

Especially when the amount of revenue lost to benefit fraud is dwarfed by the cost of tax avoidance and evasion.

We don’t seem to get snide about faceless corporations amassing billions in personal profit in quite the way we do about the thought that a working class family might not be working as hard as we are.

More on this from Christina Martin, Disability Awareness in Action, and the Guardian.

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There were some protests in London over the weekend, in which large numbers of people took to the streets to express their disapproval with some of the government’s policies.

You might have some less vague things to say about them yourself, if you’re better at assessing information than I am.

The protests – as is generally the case with everything up to and including live kitten transplants – have won support from some corners and criticism from others.

People’s analysis of the protests themselves has tended to correlate, in my amateur reckoning, with their opinions on the politics behind it. That is, people who hate the government generally find the reports and analyses which support the protestors’ effectiveness and moral superiority to be persuasive and well argued. And people who think the government shouldn’t have to put up with all this entitled whining while attempting to fix the country’s problems tend to be most convinced by reports which discredit the protestors’ credibility.

Which is something I could feel jolly smug about until I remembered that obviously I do exactly the same thing.

The lowest estimate I’ve seen for the number of people attending the protests has been 200,000. The highest estimate for the number of “anarchists” who deliberately caused violence and destruction is 500. Based on these, the proportion of the protestors who were being peaceful and reasonable and keeping within the law was at least 99.75%. Some media reports are accused of giving too much focus to the violent minority, as if the occasional small pocket of destruction was representative of the march as a whole. No doubt this sizeable group did have its violent thug contingent, but spend a moment trying to imagine what 200,000-500,000 people charging through central London would look like if they were all bent on property destruction and vandalism. I imagine it would be a bit more noticeable than a few broken windows.

I don’t have an estimate for what percentage of the police in the city were acting with similar benevolent calm to the majority of the crowd, but some members of UK Uncut claim that police lied about directing them towards safety and then arrested them when they were trying to leave peacefully.

This decidedly gets my anti-authoritarian hackles up. But there are numerous details I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nobody was everywhere in this crowd of hundreds of thousands of people. And posts like this go some way toward quelling my “Fuck the Police” inclinations.

At one point it was claimed by some that light-bulbs filled with ammonia were being thrown at police. It was later asked by others how you fill a light-bulb with ammonia, and whether there’s any reason to believe it actually happened. I have no idea how true this claim was.

And there’s plenty of scope for propaganda on the other side, too. I think it’s only a rumour, but a popular one, that people in the crowd were approached by certain news organisations and offered money if they would throw a brick. I’m cynical enough myself to admit that it’s possible that someone might try that as a way of stirring up some more exciting footage, but it’s also the kind of thing which, if you’re part of a large crowd, it’s very easy to just say happened to you without having to back it up. It might even seem like a pretty harmless rumour to spread, if you want to discredit the news reports which, anyway, are totally misrepresenting your cause.

Laurie Penny was in the midst of it somewhere, and reports a largely non-violent demonstration, often being shoved around and mistreated by the police. At one point, she describes how “both sides begin to panic”, and I imagine that’s true. It takes a certain courage to stand up for what you feel is important in the face of possible arrest and incarceration… but it’s also got to be pretty scary staring a thousands-strong angry mob full in the face when you know that you’re the ones supposed to be in charge of keeping things under control, and that you’re hugely outnumbered.

Charon QC has some thoughts on Laurie Penny’s position on political violence. I’m not especially fond of the tone in which he describes “celebrity tweeters” (scare italics his), and the way he asked for a clarification of her position didn’t indicate much respect for it, and seemed to imply that his own mind was more or less made up.

Still, it does merit further questioning if she’s going to ambiguously tweet her support of certain forms of political “violence”. There might be a reasonable point buried in there which she could explain, but it’s important to be very specific about what you’re saying when endorsing any “violence” in the middle of a discussion about banks and shops having bricks thrown through their windows.

Incidentally, Charon QC is curiously incredulous at Laurie Penny’s suggestion that “smashing a window is not the same thing as violence”, and is prompted by this to doubt whether she is a “sensible journalist”. Except she’s quite obviously right. The two things are not equal at all. There are many ways to be violent without smashing a window, and it’s quite possible to smash a window without being particularly violent – as a necessary part of refurbishing your own house, for instance. He goes on to assert that “Violence is against the law… and it should be… in all its forms”. This would be rather dismaying news to the professional boxers, wrestlers, martial arts competitors, and movie stunt-men of the world.

Hey, it definitely felt like I was having an opinion by the end there. I was being more sarcastic, which is usually a good sign that I’m starting to feel like I know what I’m talking about. I hope this doesn’t mean I’ve chosen my side in this battle, though. That sounds dangerous.

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God, the economy’s depressing.

“We’re all in this together” has been the rallying cry of the government in recent months, as a way of urging the poor and the disabled to stop moaning about how much extra financial burden they’re having to bear these days, while corporation tax is cut and the banks are still doing well enough to hand out billions of pounds in bonuses.

None of what I’m saying is original or new. This is all widely understood – so much so that it’s somehow become boring. I can’t be the only one getting some kind of inequality horror fatigue by this point. It’s either that or go insane.

I’m pretty sure my brain really does tune a lot of this reality out quite frequently, assuring itself that since nobody I know is yet at the point of being evicted from their hole in the ground everything must be basically okay. Even if it is evidently all terrible.

But a recent interview on the Little Atoms radio show with Johann Hari made it all seem crushingly real again. His passion is surely a more important and commendable approach to all this bollocks than my own numbed stupor, but the very strong impression that there’s nothing I can really do about any of this myself is a big part of the problem.

But, right though he is to be inflamed to action by the injustice at work, I think Johann sometimes had his focus in the wrong place.

For instance. It’s been calculated that Vodafone have avoided paying £6 billion in tax. There’s a lot of dispute over that figure, and I can’t find anything which promises to resolve with any certainty how accurate it really is. But it’s not in dispute that tax avoidance is a massive issue, corresponding to a huge amount of potential revenue. The kind of revenue that might be handy to bother collecting at a time when things are so tight we’re having to close public libraries to save every penny we can.

Johann highlights the work done by protesters against Vodafone, who have picketed stores and drawn a great deal of media attention to the issue of tax avoidance, comparing just how much money could be collected from corporations in comparison with what’s being cut from welfare, and how this “tax gap” dwarfs even the billions lost to, say, the benefit fraud that so enrages the tabloids in this country.

And I totally share his admiration for these people, whose pro-activity puts me to shame, and who have done such consistent work to keep these issues a prominent part of the public discussion. They’re heroes who give me hope that we might somehow get through this.

But, aside from the important publicity and general raising of my spirits, I don’t think their current methods are going to achieve what they want to achieve.

The problem with tax “avoidance” (rather than illegal “evasion”) is that of funds being funnelled through loopholes, such that the letter of the law is obeyed while any sense of justice or fairness or proportionality is entirely sidestepped. Topshop owner Philip Green, for example, gave his wife a billion pounds, so that he could avoid paying any tax on it at all (she lives in Monaco, presumably for this exact purpose).

Topshop were protested as well, with campaigners turning up at branches with placards and demanding that the fat cats cough up. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have worked yet.

And the thing is, it shouldn’t surprise us that it hasn’t.

The protesters are urging companies to pay more taxes than they currently legally have to. Many of these companies no doubt should pay more taxes than they currently legally have to. But corporations don’t have guilt. That’s a people thing. They exist only to succeed as businesses, and they have no civic pride to appeal to.

Right now, it just doesn’t make sense for Vodafone to hand over billions of pounds when they don’t have to, no matter how much it might help the country, or how much some other people insist they ought to. And a few branches being closed down for a day by protesters isn’t going to make nearly enough of a dent in their finances that it becomes worth their while to give in to their substantial demands.

Corporations don’t pay tax because an informal social movement insists that they ought to, or because it’ll help provide useful public services for non-shareholders.

What makes a corporation pay its taxes is the knowledge that, if it doesn’t, men with guns will physically remove the CEO from his office and lock him in a cage.

And the problem is that this isn’t happening, either because the tax-dodging going on isn’t illegal, or because the rules against it aren’t being legally enforced. And the people who ought to be doing something about this are the politicians and law-makers.

I’m not saying UK Uncut doesn’t know this, or that the protests that do target the corporations themselves are futile – as I’ve said, they are fantastically attention-grabbing and do a lot to keep this sentiment relevant. But it’s worth being aware which goals are likely to result from which strategies, especially considering the limited potential of appealing to a faceless business entity’s “better nature”.

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On Twitter yesterday, Graham Linehan raised some concerns about the tone of the Protest The Pope campaign. He was more careful, measured, and reasonable than most complainants, and raised some points worth considering. I still don’t think there’s anything to panic about myself, but he mooted the question in a way that expressed the possibility of legitimate concerns.

Ben Goldacre responded, in part, as follows:

not sure if there were others, but the one i spoke at was focused on equality and diversity, and challenging discrimination…

coverup of child rape, and campaigns against condoms. it was misrepped as anti religion by bbc and others, which is sad.

if antipope protests consist only of atheists, thats because christians failed to speak out about these problems. source of sadness

There’s definitely a place for a discussion about the role of the atheist movement in protests like this, and making sure that a campaign against widespread child abuse doesn’t turn into some sort of atheist crusade. None of my recent moaning about this should be interpreted as an attempt to quash dissent.

As it happens, the impression I get is that atheism was far less of a theme for most protesters than you might be led to believe by much of the campaign’s media coverage. But there’s nothing wrong with being kept on our toes to make sure we don’t wander too far down that path in future.

However, even given that secularist or atheist sentiment might have been running strong in places, how much is it really on non-religious shoulders to make protesting the Pope “accessible” to those who aren’t part of the atheist crowd?

Even people who don’t support the atheist effort claim to abhor the actions of many high-ranking members of the Catholic church. But if those actions are more important than the smug tone of some atheists (which I think would be hard to deny), what’s stopping them from protesting anyway? Why have Christians apparently failed to speak out about this, in such large numbers?

Personally, I’d welcome some Catholics standing up to condemn atrocities perpetrated by members of their church. And for all that some commentators have tried to paint him as the manic leader of a band of zealots, I’m convinced that Dawkins would too.

But if the religious majority aren’t willing to take a strong position against child abuse, just because some atheists are getting a little rowdy, how much do they really care?

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