Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist is the 2022 debut feature of independent British filmmaker Brett Gregory. Despite being made for a next to nothing budget in the middle of a global pandemic this modernist, Manchester-set and semi-autobiographical movie, the culmination of several years’ hard work on Gregory’s part, has gone on to win over fifty international film awards and nominations in over twenty different countries, including best feature, best director, best actor, best cinematography and best soundtrack. That has done so is nothing short of remarkable.
Brett Gregory’s timely and vitally critical film production was unable to secure funding from investors or support from traditional distributors. In turn, the predominantly right-wing mainstream media in the UK have made no attempt to report on Gregory’s film, analyse it or promote it, despite both its success and its availability on Amazon Prime in the UK and the US. In the face of such apathy, you could argue that Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist would feel like a fitting title, where it not for the fact that the film continues to find an audience and plaudits. it’s gaining traction now in America with the Jacobin in particular hailing the production as ‘the best film about working-class Britain in years.’ Will the US take heed of the critical warning inherent in Gregory’s film?
Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist is a film about the decline of the working class beyond the crumbling ‘Red Wall’ of the North of England during the Covid 19 crisis. With that in mind and, given the time in which the film has been made, you will expect to hear the B word – Brexit. But Gregory is an astute enough politically motivated filmmaker to know that the rot had set in for the post-industrial Northern classes long before self-serving xenophobic opportunists like Farage and Johnson began to manipulate events. Charting his own life on film via Jack, his protagonist avatar – portrayed at three distinct stages of his life: a lonely, grieving middle-aged man in the present day (David Howell), a young, pill-popping student in 1992 (James Ward), and a pre-pubescent boy in 1984 (Reuben Clarke) – Gregory explores the devastation wrought upon the UK over the last forty plus years. Brexit is just a side-show, the natural conclusion to the real culprit – neoliberalism.
To understand the source of the tragedy that the UK has now become we need not turn to Margaret Thatcher’s landslide Conservative victory in 1979 (though that is a significant moment of course), but instead to Switzerland in 1947. Across from Lake Geneva stands the village of Mont Pèlerin and the 1906 built, Belle Époque style Hotel Du Parc, the setting for the foundation of the imaginatively titled Mont Pèlerin Society, an international organisation advocating freedom of expression, free market economic policies and the transfer of operational power from government entities to private contractors. Among the society’s founders were tweedy, Viennese professor Freidrich Hayek and Brooklyn-born Milton Friedman and it was they, along with their assembled economists, academics and business leaders, who laid the foundations for a new global direction in the aftermath of WWII. (Although Hayek himself predicted that their ideas would take a generation before coming to fruition.)
“Over large stretches of the Earth’s surface the essential conditions of human dignity and freedom have already disappeared. In others they are under constant menace from the development of current tendencies of policy. The position of the individual and the voluntary group are progressively undermined by extensions of arbitrary power. Even that most precious possession of Western Man, freedom of thought and expression, is threatened by the spread of creeds which, claiming the privilege of tolerance when in the position of a minority, seek only to establish a position of power in which they can suppress and obliterate all views but their own” – Statement of Aims, Mont Pèlerin, April 8th, 1947.
The monetarist ideas laid out by the Mont Pèlerin Society were starkly at odds with the common consensus for how an economy – and therefore, a society – was run up until that point. John Maynard Keynes had died a year prior to Hayek’s meeting on the shores of Lake Geneva. A British born bisexual campaigner for women’s rights, Keynes had come to spearhead a revolution in economic thinking in the wake of the Great Depression and had sought to control capitalism to ensure that the wider society was considered as much as individual profiteering. This control of market forces was widely embraced by Western civilisation until the 1970s when a period of stagflation began to hit. By this point, Hayek’s argument in favour of an unfettered market whose ‘invisible hand’ would lead the West out of a seemingly unending economic crisis and lead to a ‘trickle down’ effect to benefit all, had governments around the world sitting up and taking notice.
In Chile, newly installed General Auguste Pinochet courted the advice of Friedman – a man who once described socialism as absurd – and used brutal, bloody dictatorial powers to shift the nation away from the inflation-heavy free spending policies initiated by his murdered predecessor, the democratically elected socialist politician Salvador Allende. In the US, the future president Ronald Reagan, a man who believed the scariest sentence in the world to be “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”, begun to favour Hayek’s economic principles thanks to his advisor, and one of Hayek’s early supporters, Barry Goldwater. Whilst in the UK the Conservative party of Margaret Thatcher, still licking their wounds from their defeat at the hands of the miners in 1974, naturally saw considerable appeal in the argument outlined by Hayek in his 1960 publication, The Constitution of Liberty, i.e. that regulation, state provision and trade union activity was counter-productive to an efficient economic system. Just one year after the election defeat of Ted Heath, Thatcher invited Hayek to a private meeting at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. It was a meeting that led Hayek to remark of the future Conservative Prime Minister “She’s so beautiful” and had Thatcher holding her copy of The Constitution of Liberty aloft in shadow cabinet meetings, thundering “This is what we believe”.
Following her momentous victory in 1979, Milton Friedman was called upon to serve as Thatcher’s economic advisor, a role he performed throughout her eleven-year tenure, whilst Patrick Minford, a young economics professor at Liverpool University was positioned as an advisor to the treasury. Across the 1980s, Friedman extolled the virtues of monetarist ‘shock treatment’ to the Tories and the nation faced the brunt of such shock and awe as state-owned industries were sold off, unemployment sky-rocketed to above three million and interest rates were reduced in order to reduce the amount of money in circulation. Meanwhile Minford, argued against state intervention and favoured individualism, citing in his ‘Liverpool model’, that the city which provided him with work – the city just along the M6 from Gregory’s Manchester – was the embodiment of a ‘British disease’ of too much union influence and socialist ideals. In 1984 Thatcher set her sights on the National Union of Mineworkers, the biggest and most powerful union in the UK. Drawing up plans for a mass closure of pits, she decimated them over a twelve-month period of industrial action as revenge for their embarrassing defeat a decade earlier. Neoliberalism was born.
In 1981, when rioting swept Britain, many cited that the spark that lit the fuse was the growing hopelessness and disenfranchisement that young people felt as a result of the inequality and unemployment that neoliberalism had created. The Secretary for Employment Norman Tebbit (a man who believed that any criticism of the government was some kind of Marxist plot) swatted aside these legitimate concerns with a now infamous speech that related how, in the 1930s, his unemployed father “didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it”. In the first flashback of Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist we meet the child iteration of Jack (played by Reuben Clarke, a juvenile talent whose face moves from cherubic innocence to snarling defiance with an imperceptible ease that is reminiscent of a change in the cloud formation) walking the foothills of the Pennines in the shadow of the Stoodley Pike monument, a 121 foot erection that proudly and defiantly towers above what was once the cradle of the industrial revolution, piercing the skyline in commemoration of the Crimean War.
But now it is 1984, and another war is taking place in the UK, one which pits Thatcher’s government against a section of the working class whom she refers to as the ‘enemy within’ – miners on strike against the prospect of mass pit closures and the unemployment that would follow. In young Jack’s monologue we learn that his abusive stepfather, a former paratrooper, has taken heed of Tebbit’s words and got on his bike to look for work in the pits, supplanting his family from the South of England to the North. It’s a move that has been spectacularly ill-timed, as the miners take their industrial action in an attempt to save the pits that are earmarked for closure. With no opportunity to provide for his family, we learn that the stepdad is rendered an impotent figure whose frustrations are taken out physically upon Jack, whilst his wife begins to take lovers. Confused and embittered, Jack is often left with no recourse but to take to the hills for escape.
Another escape route open to Jack is the world of books. He remarks that he recently purchased Orwell’s Animal Farm for ten pence; “That’s cheaper than a newspaper” he proclaims, almost in awe. Indeed, it is the cost of the nation’s biggest tabloid, the Rupert Murdoch owned The Sun newspaper, was just 16p in 1984. It’s possibly indicative of how cheap culture is considered in Thatcher’s Britain, but it’s true that public libraries were still a thing back then. Today, almost 800 have been closed in the UK since the Tories came to power in 2010 – incidentally Gregory and/or Jack will no doubt be familiar with Chetham’s Library which still stands by Manchester Victoria train station. It was established in 1653 by Lancashire wool magnate Humphrey Chetham who bequeathed £1,000 to create a library in his name. That was the way of things back then; you made a bit, you gave a bit back. Now you make a bit and you ensure it goes into offshore tax havens. Back in the early ‘80s ex-library stock would be easy to source among the second-hand paperback market that complimented the prodigious cheap book market overall. But it’s ultimately a damning indictment that, when faced with the choice, the masses would willingly pay extra for the state-approved lies told about them by billionaire media barons.
This sequence also affords us our first glimpse of Jack being different. He’s already been earmarked by his contemporaries at school and on the council estate as being different for a perceived ‘posh’ southern twang inherent in his accent, but he sets himself further apart by having an insatiable curiosity and a thirst for education. The northern working class possess an ingrained mentality of toughness, it’s in the DNA stretching all the way back to the industrial revolution when work was hard and workers thus had to be harder. Jack’s thirst for education comes to fruition in the second flashback which sees him as a jittery, drug- taking university student played, with an in-your-face quality, by James Ward. Though it is now 1992 we need to go a little bit further back in time to understand the context.
The post-war consensus is a term defined by the belief in the aftermath of WWII that society needs to be improved upon for the benefit of all. The 1944 Education Act rightly recognised the importance of education in raising living standards and encouraging social mobility. With that in mind they ensured children continued in secondary education, mandating compulsory attendance until the age of fifteen (and subsequently sixteen). As the Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson said upon taking up her role as education secretary in Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government, her aim was “to see no boy or girl is debarred from taking the course of education for which he or she is qualified…and to remove from education those class distinctions which are the negation of democracy”. And where was Wilkinson from? Chorlton. Barely four miles from Manchester. Almost twenty years later the Education Act of 1962 was passed, giving local education authorities a mandate to provide students attending full time degree courses with a maintenance grant. This effectively meant that a university education was free as no repayment was ever required. This led to a great increase in the number of students entering university, many of whom would have been unable to afford higher education prior to this act.
The Act did for higher education what Wilkinson’s policy implementation did for secondary education, with a generation of young people finding that a university education was a right available to all. However, the Act was repealed by the New Labour government in 1998 in favour of tuition fees. This system effectively means that students must pay for their own education, with rates initially standing at £1,000 per year, they are presently capped at £9,250 per year in England. Students and graduates are expected to pay interest fees on student loans, with interest being added to the loan from when the first payment is made. These interest rates have been progressively rising in recent years and, in 2017, Labour peer Lord Adonis, a former Blairite education minister whose responsibility it was to introduce the fees, told The Guardian newspaper that he had created “a Frankenstein’s monster” putting students in debt to the tune of £50,000. Likewise, in 2019, the party under Jeremy Corbyn revealed that government figures indicated that students can be expected to own £8.6bn in interest alone on their loans within five years.
But Jack too is in debt in 1992. Though Thatcher is out and John Major in, her policies of neoliberalism remained. To maintain any kind of quality of life on his meagre grant, Jack resorts to applying for a credit card which is freely given to him by the bank. He seems almost amazed to reveal that on receipt of the card he “blew a grand in three weeks”. The ‘80s mentality of living well even if you couldn’t actually afford to has led to a ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ style economics which, when combined with Jack’s enquiring mind and the free time on his hands between lectures, inevitably leads to the counter-cultural aspects of university life, i.e. drugs and alcohol.
As we see in the 2020 sequences, despite wanting to capitalise on his innate intelligence and playing by the rules and ‘bettering himself’ by gaining a university degree, Jack’s life has not improved at all. This is because the life that Jack created for himself was built on the weak foundations of our neoliberalist society. Since economic values are placed higher than any other value social mobility can work both ways and middle-aged Jack (a mesmerising David Howell) becomes a victim of neoliberalism. As a result of the banking crash of 2008 and the Tory austerity measures that were quickly initiated, Jack loses his job as a lecturer, his popular appeal with students and (more specifically) his face, not fitting with his superiors or the then Education Secretary Michael Gove’s cost-effective (a euphemism for cutbacks) limited vision for education. Once again, with the Tories in power, we are bearing witness to the cheapening of arts and culture – this reached its nadir when in 2020 Boris Johnson’s government launched (and swiftly axed) a lamentable and insulting ad campaign based on retraining featuring ‘Fatima the ballerina’ whose “next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet)”. Plunged back into poverty and the dole queue, Jack’s mental health suffers and his addictive personality resurfaces just as the final nail in the coffin his hammered home – the Covid 19 pandemic and a devastating bereavement.
Audiences may wonder why Jack does not seek help to escape his demons – though it is worth pointing out that he has clearly visited a GP at some stage as a packet of Citalopram is seen in his flat alongside the ever-present bottle of self-medicating/self-destructive vodka. He also, we are told, reaches out to the Samaritans (the charity established in 1953 aimed at providing emotional support to anyone in emotional distress or at risk of suicide) only to find that the volunteer at the other end of the phone is as intoxicated as he is. But the sad fact is that mental health – and particularly men’s mental health – remains a stigma in Western society, arguably because to admit you are struggling places you at odds with the neoliberal capitalist framework of working hard, earning money. This also taps into the alpha-male hang-ups associated with working class men, after all ‘big boys don’t cry’ and they are forever expected to ‘man up’. Men’s mental health is a significant issue in the North of England, where unemployment is higher than in the South.
As an example, I live in St Helens, a town some twenty-seven miles from Manchester which was once famous for its coal-mining and glass-making. When the neoliberalist policies of Thatcher’s government deindustrialised the town by closing down the pits, the glassworks were sold to foreign investors and the town was hit by a surge in unemployment. Not for these men the safety net of a retraining scheme such as the one allegedly awaiting ‘Fatima the ballerina’. The best for them was menial work or years on benefit. Their incomes slashed, the social clubs that once served as the hub of the community could no longer afford to stay open, and the heart of such towns was systematically and ruthlessly ripped out. With no sense of purpose or identity anymore, these men began to suffer mentally and, with no investments being made in those former productive towns, their children’s inheritance was a place in the dole queue alongside them. Figures released in 2018 by the Office of National Statistics confirmed that my hometown had the highest rates of suicide in England and Wales based on suicides per 100,000 population. The suicide capital of the UK naturally has its home in the North of England. Unable to ask for the help he needs, Jack is last seen climbing towards a windswept Stoodley Pike, dragging a suitcase as a likely metaphor for his emotional baggage. Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist appreciates that the pursuit of a better, meaningful life is a Sisyphean ordeal Jack has been, like so many working class men and women, sentenced to.
The effects of Thatcherism are still keenly felt to this day and will continue to do so for as long as neoliberalist policy remains the key defining economic principle – which it does, not only for the Conservatives in power but also for Sir Keir Starmer’s ineffective, capitalist- appealing ‘opposition’. It personally astounds me that a theory that has only been implemented for as long as this writer has been alive (almost forty-four years) is held up by politicians, the media, business and establishment-approved scholars almost as nature’s law or a tenet of British life that stretches back to the Magna Carta. Neoliberalism is nothing more than an experiment, and one that has been shown to have repeatedly failed across the decades. Even in its formative years neoliberalism was not the shot in the arm many of its supporters would claim; Thatcher’s economic growth in the so-called ‘80s ‘boom’ remained at 2.4%, the exact same figure it had stagnated to in the ‘70s sickly decline of Keynesian economics. In just two years Thatcher’s deflation programme destroyed the British manufacturing industry, the projected productivity miracle still failing to materialise today.
To put its crimes in proper context let’s consider the fact that, in the final years of Keynesian economics in the UK, the country had a national debt of £80bn and its assets – transport, mail, oil, water, gas, electricity, the NHS – were state-owned. Now the country has no assets: the NHS, for example, is becoming increasingly privatised along the lines of a US style insurance-based health care model (and perversely at a time when calls for public health care is growing in America) and the national debt currently stands at £2.5 trillion. Neoliberalism has failed. It simply does not work. It is this scene of near-internecine devastation, this salting of the battlefields, that Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist is depicted against; a landscape of communities decimated and hollowed out by the decline of industry and the disregard for arts and culture and its positive impact upon working class lives.
Director Brett Gregory knows that neoliberalism is not an economic principle that benefits all, and it was never intended to be either. Neoliberalism is the last gasp of late-stage capitalism, a free-for-all plunder of resources that ensure that billions of pounds are routinely handed over to the wealthiest and most privileged in society whilst the most disadvantaged and vulnerable foot the bill. During the Covid pandemic that Gregory’s film depicts many of the UK’s leading politicians on both sides of the House were heard to say that the crisis must be treated as a kind of ‘spirit of ‘45’ post-war style opportunity to progress away from how things had been run prior to this point. Three years on and the falsehood of such words is utterly apparent to all. Rishi Sunak’s government are on course for austerity 2.O whilst Keir Starmer’s Labour party are citing Covid as a reason to drop the Corbynite anti-austerity stance and the associated pledges that Starmer was elected upon because “things have changed”.
Neoliberalism is killing the working class because the working class simply cannot thrive, cannot be sustained, and cannot exist in this system any longer.
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