Thursday, 20 February 2014

Why are Welfare Cuts a Moral Crusade?

Can't find employment and dread the fortnightly grilling down the job centre? Can't afford the bedroom tax so have to rely on food banks to get you and yours through the week? At the end of your tether because you're waiting an age for the appeal against your Work Capability Assessment decision, which found you fit for work when your doctor and consultant both have prescribed nothing but rest? Well, chin up. These humiliations all come from a compassionate place. You see, Dave's on a mission. A moral mission.

Taking time out from dithering over the floods to rebut the soon-to-be Cardinal Nichols, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Dave refused to accept that his government's cuts to social security have made life harder for those who rely on it. After all, IBS has ensured there will be no cumulative impact assessment for those hit by whammy after whammy of 1% "rises", the effective abolition of total council tax relief, the bedroom tax, and the chopping down of tax credits - no facts will rudely intrude upon Dave's caring reverie. Here is our caring, sharing prime minister in his own words:
Our long-term economic plan for Britain is not just about doing what we can afford, it is also about doing what is right ... Nowhere is that more true than in welfare. For me the moral case for welfare reform is every bit as important as making the numbers add up ... That means difficult decisions to get our deficit down, making sure that the debts of this generation are not our children's to inherit ... But our welfare reforms go beyond that alone - they are about giving new purpose, new opportunity, new hope - and yes, new responsibility to people who had previously been written off with no chance ... Seeing these reforms through is at the heart of our long-term economic plan - and it is at the heart too of our social and moral mission in politics today.
How cutting public spending and keeping your fingers crossed makes an "economic plan" is something this LibDem-supported Tory government still hasn't explained two months short of its fourth anniversary. But let's park that up - we can go for a spin in it another time. What interests me here is the thin gruel that passes for high Conservative philosophy.

Essentially, people, or rather, the lower orders, are thick and lazy. And when below stairs people occasionally get bored living a brute existence, they have the potential to be dangerous. Hence the men and women Conservatism addresses itself to - the aristocrats, the rich, the business folk, the people who've clambered out of the herd - they are ultimately responsible for looking after them. They know the people's interests better than the people themselves. What is good for them is hard graft. It toughens them up, gives meaning to their lives. Forces them to "contribute". The devil makes work for idle hands, and all that. Underpinning this is an incredibly narrow view of human nature. We are acquisitive animals. Since we came down from the trees, our first acts were to barter and exchange, to compete and kill for the nicest caves or the plushest savannah. The herd with their tacky soap operas, footy fixations and binge-drinking still respond to material incentives above all else (an article of faith that must have had Osborne scratching his head after next to no firms, let alone workers, responded to his shares-for-rights wheeze).

People might be greedy. But they want to do the bare minimum for it. Which is why social security is so dangerous. Permanent mass unemployment that scars busts and booms is a social pathology. The contradictions of capitalism are not to blame, but rather the welfare state offers incentives to be idle. You've heard the rhetoric - the so-called "something for nothing" culture. If you believe the spin, the last Labour government was a golden age for living it up on the taxpayer. There were no sanctions regimes, no mandatory work programmes, no work capability assessment. Apparently. The thing is, despite the tenor of their baying hounds in the press, people who live on social security can't help it. Not because there's never enough jobs to go around - that never causes unemployment. No, their acquisitive, lazy natures mean they are powerless to resist the material signals the state are putting out. By taking its money, they're inviting bureaucratic interference into places where the state shouldn't go (a critique nicked from the left, actually). It's infantilising them, robbing them of responsibility for their own self-provision. It's a route to a consequence-free existence, which immediately problematises society's moral foundations. Single parenthood, promiscuity, and crime are just some examples of what welfarism unwittingly encourages.

This is why, for Dave, cutting social security is a moral crusade. Taking money from out-of-work support kickstarts the instinct for self-preservation. It's not about kicking poor people. It's the administration of unpleasant medicine that will, in the long run, make them better. Just like that, cutting dole, housing benefit and council tax support, can transform lives. From skiver to striver, the feckless start making something of themselves. They improve. Their communities improve. The moral rectitude of the social fabric improves. And the public finances um, improve. This is why Dave and IBS fight shy of the evidence that cuts are having. They don't need to know it hurts because they believe it works.

NB Nearly everyone with half a brain has spotted the great knotty loop in Tory thinking. If the poor respond positively to the negative incentive of cutting money, then why do the rich - who have plenty of cash anyway - squirrel their wealth away and dodge tax than rather hand it to the state? It comes back to different incentives working on different situations. Because the rich have (presumably) built their fortune themselves, it is just reward for their efforts. If society is to continue benefiting from their superhuman feats, they need unfettered access to the wealth they produce. Hence taxation, in which the state takes a chunk of their rewards legally but, morally speaking, unjustifiably acts as a disincentive to keep working. And not just for the entrepreneur, but for up and coming business people too. However well intentioned taxation is, it deeply damages the good society. This is why many Tory politicians are genuinely stumped by the real public anger toward tax avoidance, and are utterly blind to the political damage it causes them.

Hence different signals sent by government and society, which appear inconsistent, make sense within the terms established by conservative thought. Removing state support for the poorest forces them on to the normative path of success out of necessity. But when they do succeed, society will reward them by allowing them to keep as much of their money as possible.

Elegant, heartless, self-serving nonsense, is it not?


Speedy said...

"It's infantilising them, robbing them of responsibility for their own self-provision. It's a route to a consequence-free existence, which immediately problematises society's moral foundations. Single parenthood, promiscuity, and crime are just some examples of what welfarism unwittingly encourages."

You say this as if it isn't true but it is - I have witnessed it time and time again.

You are making a false comparison. Look - the problem with socialism is that it attempts to coexist within a capitalist society. Therefore there will always be an unhappy tension, ie corruption, inequality etc. Surely the point is to try to decrease this.

Reforming social security is a class issue - you have to get the working class working again so they can participate fully in society and assert their power. The benefits system sought to turn many of them in to Epsilons looking forward to their next dose of soma, while New Labour imported millions of more "deserving" poor. A crime against the British working class perpetrated by both parties which feared their power.

The assessment process simply needs to be fair - support and encourage families in need but force the idlers to get off their arses. Introduce a bit of subjectivity. Enough with political correctness (another dose of Gramscian poison). If they still refuse to work put them to work. They might get the message.

Anonymous said...

Standard lefty promotion of false consciousness in the poor. "You are helpless, dependent, supplicant to the state. All your needs will be provided by the state but don't get ideas above your station. And the council will tell you what colour you can paint your state provided council house door. " simple fact is self reliant self supporting independent people are less pliable to state and lefty bureaucratic bullying. They are also happier. This false consciousness of futile helplessness is actively harmful to those who suffer it . Putting people in a position where they have to take responsibility and seek to do something about their situation is a positive good. Not trolling, genuine belief from personal experience. Best wishes.

asquith said...

Exactly what should the unemployed be put to work doing, Speedy? What actvity is there that (a) benefits society and (b) can be done by coerced people better than employees?

I am not minded to have people giving Poundland free labour, so they won't need to pay their staff, merely out of some conviction that people should damn well be doing their 40 hours a week regardless of how little use or value it is to anyone.

I myself work hard, in private-sector employment, but my job contributes nothing at all to humanity and is useful solely to me (for bills) and my boss (for profits). I can offer and contribute more in my voluntary roles.

What we need is a liberal order of a basic income, no taxes on low-paid workers and far less means-testing. There are worse things than paying child benefit to higher-rate tax payers (such as the obvious resentment it causes just above the line and the disinclination of those just below it to earn more). One of the main problems I had with Brown, and I've since realised the coalition are no better, is the merciless extension of means-testing.

That way, coercion in the workplace will be reduced, but also people will actually want to do low-paid jobs as they can quite clearly see the point therein.

One thing I do agree on is that IDS is quite clearly interested in the "morality" side of things than anything else. He thinks it is even more important than saving money, which is where the under-reported tension between him and Ozzy Osborne comes from.

Anonymous said...

@Speedy - "force the idlers of their arses"? I assume you refer to the rich tax avoiders and evaders and the Royal Family here? As for the rest, there (deliberately) isn't enough work to go round. 5 into 1 doesn't go, ergo you have a desperate underclass and an employer's market where wages are driven down and workers' rights eroded - exactly what we always see under the Tories.

Kate Rigby said...

@Speedy - "force the idlers of their arses"? I assume you refer to the rich tax avoiders and evaders and the Royal Family here? As for the rest, there (deliberately) isn't enough work to go round. 5 into 1 doesn't go, ergo you have a desperate underclass and an employer's market where wages are driven down and workers' rights eroded - exactly what we always see under the Tories.

Anonymous said...

i don't know that it's possible to discuss welfare reform or welfare rights without discussing the way in which work itself has been reorganized over the last 30 years. with the advent of neoliberalism as a distinct strategy of accumulation, capital itself made significant gains in productivity, not just through the use of new technology and increased levels of automation, but through refashioning the very labor process itself. practices such as outsourcing, downsizing, the casualization of the workforce, flexibilization, the recombination of tasks, etc., all of this has led to a situation where capital can make huge profits without full employment or a mass workforce. instead, what we have is a much more fragmented, atomized and "lumpenized" working class. and yes, this is the first contradiction of capital staring us in the face, but i don't see anything like a revolutionary or socialist movement emerging out of this. do you? and what sorts of struggles can be mounted just to hold on to a shit job in the service industry? or training for a job that can be digitized and then outsourced, or treated as contingent labor? i suppose, a more hopeful question might be in this restructuring is there the seeds of a new kind or level of socialization or social relations that could lead to an actual socialist form?


p.s. the term "underclass" was first employed by the henchmen of reagan and thatcher and should be treated like the poison pill that it is.

Robert said...

Yes it would be wrong to exaggerate the prospects for a change in public opinion concerning welfare, the right is certainly winning the argument. We seem to be heading back to the 19th century and unfortunately it may take similar horrors and abuses to the ones seen then for people to realise what has been lost. Until then we need to take hope from the evidence that when people are given accurate details (for example how low unemployment benefits are in reality and small a fraction they are of the overall welfare budget which the majority of actually goes towards pensions) their hostility to benefits becomes far less pronounced than is usually the case according to general opinion polls.

Anonymous said...

Speedy is one if those people who is attempting to be thicker than thou, as this is how he perceives the masses – i.e. he buys into the tabloid view of the masses. A rabble incapable of stretching their tiny ignorant minds beyond simple ideas. Little above trained animals.

So obviously, to the tiny minds, those not working are lazy people, while those working are not lazy people. So, we have l-a-z-y people and n-o-t l-a-z-y people.

The lazy people are very bad and the not lazy people are very good.

We must punish the lazy people.

Now I have been told I am very lazy, my mother and girlfriend tell me this almost every day, yet I go to work day in and day out. Even I admit I am lazy.

I think it was Marx’s economic work on the industrial reserve army that provided the objective basis of unemployment and under/over work in a capitalist organised economic system. Not a work for thickies though!

Speedy is tilting at windmills.

asquith said...

"Laziness" comes about when work is seen as a chore that must be done before the fun can begin, and must be done or else the fun can't be had at all.

This is, and (despite what some of the more optimistic futurologists are saying) is likely to remain, true. The goal is therefore to have a society in which our needs can be met whilst doing as little work as possible.

Those who value disciplined, challenging effort and the solid bracketing that moving towards a goal privides can seek it in setting themselves challenges. One thinks of the people who, despite the fact that they can earn their bread whilst barely lifting a finger, still engage in physical activity by running marathons, because they identify it as useful to their own development. Others write books. Still others volunteer their time for the betterment of society, something to put on their CVs, or both.

Going to the office/factory is a means of first putting bread on my table, then allowing me to give to charitable causes, then to follow those of my own interests as I can't follow for free. I'd like to do less work, and I'd like a society in which others don't need to work so much, which is why I advocate a basic income, annd I think "Stumbling and Mumbling" is one of the crucial blogs for reading by those who want more than I can be bothered to give after the aforementioned work, and tea.

Cheltenham & Gloucester Against Cuts said...

The best way to defend the unemployed from demonisation by the Right is to reveal the evidence that unemployment is deliberate. Right-wingers will not be able to argue with evidence of INTENT to maintain Marx`s reserve army of labour. Here`s some of the evidence that unemployment is deliberate:

From “How wage inflation has been tamed”, By Lea Paterson, The Independent, published 16 February 1999:

EIGHT MONTHS ago the Bank of England was so concerned about inflationary pressures in the labour market that it hiked UK interest rates up to 7.5 per cent. Unemployment was unsustainably low, the Bank said, and would have to rise in order to keep inflation in check.

If you prefer it straight from the horses mouth, here`s the relevant extract from the minutes of the Bank of England`s (BoE) June 1998 meeting, which reveal a concern that wage rises indicate a need for unemployment to rise:

“the earnings data suggested that it was more likely that unemployment was below the rate compatible with stable inflation. In that case, it was probable that unemployment would have to rise to hit the inflation target on a sustainable basis.”

On September 25th 1998 the BBC, at least on its website, if not in its broadcasts, had apparently decided to ditch its bogus claim to “balance” in an article entitled “Why unemployment has to rise” where it told readers that:

“the Bank of England recognises that, however painful, unemployment has to rise for the government to hit its inflation target. And the bank is determined to reach this goal.”

In the minutes of its March 2008 meeting, the Monetary Policy Committee of the BoE expressed concern about rising commodity prices. While they noted that “Real take-home pay had been falling” they were very clear that “following the sharp rise in businesses’ input costs, [it] would need to fall further”. They went on to say that “It was unclear whether employees would, to some degree, resist further erosion of their spending power”, before spelling out the solution if workers were to resist, even “to some degree”(!):
“If they did so, the rise in commodity prices could only be accommodated without putting pressure on inflation if there were to be some rise in unemployment.”

Most recently we`ve had the very public discourse on the "forward guidance" from the new governor of the BoE, Mark Carney, who said that the Bank will not consider raising interest rates until unemployment falls to 7%. Which begs the question "What the hell have interest rates got to do with unemployment in general, and 7% unemployment in particular?"

The shocking truth is that the economists at the BoE deem that approximately 6.5% unemployment is required to control inflation, so the recovery (such as it is!) will have to be slowed down by raising interest rates when unemployment falls to a level near this percentage.

Speedy said...

Anon-Kate - Sorry, not the ones I know.

And another cogent rebuttle from Anon-Spart!