Friday, 8 October 2021

Why Have the Tories Cut Universal Credit?

The Tories' decision to carry on with their Universal Credit cut is devastating. Charlotte spells out the consequences for millions of people. Over a thousand pounds a year, gone. It's savage, and the Tories are hardly brimming with sympathy for those at the sharp end. "It was only temporary" is the smug, stock response, implying that if UC recipients hadn't been preparing themselves for the loss of up to a fifth of their income, they probably had it coming anyway. UC payments can easily be made up by getting a better job, as if the million or so vacancies available aren't predominantly low paid and need UC to subsidise them anyway. And for those who can't work for whatever reason? The Tories are making £500m available to local authorities to help. Accessing that cash is sure not to have gatekeepers like stringent bureaucratic hoops, means testing, and humiliating meetings with advisors lecturing poor people on how best they should spend their money.

The Tories know it's wrong. Rishi Sunak's near silence at the start of the week about what he was doing spoke louder than anything else to come out of Tory conference. They know about the hardship, the mental anguish, the kids going hungry, the cold homes and empty cupboards, and families driven to breaking point. These stories present themselves to them in letters, emails, and constituency surgeries. It's a tide of misery they're doing everything to encourage, and they carry on doing it. Which begs the question: why? It's not like they're naive or mistaken and would come to their senses if someone stuck a Child Poverty Action Group briefing under their nose. Labour MPs reading out constituency correspondence in the Commons, and even lobbying from some green Tory backbenchers won't shift them. Then what? Is it a question of evil? Refusing to confront the consequences of their actions and telling lies to cover up their indifference certainly looks like it. But it goes beyond morality. It's a question of class interest.

As explained previously, there are two kinds of capitalist realism. The first is the "common sense", technocratic sort (not often you see those phrases paired together). This is where most of the Labour, liberal, and centrist establishments are at. British capitalism has to grow, and it works best when there are more people in work with higher wages, large amounts of disposable income, and the government regulates the lot to ensure broadly functional outcomes. If some of these aren't moved by the plight of people having to suck up the UC cut, they are likely to be opposed on grounds that it takes money out of pockets, depresses spending, and retards economic growth. This outlook is pervasive, and its adherents assume the Tories share this view. They cannot understand why the self-described party of business are stamping on the first fizzles of post-lockdown economic recovery. It's puzzling.

The answer lies in the other capitalist realism: the class politics. The Tory mindset does not see a social system in which rising tides float all boats, but a zero sum game of the haves and the have nots. They not only want to keep the haves as the haves, they understand their power and position is preserved at the expense of those without it. The Tory objective, whether it was the patrician Harold Macmillan, the class warrior Margaret Thatcher, or the decrepit, decadent government of Boris Johnson is the preservation of capitalist relations of production. Let's consider another recent example.

No sooner had the Tories brought in the Job Retention Scheme, Rishi Sunak and his allies were musing aloud about cutting it to ribbons. They were terrified by the very idea of millions of people sat at home either "doing nothing" on furlough, or carrying on their work out of sight of the boss. Just imagine workers knocking their spreadsheets on the head to catch some This Morning action with an appropriately distanced Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby. What concerned the Treasury, and Johnson himself, was a relaxation of workplace discipline. The greater autonomy people had about when and how they would do their work, the discovery that life could go on without the beady panopticism of shopfloor/office tyranny and that, on the whole, workers enjoyed spending more time away from work and with their families, pets, and questionable TV viewing habits. The work ethic might be damaged! People won't want to come back! Where does this leave the authority and hold of the employer? Potentially much weaker than it used to be. And so, last summer, the government began campaigning for the return to work, with Sunak making out the office was a fab 'n' groovy place to hang out and not a dive people go to because they are paid to. Johnson started muttering darkly about forcing people back too, while others in his class were hyping the end of the workplace. That a mass return to work would have meant more infections and more deaths were secondary to the health of class relations.

How does this help explain the UC cut? For one, many Tories believe social security is too generous because one can eke out a miserable, straitened existence on it. If it were lower, the wage floor would be lower and bosses could get away with paying less. Meaning a higher rate of exploitation, labour's greater dependence on capital and therefore, more profits. From this twisted mindset the £20 uplift was an unacceptable barrier. Second, because the new UC was more money this increased, albeit marginally, the bargaining power of individual workers. With a tiny bit more to fall back on, employers had to offer more, such as money, flexible working that suited the employee, and guaranteed hours, all of which nibbled at the overweening power of capital in the job market. As a hyper class conscious organisation alert to how the scratch of concession could lead to the gangrene of a confident, collectivising work force, this would not do. And therefore we have the Tories thanking millions of essential workers who spent the pandemic risking their lives on the minimum wage being forced out of pocket. All to precent the well heeled from having to fork out a bit more and negotiate with their workers on a more level playing field.

And this is before you even consider another important factor. With labour shortages across the economy and with few EU workers running to save the government from its self-inflicted wounds, pushing the wage floor back down to pre-pandemic levels does not allow the low paid to leverage their position in a tight labour market. With millions made poorer, the Tories know full well many will accept anything that's going at whatever stingy wage is offered. And from this, somehow the high wage, high skilled economy is going to spontaneously combust into being. Though it won't - it's just rhetoric to try and keep enough gullible voters fooled by the levelling up nonsense on board.

For the Tories, capitalism isn't a dynamic economic powerhouse requiring fearsome skills to manage, but a straightforward pyramid of class rule to be protected. This is what 200 years of modern Conservatism has taught us. They're serious about prosecuting their class interests. It's about time we matched that determination with some of our own.

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Blissex said...

This post seems to me a bit too much "loser liberalism" (aka known as "compassionate conservativism") as described by Dean Baker:

In particular the tone is one of classic "compassionate conservativism", where welfare is described as being nice to the suffering weak. A lot of the working class too don't like that tone: it is their work that produces the goods and services consumed by those on profits or benefits, and whether surplus is extracted by the rich or by the poor makes little difference to them. The good and services purchased by those £20 a week necessarily come out of the work of someone else.

Rather the case for paying for social insurance is based on the "insurance" word: while those who are rich usually think that they don't need insurance against the possibility of becoming poor, most working class people know very well they are on the edge of the abyss, and some illness, some unemployment, might ruin them throwing them into the underclass. It is about reciprocity, not about loser liberalism. A very good argument is that social insurance means that workers do not need to save against the possibility of the worst bad luck, only save, via social insurance, for average bad luck.

Also deeply moving moralizing about “the hardship, the mental anguish, the kids going hungry, the cold homes and empty cupboards, and families driven to breaking point” applies to the wretched poor of Moldova or of Senegal or Bangladesh too, and many working class people can easily see through arguments that ignore them (who is proposing to give the £20 a week to the wretched poor of the third world?).

Arguments about the reciprocity of social insurance don't have the moralizing taste of "loser liberalism".

BCFG said...

The Tories have done this because it plays really really well with their depraved, disgusting, venal support base.

Never forget that behind the Tories and their disguising cruelty are millions of Brits from all social classes, who could not give a fig for reciprocity. They just want the 'work shy' and 'lazy' to be eradicated from the Planet, by any means necessary, or better still get these 'lazy' elements working in slave camps.

This fascistic narrative is among the leading values of this 'civilised' nation. I live in what Tebbit once called the socialist states of South Yorkshire, and I always thought, "But Norman, the average persons that I meet is politically somewhere between the BNP and Hitler"

The only shock when the red wall collapsed was that it hadn't happened sooner!

But until the poor rise up and cause merry havoc they will always be screwed

BCFG said...

Let me expand my problem with Blissex’s antidote to “loser liberalism”.

His idea of reciprocity runs into 2 main obstacles that I can think of, the first is the nonexistent social mobility in the UK. Your place is pretty much fixed and therefore the idea of falling into a lower class or rising into a higher class doesn’t come into it. There is no reciprocity because there is no social mobility.

For the second issue, let me paint a liitle scene of Britain today.

Meet Gemima, she is a thirty something Data Analyst, earning 40k+ per annum. She worked out that putting beer near baby clothes increased beer sales. It is great to see a woman contributing so greatly to humankind. She is very secure in her job but for some reason there is this nagging doubt in her subconscious that her job is somehow, inadequate (see David Graeber). To be honest even if she lost her job, such a bright well spoken woman would walk into the next job no problem and she knows it!

Meet Fred, he a middle aged white man working in an amazon warehouse, he likes a drink and unfortunately he would be more interested in the size of Gemima tits than her ability to place product for maximum sales potential (what a misogynistic cunt). He also suffers from stage 2 diabetes.

Now meet Tina and Trevor, both of them don’t work. Tina worked in a high street store but then was made redundant; she then got cancer and relies on benefits. Trevor did his back in at work and also relies on benefits, though Gemima would be suspicious about how bad that back really was, being an eager Daily Mail reader. She would also think that cancer doesn’t stop you working.

Now here is the second problem with reciprocity, Gemima actually up to a point envies Tina and Trevor, her job is high pressured and demanding, not to mention soul destroying, and yet Tina and Trevor seem to somehow get by without having any job. Tina and Trevor would not want to swap places with Gemima but would like her money,

Capitalism is the war of all against all, not fucking reciprocity. While at the micro level decency is the icing on the venality, at the macro level the venality becomes the icing on the decency. This is why the destruction of social democracy was such an easy task to accomplish, and its restoration is so problematical.

Elkart51 said...

They are all arseholes and need fear to rule.. Turn the tables and put the fear into them. We are many they are a shitty few.

BCFG said...

"We are many they are a shitty few."

This is the mistake that many leftists make. If we were the many we would have won years ago, and there would not have been permanent Tory rule for a century and more!

They are the many, we are the outliers!

Blissex said...

I am pleased that "BCFG" has posted here some arguments less (euphemism alert) "stark" than usual, and I think that I understand them and his point of view very well, but I continue to disagree with them:

«Capitalism is the war of all against all, not fucking reciprocity.»

But following K Marks and M Polanyi there is a distinction between "markets" and "society", even if "markets" tends to take over or marginalize "society". There is an interplay between the economic and the social, even if the boundaries shift.

In particular the points about "Gemima", "Fred", "Tina" and "Trevor" seem to me more about "loser liberalism" than "power populism" or "reciprocity":

* Of the many "Gemima"s in the south-east I have known many did lose their jobs in some corporate downsizing and could not “walk into the next job no problem” much to their surprise (there is nearly always someone younger and cheaper, often an immigrant to outcompete them, as there is a buyer's market for labour). Even many smug upper-middle class people are constantly terrified of falling into the lower classes, that's one reason why they are so thoroughly obsessed with the security of their property valuations. Several upper-middle class people I work with have told that their daily prayer is "Oh Mammmon, let me keep this job for some more years until I get to pension age".

* The real point about "reciprocity" and the examples is that self-insurance is very, very expensive, and group purchases of various goods and services and of insurance is very efficient economically. Again, that's why upper-middle class people are so obsessed with their property valuations: they want that expense to be paid for by renters/next buyers.

* So I reject the premise that “there is no social mobility”: perhaps there is little *social* (status) mobility (once an oik, always an oik...), but there is plenty of examples of *economic* mobility (downwards for workers, upwards for finance and property rentiers), sometimes whole regions ("pushed behind" areas, "M25 area"), and in any case even if there were little *downward* mobility a lot of people are still terrified by the possibility that it might affect them.

BCFG said...

I think people are kept in a permanent state of anxiety and fear, no doubt about that. And this applies to all classes. Your money is your own until it isn’t, the powerful are powerful until they are not. However, I do not think for a minute this translates into a sense of reciprocity (probably an invention of pseudo Darwinists), on the contrary this just reinforces pulling up the drawbridge and protecting the loot.

I really don’t think the empirical evidence backs up your theory that Gemima doesn’t walk right into the next job. These people are never out of work for long, if at all, no reason why they should be. The long term unemployed are never ever the Gemima’s of this world. The underclass, that you believe people are fearful of dropping into, are reproduced by system mechanisms, it is a class in itself and it is a class that breeds from within itself. The middle and upper classes rarely stock the next generation of the underclass. The classes are relatively fixed for periods long enough for reciprocity not to matter. Only in very acute times does that change, and even then these times lend themselves more to the guillotine or the cultural revolution than they do reciprocity.

Gemima was probably brought up in a gated community (this is her society), which could easily have had a sign on it, no not Beware the Dogs, but fuck reciprocity.

Add into this that the British working class are offshore, in China etc, and it adds up to conditions where reciprocity does not flourish.

The calculation of self-insurance cannot be made a piori, in fact if you look at the average Tory voter they are positively seething that they have to pay for the layabouts and ne'er-do-wells of this world. My hard earned cash is paying for this scum!

The last thing on these peoples mind is general insurance or reciprocity, they are foaming at the mouth sociopaths.

Reciprocity is the last great hope of the old reformers, who believe in compassionate capitalism, which can revive the good old days of social democracy. The door to that world is firmly shut, I think Piketty lays out some arguments for why that is, though he too dreams as you dream.

I think the future is extreme violence, at some point the lower classes will just have to organise a response to the extreme violence being meted out to them. If not, frankly they deserve what they get and their individual moaning is starting to grate me.

Blissex said...

«applies to the wretched poor of Moldova or of Senegal or Bangladesh too

Two relevant and fairly old Dilbert cartoons, the first one about the poor far from home:

And this about the gigantic vote-buying capital gains and the losers who did not get them:

Note the date on the latter: 32 years ago it was already pointing at the housing "boom".

Blissex said...

«I think the future is extreme violence, at some point the lower classes will just have to organise a response to the extreme violence being meted out to them.»

Sometimes even our "BFCG" seems affected by the insufficient cynicism and the undue optimism of our blogger :-), because this expectation is about the english working classes. These occasionally riot when things go bad (there is even a book about that), but for the english elites letting riots to happen as a way to allow the proles to let off steam, and then mopping up, is just a cost of doing business and part of a thousand year tradition of managing the populace.

My biggest worry for european countries for the short-medium term future is rather that several dozens of millions of very poor "arabs" and egyptians will have to emigrate out of North Africa and Arabia and the Middle East because their population has quadrupled in a few decades and at the same time water resources have dwindled. For example the egyptian government expects the flow of the egyptian segment of the Nile to shrink by 25% this decade.

That giant migration has already started happening from several North African countries as the Sahara expands, and from Syria and Yemen, where the local civil wars are in large part water wars. The flow has been mostly impacting Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece and around the Balkans. No doubt that gigantic migration will include millions of people heavily armed, and among them many wahabi salafists. Remember Poitiers and Sarajevo, they do.

Blissex said...

«the British working class are offshore, in China etc,»

That is a good and interesting way to put it, and I like it, but it misses something.

That point goes too far by apparently being based on the traditional idea of "working class" as the rough blokes on the factory floor or down the pit, that is the manual, manufacturing ("blue collar") part of the working class.

But there is still a lot of manual working class in the UK (from shelf stackers to cleaners to delivery drivers), and there is also a large part of "scribal" rather than "manual" working class in offices (from bookkeepers to call centre operators, "white collar" or as posh people say "immaterial" :->).

Note: once upon a time being a "scribe" (knowing how to read and write) was enough to be middle class, it has not been the case for quite a while, and currently to rise to the middle class takes a good degree from a Russell Group university.

Indeed a large chunk of the british working class, especially in the "pushed behind" areas, has been dumped and replaced with cheaper, "quieter" working class people in China ("blue collar") and India ("white collar"), but that is not all.

BCFG said...

“My biggest worry for european countries...several dozens of millions of very poor "arabs" and egyptians will have to emigrate out of North Africa and Arabia...”

So your worry is for Europe and not the poor Arabs! But anyway, you miss a point; one major reason for this population dump is that their regions are becoming uninhabitable due to climate change, caused primarily by Western rampant consumerism and/or imperialist wars for Western imperialist interests.

“That point goes too far by apparently being based on the traditional idea of "working class" as the rough blokes on the factory floor or down the pit,..... still a lot of manual working class in the UK (from shelf stackers to cleaners to delivery drivers)”

Of course there is a sort of working class in the UK, often though these are refugees, who have enough on their plate without worrying about class conflict. But being in the service industry and dealing more directly with the public they develop a sort of servile nature, they are like good dogs who obey their masters commands. We underestimate how the Western 'liberal' democracies rely on slave undocumented/short term labour at home as well as cheap Labour abroad. The British middle class appetite for cheap shit is so intense they even need foreign labour to serve their domestic needs!

“Indeed a large chunk of the british working class, especially in the "pushed behind" areas, has been dumped and replaced with cheaper, "quieter" working class people in China ("blue collar") and India ("white collar"), but that is not all.”

I live in a so called left behind area, it has become totally gentrified, which is why the Tories won for the first time in my lifetime. The left behind areas are a figment of your imagination.

Britain is a predominantly Middle class nation; its working classes are predominantly offshore. In actual fact when economists say the average wage in the UK is approx £30k per year they actually ignore the vast majority of the workers who produce the commodities we all consume. Look around your house, look at all the stuff, and I guarantee that the vast majority of the wages that produced that stuff are not included in any economic stats.

So we have an economic and political narrative that ignores the labour that produced most of the stuff.

We could be optimistic and say the British working class embraced communism in 1949! And we could further say, the British Middle classes have embraced neo liberalism and are still permitted to keep a few slaves and servants for their menial tasks, such as doing their cleaning, delivering their Pizza’s and their goods ordered on amazon!

This is the happy compromise global capitalism finds itself in, in order to manage the class conflict it has literally separated the middle classes from the working classes, by thousands of miles!

Of course the left in the UK are hoping that the domestic servants will overthrow their masters (though some firmly base their politics on pandering to the middle classes), but these servants are very loyal dogs to their masters. The masters have some useful commands to control their dog’s behaviour and calm their temper, one good command the masters have learned is, Putin. As any good dog trainer knows, commands should always be followed by treats. So in a loud authoritative voice say the command, Putin and then pat you dog on the head and give him his treat.