A rich man ignoring a beggar’s cries for charity, from Bateman’s Chrystal Glass of Christian Reformation of 1569
The Coalition is responsible for some of the harshest and punitive legislation directed at the poor, the unemployed and the disabled in recent years. Under the pretext of trying to pay off the immense debt created by the bank bailout, Cameron and Clegg have together passed highly illiberal legislation intended to pare down the welfare state to its barest minimum. The result has seen as massive resurgence in poverty in the UK, with thousands now reduced to relying of food banks or scavenging in skips for food. This has been accompanied by a concerted campaign of vilification and demonization directed at the poor, the unemployed and the disabled. The middle market tabloids, the Daily Mail and Express, are notorious for their attacks on single mothers, unemployed ‘scroungers’ and immigrants, whom they scream – one cannot, in all decency, describe their shrill headlines with anything as mild as ‘allege’ or ‘contend’ are here to claim Britain’s generous welfare payments. The BBC and Channel 4 have both screened documentaries purporting to show the reality behind those claiming job seekers allowance. The most recent of these was ‘Benefits Street’ on Channel 4. These have singled out and portrayed the unemployed as, at best, idle scroungers, and at worst a criminal or semi-criminal underclass living by fraud and theft in an underworld of drug taking and violence.
This viciousness even extends to the disabled. The pseudoscientific assessment practised by ATOS on behalf of the government is designed to declare as many of the disabled to be as fit for work as possible. The result has seen severely and terminally ill people thrown off benefit. Thousands have taken their lives in despair as a result. Stilloaks has compiled a list over that his site, and the Void and Mike over a Vox Political, and many, many other have also blogged on this. As many as 38,000 people may have died as a result of benefit sanctions inflicted by the Department of Work and Pensions and the policies of Ian Duncan ‘Matilda’ Smith and Esther ‘McLie’ McVey. These are just guesses, however, as the DWP will not release the figures for the years after 2011. This indicates that the statistics are truly shaming, even for a department run by those two callous incompetents.
I know a number of disabled people and their families, who believe that society is now much less considerate in its treatment of the disabled personally. One man I know, whose wife is sadly confined to a wheelchair, told me that he and his wife have, at times, experienced rudeness and sometimes abuse from members of the public. He initially put this down to the influence of Little Britain, where one character only feigns his disability and is, when his brother’s back’s turned, perfectly fit, well and active. My own feeling is that things are rather more complicated, and that such attitudes probably spring as well from media reports exposing some of those who have notoriously feigned disability in order to collect benefits. The reporting of such crimes is out of all proportion to the amount of fraud that actually goes on. In reality, it’s negligible – less than 1 per cent. nevertheless, this has formed another pretext for cutting and ending benefits and services to the disabled.
This situation needs explanation. Almost everyone would agree that a truly civilised society is one that extends help to its poorest, most disadvantaged citizens. Why, then, does this government, and the right-wing media that back it, support such severe attacks on the very poorest members of society.
There appear to be several causes to this. They are
1. An attitude towards poverty, derived from the Victorian, but dating from the Middle Ages, that sees poverty as the fault of the poor themselves through their own immorality.
2. A fear that the poor somehow represent a dangerous drain on public resources and a threat to the social order. State support must be limited in order to prevent them increasing.
3. An appeal to popular selfishness, by which government ministers and their media supporters present taxes levied to support the poor as being an unwelcome imposition on the good, self-sufficient moral public. These in turn are described as being somehow penalised for their sturdy self-sufficiency. Hence the comments by politicians of capping benefits so that ‘strivers’ are not upset by the sight of their unemployed neighbours living well on benefits.
Behind these attitudes are the class interests of the upper and upper middle classes. The Coalition’s administration has marked one of the most extreme shifts of wealth from the poorest to the richest since that of Margaret Thatcher. The Tories in particular have enacted a series of policies designed to break organised working class resistance and open the poor up to further exploitation by the multinational firms, who constitute their paymasters. The tax breaks enacted by the Coalition have benefitted the very richest the most. Furthermore, the denial of state support to the poor and the privatisation of the NHS is designed to open them up as a potential market for private health care and insurance. In this, provoking hatred by the insecure but working towards the unemployed and disabled is a useful tool, as it prevents the two groups developing a solidarity that could challenge and potentially overturn such policies.
The punitive attitude to the unemployed can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Then as now there was a debate between theologians and political writers on whether charitable support should be given to the unemployed. The outbreaks of mass poverty caused by the Enclosures and depressions in 16th century England also created the fear amongst the ruling class of the threat to social order posed by roving bands of masterless men. Hence the harsh legislation against vagabonds and the general unemployed. One law, which became a dead letter, state that if an employer offered a job to an unemployed man, he had to take it. If he did not, the prospective employer could seize him and force him to work for free. These days, it’s simply called workfare. Under George Osborne, the unemployed can now be forced to work for big business in order to get their benefits. A further piece of legislation dreamed up by Gideon, sorry, George, means that even those, whose benefits have been stopped by sanctions, must perform workfare for free.
Vlad Dracula of Wallachia, the model for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He had all the beggars in his principality burned to death at a banquet. IDS and McVie haven’t done anything that obvious yet, but they’re trying their best to match his killing of the poor and unemployed.
This fear of the threat posed by unemployed and disabled beggars was taken to its most brutal extreme by Prince Vlad Dracul of Wallachia, the Romanian prince, who provided Bram Stoker with the historical model for Count Dracula. Concerned by the increase in beggars in his principality, Vlad organised a feast to which they were all invited. When all the beggars had entered the hall in which it was to be held, Vlad ordered the doors closed and barred, and had the place burnt down. The Coalition haven’t done anything as blatant as that, but with the poor and disabled dying of despair and starvation by the tens of thousands at their hands, the effect is the same.
Medieval ideas of the deserving and undeserving poor, and the fear of the political dangers posed by them, also underlie the Victorian ideas about respectability and its opposite. The historian Eric J. Evans describes these ideas in The Forging of the Modern State, 1783-1870
‘An important distinction in mid-Victorian Britain was between respectability and non-respectability. Respectability consisted in earning a degree of independence by one’s own efforts, in self-discipline (especially in sexual and bibulous matters), and in veneration for home and family as the basic social organism from which all other virtues flowed. The non-respectable could not provide for their families without State or charitable aid, were sexually promiscuous, regularly drunk, failed to put enough aside for rainy days and flitted from one rented tenement to another, as often as not to avoid paying their dues…
… Moral imperatives were necessary not just for reasons of ostentatiously sanctimonious piety (though the Victorians had their full share of such qualities) but to prevent a grand explosion. The Victorians dubbed those who did not live by their rules ‘the dangerous classes’ and they meant the phrase to be taken literally. The idle, drunken, rootless lower orders represented more than a moral affront; they threatened progress.’ (p. 280).
Thomas Malthus believed that state assistance to the poor was wrong, as if they were given such aid, their numbers would only increase to be a further burden on society. Hence the principle of ‘less eligibility’ in the Liberals New Poor Law of 1833 that established the Workhouses. The Angry Yorkshireman at Another Angry Voice has covered this particularly well. This was the view that conditions in the workhouses should be so harsh, that the poor would not take up such assistance unless they were driven by absolute necessity.
This attitude also extended to private charity. Margaret Thatcher the rest of the transatlantic New Right extolled the virtues of private charity over state aid, as they felt it was more effective than state benefit. It also had the advantage of being purely voluntary. The Victorians had a slightly different view. They were worried about the extent of the provision of charity in terms that are strikingly similar to Conservative American criticisms of ‘cradle to grave’ socialism. Dr Stallard declared at a meeting of the National Association for the promotion of Social Science in 1868 that ‘There is not a want, or form of human wretchedness, for which provision is not made in more or less degree … from the cradle to the grave, benevolence steps in to offer aid’. The year after he made this speech, the Charity Organization Society was set up to rationalise the amount of money given away to the poor. The ‘vicarious and indolent charity’ targeted by the Society was that which simply did not benefit the recipient. The Society therefore distinguished between the deserving and undeserving poor, and attempted to ensure that the donations given were both uplifting and actually improved those who received it. These were frequently taught the error of their ways, so that they did not return to relying on charity.
These policies have re-entered British politics through the influence of the American sociologist Michael Harrington and the welfare policies of Richard M. Nixon. Harrington was concerned about the existence of extreme poverty in America’s Black ghettos. His classic study of them, The Other America, was designed to stimulate discussion of the roots of such poverty and persuade the government and charities to act. Unlike left-wing critics of poverty, he did not trace the causes of such deprivation in the wider structure of American society and its economy, but believed the fault lay in the poor themselves. They were kept poor by a ‘culture of poverty’ that made them Other from the moral, industrious and prosperous rest of America. This attitude in turn influence the expansion of the welfare state constructed by Tricky Dicky. These were designed to combat poverty by providing state assistance, but this was to be made so humiliating that the poor would try to get off them as soon as possible.
This bourgeois ethic of respectability and hard work was also shared by the working class, and was seen by them and their rulers as they key to prosperity. Just before his death in 1865, Palmerston told a meeting of artisans that ‘Wealth is, to a certain extent, within the reach of all … you are competitors for prizes .. you will by systematic industry, raise yourselves in the social system of the country – you will acquire honour and respect for yourselves and your families. you will have, too, the constant satisfaction of feeling that you have materially contributed to the dignity of your country’. It sounds exactly like something Cameron or Gove would say today.
Despite a rising class consciousness amongst some working class radicals, there was considerable disunity amongst the British working class, which had strong feelings about the proper place each part had in the social hierarchy. One working class author stated in 1873 that
‘Between the artisan and the unskilled labourer a gulf is fixed. While the former resents the spirit in which he believes the followers of genteel occupations look down upon him, he in turn looks down upon the labourer. The artisan creed with regard to the labourer is, that they are an inferior class, and that they should be made to know, and kept in their place’.
This sounds very much like the ‘aristocracy of labour’, which Marx developed to explain why, contrary to his earlier expectations, the workers in Britain did not form a homogenous class ready to revolt against their masters and exploiters. Evans in the above book considers that this disunity arose through ‘the heterogeneity of Britain’s industrial base’ which ‘worked against the transmission of shared feelings of deprivation or exploitation despite the endeavours of bourgeois intellectuals to conceptualise economic development in terms of inevitable class struggle.’ (p. 173).
Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic and their supporters in the press have attempted to play on the variety and disunity of common feelings of solidarity in the working and lower middle classes by stoking fears of the unearned privileges experienced by certain groups of employees. Last year, for example, the Daily Mail followed American Conservatives in stoking resentment of state employees, by starting a campaign against the larger pensions civil servants supposedly enjoyed over those in the private sector. This was evidence of civil servant’s greed, rather than the result of the repressive wage structures of private industry. It served to distract attention away from the economic and political causes of deteriorating wages in the private sector by stirring up resentment of better paid employees.
Hence, too, the demonization of the poor and disabled as feckless scroungers, as this prevents the development of dangerous sympathies to them that would also upset the system of unfettered private industry loudly demanded and promoted by Cameron, Clegg and their lackeys.
And the attack on the welfare state has opened some very lucrative, captive markets for private welfare provision. Private Eye a little while ago produced an in-depth pull-out section demonstrating that the ludicrously expensive and exploitative ‘Private Finance Initiative’ was first proposed under Margaret Thatcher by, I believe, Peter Lilley, as a way of opening up the NHS to private industry. Mike over at Vox Political and Another Angry Voice have blogged repeatedly and provided a wealth of details about the connections the Tories and Lib Dems have to the firms seeking to profit from the NHS’ privatisation. This includes, no surprise! – Ian Duncan Smith. Other policies that seek to transfer state benefits to the private sector include the Workplace Pensions now being lauded by Nick Hewer in the government’s ads. A little while ago there was also talk about introducing private ‘unemployment insurance’ for those worried about the state provision they would receive if laid off. I don’t think that got very far, but it’s symptomatic of the way the private financial sector sought to exploit the increasing gaps in state welfare provision.
The Coalition’s vitriolic war on the unemployed, the poor, sick and disabled draws on notions of the deserving and undeserving poor in order to further bolster and expand the wealth and power of the extremely rich, and create a divided and powerless workforce oblivious to its exploitation and resentful of its more successful, and apparently less deserving neighbours. It opens the poor further up for commercial exploitation by insurance companies and private health care providers, like Unum. In this war to expand and entrench their own class interests, those now forced to scavenge from bins or die in poverty and despair are the true victims of an increasingly harsh and exploitative upper class, which needs their demonization to force their reforms through.
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